Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660

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Oxford University Press, 1985 - Social Science - 324 pages
What have maypoles, charivari processions, and stoolball matches to do with the English Civil War? A great deal, argues David Underdown. Using three western counties as a case-study, he shows that the war was neither a dispute confined to the elite nor a class struggle of the 'middling sort' against a discredited aristocracy. It was in fact the result of profound disagreements among people of all social levels about the moral basis of their communities; commoners as well as ruler held strong opinions about order and governance. But these opinions varied from place to place, and through a pioneering synthesis of social history and popular culture, Underdown relates political diversity to cultural diversity, and shows that local difference in popular allegiance in the Civil War coincided with regional contrast in the traditional festive culture. The book is thus an important reinterpretation of both the English Revolution and the relationship between society, politics, andculture in the seventeenth century.

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Prof Underdown remains one of the masters of the early seventeenth century. Writing in 1987 he synthesised the growing appeal for a regional analysis of the Civil War and its social origins. Using other areas of the country as examples he focused the study on the south-west, of which he was a world expert. Its close links to Massachusetts brought a unique form of maritime Puritanism to Dorset and the surrounding counties. Underdown refused to drop Harrington's label, yet emphasised how the term covered a much wider body of people than Calvinists. Their way of life may have been observant, and strict, but the rise of educational needs reflected serious political and economic changes since the reformation. Further developed are arguments about the yeomanry and lesser gentry, whose undoubted prosperity caused further breakdown of nucleated village communities as the sole concentration of power. The older elites were joined by prosperous commercial men, whose local affiliations landed them in the Commons. Enclosure of land had been going on since the Reformation, but the much larger middling sorts, brought subtle changes: ownership, church hierarchies, and the drifting of large number of landless persons, displaced by the powerful and forced out by hunger into woodlands. The social dislocations slowly eroded confidence in localised elites: taxonomy of centralisation helped to make townsfolk think the gentry, sold more land and common by the King, as being responsible, morally, if not actually, for chaos and poverty. The failure of decentralisation to keep order, command respect, and police the provinces, were exacerbated by the Commons denial to the King of finance. Puritan MPs became almost synonymous with radicals; yet not all wanted the King to leave London. Many at first were not republicans; but into the vacuum flooded lesser men, the nouveaux riches, who called for more power to Parliament. Local loyalty was disparate and confused; frequently very personal, and motivated by greed, self-interest, and the praxis of oppositional politics. Jumping on the band-wagon, was precipitated by the Bishops Wars and failure of the Short Parliament. Those convinced that good town governance meant the gentry stayed out of town were concerned to reinforce local customary values, and make up a few of their own. But many of the gentry took parliament's views as being for "liberty and religion" - Sir Thomas Smith, William Harrison, and Richard Vaughan were MPs renowned for expounding the government's cause and yet supported greater parliamentary powers for accountability. Loyalty to the King may have been partly hereditary, partly landed, but Earl of Bedford, was a noted military contributor to the early parliamentarian effort. There was definitely a distinction between radicals and moderates, that was broadly clear at Pride's Purge, but even before the war there were young cavaliers raring to have a go at an older more staid enemy in the Commons. In the south-west puritanism was strong, but equally too were the royalist gentry. Philosophers like Sir Walter Raleigh called for a scientific approach to government, supporting the Ramist school of thought. To King's Raleigh was a heretical non-believer who denied the divinity of the right to rule; but there were many like him whose wealth came from commercial activities. The King's own eagerness to print the Authorised version of the Bible brought out an array of literate supporters, poets, and teachers in the Royalist cause; clerics and academics. And both sides espousal and deep affection for Protestantism did not prevent supine efforts to alter sunday worship. Purchasing pews for profit underscored the inventive arminianism of Laudian stylised interpretation of a more efficient and sophisticated church. Yet locally the response was mixed and far from uniform: in the Levels and areas of poor farmland more traditional methods retained ownership, and therefore did not affect the allegiances to a great extent. Vast lowland 

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About the author (1985)

David Underdown is Professor of History at Yale University. His other publications include: Fire From Heaven: Life of an English Town in the Seventeenth Century (1992).

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