A popular watershed

A Freeborn People
April 18, 1997

The main agenda of this book is to bridge the gaping chasms between 17th-century social and political history and the study of elite and popular culture in that period.

The two aspects are closely bound up with each other, so it is a tall order, even in a densely packed and cogently argued short study, to do justice to the subjects. But few historians today are better placed to undertake a synthesis of this kind than David Underdown, who has already distinguished himself as the author of other books in all these fields. He is equally at home in national, local, political and social history. He has published significant studies on Parliament at the time of Pride's Purge in 1649 and on Royalist conspiracies in the period of defeat after Charles I's trial and execution. His more recent books, Revel, Riot and Rebellion (1985) and Fire from Heaven (1992), took him out into the prov-inces and into the doings of civil war clubmen and village footballers. It is a range which extends from the Speaker of the House of Commons to the ritual displays of grassroots politics and moral economies.

Necessarily, the book has a pronounced historiographical dimension. Underdown finds himself reassessing Sir Charles Firth's classic study of the House of Lords During the Civil War (1910), being sceptical about many of the claims of recent "revisionists" such as Kevin Sharpe and John Adamson, and he considers Conrad Russell's loudly proclaimed views on the existence of a British rather than simply an English revolution irrelevant to the kind of investigation he is attempting. On the other hand, Underdown demonstrates his indebtedness to the pioneering "history from below" work of Christopher Hill - who taught him many years ago at Oxford - and to Phyllis Mack's book Visionary Women, Ecstatic Prophecy in 17th-Century England (1992). Popular and elite culture and politics, Underdown argues, substantially overlapped in early 17th-century England. The high temperature of politics in the 1620s, for example, was generated by disgruntlement at all levels of society, with the Duke of Buckingham as a prominent target. Religion intertwined with gentry politics no less than with the politics of the middling sort of people. In this, as in other respects, the civil war period was a watershed and had the effect of driving a wedge between the Parliamentarian leaders and army grandees and those radicals beneath them in the social scale.

Underdown recognises no less than others before him that the popular revolution of the 1640s failed and both the Interregnum and the Restoration reinforced this eclipse. In any case, popular conservatism, in Underdown's view, was more characteristic than popular radicalism. Monmouth's rebellion of 1685 was the last, doomed attempt to bring popular activism into play as a deciding force. The successful Glorious revolution of 1688-89, by contrast, was enacted only by the elite; its consequences, safely decided, handed to an acquiescing people.

Underdown uses many unfamiliar as well some well-known sources to good effect and he is very successful in drawing out a wider significance from particular instances. His perceptive discussion of a short-lived weekly news-sheet The Man in the Moon, 1649-50, is a fine example of this. Commonplace books, such as those kept by Elizabeth Jekyll and Ralph Ashton of Kirkby Hall, Yorkshire, enable him to enter the minds of some of his cast.

He uses ballads to good effect and has some telling points to make about attitudes to the assassinations of Buckingham and of Dr Lambe, the sorcerer on whose services the hated duke called. Underdown looks carefully at the imagery of popular protests and has much to say about popular rituals and sports and about appeals to mythical leaders.

Underdown also draws attention to the gendered rhetoric of elite and popular politics and to the involvement, actual and perceived, of women, insisting on the necessity of recognising gender-related instabilities in this period. Hence the book originally announced as Freeborn Englishmen became A Freeborn People. This is a short book, but it will have a disproportionately large impact on 17th-century studies.

R. C. Richardson is head of history, King Alfred's College, Winchester.

A Freeborn People: Politics and the Nation in 17th-Century England

Author - David Underdown
ISBN - 0 19 820612 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 174

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