Building a new world on the ruins of the old

After all this drama, what kind of England ultimately emerged?


This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, Jonathan Healey (Bloomsbury, £30)

In 1698 Whitehall Palace caught fire. The vast warren of buildings, which had been central to the monarchy since the 1530s, was destroyed. When the area was eventually rebuilt, it was not kings and queens who returned but prime ministers and their governments. This topographical transformation neatly captures what historian Jonathan Healey argues was the most revolutionary change over the course of the 17th century: that “politics was no longer about monarchs”.

The political arrangements of the reigns of William and Mary as the century drew to a close would have been “unthinkable” to James I at its start and were a closer approximation to the political system under Elizabeth II than Elizabeth I. Through 100 years of turbulence arose a “remarkable new world, one which — for better or worse — was blazing a path towards our own”.

Healey charts this extraordinary course from the Tudors to the Hanoverians in The Blazing World, which offers “a new history of revolutionary England”. The word “revolution”, he explains, was used more literally in the 17th century than it is today: “Instead of drastic change, it usually meant a cycling back, a turning of the wheel of power.”

On these terms, this really was a revolutionary age, with at least seven seismic resets between 1640 and 1688. It was also a time of revolution as we conceive of it today, namely, of fundamental alteration to politics or society. Healey’s ambitious book aims to explore these two connected realms, reanimating the lives of ordinary people through the wealth of sources they left behind.

The wars brought opportunities to middling men

Faithful to this intention, The Blazing World begins in the Lancashire village of Cartmel with a culture war clash between the subversive festivities of rushbearing and a solemn commemorative sermon on St James’s Day in 1604. A year before the Gunpowder Plot, Catholics mocked Protestants in a prank wedding between two male servants satirising how the world was turning upside down. It is an apt opener for the next 400 pages, which follow England as it revolves its way through both violent change and stubborn continuity; appropriate, too, as an introduction to the century that brought sovereignty to the multitude.

This transformation was made possible by the explosion of printing and emergence of new voices which accompanied the end of press censorship and outbreak of civil war between Charles I and Parliament in the early 1640s. The philosopher John Locke certainly considered that the Civil Wars could have been avoided “had men been more sparing of their ink”.

He, like many who grew up during the wars, was profoundly shaped by the experience: “I no sooner perceived myself in the world,” he wrote, “but I found myself in a storm.” Healey has a keen eye for the context which moulds generations, explaining with sympathy that the revolutionaries who came to power after Parliament’s victory over the king had grown up in a world of rising population, social stress and a crime wave, so it was “no wonder they wanted to reform society”.

He identifies the opportunities the wars brought to middling men who would not otherwise have troubled the history books — the ultimate example of course being the fenland farmer Oliver Cromwell, who rose to be head of state. As the soldier William Allen said when considering draft peace terms to be put to the king: “I suppose it is not unknown to you that we are most of us but young Statesmen.”

These political novices had to build a new world upon the ruins of the old. By the end of the Civil Wars, around 62,000 soldiers were dead; perhaps 100,000 more had died from war-related disease; 150 towns had been severely damaged and 10,000 homes destroyed. Within a few more years the king had been executed, the monarchy and House of Lords abolished, and Ireland and Scotland brutally conquered.

There was birth as well as death, as this revolution “brought an extraordinary moment of ideological creativity”. In army grandee John Lambert’s 1653 Instrument of Government, under which Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector, England had its first written constitution and one that enshrined religious toleration. There were no penalties compelling people to any particular faith, instead an exhortation that “endeavours be used to win them by sound doctrine and the example of good conversation”.

After some missteps, by 1657 a healing England was growing stronger. As Healey concludes, “Cromwell’s rule must be accounted a success, at least in terms of realpolitik.” His premature death, however, enabled the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, for which Cromwell’s conciliatory and conservative style of rule had, ironically, laid the groundwork.

The genie unleashed could never be put back

Although this may appear a turning back of time, in fact, the genie unleashed by the upheaval of the 1640s and 50s could never be put back in the bottle. As the chronicler John Aubrey saw it, “When the wars came and with them liberty of conscience and liberty of inquisition — the phantoms vanished.” This spirit of inquiry and debate continued as the scientific revolution gathered pace, trade boomed, the population stabilised, social tension eased, violence lessened and in every sphere individuals strived for improvement and prosperity.

People were installing chimneys and windows; drinking tea, coffee and hot chocolate; visiting spa towns and enjoying Shakespeare, now once more back in fashion. The country was becoming visible in new maps and data as “men of numbers” surveyed the new world around them. As John Houghton saw it: “The more we know of the Islands the better, I presume, they may be managed.”

Unfortunately, the Stuart kings Charles II and James II’s style of management was drifting towards autocracy, reopening old wounds — now fault lines between the new Whig and Tory parties. Healey recounts the Popish Plot, Exclusion Crisis, Monmouth Rebellion and Glorious Revolution with gusto, revealing the crucial inheritance of the unfinished business of the 1649 revolution for events in 1688 — a view not always fashionable among historians.

After all this drama, what kind of England ultimately emerged? When Healey looks back on the Stuart century with the advent of the Hanoverians in 1714, he finds it is John Locke’s commonwealth that has triumphed, not that of the Leveller Johns Lilburne or Wildman, or even that imagined by John Lambert for Oliver Cromwell.

In The Blazing World, Jonathan Healey channels the inquiring spirit which came to define this revolutionary age, creating his own survey as rich and wide-ranging as the pioneering work of the 17th century characters he so admires. This, in the end, is perhaps the greatest aspect of his approach to this blazing world: not to judge or patronise it, nor force its figures to fit the preoccupations or assumptions of the present, but instead to respect and seek to understand it. As he puts it at the end of this impressive history: “The people who lived in the seventeenth century were their own.”

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