February 20, 2010

Review: The Fifth Monarchy Men

Most people today, Christian and non-Christian are no longer millenial in their understanding of history: many of my friends would class themselves as conservative Christians, none of them would say they are preparing for the second coming with policies designed to advance it. No prominent Christian politician on either side of the Atlantic publically declares the Book of Daniel to be their inspiration: few of them cite the Bible in political speeches at all. This makes the Fifth Monarchists, a movement of seventeenth century English Christians, incredibly weird and controversial for modern tastes. The Fifth Monarchists emerged in 1653 to support one of the constitutional innovations that followed the English Civil War: they believed in reinstating the Mosaic law into England in its entirity, demolishing property rights- most importantly the right to tithe but also other rights, eliminating religious intolerance between Protestants and a massive campaign of evangelisation launched into the darker corners of England and Wales. From 1654 they opposed the Cromwellian Protectorate and the Restoration that followed it. After a frightening attempt at a coup in 1661, when Thomas Venner and 50 of his congregation marched through the streets of London crying out for 'King Jesus and the Heads upon the Gate!' (Cromwell and other leading Parliamentarians were decapitated and their heads stuck on London Bridge), the movement petered out into the late seventeenth century.

The classic study of the Fifth Monarchy Men is Bernard Capp's Fifth Monarchy Men. Its an old book, it was published in 1969 and lots of this review will be in pointing out how history has changed as a subject since then. Lets just widen our narrative a little. Capp like the other major writer on this period J.P. Laydon (whose PhD was never published but was completed in the early seventies) beleived that the Fifth Monarchy arose out of the end of Barebones Parliament. In early 1653 Cromwell decided to dismiss the Rump that had ruled since the execution of Charles I and had been made up of those elected MPs who could accept the execution. He did so. To replace the Rump, he decided he could not hold new elections as they would merely return the Rumpers, instead he summoned churches and his army officers to nominate people they deemed fit to sit in Parliament. That Parliament which convened in July 1653 and sat to December 1653 (when Cromwell grew sick of it and dismissed it) is commonly known by historians as the Parliament of Saints or the Barebone's Parliament (after one of its members Praisegod Barebone). The Fifth Monarchists were a London and Wales based group of men who interpreted those actions as being eschatalogically mandated in the bible- most beleived that the end of the world was due in 1656 (later 1666 was chosen as a date) and that it could only be advanced when King Jesus not King Charles or King Cromwell ruled England. After the Barebone's Parliament was dismissed prominent ministers like Christopher Feake at Blackfriars, Morgan Llywd and Vavasour Powell in Wales and figures in the army like Thomas Harrison and Robert Overton blasted Cromwell for destroying England's first and only Parliament of Saints.

Capp's book charts the movement from its inception in 1653 all the way to its demise in the 1680s. He puts it into the context of other European millenarial revolutionary movements- that of John of Leyden in Munster for example- and suggests that there was a connection. He suggests as well that there was a connection to a millenial discourse in British and continental academic life: in Britain the key figures were John Foxe and Joseph Mede, this tradition has been examined since Capp's book, most recently in Crawford Gribben's study of the millenium in the early modern period. What is fascinating is how Capp shows that Fifth Monarchism started as a distinct set of commitments- to the Barebone's Parliament, to the proposition of rule by King Jesus and to a set of ideological commitments- and slowly evolved into a growing continuity with other oppositional movements. So in 1659 Feake supported the reintroduction of the Rump Parliament and in the 1660s Venner's revolt was inspired by the 'Heads upon the Gate', one of whom Oliver Cromwell was the Fifth Monarchy's leading opposer. The term Fifth Monarchy comes from Daniel: Daniel's prophecies make mention of four monarchies which will be replaced by a Fifth Monarchy, the empire that will rule in the last days.

Capp's interests in the movement are profoundly of his time. Ever since John Morrill's Revolt of the Provinces, which came out four years after Capp's book, a naive Marxism which suggests that people went to particular movements because of their social position, has been exposed to formidable criticism. Assigning people to categories and then sorting them out between their social classes is ridiculous in a period in which movements were fluid and people crossed between them. Capp's book is a pre-revolt of the provinces effort and consequently is written in homage to Christopher Hill and the rest, and includes an analysis of the Fifth Monarchist's social background- something which inevitably we know little about. This does mean that he does try and link the ideas to experiences that these men and women (there were plenty of significant women- Mary Cary and Anna Trapnell are two examples) had. It also means that for a modern historian you have to wade knee deep through a lot of analysis of class backgrounds before you get to the meaty stuff of how people's experiences interracted with what they read to produce the ideas that supported the movement.

The other criticism of Capp's book, looking at it afterall this time, is whether there was a movement at all. There was a political movement centered on various churches. That does not neccessarily mean that that movement had much in common as far as ideology went. John Rogers one of the great Fifth Monarchists said that they had nothing in common theologically, but a lot in common politically. One wonders whether like many groups formed in opposition to a ruling regime what they held in common was their opposition and not their intrinsic ideas. The Fifth Monarchy men further were a useful bogieman for the state- right up until the 18th Century investigative magistrates were finding more and more Fifth Monarchists in their communities. Like Communists in the 50s in America, the Fifth Monarchists were so revolutionary as to define an other that everyone else could oppose: frequently therefore Quakers and others were linked to holding aspirations for a Fifth Monarchy. Slowly the movement dissolved into the wider sectarian mainstream- the Fifth Monarchists sought the same protections as Baptists and Independents from Charles II, they sought the same protections from William III and ultimately at the price of their politics acheived them.

Capp's book is a fascinating document- it is very well written. It may be dated, but you would expect nothing less of a book written forty years ago. The point to make though is that it is still an indispensible account for anyone interested in the 1650s- one of history's forgotten decades- and that perhaps is a testament to his acheivement. The book is not brilliant and does not compare to the other classics of the sixties- John Pocock's Ancient Constitution and Feudal Law, John Dunn's Locke or Peter Laslett's edition of the Two Treatises- but its contribution is invaluable because it directs our attention to an understudied subject. The Fifth Monarchists were crucial to the English Republic and to English Republicanism.


James said...

"..none of them would say they are preparing for the second coming with policies designed to advance it." I think one has to acknowledge that Our Lord's Manifesto is itself frustratingly short on concrete proposals for the Second Coming. It needs a more thorough thinking through. And in any case, it is pointless indulging in speculation in that we are still clearly some way away from the Second Coming, and discrete policy decisions at the Second Coming are necessarily dependent on the conditions on the ground at the time. It's no good being millenial: the Second Coming needs the right blend of proposals, and what those are we will just have to wait and see.

Rumbold said...

Excellent review. It has whetted my appetite for the long-promised as yet unpublished PhD thesis on the New Model Army.

Gracchi said...

James- traditional views of the second coming have seen that as a problem but I think that is an opportunity. An opportunity to reinvent, after appropriate consultaton in committee, what the second coming means. When Christ arrives, and his lateness is not a positive, he will obviously be able to feedback on divine views but ultimately under the consultative framework, you'll find that he is only one of a series of stakeholders in the event- the devil, the damned, the redeemed, the saints and even some of the archangels- whose union I've heard is very upset about the health and safety implications of the sharp weapons they will be carrying- all need involving in what we might describe as a modernised second coming. An apocalypse for the twentieth century no less!

On a serious note- you are actually absolutely right and one of the things that makes the 5th Monarchists such an interesting movement is that they never had to agree because they never got close enough to government and hence to the difficulties of decision making. ONce you cast yourself in permanent opposition, you are always able to recruit other support simply because you can be ambiguous.

Rumbold- thanks. Yeah I'm trying to get that off the ground as we speak- there are a couple of other projects too, of which more at a later date or privately, but thanks- I'll definitely tell you when its out.

Rumbold said...

Excellent. Thanks.