Thursday, 17 May 2018

Book review: The Leveller Revolution, John Rees (2016)

This unsatisfying book takes us back to 1641 and the years running up to the decapitation of Charles I, which took place in 1649 and which preceded the establishment of the English Commonwealth. We know what happened after that, of course. The favourite son of the Parliamentary faction, Oliver Cromwell, who had won the wars, eventually up and died and instead of it putting at the head of government his son, who turned out to be a bit of a dud, it brought back the next available Stuart king, Charles II. To borrow a trope from one of Jane Austen’s works, this king is notable for reopening the theatres and for establishing the Royal Society. But English history continued to be tumultuous at least until 1688, when Parliament unceremoniously turned his brother James II out of the palace and installed in his stead the Protestant William of Orange, imported from Holland. The long period of stability that is the 18th century followed until the again-tumultuous years at its end that were riven by discord sparked by aspirations for reform that had been stoked by the French Revolution.

This is a very rough sketch of the United Kingdom in modern times up to the start of the Victorian era, and in a substantive way this story begins in 1641, the year Rees opens with in his book, when certain parts of London began to chafe against religious strictures imposed by the tin-eared Charles I under his archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Charles’ predecessor, James I, had famously said, “No bishop, no king,” and Charles seems to have taken this tenet very much to heart, but the times were changing. With the Henrican settlement of the middle of the previous century, all boys had been taught to read and write in parish schools. Hence we have Shakespeare emerging out of the bucolic wilderness of rural Warwickshire. Moveable type had been invented in around 1440 and books by this time were relatively cheap.

The appearance of cheap printed books had proven too much of a challenge for the established Catholic Church, which had for centuries successfully fought heresies threatening its formidable structure. Now, starting in Germany, Protestant denominations (originally considered by Catholics to be mere sects) started to appear and England was not immune to the fever that access to the gospels in the vernacular and in printed form offered to those who wanted a more personal relationship with their God. Henry VIII, who had established the Church of England, had said that all boys should read and so now they were reading their Bibles obediently. What the authorities in London had not predicted however was that people would start to disagree with official interpretations of the Bible, on which at least part of the law of the land was founded.

Elizabeth had led a broad church after her father died but Charles seems to have thought that a more rigid application of the fashions of the church he led was necessary in order to successfully govern. Where Rees comes in is to introduce the Levellers, who were Protestant enthusiasts often coming from among the ranks of the apprentices in London. The big trade companies that organised labour there formed a substantial element in the basic fabric of English society, and these young people had a sense of identity that tied them together and that could be exercised even to violence by individuals in their group given the right circumstances. Religion formed a key part of the social fabric, and the apprentices reacted to broadsheets clandestinely published in London with the aim of discrediting Laud and inciting them to public acts of civil disobedience. It was the king and Laud against Parliament. In the end, Parliament defeated Stuart kings not just once but twice and religion lay at the core of the matter in both cases.

What brought me to this book was curiosity about the way that religion functioned as part of individual identity, and this book provides some clues as to how those things worked together to bring about political change. Of course some people suffered. Others even died. Many lost other things as well, including their livelihoods. This creation of scapegoats when the authorities crushed popular disaffection continued throughout the 17th century and even into the more temperate 18th century as the king tried to maintain his power in the face of community opposition. But scapegoats can also serve the purposes of your enemies too, such as John Lilburne, who lost his ears in the process that was launched as a result of his public disagreement with Laud and the king. He became a modern martyr.

I think that the history of the civil rights movement begins before this point in time, but certainly from a modern point of view the year 1641 must stand as a sort of watershed with regard to the relationship between the government and the governed. In terms of the literature, the eventual victory of the party of Parliament over the party of the king forms well-trod ground for many Australians, and I wrote about it in a bit more detail when I reviewed Peter Ackroyd’s book on the 18th century a week ago. But it seems to me that a history of British radicalism has to incorporate a view that includes modern times at least from the rift with Rome started by Henry and going up to the importation of the Hanoverian kings after the death of Anne, the last Stuart monarch. The story would then recommence in the 1790s as the UK entered a war against France, and then include the appearance after the war’s end of the Chartists. Under this chronology Victoria would be the first truly modern monarch of the United Kingdom, the one who set the ground rules for kings and queens to follow, down to the present day.

Where this book falls down is in its use of ancillary facts that serve to illustrate broader points the writer wants to make. They impede the dramatic flow of seminal events and interfere with the reader’s ability to follow the plot. In short, the pacing of this book is very poor, making it a hard slog. Another failing is the structure of the book. I would have started the narrative right in the middle of things, at the moment of greatest drama, after the establishment of the Commonwealth, when Parliament had to crack down on innovations favoured by the Levellers once the king had been removed from the scene.

After I had written the first draft of this blogpost yesterday I went out for lunch and headed to Enmore to get some Egyptian food. On the way, I walked through Victoria Park and passed by St Paul’s College, a residential college attached to Sydney University. St Paul’s is an Anglican establishment and has come under fire in recent years for the hazing rituals it continues to tolerate and for the sexism exhibited by senior residents.

In 1981 I was at Paul’s. Even then, it was a riotous establishment, with drinking heavily favoured as a pastime by residents, who were however saturated by counter-culture favourites such as the 1971 song ‘American Pie’ by Don McLean, which they would sing when guzzling beer and spirits late into the night. The dining hall stank of beer at all times. Periodic toga parties would take place there during which young men drank to excess and had what they thought of as “fun”. Late at night they would occasionally “raid” Women’s College, which is situated just behind Paul’s on the main campus of the university, harassing the young women who lived there by barraging through the corridors and making a disorderly ruckus. I left Paul’s after a year. It evidenced the same kind of lax moral standards that the Levellers and the Roundheads objected to among the establishment supporters who fought for the king during the Civil War that started in 1642.

Further up, I passed by Moore Theological College, another Anglican establishment. Its crest has four elements:  an open book with a shepherd’s crook, a dove holding a twig of leaves in its beak, an arrangement made of two stems of olive branch, and a clipper ship with two masts under sail. The crest is visible on the King Street frontage. Down on Enmore Road, past the beggars with their outstretched cups, I stopped at Cairo to have my lunch and they sold me a bottle of Camperdown Ale to drink with it. The meal included two types of meat, two types of salad, and two dips with a piece of flatbread to eat them with. I wonder how the military in Egypt will view the events of recent years in the years that are sure to come. Surer, certainly, than their temporary hold on the levers of power is that down the line there will be some red faces.

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