Thursday 2 June 2022 marked the beginning of Her Majesty the Queen's Platinum Jubilee celebrations. It was also the day on which I finished listening to Anna Keay's gripping account of the time when Britain was without a crown. That wasn't an act party pooping Republicanism on my part. It just happened that being on holiday gave me time to listen to the final chapters of the author's book when sitting on Tenby beach.
And a very splendid book it is too, brilliantly read by Lucy Tregar. The period of the Republic and Commonwealth is often thought of as a drab and colourless time. Puritan killjoys draped in Bible black endeavoured to suck the joy out of life with all the relish of a wasp stinging a small child. With them in charge living in these islands was about as much fun as Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Well no. Those old Puritans certainly took life seriously, but life in the Republic was far from dull. Radical political ideas were put to the test. Religious diversity and toleration were allowed to thrive. Within limits, of course. Almost recognisably modern newspapers began to roll off the presses. Even the formidably stern Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell was known to throw a decent party. With music and high jinx. Anna Keay depicts a vibrant and restless republic indeed.
While the subtitle promises an account of Britain Without a Crown, it's mostly about England, with a nod to Scotland an occasional side-glance to Wales, but a good hard look at Ireland. Of course it all went pear shaped on the death of Old Noll. But when Britain had a crown again, Charles II did not attempt to wind the clock back and rule with the high handed pretentions of his father, Charles I. Monarchs would now be of the constitutional, not absolute variety.
The author devotes two chapters each to nine characters from the period of the Republic. Some were movers and shakers, others more marginal figures. The personalities depicted span the Republican/Royalist divide. The lawyer John Bradford presided at the trial of Charles I and went on to become President of the first Commonwealth Council of State. The staunch Republican became disillusioned when the Commons-led Republic was supplanted by the rule of Cromwell as Lord Protector. While Bradford and his fellow Republicans were willing to execute a king, there were limits when it came to turning the world upside down. Gerrard Winstanley's Digger commune at St George's Hill was brutally crushed. The landowning gentry who dominated England's newfound Republic were not about to turn the nation into common treasury for all.
How defeated Royalists fared during this period is illustrated by the poignant tale of what happed to Lord Derby and his redoubtable wife, Charlotte Stanley. They were actively involved in trying to overthrow the Commonwealth and suffered the consequences. The L’Estranges of Norfolk kept their heads down, but still faced decimation at the hands of the Republican regime. Had Cromwell and Co acted with greater magnanimity towards their defeated foes, maybe there would not have been such a clamour for Charles II to take the crown when the Lord Protector died.
The religious ferment of the time the London-based mystic Anna Trapnel. People would hang on her words as the young woman emerged from trace-like states to utter her oracles. Trapnel's prophecies addressed political as well as spiritual matters, so the authorities kept a close eye on her. For a time she was carted off to Cornwall where she could cause less trouble. Little is said of more mainstream Puritan figures such as John Owen or Thomas Goodwin. Baptists barely get a look in.
Marchamont Nedham was a newspaper man. Initially a Royalist critic of the Republican regime, he was imprisoned in the notorious Newgate Gaol. On escaping he did a reverse ferret and courted favour with high up figures in the Commonwealth. His publication, Mercurius Politicus became the must-read journal of the period. Nedham was careful to maintain his loyalty to the Republic. He exploited his contacts for insider news. Nedham cultivated an array of foreign correspondents whose reports gave the paper international scope. His columns not only included news and comment on current affairs, but also adverts. Mercurius Politicus did not survive the return of the King.
William Petty was a man of science. And by that he meant the empirical study of nature, not uncritical acceptance of the theories of the ancient Greeks. On the continent Galileo got himself into trouble with the Vatican for advancing Copernicus' heliocentric account of the solar system. The lack of a centralised religious authority in England created space for men like Petty to follow wherever the evidence of nature led them. Petty made his name by almost miraculously restoring Anne Green to health after she had been hanged for murder. Petty and a colleague were about to perform an autopsy on Green when they noticed she wasn't quite dead. The scientist put his methodical approach to good use in charting the territory in Ireland that was due to be taken from Irish Catholic landowners and given to Protestants in their place. Cromwell's Irish campaign and the subsequent attempts at land clearance showed the Republic at its vindictive worst. As John Owen commented in a sermon to Parliament, “How is it that Jesus Christ is in Ireland only as a lion staining all his garments with the blood of his enemies, and none to hold him out as a lamb sprinkled with his own blood to his friends?”
The man who dominated the era of the Republic was, of course, Oliver Cromwell. Keay neither paints him as a 'boo-hiss' villain, or a plaster saint. Cromwell was a complex character. His conversion to Christ changed the course of his life. He was too humble to take the crown when it was offered to him. Cromwell sought to be attentive to the voice of God addressing him through providence. He could be magnanimous in victory and was tolerant of religious differences within reason. His main political aim was not to achieve a perfect constitutional settlement, but to secure a godly reformation in the land. His Major Generals worked hand in hand with Puritan pastors to achieve that goal in the face of sullen hostility from the masses. Cromwell was an uxorious husband and doting father to his children, yet he feared accusations of nepotism and was cagey about promoting his sons to high office. On the other hand, the Lord Protector could also be harsh, bad tempered and impulsive. Successive parliaments were called and then dissolved. Papist Ireland was treated most cruelly. His providentialist view of history meant that the Lord who gave him victory at Naesby and Marston Moor must have approved of his political actions, when that isn't necessarily the case. Prosperity isn't always a sign of the Lord's favour and the lack of it a token of his displeasure, as the Book of Job testifies.
Disappointingly, the author does not adjudicate on whether it is true that a monkey kidnapped the infant Oliver Cromwell and carried him to the roof of Hitchingbrooke House, only to deposit the future Lord Protector of England safely back in his crib. Be that as it may, when Cromwell died the Republic was doomed to collapse. It didn't help that Oliver appointed his unsuitable son Richard to succeed him, rather than the altogether more capable Henry. Cromwell's old generals George Monk and Thomas Fairfax were not Republican purists. They craved stability and concluded that only restoring the monarchy could rescue the nation from chaos. And so it was that Charles II was crowned king. The Republic was no more.
Listening to this colorful and captivating account of life in Britain without a crown was a salutary reminder that as an attempt at securing a godly reformation, the Commonwealth era was a spectacular failure. Witness the return of 'Merrie England' with the accession of Charles II to the throne. The Puritans' Calvinist theology should have told them that only inward transformation by the Spirit can make a people godly. Political imposition by the State won't cut it. The early Particular Baptists understood this and argued for a clear separation between church and state.
Given the patriotic fervor that greeted Her Majesty's Platinum Jubilee celebrations it doesn't look as though Britain will be once more without a crown any time soon. Although King Charles III could always mess up spectacularly. Be that as it may, modern Britain would not be what it is today were it not for the Restless Republic depicted here.