John Walter. Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xi + 357 pp. $64.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-65186-8.
Reviewed by Michael Finlayson (Department of History, University of Toronto)
Published on H-Albion (June, 2000)
Beginning with the attack on the house and family of Sir John Lucas at St. John's Abbey near Colchester on the night of 22 August 1642, a number of large crowds inflicted serious damage on the property of many suspected Catholics and opponents of Parliament in Essex and Suffolk during the next few months. These violent and destructive interventions by crowds that coincided with the outbreak of the English Civil War are well known to historians as the "Stour Valley riots" and form the bedrock of competing interpretations of that war. To Brian Manning, for example, these riots constitute evidence of an "underlying class hatred" (p.342) that illustrates a fundamental dimension of the character of the English Civil War. To other historians, even those not wedded to a Marxist conception of history, such as Anthony Fletcher and Clive Holmes, so naked was the attack on property by the crowds that the riots provide clear evidence of "class conflict" in early modern English society.
The book under review by John Walter takes issue with the conventional view of these riots and provides a highly sophisticated, deeply researched and subtle alternative approach. The author provides a four-tiered analysis of his subject and in doing so makes a major contribution to our understanding of the origins and nature of the English Civil War. He first contextualises the contemporary accounts of the Colchester plunderers concluding that while the extent and violence of these events was, if anything, greater than traditionally appreciated, the most important and underestimated characteristic was their "selectivity" (p.68). Traditional views of these "riots" have been based on hostile contemporary reports such as that by Bruno Ryves in Mercurius Rusticus. Ryves was a "royalist clergyman" (p.22) who "shaped his narrative of the atrocities "to maximise the sense of shock in his readership" (p.25). Ryves's view that the rioters were simply the great unwashed masses, says Walter, has been accepted uncritically by later historians.
Walter's study then proceeds to deal in nuances within the crowds and to make sense of the crowds' selectivity. He explains why they first attacked a Protestant, Sir John Lucas, whose main family property was immediately adjacent to the town of Colchester. Walter spells out the long-term relationship between the Lucas family and the town corporation, and explores in detail the controversial positions taken by Sir John over the fifteen years preceding the attacks. Walter then places the Lucas family in the context of national politics and suggests that it was his "unswerving royalism" that help "determine(d) his fate" (p.155). This portion of the study is marvelously illuminating but this reviewer is concerned that the author tends to see post-1642 political divisions alive and well years before they actually occur. Is it really helpful to characterise strong supporters of the Court during the 1630s as "Royalists?" It is true that Lucas was close to the Court in the 1630s and subsequently became a Royalist but did the one necessarily imply the other?
Dr. Walter then provides a penetrating analysis of the crowds themselves, focusing first on the fact that included among the victims in 1642 were a number of clergymen notably in Colchester and some other towns, who had been presented to their livings by gentry sympathetic to the Laudian church. Laudian clergymen and Catholic gentry were the prime targets of the crowds. These were not undifferentiated attacks on landowners, but targetted outbursts aimed at a particular sub-set of the privileged, a sub-set that was identified with popery. Again, however, this marvelously subtle analysis of the crowds presupposes a view of the church of Charles the First. Walter writes that "the attacks on the ministers in the summer of 1642 represented a reaction to the religious counter-revolution of the 1630s" (p.199). Counter-revolution is a term that comes with a lot of baggage that deserves more scrutiny than it gets here.
Finally the author places the crowds in the context of the East Anglian cloth trade and contemporary anti-Catholicism. There was, Walter writes, a connection between the crowds' actions and the dislocation of the cloth trade in the early 1640s. But, like everything analysed in this fine work, the connection is not simple. Hard times caused cloth workers to be disproportionately represented amongst the rioters, but their behaviour was not random and is intelligible "only within the dominant discourse that confined attacks to those proto-royalists and papists that Parliamentary policy and puritan preaching rendered legitimate targets" (p.282). Building on the work of Keith Wrightson, Edward Thompson and Natalie Davis, Walter argues that the crowds selected the property owned largely by papists because, by swearing and then circulating widely the Protestation of May 1641, Parliament was almost encouraging "popular interventions in the political process" (p.294). By attacking all popish innovations of the past few years, the oath, and all the parliamentary declarations that preceded and followed it, legitimised "independent popular action" (p.295). The attacks that occurred during the later months of 1642, most damagingly but not solely in and around Colchester, were, writes Walter, politically as well as economically driven and were comparable to what Davis refers to as "rites of violence."
This reviewer cannot say enough in praise of this book. It seems to me, however, there are some problems. There is, for example, Dr. Walter's treatment of religious factors as explaining his narrative. On the subject of the religion of the first victim, Sir John Lucas, he is refreshingly candid, as when he writes "we have no direct evidence as to the nature of Sir John Lucas's religious beliefs" (p.167). He is, however, not so punctilious when it comes to the "puritans' or the "godly" who, mostly anonymously, abound throughout the study. After analysing a 1622 dispute in Colchester, he refers to "the potential conflict in a town where puritanism claimed the allegiance of many and a gentry-appointed parish clergy commanded the respect of too few" (p.170). Similarly questionable is his assumption of the simple link between Bishop Wren's insistence on religious conformity in the diocese of Norwich and Puritan emigration to Massachusetts. Walter writes that Wren's "success in enforcing conformity was reflected in the unusually large numbers from the county driven to emigrate" (p.185). Dr. Walter is excellent when he analyses widespread anti-popery throughout the region and as a dominant motive in national politics. What I think he might have done was ask whether what he takes as evidence of that great work-horse of historians, "Puritanism," was, in fact, evidence of that quite different and more mundane concept, "anti-catholicism."
The second book under review is different in every way from the first, though still admirable. Aiming at an audience of senior school students or junior undergraduates, it covers a broad period of complex history in a small number of words. Inevitably it distorts complex contemporary realities by summarising them in a sentence. For instance, Seel writes "unable to accept the Laudian religious programme, significant numbers -- perhaps as many as 15,000 -- chose to emigrate" (p.2). Undoubtedly a number of the eighty or so clergymen who emigrated to New England between 1629 and 1640 did so because church officials were making their lives uncomfortable. Whether most of the other families who emigrated did so for these reasons is not so clear.
Seel's book is, however, an excellent tool for those who are trying to inculcate good historical habits and ways of thinking into the consciousness of the young. Contained in the text are useful analytical questions, examples of appropriate sources and even some model "worked answers" which will, I fear if the book does well, appear on exam answers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean -- and perhaps even downunder -- in the next few years. Each of the main sections of the book begins with the basic political narrative which is then followed by "analysis." This organisational structure is intended to "separate narrative from interpretation so that the latter is no longer diluted by the former" (Series Preface). Philosophers of history could no doubt have a field day discussing the way the construction of the narrative, indeed the very existence of a narrative, presupposes interpretation, but in a series like this, the separation is helpful. Anyone who has spent a lifetime reading undergraduate history essays telling pointless narratives will see the merit of this approach.
Some might say that the author has capitulated to Conrad Russell's revisionist view of the subject and there is no doubt that Russell's views influence the approach. The author is, however, familiar with the recent writings of others and makes competing interpretations of political history accessible to readers and with great economy. The book is, however, only about the political history of the period and a good student who studies it conscientiously will have no idea that there are historians out there such as Dr. John Walter to whom the complexity of history lies in sorting out the relationships between politics and society. As Walter writes of his study, "it offers a ^Ñbraided narrative' of the event, grounding an understanding of the processes it contained within the structure of both regional society and economy and early modern political culture" (p.36).
Each of these two books, in its own way and with fundamentally different audiences in mind, makes an important contribution to the field though not without causing some problems for the reader.
Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@h-net.msu.edu.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Michael Finlayson. Review of Seel, Graham, The English Wars and Republic 1637-1660 and
Walter, John, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.