When you think of 17th century England, freedom of speech is not the first thing that comes to mind. Nor do ideas about freedom of religion, rights of women, universal male suffrage and the gap between rich and poor. Am I sure I’m talking about the right period? Yes. Am I sure I don’t mean 21st century England? Yes. But the similarities between these ideas and modern ones are striking.
A world turned upside down
The usual story of 17th century England is that King Charles I upset parliament with his incompetent government and high taxes so the parliament goes to war with the King. The parliament wins the war, executes Charles I and Oliver Cromwell becomes king in everything but name paving the way for the restoration of Charles II. This story is an overly simplified one that fails to encompass the true complexities of the period. In fact, this period wedged between the two kings, where Oliver Cromwell and his Rump Parliament held power, is one of the most anomalous – and most forgotten – periods in English history. Known as the Interregnum, the period between 1649 and 1660 was a time of complete revolution, where the world was turned upside down and restored again. The Interregnum witnessed an enormous explosion of radical religious and political dissent groups that involved common people engaging in political debate in the everyday world. This expanded engagement in public debate led to the common people expressing radical, visionary ideas that seemed grossly out of place with the mainstream ideologies of 17th Century England.
Didn’t they chop peoples heads off for that?
Considering England’s reputation under the Tudor monarchs for torturing and burning religious and political dissidents it seems impossible that such radical ideas were allowed to exist. Yet Cromwell’s England was a remarkably tolerant one. This was due in part to the widespread desire among politicians and the general public to avoid the horrors of another civil war. There was also a strong protestant ethic among the ruling parliamentarians of religious toleration. Religion was politics in Interregnum England and one could not exist without the other in a political debate. It was from religion that the everyday Interregnum radical drew their authority to speak in the public sphere and, more importantly, have their voice listened to. These combined factors created a religiously tolerant society that allowed people who had always been ostracised from political debate to now participate in it actively.
So they just waltzed into parliament off the street?
No, everyday people could not just walk into parliament or court and shout their opinions. The expansion of public debate meant it also occurred in new ways and places. The importance of print cannot be understated. Print was a cheap, accessible and effective way to disseminate new and diverse ideas among general society. Though literacy rates were still low, the frequent use of images meant that the illiterate masses could also engage with political ideas. In addition to print, debate spilled into taverns and squares, moors and farmland expanding the public sphere out of the hallowed halls of the entitled into the world of the masses.
Who was engaging in this public debate?
As is often the case when discussion is opened to the public, it was the craziest and most radical voices who spoke the loudest during the Interregnum. Birthed during the early Interregnum, the Quakers were one of the most successful radical groups of the period, reaching sixty thousand members by 1680. The Quakers opposed all forms violence, including state-sanctioned violence; they campaigned for the rights of women to speak as equals to men and advocated practice of religion free of the established church. They were also extremely militant preachers. Quaker founder George Fox was imprisoned seven times for blasphemy and once during a trial fell to his knees to pray for the judge’s sinful soul. Yet, because of the tolerant environment of the interregnum, Fox was never tortured or imprisoned for more than a year. Though the tolerance of the Cromwellian government did not extend to atheists and people impersonating God, its generosity still allowed public debate to flourish.
One of the other, less successful radical children of the Interregnum, the Diggers, had some of the most challenging ideas. The Diggers questioned the gap between rich and poor by demanding common lands be released to the people for cultivation and that there should be universal male suffrage. Although the Diggers confronted the very fabric of power in Interregnum society, the right to own property, they were nevertheless treated with extreme tolerance. Perhaps the Diggers small numbers and low popularity helped them escape punishment but the fact that they were allowed to exist as they did suggests a fundamentally open society where radical ideas were able to flow freely.
Am I SURE I have the right century?
YES. From Quaker to Cromwell, peasant to politician, the Interregnum public sphere was open to almost everyone. As England’s only decade without a ruling monarch in over 2000 years, the Interregnum defies history. Its anomalous historical conditions allowed all sorts of exciting radical ideas to enter the public debate on an unprecedented level. It seems like a vision of the future. It was a time where modern ideas were birthed, where the world was truly turned upside down.
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (1972, Maurice Temple Smith)
George Fox, ‘Journal of George Fox’ in Rufus Jones (editor) George Fox, An Autobiography (1908, Friends United Press)
Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1993, The MIT Press, 5th ed)
Steven Pincus and Peter Lake (editors) The Politics of the Public Sphere in Early Modern England (2007, Manchester University Press)
Blair Worden, The English Civil Wars: 1640-60 (2009, Weidenfeld & Nicolson)