The use of the pillory to enforce Puritan morality in colonial New England: lithograph, 19th century.
Artillery Row

Why are republicans such “sour-faced Puritans”?

Opponents of the monarchy are also suspected of hating Christmas, puppies and the sound of children’s laughter

“Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” — Sir Toby Belch, Twelfth Night

In Bristol in March 1660, the justices of the peace issued a proclamation to prevent customary Shrove Tuesday revelry by forbidding “football, cock-throwing” and the rather alarming sounding practice of “dog-tossing”. They received a volley of abuse, and the next day the doughty Bristolian revellers got round the order by throwing their missiles at geese and hens instead of cocks, tossing cats instead of dogs and, presumably deciding that a ball was pretty essential to football, gathered outside the mayor’s house to intimidate him into allowing a kickabout. 

This was not an isolated case. An attempt to ban football in York at around the same time ended in a furious mob assailing the house of the hapless mayor armed with halberds, swords and muskets. This is not, perhaps, quite as eccentric as attempting to insert a firework up one’s rectum, but given that one of the few things that would provoke a riot in twenty-first century Britain is banning football, the heartening continuity in our rambunctious national life is clear.

The rise of anti-puritan disorder in 1660 reflected a growing sense that the superstructure of petty republican despotism was tottering, and perhaps a torrent of dog-tossing, football, beer and brawling might help bring it to its knees. And that despotism was considerable. 

The dreary Presbyterian kill-joys did away anything diverting

Successive Puritan-led administrations had made energetic attempts to eliminate or severely restrict just about every one of the traditional pastimes and pleasures of Englishmen and women. Theatres were closed in 1642, and then the closures made permanent in 1648. Horse-racing was repeatedly banned, most successfully in 1655. A great many puritan-dominated local corporations banned football and maypole dancing. Any celebration of Christmas — and indeed a whole range of other religious festivals — was famously banned outright in 1647. Extensive efforts to restrict and regulate ale-houses were made, although the fact that beer was one of the few safe liquids to drink at the time meant that was only patchily enforced. The list goes on: the dreary Presbyterian kill-joys did away — or at least tried to do away with — pretty much anything diverting, enjoyable or amusing that they could think of. 

The popular view of the end of this miserable era, prompted by the triumphant Restoration of Charles II in May 1660, is given in endearingly straightforward terms by that master of impartial and scrupulously balanced historical writing, L. du Garde Peach:

In London the narrow streets were crowded with men, women and children, come to welcome the King. The cobbles were strewn with flowers, and every house was gay with flags. Bells were ringing and there were cheering crowds everywhere. The people of England felt themselves delivered from a nightmare. And at night, sides of beef were roasted at great fires, and barrels of wine were broached in the streets. London had got a King again, and everyone was glad, except a few sour-faced Puritans who, we may be sure, were careful to keep out of the way.

The Ladybird children’s book The Story of Charles II might not be the most unimpeachable historical account, but it is substantially true. Contemporary diarist John Evelyn revelled in the scene as he described “the ways straw’d with flowers, the bells ringing, the streetes hung with Tapissry, fountains running with wine”. The monarchy was back, and with it the old ways, the customary pastimes, the theatre and football and racing and Christmas: in short, Merrie England.

Given that the only time in English history that has witnessed the abolition of monarchy led to the authoritarian rule of fun-sucking sourpusses who became a by-word for finger-wagging joylessness, one might think that contemporary republicans would be keen to avoid any association with such hatchet-faced miserabilism. One would be wrong.

The never-ending flurry of constitutional clangers, misjudged attacks on a sweet 96 year-old woman and borderline treason that is the twitter-account of crankish anti-Monarchy pressure-group “Republic” decided to tap into that deep well of Puritan hatred for ordinary pleasures and joys recently. Their latest is attacking a decision by the Home Secretary to allow pubs and clubs to remain open until 1am over the Jubilee weekend. They justified their opposition by implying, rather dubiously, that people won’t want to “stay later to celebrate the jubilee”. 

Putting aside the obvious fact that the stout British drinker would welcome literally any excuse to booze until the small hours, one wonders why on earth the modern republican would want to extract the skeletons from their historical closet and rattle them about in our faces. 

There doesn’t seem, at first sight, to be any necessary connection between republicanism and being a priggish bore. The politic course would have been for Republic to have simply ignored the obviously popular policy of extending pub opening hours. Indeed, if their aim was actually to move public opinion in an anti-monarchical direction, rather than make provocative comments designed to give their tiny band of supporters even more excuse to revel in their self-satisfied faux-radicalism than usual, they would keep their mouths shut over the entire Jubilee period, when pro-monarchist sentiment and the obvious affection that the vast majority have for her Majesty will inevitably make them seem petty and sour.

Monarchy is a great barrier to rationalistic thinking

This is, however, to ignore the true nature of the enemy. The seventeenth century Puritans did not impose their austere rules purely for the sake of it. They were a small minority, a self-chosen elect, with a mission to impose a rigid, proto-totalitarian rule of “godliness” and Calvinist logic on the whole of society: to minutely regulate England in accordance with an intensely authoritarian, moralistic agenda “for our own good”. Their banning of Maypoles and Christmas and football was ultimately about top-down, rationalistic social control to the end of spiritual and ethical purity, an attempt to eliminate everything untidy, spontaneous, and particular in order to impose their own (extremely unpopular) ideas within the cultural and social vacuum thereby created.

Monarchy is a great barrier to this kind of thinking. Monarchy is by its very nature particular, eccentric, messy and human. It is not “rational”, certainly not in any abstract, theoretical sense — and that is the point. It’s exceedingly difficult to see how any flint-hearted utopian scheme of totalising ethical, spiritual and political control could really be compatible with an institution so in love with feasting, jewels, silly hats and the excessive and frivolous use of Union Jack bunting; which bases its succession on heredity; and which is often akin to a national soap opera. 

For this reason, the modern-day inheritors of the Puritan ethic see the monarchy — perhaps rightly — as a curious cultural barrier to the soulless technocratic hellscape that they wish to impose on the masses. Like the Puritans, they are a small, elite minority who have nothing but contempt for the “disreputable”, atavistic pleasures and instincts of the majority. They wish to trash every practice and institution that distracts or prevents us from being “educated” by our betters: the diversity officers, human resources gauleiters and public health satraps who so desperately wish to tyrannise over us and shape us in the image of the “elect” — that is to say, themselves. 

Snobbish as well as moralising and authoritarian, they despise the idea of the “chavs” supping pints for 50p in Wetherspoon pubs, smoking and belching and revelling and cheering their Queen, rather than doing what they’re told and being as miserable as the Guardian-reading classes.

They know that so long as we cling onto our well-worn traditions, the eccentric crevices and nooks and crannies of our culture that still elude the progressive acid that seeps out of their grubby pores, they will never be able to fully “reform” us, never be able to bully and regulate and tyrannise over us. The chief of these traditions is the monarchy, and that is why they hate it so much.

So just remember — every pint downed, every rendition of “God Save the Queen”, every flag waved will drive them crazy. Let that motivation help make this coming weekend the best national party weve had in years!

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