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About this book

This collection of essays seeks to shed light on the politics of those people who are normally thought of as being excluded from the political nation in early modern England. If by political nation we mean those who sat in parliament, the governors of counties and towns, and the enfranchised classes in the constituencies, then the 'excluded' would be those who were neither actively involved in the process of governing nor had any say in choosing those who would rule over them - the bulk of the population at this time. Yet this volume shows that these people were not, in fact, excluded from politics. Not only did the masses possess political opinions which they were capable of articulating in a public forum, but they were alos often active participants in the political process themselves and taken seriously in that capacity by the governmental elite.

The various essays deal with topics as wide-ranging as riots, rumours, libels, seditious words, public opinion, the structures of local government, and the gendered dimensions of popular political participation, and cover the period from the eve of the Reformation to the Industrial Revolution. They challenge many existing assumptions concerning the nature and significance of public opinion and politics out-of-doors in the early modern period and show us that the people mattered in politics, and thus why we, as historians, cannot afford to ignore them. Politics was more participatory, in this undemocratic age, than one might have thought. The contributors to this volume show that there was a lively and engaged public sphere throughout this period, from Tudor times to the Georgian era.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

The title of this book needs explaining. This collection of essays is intended to shed light on the politics of those who are often thought of as being excluded from the ‘political nation’. If by ‘political nation’ we mean ‘the members of both houses of parliament, the governors of counties and towns, and the enfranchised classes in the constituencies’,1 then the ‘excluded’ might be said to constitute those who were neither actively involved in the process of governing nor had any say in choosing those who would rule over them — the bulk of the population in early modern England.2 In many respects this is a book about ‘popular politics’, although this is a term with its own intellectual baggage,3 whilst the notion of ‘the excluded’ potentially embraces those whom we might not readily regard as members of the popular classes. However, the essays in this collection seek to show that these people were not, in fact, excluded from politics. Not only did the mass of the population possess political opinions which they were capable of articulating — often powerfully — in a public forum, but they could also be active participants in the political process themselves. Many of those we think of as being excluded were actually included, either in a formal, institutionalized way, or in an extra-institutional sense.
Tim Harris

2. Rumours and Popular Politics in the Reign of Henry VIII

To the people of Norfolk who flirted with heresy in 1530 upon rumours ‘that the king’s pleasure is that the New Testament in English should go forth’,1 or to the Yorkshire commons who rebelled in 1536 upon rumours that their ‘churches should be pulled down’,2 the term ‘popular politics’ would have made little sense. They had different idioms with which to describe their activities, idioms peppered with the vocabulary of sanctification and the common weal. Politics and rumour, moreover, were starkly separated in contemporary minds, or at least in the minds of the educated elite. Politics was the process by which the nation’s ‘natural’ rulers maintained the social order and good government; rumour was ‘the infamy and slander of the common people’, spread by those whom ‘God hateth and hath banished … [from] his most glorious sight’.3
Ethan H. Shagan

3. ‘Poore Men Woll Speke One Daye’: Plebeian Languages of Deference and Defiance in England, c.1520–1640

In May 1525, the Suffolk town of Lavenham became the site of a remarkable encounter between noble authority and plebeian resistance. Over the spring of that year, Cardinal Wolsey’s demands for an ‘Amicable Grant’ intended to finance Henry VIII’S foreign adventures had faced growing hostility across East Anglia and southern England.2 Opposition was most public in the textile region of southern Suffolk and northern Essex. Here, negotiations between the wealthy clothiers and the Duke of Suffolk had highlighted the government’s weakness after the Duke had suggested that the clothiers disregard the formal assessments made of their wealth and instead pay what suited them.3 News of the negotiations leaked out and by 9 May a crowd of some thousands, composed of weavers, farmers and labourers, had gathered at Lavenham. According to the later narrative compiled from gentry eyewitnesses by the courtier Ellis Griffith, the ‘folk of … Lavenham … had … agreed, in common with the men of the towns of Kent, Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, to rise at the sounding of bells.’4
Andy Wood

4. Libels in Action: Ritual, Subversion and the English Literary Underground, 1603–42

In the late summer of 1637, Thomas Wentworth, Charles I’s Lord Deputy in Ireland, tried to calm the frayed nerves of his ally William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud had been upset by a series of ‘libels’ posted around London that had bitterly attacked him for his role in the recent pillorying and mutilation of three Puritan critics of his regime. Wentworth drew on his own experience to offer Laud some comforting advice. ‘Those infamous and hellish libels’, he wrote, ‘are the diseases of a loose and remiss government’, and ‘all great ministers are commonly made the objects of them’. Ignoring them, he suggested, might actually be the best tactic.
Alastair Bellany

5. The Political Culture of the Middling Sort in English Rural Communities, c.1550–1700

In De Republica Anglorum, published in 1583, Sir Thomas Smith famously described the structure of the English commonwealth in terms of four ranks of men, descending from the gentry at its apex to day-labourers at its base. Simultaneously, however, he noted the more fundamental distinction between ‘them that bear office, and them that bear none’. In this way, Smith transformed his own four-class social hierarchy into a binary, indeed adversarial, model of political participation. The threshold of access to the circuits of authority was, nevertheless, relatively low. Smith noted that, next to the gentry, yeomen had ‘the greatest charge and doing in the commonwealth’ and conceded that in villages even ‘such low and base persons’ as ‘poore husbandmen’, ‘copiholders’ and ‘artificers’ (among others) ‘be commonly made Churchwardens, alecunners, and manie times Constables, which office touch more the commonwealth’.1 Smith’s list of the considerable public responsibilities exercised by the middling sort included ‘administration in judgements’, ‘correction of defaults’, ‘election of offices’, ‘appointing and collection of tributes and subsidies’ and ‘making lawes’. Thus even in the formal tradition of political thought, the widespread participation of men of middling status was recognized as a significant structural characteristic of the English state.
Steve Hindle

6. The Unacknowledged Republic: Officeholding in Early Modern England

We live in regimes which are, or claim to be, democracies. The defining features of democracy are the universal franchise and the practice of voting. Those who are sceptical of democratic politics as presently conceived have noticed that this tends to reduce political life to the strikingly minimal act of periodically writing ‘X’ on a ballot paper. Critics argue that citizenship is thereby emptied of content, and citizens made to feel alienated from governance. We occasionally vote, but we do not rule. As John Dunn has remarked, ‘One day’s rule in four years has very much the air of a placebo — or at least an irregular modern Saturnalia’.1
Mark Goldie

7. ‘Venerating the Honesty of a Tinker’: The King’s Friends and the Battle for the Allegiance of the Common People in Restoration England

When the playwright and propagandist, Elkannah Settle, publicly recanted his Whiggery in 1683, he acknowledged that the Whigs had deliberately sought to stir up the masses against their king, insinuating ‘into the Brainless heads of the People’ (as he chose to put it) the ridiculous notion that Charles II was ‘leaguing with France to bring in the Pope’. The ‘multitude’ were ‘unreasoning’, and that explained why they could be persuaded to believe such ‘rank Forgery’; the Whigs knew with whom they were dealing, namely ‘the Headlong Mobile of England’.1 In making such remarks, settle was reiterating commonplaces of the age, in language anticipated to appeal to those who supported the court. During the Exclusion Crisis of 1679–81, the Tory press had repeatedly condemned the rabble-rousing tactics of the Whigs, who had sought to stir up the masses in order to put pressure on the king to agree to exclude the Catholic Duke of York from the succession. How could any appeal to opinion out-of-doors be justified when it was well known, as Roger L’Estrange put it in 1679, that the ‘multitude’ were ‘undiscerning’, ‘simple’ and ‘credulous’?2 Indeed Christopher Hill has argued that it was a widely held opinion amongst the propertied classes of Elizabethan and Stuart England that the masses were incapable of rational thought, and therefore that ‘the poorer and meaner people’ had ‘no interest in the commonweal but the use of breath’; ‘no account’ was to be ‘made of them, but only to be ruled’.3
Tim Harris

8. Crowds and Political Festival in Georgian England

One of the major problems confronting historians of eighteenth-century politics is how one might reduce the myriad popular interventions of the era to some intelligible order and offer some generalizations about the cumulative presence of the crowd and its relationship to the prevailing power structure. The problem has been compounded by the unwillingness of some historians to discuss popular politics prior to 1760, when it becomes possible to annex riot and protest to a more conventional historiography. But it has been also complicated by the pioneering strategies for recovering the crowd in history, which tended, at least in the English context, to focus principally upon the most dramatic riots of the period and to derive their meaning from an analysis of the most visible participants and their victims in the records of the courts and state papers. The result was an episodic history of disturbance, diachronically arranged, privileging successive political crises and the repressive activities of the authorities. Within this confrontational mode, less attention was paid to the underlying conventions within which popular politics was conducted and to what Sean Wilentz has called ‘those dramas of political expression — sometimes contrived, sometimes spontaneous — that reflect and help determine the boundaries of power’.1
Nicholas Rogers

9. Domesticity is in the Streets: Eliza Fenning, Public Opinion and the Politics of Private Life

Eliza Fenning was not the first servant in the annals of English legal history to be convicted of attempting to murder the family for which she worked. Nor was she the last. But certainly Eliza Fenning, who in consequence of her alleged crime merits her own entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, was among the most famous servants ever convicted of such an offence. Murdering or even attempting to murder one’s master or mistress was an act of ‘petty treason’, and although it was not an everyday occurrence, it was both common enough and important enough to warrant the state’s attention.1 And pay attention the state did. The government acted decisively in the Fenning case, rejecting all pleas for mercy and ignoring the apparent weakness of the circumstantial evidence brought against the accused. In July 1815, Eliza Fenning died on the gallows for the attempted poisoning of her master and mistress.
Patty Seleski
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