Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996) part 1

This is a brilliant literary biography, combining extraordinarily thorough research with discretion and sensitivity about Beckett’s private life, and a sure touch when it comes to analysing Beckett’s surprisingly numerous works. Everything a Beckett fan could ever want to know is covered, thoroughly and intelligently.

How James Knowlson came to write Samuel Beckett’s biography

James Knowlson (born in 1933) is Emeritus Professor of French and founder of the International Beckett Foundation at the University of Reading. He got to know Beckett after organising an academic conference to celebrate the fact that Beckett had won the Nobel Prize (1969) and founding the Beckett Archive at Reading, corresponding by letter and meeting him several times a year. As early as 1972 a publisher suggested he write a biography but when he broached the idea, Beckett said no.

But some 17 years later, the famous author changed his mind. He had realised that someone was going to write a biography come what may and that, on balance, he’d prefer it to be someone who knew and respected the actual works. He knew from their professional correspondence that Knowlson was very knowledgeable about his oeuvre and the result was that Beckett not only agreed to let Knowlson write the authorised biography, but agreed to give him a series of exclusive interviews and answer all the questions he posed.

Thus, over the last five months of his life, till Beckett’s death in December 1989, the two men had a series of long, in-depth interviews and Knowlson quotes from them liberally i.e. this book benefits hugely from Beckett’s own words and views about numerous aspects of his life and career. That is a masterstroke in the book’s favour.

But Knowlson went quite a lot further further and has spoken or corresponded with an extraordinary number of people, conducting over one hundred interviews with Beckett’s immediate family and close friends to a huge range of people he met in his professional life as a prose writer, playwright and director. The acknowledgements section lists them all and runs to six pages densely packed with names. The range is awesome and Kowlson’s stamina in meeting and corresponding with so many people, and then organising the resulting plethora of information into a coherent and fascinating narrative is awesome.

Samuel Beckett’s family and upbringing

Beckett’s family was comfortably upper-middle-class. His father, William, was a surveyor and made enough money to buy an acre of land in the rising suburb of Foxrock, south of Dublin, and build a big house on it which he named Cooldrinagh (after his wife’s family home), complete with servants’ quarters and tennis court.

The house was in sight of the Dublin hills which his father loved to go climbing and also of the sea, where the boy Beckett learned to swim and then dive into the locally famous pool named Forty-Foot at Sandycove. Not far away was the Leopardstown race track which features in various works, notably the radio play All That Fall.

Beckett’s parents were very different. His father, ‘Bill’ Beckett, was loud and sociable and not at all intellectual. He liked playing golf and going for long walks up into the Dublin hills. His mother, Amy, was tall and stern with a long face. Beckett inherited her looks and personality. The family was Protestant, the mother, in particular, being a devout church-goer.

Beckett had a brother, Frank, three years older, and a bevy of uncles and aunts who, with their own children, created a large, intelligent, well-off and cultured extended family. Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on 13 April 1906, in later life he enjoyed the symbolism of having been born on Good Friday.

As a boy Beckett was sent to a small, eccentric preparatory school, Earlsfort House then, from age 13, on to an established public school, Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (1919 to 1923) which, like most of its type, placed a big emphasis on sports and super-high standards of honesty, integrity and politeness. Everyone who ever met him later in life commented on Beckett’s immaculate manners and considerateness.

Beckett was very sporty

Beckett was a very sporty young man. At school he won medals for swimming and cross-country running, and was a very proficient boxer, becoming the school’s light heavyweight boxing champion. He was a keen golfer, joining his father’s club, Carrickmines Golf Club, playing for whole days at a stretch, and, when he went on to Trinity College, Dublin (TCD), representing the college at golf. He also played cricket for the college, and was included in the Dublin University team which went on a tour of English country clubs in 1926 and 1927. Hence the well-known fact that Beckett is the only Nobel Prize winner who is also in the cricketing ‘Bible’, Wisden.

Beckett’s extended family was very musical and Beckett played the piano very well, well enough to know piano renditions of most of Gilbert and Sullivan when a boy, and to be able to play Debussy at university. When he was down in the dumps as a young man a friend hired a piano for his rooms to cheer him up.

Beckett’s parents bought him a motorbike in his final year at school, and then a two-seater ‘Swift’ sports car at college. As a student he was affluent enough to be able to pick holiday destinations, so one year went on a tour of the Loire Valley visiting the birthplaces of notable French writers, and, in his final college vacation, went to visit Florence where he looked up the sister of his Italian tutor at TCD.

Private school, piano lessons in a music-loving family, membership of sports clubs, top university in Ireland, motorbike, sports car, cultural trips abroad. Beckett had what we would nowadays think of as a very privileged upbringing.

Influences at Trinity College, Dublin

Beckett attended Trinity College Dublin from 1923 to 1927 where he studied Modern Literature. Here he came under the wing of the Professor of Romance Languages, Thomas Browne Rudmore-Browne, a brash, aggressively freethinking, womanising intellectual who taught him the English classics and introduced Beckett to a wide range of French poets, classic and contemporary. ‘Ruddy’ as he was nicknamed, is caricatured as ‘the Polar Bear’ in Beckett’s early short story collection, More Pricks Than Kicks.

Beckett’s second formative influence was:

small, plump, middle-aged, Italian tutor named Bianca Esposito, who gave him detailed private lessons in Italian language and literature, who ignited his lifelong love for Dante and features in Pricks’ opening story, Dante and the Lobster.

Nearly 50 years later, Beckett still carried round the student copy of Dante Bianca gave him, packed with his notes and annotations.

Beckett was solitary and aloof

Despite all this physical prowess, and his height and his piercing blue eyes, Beckett was a shy boy, at prep and boarding school and at college. He often withdrew right into himself and, when forced to attend social occasions, did so without saying a word. Tall, clever and charismatic, young Beckett sometimes felt contempt for those less able than him, which he then felt guilty about, redirecting the loathing inwards at himself, creating a downward spiral of negative emotions.

In other words, despite all the privileges of his upbringing, his loving extended family, loads of material advantages, encouragement in sports and the best education money could buy, Beckett developed into a hyper-shy, extremely self-conscious young man, plagued by narcissism, solipsism and self-obsession. Here are just some of the phrases Knowlson uses about him at this period:

  • Beckett, the least gregarious of people (88)
  • Beckett was diffident and solitary (90)
  • Beckett’s cocoon of shyness and silence (90)
  • retiring and inhibited (92)
  • shy, retiring nature (95)
  • he would lapse into deep, uncomfortable silences (95)

The problem of pain

Like many a privileged young man, the discovery of the misery of the poor in his student years had a devastating effect on Beckett, and combined with intellectual doubts to undermine his Christian faith – something which went on to become a bone of contention with his pious mother.

A long time ago I was paid to do the research for a documentary series about the conflict between faith and atheism, a series which set out to define the arguments and counter-arguments across the full range of human history, culture, philosophy, psychology and so on. What emerged, at least in my opinion, was that beneath the thousand and one arguments of believers and atheists, both intellectual positions have One Big Fundamental Weak Spot:

The chief intellectual difficulty for thinking Christians is The Problem of Pain i.e. the very old conundrum that if God is all-powerful and all-loving why does he allow children to die in screaming agony? There is no answer to this, though thousands of theologians have come up with clever workarounds e.g. he is all-loving but is, for some reason, not quite all-powerful; or he is all-powerful but is not what we think of as all-loving because he is working to a plan which is beyond our understanding and presumptuous to try.

Thus Beckett was being very traditional, almost trite, in losing his faith once he came to appreciate the pain and misery in the world around him which his privileged upbringing had hitherto sheltered him from. In a way, most of his writing career went on to focus on this theologically-flavoured issue. (Actually, it might be more accurate to say that Beckett’s central subject is not the Problem of Pain so much as the Problem of Physical and Mental Decay).

The biggest weak point in the Atheist position – the mirror image of what the Problem of Pain is for Christians – is The Problem of Consciousness: If we humans are the result of millions of generations of evolution by natural selection, descended from the first amoeba, and if we are the result of the purely mechanistic and amoral struggle for survival, how come we have such complex and delightful feelings and sense impressions, can be transported by the sight of a sunset or the fragrance of a flower? How come we have such a highly developed moral sense that can lead us to spend days debating the rights and wrongs of various actions, feeling such an acute sense of guilt, wasting so much time in complicated rumination? Surely we should just do whatever benefits us or the tribe without a moment’s thought. None of those attributes seem particularly useful for a creature which has come about via the blunt and violent process of evolution.

Maybe we can see this as another of Beckett’s central themes, or the other wing of his interests: the problem of consciousness, which in his prose works in particular, but also in most of the plays, is deeply compromised, broken, fragmented, in some cases, apparently, posthumous (in Play, for example).

Paris

(pp.107+). Beckett graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1927 with a BA degree. Patrons and supporters at the college wangled him the position of lecteur d’anglais at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris from November 1928 to 1930.

Paris came as a massive cultural and personal liberation. Throughout school and university Beckett had been strictly teetotal and sexually puritanical but in Paris he learned to drink, both beer and wine, becoming particularly partial to white wine. From now on there are numerous stories of Beckett getting completely trashed, passing out, being found under the table or passed out in alleyways, and so on.

Regarding sex, Knowlson gives detailed accounts of Beckett’s love affairs as a teenager and young man which were strongly shaped by his strict Protestant upbringing and the ferocious emphasis on ‘purity’ at his public school. As a result he was screwed up about sex in a predictably traditional way and Knowlson quotes from diaries, journals and early stories to show how he had the classic difficulty of reconciling the women he respected and placed on a pedestal with the ‘dirty’ shenanigans he got up to with hookers in Paris brothels, sex and love. (pp. 108, 139).

(Later, in the mid-1930s, when he was living a solitary existence in London during his two years of intensive psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic, Knowlson claims Beckett availed himself of London prostitutes on a regular basis.)

James Joyce

The post Beckett took up at the Ecole Normale Superieure had been occupied by another Irishman, Tom MacGreevey, who stayed on in the city he loved, and acted as guide and mentor to young Sam. MacGreevey had developed high-powered literary contacts and, among others, introduced him to James Joyce and his circle, his wife and grown-up son and daughter, his publishers and magazine editors and so on. It was a golden opportunity, an entrée into a whole new world.

Joyce was widely acknowledged to be the most important avant-garde writer in Europe. Beckett was a star-struck 23-year-old graduate. Sam quickly became one of the great man’s secretaries, tasked with finding Joyce books, reading them out loud or providing written summaries, as well as taking dictation and other chores. The master and the ephebe went for long walks along the Seine (Joyce’s flat was only 100 yards from the river).

Beckett was still so utterly shy that he hadn’t the small-talk to spend with Joyce’s wife, Nora, who, partly as a result, took against him. Whereas Joyce’s nubile and impulsive daughter Lucia, just a year younger than Beckett, became infatuated with the tall, aloof, blue-eyed sportsman, sitting near him at dinner, making eyes at him, inveigling him to take her for walks.

Countless articles have been written about the impact of Joyce on Beckett but the central, much-repeated point is that in the end, Joyce’s example helped set Beckett on a track diametrically opposite to the great man’s. Both men not only spoke the major European languages (English, French, Italian, German) and were deeply familiar with the respective canons of literature of each of these countries, but were impatient with the realist or Naturalist worldview they’d inherited from turn of the century literature – were committed to going beyond the realist worldview.

But whereas Joyce’s technique was accumulative, each sentence attracting to it multiple references and variations in other languages, breaking down English words and (by the 1930s) creating in their stead the entirely new polyglot language in which he wrote Finnegans Wake – Beckett found he could follow Joyce only so far. Indeed he did so in the short stories and novels of the 1930s, which are characterised by deliberately arcane syntax, literary references, the liberal sprinkling of obscure or foreign words, and an attitude which is deliberately contrived and non-naturalistic.

But Beckett lacked the musicality, the sensual feel for language, the world-embracing sympathy and the sheer joy of life which pours from Joyce’s pages. Beckett was by his nature much more tightly wrapped, intellectually costive, temperamentally depressive, repressed by his stern Protestant upbringing.

Compare and contrast the lovely swimming sensuality of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy which ends Ulysses with any description Beckett ever wrote anywhere of sensuality and sex. Molly is sweet and sensual and world-accepting; Beckett writes about sex a lot, but it is nearly always shameful masturbating (Malone Dies), callous sucking-off (Mercier and Camier), the disgusting rutting described in the four post-war short stories, the horrible homosexual abuse in How it is and so on. Sex in Beckett is never any fun at all.

Joyce is open to all the world, his books are overflowing with characters, incidents and brimming over with the joy of language. Beckett is locked away in one small, grey room, lying in the darkness, listening to the voices in his head punishing him with guilt and remorse, obsessively paring away language till it is reduced to blunt telegraphese, laced with one or two obsessively repeated key phrases.

Beckett’s women

One of the most boring things about biographies is the attention they are forced to pay to their subjects’ love lives. Here, as everywhere else, Knowlson does a very good, thorough job, providing all the facts without judgement or salacity.

Peggy Sinclair (1911 to 1933)

Beckett fell madly in love with his cousin, Ruth Margaret Sinclair, known as ‘Peggy’, daughter of William ‘Boss’ Sinclair who had married Sam’s aunt, Frances Beckett, generally known as ‘Cissie’. I’m not much interested in classic ups and downs of the actual ‘love affair’, the interesting thing was the way her parents moved from Dublin to Kassel in north Germany, and sent Peggy to school in Austria, so that his visits to see her accustomed Beckett to travelling all over the continent and speaking the local languages. He visited the Sinclair household in Kassel a number of times between 1928 and 1932.

Peggy was the inspiration behind the character of Smeraldina in Beckett’s first, unpublished novel, A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. Eventually the love affair burnt out, and when he visited the Sinclairs in the early 1930s, it was to be distressed by their mounting business problems and by Peggy’s deteriorating health. He was devastated when Peggy, by that stage engaged to another man, died of tuberculosis in May 1933 (page 168).

Lucia Joyce (1907 to 1982)

James Joyce’s daughter, unsmiling, squint-eyed Lucia Joyce, became infatuated with the tall, handsome Samuel and, to please his father, Sam obligingly took her for walks or out to dinner, but he was still in love with Peggy Sinclair and not in the market for affairs. Things came to a head when Lucia threw a fit, denouncing Beckett to her parents and claiming he had cruelly led her on. Egged on by Nora, Joyce cut his links with Beckett, refusing to see him again. Sam was distraught. It was only as the 1930s progress that it became increasingly obvious that Lucia was suffering from severe mental illness, and ended up being placed in a series of sanatoria. A couple of years later, the pair were quietly reconciled and when Beckett moved to Paris permanently in 1935, started to see a lot of each other again.

Ethna MacCarthy (1903 to 1954)

MacCarthy was arguably Beckett’s first mature love. She was a poet, short story writer and playwright who went on to carve a career as a paediatrician. Their love is very tenderly and respectfully traced.

These three women are singled out not least because Beckett’s first attempt at a full-length fiction was a novel about a young Irishman whose life is dominated by… three women! The novel eventually became titled A Dream of Fair To Middling Women (a typically learnèd reference to both Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, The Legend of Good Women and Alfred Tennyson’s long poem A Dream of Fair Women).

The Dream which is structured around a central protagonist (named, with characteristic over-learnedness, Belacqua Shuah, Belacqua being the name of a minor character noted for his lazy self-absorption in Dante’s Divine Comedy) and his relations with the three women, being Smeraldina, Syra-Cusa and the Alba. Much scholarly ink has been spilt arguing about which ‘real life’ women ‘inspired’ each character. Knowlson takes them to be based on Peggy, Lucia and Ethna, respectively.

After a year or so of trying to get the Dream published in the mid-1930s, and having it continually rejected, Beckett gave up and slowly came to regret having satirised his close friends and family so closely. In the end he actively suppressed the novel and it wasn’t published until 1992, three years after his death.

Writing

When he was introduced to Joyce, he not only met his family, but the network of book publishers and magazine editors connected with him. As an obviously highly intelligent, highly literate young man, Beckett found himself presented with opportunities to publish books, stories and articles which most aspiring authors can only dream of.

In 1929 he wrote his first short story, the 3-and-a-half-page Assumption which was immediately published in the leading avant-garde magazine, transition. Then a 100-line poem, Whoroscope, knocked off in a few hours in order to win the £10 prize for a poetry competition sponsored by literary entrepreneur and anthologist Nancy Cunard and published in July 1930.

A senior editor at Chatto and Windus suggested to Beckett that he write a detailed study of Proust for a series of literary introductions they were publishing. This Beckett did, extensively researching by rereading Proust, and the study was published in March 1931. Once he had bedded in with the Joyce circle he was commissioned to write a translation of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake into French. In other words Beckett was, by 1930, very well-connected with the leading avant-garde writer in Europe, his circle and supporters and publishers.

But, despite all these advantages, Beckett failed to find a published for A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. It went the rounds of numerous publishers, both mainstream and avant-garde for two years before Beckett gave up trying, and the trickle of odd, eccentric short stories he was writing fared no better.

In 1932 the teaching post at Ecole Normale Superieure terminated, and Beckett was forced to pack his bags and return to Ireland where he was extremely lucky to be offered a prestigious teaching post at Trinity Dublin, a very sought-after position, supported by Ruddy and other patrons and supporters.

Unfortunately, Beckett hated it and discovered he was awful at teaching. Miserable, that winter he fled to ‘Boss’ and Cissie Sinclair in Kassel in northern Germany, from where he wrote a letter of resignation which dismayed his sponsors and upset his parents.

Breakdown and psychotherapy

Having chucked in his prestigious job at Trinity, completely failed to get any of his writings published, and been forced to move back in with his parents in 1933, Beckett was deeply traumatised when his father, apparently still in the prime of life in his 60s, died of a massive heart attack, on 26 June 1933.

His father’s death exposed Beckett more than ever to the cloying, critical over-attention of his mother and Beckett suffered a series of increasingly serious physical symptoms, starting with a cyst on his neck, moving to heart palpitations, night sweats and panic attacks, which on several occasions brought him to a complete dead stop, in the street, paralysed with terror, and unable to move a muscle.

Beckett consulted a good friend of his from school, a nerve specialist, Geoffrey Thompson, who was planning to move to London and recommended Beckett to come with him and try psychotherapy at the relatively new Tavistock Clinic. So in January 1934 Beckett himself moved to digs in London and began his treatment with the pioneering psychotherapist Wilfred Bion. Bion was, Knowlson informs us, himself quite a strapping, hearty, sporty chap, while also being formidably well-educated at private school. So he and Beckett bonded on a social and personal level, quite apart from the treatment.

According to Knowlson, Beckett had psychotherapy with Bion for two years, at the rate of three times a week, which equals well over 2,000 sessions, during which Beckett explored his childhood, his formative influences, and came to realise the role his love-hate relationship with his mother played in cramping his life. He came to realise that, for his entire life to date, he had created an ivory tower founded on what he felt was his physical and intellectual superiority to all around him, becoming known for his aloofness and/or shyness, what Knowlson calls an:

attitude of superiority and an isolation from others that resulted from a morbid, obsessive immersion in self (page 180)

Beckett had to learn:

to counter his self-immersion by coming out of himself more in his daily life and taking a livelier interest in others (page 181)

But more than this, Knowlson claims that Bion showed him that he could mine many of these deeply personal compulsions and tendencies to create texts.

By externalising some of the impulses of the psyche in his work – the feelings of frustration and repressed violence for example – he would find it easier to counter the self-absorption that had seemed morbid and destructive in his private life. The writing thus became essential to his later mental and physical wellbeing.
(page 181)

Over 2,000 times Beckett lay on his back in a darkened room, closing his eyes, focusing on the moment, in order to let deeply buried memories bubble up from his unconscious, struggling to express them, struggling to understand their significance – while all the while another part of his mind observed the process with analytical detachment, critiquing the shape and pose of the figures in the memories, considering the words they spoke, assessing how the scene could be improved, the dialogue sharpened up, the dramatic core reached more quickly and effectively.

This is more or less the plot of Beckett’s late novella Company and clearly the basis of the so-called ‘closed room’ and skullscape’ fictions of the 1960s. You can also see how it forms the basis of the breakthrough novels Beckett wrote immediately after the war in French, Malone Dies and The Unnameable, texts of overweening, unprecedented self-absorption and self scrutiny. As late as his last published prose piece, Stirrings Still, Beckett is obsessed with a figure who regards himself as an ‘other’, sees himself rise and leave the room, although is other ‘self’ remains seated.

Reading Knowlson’s fascinating account of Beckett’s psychotherapy makes you realise the ‘essential’ Beckett was there all the time, lying dormant. First, though:

  1. he had to spend a decade, the 1930s, getting out of his system the immature wish to clutter his texts with smartarse quotes, foreign phrases, and mock-scholarly humour in the tradition of Rabelais and Sterne and Joyce, and then
  2. his experiences during the Second World War had to sear away any residues of Romantic optimism and even the last vestiges of late Victorian naturalism

for him to emerge in the immediate post-war period as the stripped-down, minimalist, and bleakly nihilistic writer who would go on to become one of the pillars of post-war literature.


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Company by Samuel Beckett (1980)

To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past.

For someone whose life’s work is about loss, abandonment, futility, decay, entropy, collapse and failure, Beckett not only wrote a devil of a lot of works, but carried on writing them into deep old age. He was 74 when he published Company, a short story (well, the critics call it a novella) of only 30 pages or so on the modern Faber paperback edition. You can read it online:

Someone is lying in the dark…

Although written in the late 1970s, Company feels like a direct extension of The Beckett Trilogy, in particular of Malone Dies, written thirty years earlier in 1948. In the early piece Malone lies in bed in either a hospital or asylum, dying and describing his immediate surroundings and the stream of inconsequential thoughts which flow through his head, to ‘the voice’ which tells him stories, in an effort to pass the time till he expires.

Well, the character in Company is also lying on his back in the dark, also apparently letting memories drift through his mind to pass the time, many memories deriving fairly transparently from Beckett’s own boyhood in semi-rural Ireland. But at least two things have changed:

1. The prose style seems much more rarefied. It is sparer, more colourless.

2. In this tauter or bleaker prose, the text seems to spend much more time exploring notions around exactly who is telling the stories, where they come from, who is ‘telling’ them and who is ‘listening’. There are certainly the memories I mentioned above, but they are like oases of colour in the otherwise colourless prose devoted to discussing truth and narrative, philosophical conjectures whether anything can be true or known.

Only a small part of what is said can be verified. As for example when he hears, You are on your back in the dark. Then he must acknowledge the truth of what is said. But by far the greater part of what is said cannot be verified

The word ‘verification’ recalls the Logical Positivists and their Verification Principle, namely: ‘a set of criteria that determined what constitutes meaningful language’. But this is literature not philosophy. If it includes references to philosophy it is only to play with it or arrange it for literary ends. Although it is written in a deliberately clinical style, as of a philosophy textbook.

That then is the proposition. To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional
allusion to a present and more rarely to a future as for example, You will end as you now are. And in another dark or in the same another devising it all for company.

Is the ‘another’ in the dark a reference to the author, to the writer who ‘devises it all’ ‘for company‘? Well, there’s the title of your piece and slowly, through repetition, the idea emerges of this ‘another’, also in the dark, and of a ‘company’ of voices or memories, which the text creates as it proceeds.

And whose voice asking this? Who asks, Whose voice asking this? And answers, His soever who devises it all. In the same dark as his creature or in another. For company… Another devising it all for company. In the same dark as his creature or in another…

This may seem strikingly anti-literary – for the author or the narrator to open by discussing the status and verifiability of the text we’re reading, but it isn’t new. Malone and then The Unnamable, written back in the late 1940s, were both explicit about how the texts were telling themselves stories in order to pass the time, as this one is telling itself stories, for company.

And Company is much more aggressively theoretical throughout, playing with grammar, , shifting pronouns, messing with its categories:

Use of the second person marks the voice. That of the third that cankerous other. Could he speak to and of whom the voice speaks there would be a first. But he cannot. He shall not. You cannot. You shall not.

Who hears a voice…

The subject appears to be visited by a Voice. This visitation of a voice, so far from being new is a very well-established Beckett strategy. His prose pieces and some of the plays are infested with Voices (often named, simply, VOICE) whose precise source is mysterious but who dominate the entire proceedings – as, for example, the disembodied woman’s voice who haunts and accuses Joe in Eh Joe or the voice of the non-appearing mother in Footfalls.

The Voice comes in many forms:

The voice comes to him now from one quarter and now from another. Now faint from afar and now a murmur in his ear. In the course of a single sentence it may change place and tone. Thus for example clear from above his upturned face, You first saw the light at Easter and now. Then a murmur in his ear…

The categories Voice and Company are combined or weighed against each other. The Voice is a sort of company ‘but not enough’. Whose is the voice, where does it come from, what authority does it have, is it meant for him, the listener, the person lying on his back in the dark – or is he overhearing it by mistake? The text examines the voice, turning it over for our inspection.

Another trait its long silences when he dare almost hope it is at an end…

Exactly as Joe waits for the woman’s punishing vengeful voice to finally cease tormenting him.

Another trait its repetitiousness…

In Company as in all Beckett, repetition, repetition with slight variations, slightly varied repetitions, is one of the most fundamental of his prose strategies.

Some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more. To darkness visible to close the eyes and hear if only that. Some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more.

And the tone is flat, monotone, monochrome – exactly as Beckett told so many of his actors to recite his words, without any ‘acting’ or colour, drab and grey as the set in Ghost Trio.

Another trait the flat tone. No life. Same flat tone at all times. For its affirmations. For its negations. For its interrogations. For its exclamations. For its imperations. Same flat tone.

We learn that another rather magical, or eerie, quality of the Voice is that it lightens the darkness, makes the darkness less dark. This voice. Whose voice? Talking to someone lying in the dark. Who is lying in the dark? And is the voice made up by ‘another’, by ‘another’ lying in the dark. Making up voices. For ‘company’.

And experiences boyhood memories…

Just when I thought the entire text was going to be an extended and repetitive incantation on this theme of Voice, it is suddenly punctuated by a memory, a vignette. From now on the abstract and abstruse reflections made by the text about its own provisionality and contingency are punctuated by vivid and sharp and above all entirely naturalistic memories of boyhood. These memories include:

  • walking with his mother out of a shop, Connolly’s Stores, and asking why the sky is so far away
  • the day of his own birth, at home in the room with the big bay window, and the story that his father went for a long walk in the mountains only to be told when he returned, ten hours later, that the labour was still continuing, so he went to sit in his De Dion Bouton motor car in the coachhouse to sit it out
  • he imagines himself an old man out trudging the country roads, and computes how many yards, how many miles he was walked since in all his life, walking the back roads like the protagonist of …but the clouds…
  • memory of being very small and helping an old mad beggarwoman scrabbling to open a gate
  • standing on the top diving board at a swimming pool looking down on his father encouraging him to jump
  • watching as a boy from the garden as thin sour old Mrs Coote arrives on a visit to his mother and playing his favourite game of jumping off the top of the tall fir trees and letting the branches beneath cushion his fall
  • walking the Ballyogan road, one time out of thousands, the long backroads, before dodging between a hedge and away across the fields
  • as a boy heading off for his favourite hiding place in the gorse and staring east out over the Irish Sea, convinced he can see mountains in England
  • as a boy he finds a hedgehog, carries it home, puts it in a cardboard box with worms for food, then returning weeks later to find the poor thing dead and rotting

Is maybe in a cramped physical posture…

Beckett’s texts are obsessed with the physical positioning of the human protagonists, with imagining them in all manner of uncomfortable bent and contorted postures. Company is no exception:

Whether standing or sitting or lying or in some other position in the dark…Which of all imaginable positions has the most to offer in the way of company…Let him for example after due imagination decide in favour of the supine position or prone and this in practice prove less companionable than anticipated. May he then or may he not replace it by another? Such as huddled with his legs drawn up within the semicircle of his arms and his head on his knees. Or in motion. Crawling on all fours. Another in another dark or in the same crawling on all fours devising it all for company. Or some other form of motion…

Much as he imagined the cramped contorted figure in All Strange Away, the bent double figure in Enough. So many Beckett characters, cramped and contorted, bent and folded.

Head resting mainly on occipital bump aforesaid. Legs joined at attention. Feet splayed ninety degrees. Hands invisibly manacled crossed on pubis. Other details as need felt. Leave him at that for the moment.

Expressed in paragraph blocks…

It was obvious from first turning to the text, that its paragraphs are not printed close together in the manner of a consecutive story, but are spaced out, as if each one is conveying a distinct message – approaching the problem of narrative, of the voice, of the many voices and the many memories and the way they create a host, a throng, a company via a series of what are so separated and distinct as almost to be prose poems. Poem paragraphs.

Half-way through the text considers giving ‘him’, the person lying in the dark, a name. Call him H. This initially seems like a good idea, but then the text, the narrative,m has second thoughts. Changes its mind. Rows back. Rejects.

Is it desirable? No. Would he gain thereby in companionability? No. Then let him not be named H. Let him be again as he was. The hearer. Unnamable. You.

You doesn’t refer to the reader, but to the floating pronoun of the subject of the text, sometimes referred to as ‘he’, in the third person, sometimes as ‘you’

The voice maybe comes from a hemispherical chamber…

Remember the tremendous detail Beckett went into in describing the interior of the cell in All Strange Away and the rotunda in Imagination Dead Imagine and the cylinder of the dead in The Lost Ones? Same here. One odd paragraph abruptly imagines these events, this lying in the dark, is taking place in a kind of science fiction interior. The tone of the Voice has a certain quality,

Suggesting one lying on the floor of a hemispherical chamber of generous diameter with ear dead centre. How generous? Given faintness of voice at its least faint some sixty feet should suffice or thirty from ear to any given point of encompassing surface. So much for form and dimensions. And composition? What and where clue to that if any anywhere. Reserve for the moment. Basalt is tempting. Black basalt. But reserve for the moment…

It’s a detailed diagram, for sure, but provisional. Invented, as it is all invented, as it is all made up, to suit, to fit, to match, to provide more company.

  • he has an extended memory of one day setting off for a walk across the snowy fields near his home, the point of the story being he knows the route by heart but on this one occasion, expecting to see the usual straight line in the snow, looking back he is surprised that his footprints describe a great arc, ‘as if all at once the heart too heavy. In
    the end too heavy.’ (This short passage was excerpted and published separately as Heard In The Dark 1)
  • he remembers being a boy in the family summerhouse one summer and being visited by a girl his age, a scene Beckett characteristically drains of all emotional or psychological significance and reduces to a set of queries about the dimensions of the summerhouse and envisioning her body as a set of parts or components. (This short passage was excerpted and published separately as Heard In The Dark 2)

Shall we name these ‘people’?

The memories exhaust him. He will give them new names. Name the hearer M and himself (the deviser, the writer) W. Yes, he names them, out of the need for company.

Devised deviser devising it all for company…

But these, too, are figments. The man, M, obviously so. But so also I, W, who writes the text. there is no way to escape the endless self-reflexiveness of consciousness, always able to watch itself watching itself watching itself write something.

What visions in the dark of light! Who exclaims thus? Who asks who exclaims, What visions in the shadeless dark of light and shade! Yet another still? Devising it all for company. What a further addition to company that would be! Yet another still devising it all for company…

Or make them crawl…

It is characteristic – you might almost say it is THE Beckett prose manoeuvre – that these passages about narrative are barely expressed before Beckett reconceives them in terms of physical postures. Beckett invokes plenty of philosophers and philosophical ideas about consciousness, for example the Verification Principle which is alluded to on the first page, but he rarely if ever follows them up, explains or explores them.

His habit is to invoke this or that grand philosophical notion but, barely has he done so before he throws himself into conceiving a physical posture for the product of the thinking subject. And that that posture is invariably one of humiliation and abasement. Abstract discourse > cultural reference > bent and contorted body.

Thus, within seconds of a teasing passage about consciousness, Beckett switches to imagining what it would be like if he let his creature, the personage lying in the dark, actually move.

Then let him move. Within reason. On all fours. A moderate crawl torso well clear of the ground eyes front alert. If this no better than nothing cancel. If possible. And in the void regained another motion. Or none. Leaving only the most helpful posture to be devised. But to be going on with let him crawl. Crawl and fall. Crawl again and fall again. In the same figment dark as his other figments.

So many Beckett texts hint at philosophical ideas about perception, consciousness and the mind but, in the place where some actual statement about them, some actual thinking ought to then take place… there are only immiserated creatures crawling through the mud, as in the unforgettable vision of How It Is.

That said, the text now digresses off to more memories, which prompt the thought that these later texts, as Beckett got well into his 70s, are full of an old man’s memories, many unavoidably poignant, no matter how hard he tries to transmute them via his strange post-modernist apparatus into mechanised and drained snapshots.

  • he has a memory of father stooping over his cradle
  • he remember in his young manhood, leaning back against an aspen tree with his true love who tells him to listen to the leaves

Or cramp them into postures and measure and count…

The text cuts back suddenly from the rather halcyon memories to this image he has just conjured from nothing of a man crawling and falling. With super-predictable Beckettness, it’s not the oddity or incongruity or horror of the imagined crawling man which strikes him; what strikes Beckett is calculating the exact dimensions of his crawl.

First what is the unit of crawl? Corresponding to the footstep of erect locomotion. He rises to all fours and makes ready to set out. Hands and knees angles of an oblong two foot long width irrelevant. Finally say left knee moves forward six inches thus half halving distance between it and homologous hand. Which then in due course in its turn moves forward by as much. Oblong now rhomboid. But for no longer than it takes right knee and hand to follow suit. Oblong restored. So on till he drops.

Very similar to the large amount of text devoted to describing exactly the length and dimension and regularity of movement of arms and legs of the protagonist of How It Is crawling endlessly through the mud. And the obsession with arranging body parts in geometric shapes is matched by the large amount of text devoted to counting and measuring. The world changes but Beckett’s obsession with the precise measurement of the misery he puts his invented figures through never changes.

So as he crawls the mute count. Grain by grain in the mind. One two three four one. Knee hand knee hand two. One foot. Till say after five he falls. Then sooner or later on from nought anew. One two three four one. Knee hand knee hand two. Six. So on. In what he wills a beeline. Till having encountered no obstacle discouraged he heads back the way he came. From nought anew. Or in some quite different direction. In what he hopes a beeline. Till again with no dead end for his pains he renounces and embarks on yet another course.

The changing meaning of the word ‘company’

All this and other macabre imaginings have been done in the name of creating ‘company’. By this stage the common English word ‘company’ has lost a lot of its everyday meaning and come to mean something more like motivation, the creator’s motivation not just to create for company, but for a kind of higher purpose named Company, the bizarre motivation for this twisted flight – or crawl – of fantasy.

One phrase is repeated over and over, in that compulsive way of Beckett’s, till it becomes a talisman:

What an addition to company that would be!

Not ‘to the‘ company; just ‘to company’, as if ‘company’ isn’t a number of human beings but more an abstract quality. Confirmed when the narrator ponders the different ways M could crawl and fall, wondering aloud which one would provide better ‘company’, where company has ceased to mean other human beings but become an abstract quality like karma or virtù.

But at other moments ‘company’ can be reduced to mean just the voice. It is better to suffer the voice than have nothing, to be a nothingness lying in the darkness. The voice adds… something. Light, of a sort, tone, albeit flat, images, albe they drained and mechanical. The voice is some kind of company. Better than none. Hence the need to hear the voice again. The creator, or his creature, or both, are voice addicts.

  • he has a memory of standing on the beach wearing boots and greatcoat on a starless moonless night

The clock is always ticking

The text draws to a close with a spectacular example of Beckett’s Asperger’s Syndrome-like obsession with numbers and geometry, as he describes in mind-numbing detail the visual aspect of watching the second hand tick round on his pocket watch, something a million authors must have looked at before but none had ever considered describing, in detail, as a subject in itself.

At 60 seconds and 30 seconds shadow hidden by hand. From 60 to 30 shadow precedes hand at a distance increasing from zero at 60 to maximum at 15 and thence decreasing to new zero at 30. From 30 to 60 shadow follows hand at a distance increasing from zero at 30 to maximum at 45 and thence decreasing to new zero at 60. Slant light now to dial by moving either to either side and hand hides shadow at two quite different points as for example 50 and 20. Indeed at any two quite different points whatever depending on degree of slant. But however great or small the slant and more or less remote from initial 60 and 30 the new points of zero shadow the space between the two remains one of 30 seconds. The shadow emerges from under hand at any point whatever of its
circuit to follow or precede it for the space of 30 seconds. Then disappears infinitely briefly before emerging again to precede or follow it for the space of 30 seconds again. And so on and on…

The end

And then a long and winding paragraph which sort of summarises much of what has gone before, which manages to mention his father, Dante, give a great deal more description of the precise angle and posture of the body when placed in two different positions, one ‘supine’, how it shifts from one to the other, how it gets used tom shifting from one to the other, and:

So in the dark now huddled and now supine you toil in vain. And just as from the former position to the latter the shift grows easier in time and more alacrious so from the latter to the former the reverse is true. Till from the occasional relief it was supineness becomes habitual and finally the rule. You now on your back in the dark shall not rise to your arse again to clasp your legs in your arms and bow down your head till it can bow down no further. But with face upturned for good labour in vain at your fable.

(Note the characteristic Beckett achievement of smuggling at least one potty-mouthed swearword into this text). Sometimes just imagining your body into the postures Beckett describes gets quite exhausting. I find myself half adopting these impossible postures, in my mind at any rate, and feeling slightly hysterical.

And then the piece ends with a kind of flourish of the great man’s trademark nihilism, in its final bleak, one-word sentence.

Till finally you hear how words are coming to an end. With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one with you in the dark. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you always were.

Alone.

Thoughts

A climax of heart-breaking bleakness – if you are an alienated teenager. It you take a rather more detached view, Company is clearly a late exercise in a number of familiar Beckett themes, but with the distinction that the two main strands – the mulling over the nature of writing and narration, and the rather sentimental boyhood memories – oddly fail to gel. And you can possibly define a third category, the familiar obsessions with bent and contorted bodies and the obsessive enumeration of simple iterative processes. For me, these elements don’t meld together but sit obstinately separate.

Something else, the boyhood memories are told in a disconcertingly straightforward, easy accessible way, and I found that this profoundly undermined the narrative analytical parts. What I mean is, the passages where he mulls over who is saying what to whom and why are often written in sentences which themselves become rarefied and barely graspable and reading them takes you to a delicate, otherworldly place in your mind which feels genuinely strange and new.

Unfortunately, if the next passage is about old Mrs Coote and his mother yacking on while young Sam hides up a tree, the banality brings your mind right back down to earth with a thump. So, in my opinion, the weakness of Company is not only that the different types of discourse, of subject matter and register, don’t hang together – it’s that the sentimental memories, in their great big obviousness, severely undermine the experimental narrative sections, which require a kind of delicacy of mind to entertain, to follow into their strange ghostly mindscape.

I much preferred a work like How It Is which is completely homogenous, tonally consistent, and transports you to a weird and eerie otherplace.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Not I by Samuel Beckett (1972)

…. grabbing at the straw… straining to hear… the odd word… make some sense of it… whole body like gone… just the mouth… like maddened… and can’t stop… no stopping it… something she – … something she had to –
… what?… who?… no!… she!…

Remember how episodes of the American sitcom Friends were named ‘The one where….’, well, this Beckett play is ‘the one where’ almost the entire stage is in darkness except for the face of a woman, in fact just her mouth, a woman’s mouth illuminated by one tight spotlight while she declaims a fragmented panic-stricken monologue at breathless speed.

Mise-en-scène

As with all Beckett’s ‘plays’ from 1960 or so onwards, the stage directions are extremely precise, because Not I is, arguably, less a play than a piece of performance art which happens to be taking place in a theatre:

Stage in darkness but for MOUTH, upstage audience right, about 8 feet above stage level, faintly lit from close-up and below, rest of face in shadow. Invisible microphone. AUDITOR, downstage audience left, tall standing figure, sex undeterminable, enveloped from head to foot in loose black djellaba, with hood, fully faintly lit, standing on invisible podium about 4 feet high shown by attitude alone to be facing diagonally across stage intent on MOUTH, dead still throughout but for four brief movements where indicated. See Note. As house lights down MOUTH ‘s voice unintelligible behind curtain. House lights out. Voice continues unintelligible behind curtain, 10 seconds: With rise of curtain ad-libbing from text as required leading when curtain fully up and attention sufficient
into:

Into the ceaseless flow of verbiage coming out of MOUTH’s mouth. As to ‘See Note’, the Note says:

Movement: this consists in simple sideways raising of arms from sides and their falling back, in a gesture of helpless compassion. It lessens with each recurrence till scarcely perceptible at third. There is just enough pause to contain it as MOUTH recovers from vehement refusal to relinquish third person.

So two people are onstage, a woman about 8 feet above the stage to the right and a tall figure standing 4 feet above the stage on the left.

In my review of Breath I wrote about the importance of exact stage directions in Beckett’s plays and the sense you often have that the staging and the stage directions virtually overshadow the actual content of the plays. Not I is a classic example of this, in that there is content, the mouth does say thing of consequence and import – but it is all dwarfed by the intensity of the conception and of the extremely precise and very vivid stage directions.

Content

So what is this voice ceasely reciting at such high speed? Well, like so many other Beckett texts it is built out of the repetition of key phrases, pretty banal in themselves, which quickly accumulate a freight of meaning, ominous overtones, and which are told in a high voltage, jerky panic. The opening few lines give a complete flavour:

out… into this world… this world… tiny little thing… before its time… in a god for- … what?… girl?… yes… tiny little girl… into this… out into this… before her time… godforsaken hole called… called… no matter… parents unknown… unheard of…

It sounds like yet another deranged Beckett consciousness, an Alzheimer’s victim, feverishly piecing together fragments of memory, torn by incessant questions she addresses to herself, who? why? what? and moments of panic:

… what?… who?… no !.. she !..

There is a passage about punishment and sin, and the fact she’d been brought up to believe in ‘a merciful God’.

… thing she understood perfectly … that notion of punishment … which had first occurred to her … brought up as she had been to believe .. . with the other waifs … in a merciful . . . [Brief laugh. ] .. . God … [Good laugh. ]

She sounds like one of the old ladies from Beckett’s childhood in rural Ireland, except with a thoroughly modern hysteria, complaining about the sounds in her skull, the relentless buzzing, and then… a passage about how she couldn’t scream, some problem with screaming, screaming, which leads up to her harrowing actual screams:

… never got the message… or powerless to respond… like numbed… couldn’t make the sound… not any sound… no sound of any kind… no screaming for help for example… should she feel so inclined… scream… [Screams. ]… then listen… [Silence. ]… scream again… [Screams again.]

The frenzy of the ceaseless wording leading up to the four movements from the AUDITOR, which occur during the silences after the woman works herself up to a frenzy or short, staccato, terrified words, almost as if she’s having a seizure, a fit:

.. the buzzing?.. yes… all dead still but for the buzzing… when suddenly she realized… words were – … what ?.. who?.. no !.. she!..

She appears to be sent shopping as a girl but stands dumb and terrified giving her bag to a man who does it all for her, it takes a while to realise that this is one of about four scenarios which the flood of fragmented memories seem to be reconstructing.

But specific memories tend to be eclipsed by descriptions of the voice itself, of the experience of being hag-ridden and driven by the voice by the mouth, no  idea what she’s saying but can’t stop:

just the mouth… lips… cheeks… jaws… never-… what?.. tongue?.. yes… lips… cheeks… jaws… tongue… never still a second… mouth on fire… stream of words… in her ear… practically in her ear… not catching the half… not the quarter… no idea what she’s saying… imagine!.. no idea what she ‘s saying!.. and can’t stop… no stopping it… she who but a moment before… but a moment!.. could not make a sound… no sound of any kind… now can’t stop… imagine!.. can’t stop the stream… and the whole brain begging… something begging in the brain… begging the mouth to stop… pause a moment… if only for a moment… and no response… as if it hadn’t heard… or couldn’t… couldn’t pause a second… like maddened… all that together… straining to hear… piece it together… and the brain… raving away on its own… trying to make sense of it… or make it stop…

God, it’s a vision of intense horror, despair, astonishing intensity, a soul driven, endlessly driven on, by what she keeps describing as a buzzing inside her skull, very much the motive of Beckett’s many monologuists since The Unnameable who hear a voice compelling them to speak, think, make sense of the endless voice compelling words within their skulls, the motive force behind so many of Beckett’s skullscapes. One critic, Vivian Mercier, suggests that Not I is, in effect, a placing on stage of the prose experience of The Unnameable a dramatisation of the same terrible compulsion.

… something she had to -… what?… the buzzing?… yes… all the time the buzzing… dull roar… in the skull…

Another important element is the way MOUTH appears, in these fragmentary memories or anecdotes, to be talking about herself and describing herself in the third person, a common symptom of mental illness, observing memories of their own lives with detachment as if they happened to someone else.

In this mood she seems to be referring to herself when she talks about the tiny little thing, the wee bairn, the tiny mite, born into a world of woe, illegitimate and rejected… and then jumps to herself as an old lady, surprised at her own age:

coming up to sixty when – … what?.. seventy?.. good God !.. coming up to seventy…

An old lady, her mind completely gone, fragments of memories, trying to make sense, driven on by the incessant buzzing in her skull.

This alienation from herself rises to a terrifying climax at each of the punctuation points when she pauses a moment and the other figure on the stage makes its strange hieratic gesture. Each time the crisis is signalled by a formula of the same four words, the last of which is ‘she’, as if MOUTH is seized with panic-horror by it, the Other, herself as other, her maenad voice.

… what?.. who ?.. no!.. she !..

The final section gives a bit more biography, how she was always a silent child, almost a mute, but just occasionally experienced the sudden urge to speak and had to rush outside, rushed into the outdoors lavatory, spewed it all up. That was the root, the precursor of the plight she is in now:

… now this… this… quicker and quicker… the words… the brain… flickering away like mad… quick grab and on… nothing there… on somewhere else… try somewhere else… all the time something begging… something in her begging… begging it all to stop…

God, the horror. Beckett told the American actress Jessica Tandy he hoped that the piece would ‘work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect’ and it certainly sets my nerves jangling.

Not I

… what?.. who ?.. no!.. she !..

This is the rationale for the title, Not I. On one level the piece is not exactly a systematic ‘investigation’ but a terrifying dramatisation of the way all of us are aware not only of our ‘selves’, but of other elements in our minds which we, on the whole, manage or reject, the host of alternative suggestions, the way we are inside ourselves and yet, at various moments, are also capable of seeing ourselves as if from the outside.

This is busy territory, and over the past two and a half thousand years a host of philosophers and, more recently, psychologists, have developed all manner of theories about how the mind develops and, in particular, manages the dichotomy of being an I which perceives but also developing the awareness that this I exists in a world which is mostly Not I. In its entry of Not I the Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett refers to the theories of:

  • Schopenhauer, for whom perception of the external world was always accompanied by a sense that it is not I
  • Nordau‘s theory of the development of the psyche which first defines itself but as it conceptualises and understands the external world, the I retreats behind the Not I
  • St Paul Corinthians 15:10: ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.’
  • Jakob Böhme, asked by what authority he wrote, replied: ‘Not I, the I that I am, knows these things, but God knows them in me’ (page 412)

Of these, I like the St Paul quote. If it bears any relation to this play it is the notion that I am that I am but I am not I, I am only I by virtue of another, of the Not I. Hence the shadowy Other sharing the stage.

But there’s no end to the concordances and echoes of these two words which can be found in the world’s literature and theology and philosophy – but most people are aware of there being levels of their selves, or of it being fragmented into peripheral, casual elements which we can easily dismiss, spectruming through to core elements of our selves which we cling on to and consider essential.

The Mouth’s monologue dramatises a set of four big moments which come back to her in fragments after some kind of epiphany or trigger moment in a field full of cowslips to the sound of larks. They are:

  1. being born a little thing
  2. crying on her hands one summer day in Croker’s acre
  3. being sent to do the shopping in some shopping centre
  4. in court

But really these moments serve to bring out the troubled relationship between the core being, whatever you want to call it, and those other moments, those other aspects of our personalities, everything which is ‘Not I’.

Of course in the play as conceived there is a physical embodiment of Not I onstage, namely the other figure. The way it raises its arms ‘in a gesture of helpless compassion’ at the four moments when Mouth stutters to a horrified silence, suggests they are linked. Is the figure Death, a Guardian Angel, the speaker’s Id or Superego? You pays your money and you takes your choice, but there’s no doubting the importance of the dynamic relationship between the two figures, an I and a Not I. Or maybe two Is which both possess Not Is. Or maybe they are two parts of the same I…

The Billie Whitelaw production

Beckett’s muse, the actress Billie Whitelaw, didn’t give the piece’s premiere, but starred in its first London performance in 1973. This was then recreated in order to be filmed in 1975 and can be found on YouTube.

I think this is spectacular, what a spectacular, amazing performance, what an experience, how disorientating, how revolting the way that, after a while the mouth seems to morph into some disgusting animal, and the endless mad demented drivel, the breathless haste in Whitelaw’s voice rising to the recurrent shout of SHE!! God, the horror.

Although very sexy and feminine when she wanted to be, Whitelaw also had a no-nonsense, working class toughness about her, a strong northern accent (she grew up in a working class area of Bradford) which slips out throughout the recitation.

But her real toughness comes over in those four big cries of SHE!!, delivered much deeper and ballsier than softer actresses, and so giving it a real terror.

Once you get over the sheer thrill of the performance there is an obvious feature about it which is that it largely ignores Beckett’s stage directions. In the piece as conceived there is a dynamic tension between the speaking woman on the right of the stage and the androgynous cloaked figure to the left who responds to the four big hysterical climaxes of the monologue with the mysterious, slow-motion raising and lowering of the arms gesture.

The oddity is that Whitelaw’s performance benefited from extensive coaching from Beckett. So why did he completely jettison a key part of the initial concept? Did he realise it was distracting from the core idea of the spotlight on a ceaselessly talking mouth? Apparently so because, according to the Wikipedia article:

When Beckett came to be involved in staging the play, he found that he was unable to place the Auditor in a stage position that pleased him, and consequently allowed the character to be omitted from those productions. However, he chose not to cut the character from the published script, and whether or not the character is used in production seems to be at the discretion of individual producers. As he wrote to two American directors in 1986: “He is very difficult to stage (light–position) and may well be of more harm than good. For me the play needs him but I can do without him. I have never seen him function effectively.”

Staging the production presented extreme difficulties for the leading lady.

Initially Billie Whitelaw wanted to stand on a dais but she found this didn’t work for her so she allowed herself to be strapped in a chair called an ‘artist’s rest’ on which a film actor wearing armour rests because he cannot sit down. Her entire body was draped in black; her face covered with black gauze with a black transparent slip for her eyes and her head was clamped between two pieces of sponge rubber so that her mouth would remain fixed in the spotlight. Finally a bar was fixed which she could cling to and on to which she could direct her tension. She was unable to use a visual aid and so memorised the text.

Regarding selves and unselves, it is a maybe a profound insight that, although Whitelaw found is a desperately difficult role and was, after the initial rehearsals, seriously disorientated, she came to regard it as one of her most powerful performances because it unlocked something inside her,

She heard in Mouth’s outpourings her own ‘inner scream’: ‘I found so much of my self in Not I.’

Maybe we all do. Maybe that’s one function of art, allowing us to discover the Not I in all of us.

A touch of autobiography

I grew up above the village grocery shop and sub-post office my parents ran, and across the road and through some woodland was a priory which had been turned into an old people’s home which was still run by nuns, old nuns, very old nuns, in fact most of the nuns were too old and infirm to make it the couple of hundred yards through the trees up to the road they had to cross to get to the shop and some of the nuns and old ladies who could make it up weren’t too confident crossing the road, not least Miss Luck (real name) who was very short-sighted, almost blind, who would arrive at the road and just set out across it regardless of traffic, so that the first thing all the new staff in the shop were taught was, ‘If you see Miss Luck arrive at the gate from the Priory, drop everything and run across the road to help her walk across without being run over’.

And so I watch this amazing work of art, and I’m aware of the multiple meanings it can be given, from the characteristic sex obsession of many literary critics who see the mouth a vagina trying to give birth to the self (given that Whitelaw has a set of 32 immaculate-looking sharp teeth, these critics must have been hanging round some very odd vaginas); to the many invocations of philosophers and psychologists to extrapolate umpteen different theories of the self and not-self; through to the more purely literary notion that the endless repetition of the voice’s obsessive moments, insights, anxieties are a further iteration of the struggle of the narrator in The Unnamable to fulfil the compulsion, the order, the directive to talk talk talk he doesn’t know why, because he must, because they say so.

So I am aware of many types of interpretation the piece is susceptible to. But I also understand what Beckett meant when he said in an interview that:

I knew that woman in Ireland. I knew who she was — not ‘she’ specifically, one single woman, but there were so many of those old crones, stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches, besides the hedgerows.

Because there were so many old, old ladies pottering across the road from the Priory or from other parts of my village, talking talking talking, babbling their way around the place in a continual stream of undertones and monologue, throughout my boyhood.

It is at the same time an artfully contrived work of avant-garde art, but also an unnervingly realistic depiction of how some people actually are. And not just some – nearly 9 million people in the UK are aged over 70, and Alzheimer’s disease has gone from being a condition few of us had heard about 20 years ago, to now being the leading cause of death in the UK.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Mercier and Camier by Samuel Beckett (1946)

‘What are you musing on, Mercier?’
‘On the horror of existence, confusedly,’ said Mercier.
‘What about a drink?’ said Camier.

After writing a series of experimental texts in English during the 1930s, Mercier et Camier was Beckett’s first attempt at an extended prose piece in French. He wrote it in 1946, while he was living in France after the end of the Second World War. It comes between Watt, which Beckett wrote in the last few years of the war, and directly before the three huge experimental ‘novels’ or texts which became known as The Beckett TrilogyMolloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnamable (1953).

Watt was long, experimental and – ultimately, for its author – unsatisfactory; who knows how to describe what it is for its readers.

Mercier and Camier is a lot shorter but Beckett found it even more unsatisfactory, which is why he refused to publish it in its original French until 1970. It only appeared in English in 1974, in Beckett’s own translation, in which he took the opportunity to make substantial alterations to the original text and to ‘reshape’ it from French to English. That’s the translation I read.

Structure

The Calder and Boyar edition I read is just 123 pages long. It is divided into eight chapters and every pair of chapters is followed by a ‘summary of two preceding chapters’ as in a school textbook.

The prose is lucid but highly mannered. A lot of it is similar to Murphy and Watt, not in style but in that it is writing about writing, writing whose main energy comes from taking the mickey out of traditional writing, that plays with the style of official reports, mixes in everyday phrases or clichés, and so on. It is not very interested in describing the world ‘out there’ but has made a nice safe warm space inside the head, playing with phrases. The general idea is that Mercier and Camier are a pair of vagabonds who intend to leave the city on a journey and Beckett introduces it thus:

Physically it was fairly easy going, without seas or frontiers to be crossed, through regions untormented on the whole, if desolate in parts. Mercier and Camier did not remove from home, they had that great good fortune. They did not have to face, with greater or less success, outlandish ways, tongues, laws, skies, foods, in surroundings little resembling those to which first childhood, then boyhood, then manhood had inured them. The weather, though often inclement (but they knew no better), never exceeded the limits of the temperate, that is to say of what could still be borne, without danger if not without discomfort, by the average native fittingly clad and shod. With regard to money, if it did not run to first class transport or the palatial hotel, still there was enough to keep them going, to and fro, without recourse to alms. It may be said therefore that in this respect too they were fortunate, up to a point. They had to struggle, but less than many must, less perhaps than most of those who venture forth, driven by a need now clear and now obscure.

‘Physically it was fairly easy going… The weather never exceeded the limits of the temperate… With regard to money…’ These sound like phrases from an official report, as does ‘It may be aid that…’

The style goes on to change and pull in other registers and mannerisms, playing with various learned tropes and techniques, but it is more often than not more interested in writing, in the possibilities of types and styles of writing, than in depicting any kind of ‘reality’.

Similarly, the dialogue is more often than not about the dialogue – characters speak about the act of speaking ‘did you say that?’ ‘did i say what?’ ‘did you say what you just said?’ ‘i don’t know, did i just say something?’ – played for laughs, played as a solemn game indicating the difficulties of even the most basic communication, rather than the kind of dialogue you find in most ‘normal’ novels.

More than anything else, unlike the monolithic solid blocks of prose found in The Beckett Trilogy, the pages look like a normal novel, divided up into short, sensible paragraphs which flag up new bits of dialogue or action or description in the traditional manner.

The shortness of the text, the use of short chapters, the breathing space provided by the end of chapter summaries, and the layout of the individual pages, all make Mercier and Camier feel like the most readable novel-style book Beckett ever wrote.

Repetition, absurdity and comedy

We are in an unnamed city. Mercier and Camier meet at their rendezvous point, though not before some misunderstanding. Mercier is first to arrive but gets bored waiting so goes for a stroll. Camier arrives ten minutes later so he goes for a stroll a few minutes before Camier gets back. Camier gets bored waiting then goes for a stroll just a few minutes before Mercier returns to the rendezvous point, hangs about a bit then goes for a stroll, and a few minutes later Camier returns to the rendezvous point, and tuts about where his friend can be, before going off for a stroll.. Repetition is at the core of Beckett’s technique, repetitions with slight variations which quickly build up into monstrous tables of permutations, as we have just seen in the numerous examples given in Watt. Beckett invests sufficient energy in this obsessive schedule of mistimed arrivals that he bothers to give us a table describing it.

In the introduction to Watt, Beckett scholar Chris Ackerley says Beckett is satirising the philosopher René Descartes’ notion that a comprehensive enumeration of what philosophers called the ‘accidents’ of a thing will eventually give you ‘understanding’ of the thing, whereas Beckett’s satirical deployment of this technique is designed to prove that the more you enumerate something, the further you in fact become from understanding it, you just become more bewildered.

In this format, this kind of mathematical precision which can be converted into a timetable is obviously a kind of satire on the timetabled way most of us live our lives, with mobile phones and meeting-reminding programs converting the endless flux of reality into bite-sized five-minute chunks.

But there is also something very powerful and uncanny about repetition. Repeat a word numerous times and it quickly starts to lose meaning and become absurd. Repeat a precise action numerous times and the same. It is as if repetition takes us out of the everyday. Transcendental meditators are instructed to repeat their mantra thousands of times to take them into an other-worldly state. Closer to Beckett’s Ireland, Roman Catholics have series of prayers to repeat as penances or on numerous other formalised occasions.

Repetition of drills with weapons make soldiers proficient, repetitive exercise improves athletes’ performance, makes difficult moves automatic, practice makes perfect. All this is true of the physical world. But in the world of language, repetition doesn’t make perfect or battle ready or match fit. Something different happens.

In Beckett’s hands, repetition can become obsessively patterned – as in the timetable of Mercier and Camier missing each other described above – in which case it reduces humans to automata, like buses meeting or missing a schedule, or the figures which come out of cuckoo clocks on the hour.

Or it can be funny, like two gentlemen bowing and taking their hats off to each other in an indefinite cycle of politeness.

Or it can open the door into Absurdity – highlighting the pointlessness of doing the same things or saying the same things over and over and nothing ever changing.

It is in this respect that Mercier and Camier anticipates Waiting For Godot, in that it is a text interested in repetition and a kind of formal patterning of actions and dialogue, but – crucially – enacted by two protagonists.

In the most intense moments (I say moments, in fact reading them takes hours) of The Beckett Trilogy what you have is one voice giving a running, stream-of-consciousness account of its bewilderment and misery and sense of utter crushing futility – which is what makes reading them, especially The Unnameable such a gruelling experience.

But when you have two characters, even if they’re predisposed to be miserable and depressed, for a man of Beckett’s sly humour, the temptation is to poke fun at his own seriousness, the temptation is to have one character deliver a long speech about the meaninglessness of existence… and then have the other character point out he’s sitting on his hat. Or his shoelaces have come undone, he might trip and do himself a mischief etc. Thus:

‘What are you musing on, Mercier?’
‘On the horror of existence, confusedly,’ said Mercier.
‘What about a drink?’ said Camier.

In other words, just the decision to have two characters opens up the possibility of counterpointing the misery of The Unnameable with a world of slapstick, pratfalls and bathos. And it’s in this respect that Mercier and Camier feels like a dry run for Waiting For Godot.

Aspects of style

Having finally met up, Mercier and Camier embrace just as the heavens open and it starts to tip down. They run into a shelter, still embracing.

Obscenity

Still embracing? Two dogs run into the shelter and start copulating furiously, making Mercier and Camier realise they they also are still embracing. Are they gay? Or straight friends caught in an embarrassingly inappropriate moment? Is Beckett pulling the reader’s leg or tweaking the censor’s nose?

The pair continue to regard the copulating dogs, Camier wonders why they’re still plugged together and Mercier gives a wearied / cynical explanation:

What would you? said Mercier. The ecstasy is past, they yearn to part, to go and piss against a post or eat a morsel of shit, but cannot. So they turn their backs on each other. You’d do as much, if you were they.

A moment later Camier asks if they can sit down as he feels ‘all sucked off’. That is not a usual expression for ‘tired’, it is easier to interpret as a sexual expression. Later the ranger tells the dogs to bugger off. Mercier remarks that the ranger was a hero in the mud of flanders during the Great War while he and Camier were ‘high and dry, masturbating full pelt without fear of interruption…’ In chapter two Mercier says ‘fuck thee’. In chapter 4 Camier mildly remarks: ‘Cunts we may be…’ In chapter 6 Mercier remembers his wife, not very fondly, Toffana, making love to whom was ‘like fucking a quag’.

So why is Beckett dwelling on piss, shit and blowjobs, masturbation, buggery fucks and cunts?

Is it another way of ridiculing the high-mindedness of the Rationalist tradition in Western philosophy (as the satires on Descartes’ method are in Watt?) Or a poke in the eye for anyone who thinks human existence is noble and spiritual? Or was it in the spirit of many other mid-century literary rebels who thought writing ‘shit’ and ‘piss’ was a blow against the Establishment / capitalist system / patriarchy?

Beckett prefers ideas and categories to description

The sounds of the city intrude:

On all hands already the workers were at it again, the air waxed loud with cries of pleasure and pain and with the urbaner notes of those for whom life had exhausted its surprises, as well on the minus side as on the plus. Things too were getting ponderously under way. It was in vain the rain poured down, the whole business was starting again with apparently no less ardour than if the sky had been a cloudless blue.

Dickens or Balzac or maybe E.M. Foster or Virginia Woolf would have given us a world of detail, listing occupations and activities of the city coming to life. In his compendious Modernist classic, Berlin Alexanderplatz, the German novelist, Alfred Döblin, used a blitz of collages and quotes from newspapers, adverts and billboards to convey the over-abundant sensual stimulation of the modern city.

But Beckett’s description is a good example of the way he isn’t at all interested in that notion of urban life and colour – his imagination always generalises, moves to the philosophical categories and ideas underlying any situation, and then plays with these and the language they’re cast in. Ignores the sensuous specific for the ideas and possibilities latent in the language of ideas. It’s this which makes so much of his writing seem grey and abstract – because it is.

Dialogue as experiments with the idea of dialogue

Similarly, the dialogue barely refers to events or things, or only the bare minimum required to make sense. Most of the dialogue is about the nature of dialogue, it is playing with the notion of dialogue and what is concealed or implied in it.

No big ideas, no Freudian sub-texts or subtle implications, it isn’t that purposive. Beckett is just tinkering with fragments of dialogue, arranging and re-arranging them at angles to each other, to see what happens, to see what effects are created. It is like cubism. Picasso and Braque in their cubist paintings depicted really banal everyday objects – tables with newspapers, a bottle of wine and some apples on it. The revolution wasn’t in the subject matter which was as banal as can be. It was in the radical experiment of seeing the same thing from different angles.

So just as cubism takes everyday subject matter and subjects it to multiple perspectives and styles, so Beckett’s dialogue takes mundane chatter and subjects it to multiple perspectives and styles. That, I think, is the spirit to approach lots of the dialogue in Beckett. It is, at best, tangential or inconsequential, random, but it also plays with registers or tones. Characters speak to each other in the style of official reports or philosophical textbooks, the exact opposite of the casual slang or jokey tone most people use in conversations:

We shall never know, said Camier, at what hour we arranged to meet today, so let us drop the subject.
In all this confusion one thing alone is sure, said Mercier, and that is that we met at ten to ten, at the same time as the hands, or rather a moment later.
There is that to be thankful for, said Camier.
The rain had not yet begun, said Mercier.
The morning fervour was intact, said Camier.
Don’t lose our agenda, said Mercier.

So it is a kind of verbal satirical cubism. And once you adapt to its arch stylisation, it can become very funny.

Who owns them dogs? said the ranger.
I don’t see how we can stay, said Camier.
Can it I wonder be the fillip we needed, to get us moving? said Mercier.

And one reason this novel feels so pacey, so unlike the concrete blocks of the Trilogy is because so much of it consists of this slightly surreal, slightly deranged, stylised and often very funny dialogue.

What is more, said Mercier, we have still thought to take, before it is too late.
Thought to take? said Camier.
Those were my words, said Mercier.
I thought all thought was taken, said Camier, and all in order.
All is not, said Mercier.

Tramps discussing Descartes, with half an eye on Laurel and Hardy:

Is thought now taken, said Camier, and all in order?
No, said Mercier.
Will all ever be? said Camier.
I believe so, said Mercier, yes, I believe, not firmly, no, but I believe, yes, the day is coming when all will be in order, at last.
That will be delightful, said Camier.
Let us hope so, said Mercier

The plot

Chapter 1

They are in the Place Satin-Ruth which is dominated by an ancient copper beech, on which a French Field Marshall several centuries earlier had once pinned a label. They are sheltering from the rain in a shelter. A ‘ranger’ sticks his head in and asks if this is their bicycle. They discuss, in their oblique pseudo-philosophical way, the journey ahead. Rather magically night begins to fall. They must have spent the entire day there. They enumerate their belongings (the sack, the umbrella, the raincoat), exit the shelter, pick up the bicycle and push it away, under the watchful eyes of the ranger, who curses them on their way.

Chapter 2

The pair push their bicycle through the busy urban throng.

I’m cold, said Camier.
It was indeed cold.
It is indeed cold, said Mercier

They repair to a pub. Landlord says no bikes so they chain theirs to the railings. Drink for some time and discuss their situation. Decide to press on, go outside, pick up the bike, resume their walk. At a crossroads don’t know which way to go so let the umbrella decide by letting it fall. It points to the left. They see a man in a frock coat walking ahead of them.They both hear the sound of a mixed choir. Then it dawns on them to actually use the umbrella against the pouring rain, but neither of them can get it open, Mercier smashes it to the ground and says ‘fuck thee’ to Camier.

They arrive at Helen’s and notice the grand carpet and the white cockatoo. Helen suddenly appears in the text, with no introduction or explanation, offering them the couch or the bed. Mercier says he will sleep with none. Then:

A nice little suck-off, said Camier, not too prolonged, by all means, but nothing more.
Terminated, said Helen, the nice little suck-offs but nothing more.

Does this mean Helen is a sex worker, and Camier is agreeing to a nice blowjob. By ‘terminated’ does Helen mean she is agreeing to the deal i.e. payment for two blowjobs ‘but nothing more’ i.e. no penetration.

One paragraph later they are ‘back in the street’, the entire night having, apparently, passed. They’re a little way down the road from Helen’s when the pouring rain makes them take shelter in an archway. They realise they’ve mislaid the sack. They enumerate what was in it. Enumerating things is one of Beckett’s most basic techniques.

Camier realises he is hungry and steps out from the archway to go to a shop. Mercier is stricken with anxiety and begs him to come back. Camier relents for a moment but then steps boldly out in the rain to find sustenance.

In his absence Mercier looks up to see a little boy and a little girl standing in the rain, who call him Papa! He shouts ‘fuck off out of here!’ at them and chases them away.

Camier returns and places a cream horn in Mercier’s hand. Mercier squeezes it uncomprehendingly till the cream spills out, and then doubles over in misery, weeping, says he’ll start crawling (as so many Beckett characters end up doing, sooner or later).

Mercier’s mood of misery and futility is interrupted by the sound of a screech of brakes and a crash. They run out into the street and see a fat woman who’s been run over, is lying amid the wreckage of her skirts, with blood flowing. Soon a crowd blocks their view (as crowds are always attracted to car accidents, as described in J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash).

Pepped up by this sight, Mercier feels like a new man, and they resume their journey.

The text is then punctuated by one of the summaries of the content so far. I’ll give the summary of chapter 1.

Summary of two preceding chapters
I
Outset.
Meeting of Mercier and Camier.
Saint Ruth Square.
The beech.
The rain.
The shelter.
The dogs.
Distress of Camier.
The ranger.
The bicycle.
Words with the ranger.
Mercier and Camier confer.
Results of this conference.
Bright too late.
The bell.
Mercier and Camier set out.

Chapter 3

Opens with a macabre first-person account by a narrator who says his parents died in a train crash when he was soon after he was 13 and he was placed with farmers who made him work hard at all sorts of manual tasks, but he turned out – gruesomely – to excel, from the age of 15, at ‘the slaughter of little lambs, calves, kids and porklings and the emasculation of little bullocks, rams, billy goats and piglets’, and smothering geese. At the age of 19 or 20, having got a milkmaid pregnant, he ran away, after setting fire to the barns, granaries and stables. That was 50 years ago (i.e. like so many Beckett narrators, he is now ancient and decrepit).

Only then, at the end of this monologue do we realise that the absence of speech marks Beckett’s deploys throughout the book has, in this instance, fooled us. This isn’t first-person narration, it is the monologue of an old codger in the compartment of the train Mercier and Camier are on. It is a sly, humorous sleight of hand.

The train stops but Mercier and Camier are too slow to get off and relieve themselves of the old man’s company and so, as the train starts up again, so does his monologue, this time a feverish garble which seems to be about whoring and womanising. The train stops at another stop and he gets off, now identified as Mr Madden, ‘He wore gaiters, a yellow block-hat and a rusty frock-coat reaching down to his knees.’ The comic dialogue between our hapless duo resumes. Mercier complains that Camier has booked them onto the stopping train, the slow train south of our Dublin (which was known in those days as the slow and easy):

I knew it, said Mercier. I’ve been shamefully abused. I’d throw myself out of the window if I wasn’t afraid I might sprain my ankle.

Camier says they’ll get down at the next stop and next thing they are in the little settlement surrounding the next station without any description of the train having stopped or them having alighted. The text is full of continual sly jokes like that, or casual underminings of the conventions of fiction. Elsewhere he undermines his own sentences even as he writes them:

It’s … snug, said the man, there is no other word. Patrick! he cried. But there was another word, for he added, in a tone of tentative complicity, whatever that sounds like, It’s … gemütlich.

The narrator uses a description and immediately wonders what the description can mean. The man speaking is an inn-keeper, greeting our travellers, while yelling over his shoulder for Patrick, presumably a servant. Mercier says that he has seen this man in his dreams. A page later we learn he is named Mr Gall, which reminds us of the Mr Gall the piano tuner who prompted a crisis of epistemology in Watt in the eponymous novel.

It is fair day. The farmers have brought their goods and animals to market. The beasts are stuffed in their pens. The narrator describes the farmers as grasping their ‘pricks through the stuff of their pockets’. Mercier summons the manager, they ask for several items off the menu which are all sold out. Camier says his friend Mercier is ‘out on his feet’, is it alright if they take a room for a rest, the manager agrees and our couple go upstairs.

One of the farmers comes over, is greeted by the manager as Mr Graves (which reminds us of Mr Graves the gardener in Watt) and comments the departed pair are ‘a nice pair’ and asks Mr Gall where he got used to such. Is the implication (once again) they Mercier and Camier are gay, and the farmer and manager think they’ve gone upstairs for sex?

Mr Gall appears to change his name and becomes Mr Gast, as the farmers depart and he is suddenly looking out onto a little medieval square, as if in a science fiction or horror story. The barman comes up and describes our pair as: ‘the long hank with the beard [and] the little fat one…’

Mr Gast pops out to find out what’s become of the absent Patrick, and is back a moment later, telling the barman he (Patrick) has died. His penultimate words were for a pint. Mr Gast calls for Teresa who is, fortunately, still alive and she comes out of the loo, a buxom wench carrying a big tray.

A rough tough man enters the bar in his hobnail boots, it is Mr Conaire, explains he’s escaped what he calls ‘the core of the metropolitan gas-chamber’, glimpses buxom Teresa, glances at the barkeeper, who is now named George. Mr Conaire asks the way to the ‘convenience’ and manages to brush against Teresa’s buxomness. Mr Gast has another vision, the present disappears as he sees a distant vista, a desolate moor with a single winding track and a solitary figure…

Mr Conaire reappears from the convenience having had a difficult time of it. Maybe he has constipation. He flirts more with Teresa then says he has an appointment to meet F.X. Camier, private investigator, and gives a description of Camier – ‘Small and fat… red face, scant hair, four chins, protruding paunch, bandy legs, beady pig eyes’ – which George complements with a description of Mercier – ‘A big bony hank with a beard… hardly able to stand, wicked expression’.

George goes up to their room to get them, but discovers Mercier and Camier asleep  and snoring, hand in hand on the floor of the hotel room.

Chapter 4

Our heroes are in the open countryside, not a house in sight, on a bank overlooking a wide field, inhabited only by a goat. But it isn’t a Shakespeare paradise, it is a wintry, cold and gloomy, damp Irish field, the sun is ‘a raw pale blotch’ in the cloudy sky. Camier complains he can feel the cold creeping up his crack. Mercier shares his method of keeping happy, which is to focus on parts of the body which do not hurt.

What shall they do? Camier suggests they need to go back into the town to find the sack, the sack they seem to have misplaced after they left Helen’s place. But maybe the sack itself isn’t the cause or the reason for their sense of want. The sack itself will not supply the truth. Maybe it is some aspect of the sack, as of the bicycle or the umbrella. Camier is disquisiting further on the nature of when Mercier interrupts him to tell him about the dream he had last night, in which his grandmother was carrying her own breasts by their nipples.

Camier loses his temper. Have they not made a solemn vow, ‘No dreams or quotes at any price.’ Camier is dispatched to get provisions from the town, swaggering there on his stumpy legs, while Mercier is left to decide in which direction to collapse.

The text cuts with no explanation to Camier being at the bar in the pub ordering a round of five sandwiches off George and introducing himself to Conaire. Mr Conaire shares a very Beckettian vision of entropy:

Yesterday cakes, today sandwiches, tomorrow crusts and Thursday stones.

We discover he spent the entire previous evening waiting for Camier to appear and fell asleep on a couch. When he woke up in the morning our couple had moved on. Camier is sublimely indifferent and leaves with his sandwiches. Mr Conaire goes for a crap. Mr Gast is absent, picking snowdrops for Patrick’s sheaf. Teresa also is absent.

Back with Mercier, Camier feeds him a sandwich but Mercier throws up. They stagger to their feet and realise they have to press on. Somewhere. For some reason. There’s a page or two of debate about whether to leave the tattered old raincoat where it is, which they do, then lament that they have. They totter back towards the railway station.

Summary of chapters 3 and 4

Chapter 5

They arrive back at the town on Sunday night. Knowing no better, they make their way to Helen’s who lets them stay and presents them with the umbrella, restored to full function. They appear to spend the evening making love, or entwining their naked bodies. So they are gay. Next afternoon they set off for their destination (we are not told what that is), and stop into a pub to wait for dark. And discuss at length and come to Great Conclusions:

1. The lack of money is an evil. But it can turn to a good.
2. What is lost is lost.
3. The bicycle is a great good. But it can turn nasty, if ill employed.
4. There is food for thought in being down and out.
5. There are two needs: the need you have and the need to have it.
6. Intuition leads to many a folly.
7. That which the soul spews forth is never lost.
8. Pockets daily emptier of their last resources are enough to break the stoutest resolution.
9. The male trouser has got stuck in a rut, particularly the fly which should be transferred to the crotch and designed to open trapwise, permitting the testes, regardless of the whole sordid business of micturition, to take the air unobserved. The drawers should of course be transfigured in consequence.
10. Contrary to a prevalent opinion, there are places in nature from which God would appear to be absent.
11. What would one do without women? Explore other channels.
12. Soul: another four-letter word.
13. What can be said of life not already said? Many things. That its arse is a rotten shot, for example.

Beckett loves a list. Our heroes decide to postpone decisive action till the following day and return to Helen’s place to kip. Next morning they set out bravely, not forgetting the umbrella. In fact it’s more like a parasol. Mercier tells Camier he bought it at Khan’s, which appears to be a pawnshop. Camier says it appears to have been manufactured in 1900, the year of the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer War. Camier gives such a vivid description of the siege, that they might have been there as young men.

Now both try and fail to open the wretched thing. Camier disappears back up the stairs (presumably of Helen’s place). Mercier takes advantage of his absence to walk on and enters a Joycean stream of consciousness phantasmagoria of thoughts and impressions about time and passersby. His path crosses an old man, he sees a man guiding a donkey, and urchins playing at marbles in the street, he rattles chains with his big stick, as he staggers senilely on.

Chapter 6

Evening of the same day. Camier is in a pub. Another pub. It is packed with dockers and sailors, a fug or smoke and beer fumes. He closes his eyes and spends two pages imagining Mercier arriving. When he opens them, Mercier has arrived, causing a momentary lull in the male fug of conversation.

They enter an obscure and highly stylised conversation. Where is the umbrella? When Camier was helping Helen, his hand slipped – he explains, as if that explains anything. Is it a sexual reference. Meanwhile the bicycle they left chained to the railings has, with Beckettian entropy, disintegrated, having lost wheels, saddle, bell and carrier, though not, intriguingly, its pump.

They set off into the dark night, supporting each other, though neither knows whither or why. They struggle to speak, Camier wants to ask questions but Mercier explains he has used up all his answers. What happened to the sack? They go into a narrow alleyway. Neither of them can remember how to describe walking. It becomes more than ever like Godot.

Where are we going? said Camier.
Shall I never shake you off? said Mercier.
Do you not know where we are going? said Camier.
What does it matter, said Mercier, where we are going? We are going, that’s enough.
No need to shout, said Camier.

Even the fresh line for each bit of dialogue looks like a play. They end up walking back and forth along this dark alleyway wondering where they’re going, and why, and why in each other’s company. They smell kips which appears to mean the perfume from a brothel. They ask a policeman if there’s a brothel and when he says they should be ashamed at their age, says it’s all they’ve got left. That and masturbation. So are they solidly heterosexual?

The officer arrests them and turns up Camier’s arm and smacks him. He’s about to blow his whistle when Mercier kicks him in the balls and the officer releases Camier, falling to the ground. This gets extremely unpleasant, for Camier seizes the officer’s truncheon and starts beating him round the head, they pull his cape over his head and beat some more, the impression of the head being of a boiled egg without it shell. Seems they’ve murdered him. They run along the alley into a square, across it and into a narrow street, and decide it is best to go back to Helen’s place.

Summary of chapters 5 and 6

Chapter 7

Descriptive passage of open moorland, heather, mountains looming, lights of city in distance, lights of harbour reflected in the sea. Presumably the countryside surrounding Beckett’s family home in Foxrock. Lucky bugger.

Mercier and Camier are making their way across this wild landscape. They have cut themselves cudgels to clear the undergrowth. They spy a wooden cross of a nationalist’s grave and head towards it but lose their thread. Start wondering if there are worms in turf. Feel something spectral is surrounding them.

Night is coming. It gets dark. They do not think they can walk any further (‘if you can call it walking’). They cannot see each other. They totter. They fall in the dark, in the bog, and help each other get up. Eventually. They finally make it to some ruins they’d spied, and collapse. And ‘their hands were freed to go about their old business’. Is that masturbation? And the text mentions their ‘customary cleavings’. Gay sex?

The narrator says the text could end here, frankly. But there is no end. There are never endings.

Here would be the place to make an end. After all it is the end. But there is still day, day after day, afterlife all life long, the dust of all that is dead and buried rising, eddying, settling, burying again. So let him wake, Mercier, Camier…

This is the utterly exhausted, bleak voice of the Beckett Trilogy. They waken separately, stumble out the ruins, each thinking the other has abandoned him, barely able to see in the dark, indistinguishable footfalls, they are heading back to town, of course, because that is what they do as soon as they have left town, their endless itinerary. They come to a fork in the road, Camier takes one road but when Mercier comes up to the fork, he cannot see his compadre and so takes the other. The text has ceased to be light and funny. It is weighed down with the full concrete futility of the books to come.

Such roughly must have been the course of events. The earth dragged on into the light, the brief interminable light.

Chapter 8

‘That’s it’, the text sinks into Beckett despair at the exhausting business of getting up, washing, dressing and all the rest of it, God, the endless waiting for death, dragging on, the dead and unburied with the dying, and the pathetic illusion of life (and so on and so on).

Camier leaves a house. He is an old frail man now, unable to walk without a stick, head on his chest. He is in some street when a heavy hand falls on his shoulder. A big man says he knows him, watched his mother change his diapers, introduces himself as Watt, and says he wishes to introduce him to a Mr Mercier, standing just along the pavement. Watt, says Camier. I knew a fellow named Murphy, died in mysterious circumstances.

Watt takes the two men imperiously by the arms and half drags them along the pavement, they are walking into the sunset (!) – until a police officer blocks their way. Watt defies the police officer, grabs the pair round the waist and hauls them further along the pavement. They collapse into a bar (as men so often do in these stories).

Watt orders whiskey all round. In an obscure roundabout way Mercier and Camier warm up and begin to regard each other in the old friendly way. Suddenly Watt bangs the table loudly and shouts, ‘Bugger life!’ The landlord comes over and angrily tells them to leave. Mercier and Camier go into a perfectly co-ordinated and comic turn, claiming that poor Watt has just lost his darling baby, his wife is at home in paroxysms of grief, they have brought Watt out to console him, could they just have another round and everything will be alright, honest your honour!

They call Watt daddy (despite being decrepitly old themselves). This last section contains a number of mocking anti-religious references, for example, the narrator tells us most of the pub’s clientele are butchers who have been made mild by the blood of the lambs. Ha ha. This undergraduate wit is common in Joyce and, alas, lives on in Beckett, lowering the tone or, more precisely, thinning the texture. Like the fondness for including swearwords in the story. Alright, but… it lets the reader off the hook. It stops being demanding. Swearwords are as easy-to-read, as assimilable as the sentimental clichés he so mocks. They’re just another type of cliché.

The landlord backs down and serves them their second round of drinks. Mercier goes to the window and looks out. The colours of heaven were not quite spent. He resumes his seat and Camier has begun to reminisce about what he remembers of their travels (the goat in the field, Mr Madden who gave the intense soliloquy about being a beast-slaughterer at the start of chapter 3) when Watt starts from his apparent sleep, seizes Camier’s stick and brings it crashing down on the table next to them, at which sits a man with side whiskers quietly reading his paper and sipping his pint. The stick breaks, the table top shatters, the man falls backwards in his chair (still holding his newspaper). Watt flings the shattered stick behind the bar where it brings down a number of glasses and bottles, then bawls:

‘Fuck life!’

Mercier and Camier bolt for the door. From just outside they listen to the uproar within. They both hear someone in the pub shout ‘Up Quin!’ Only those of us who have read the notes for Beckett’s novel, Watt, know that in its early drafts the protagonist was called Quin. Sol that’s quite an obscure reference there, Sam.

Mercier invites Camier for a last pint at another pub. Camier says no but ends up walking with him part of the way home. They reminisce in a fragmentary way about their adventures. Mercier starts crying. The houses grow more sparse. Suddenly space gapes and the earth vanishes but… all it means is they’ve climbed a small, picturesque bridge over the canal. It is gently raining.

High above the horizon the clouds were fraying out in long black strands, fine as weepers’ tresses. Nature at her most thoughtful.

It’s one of those rare moments when Beckett displays an old-fashioned notion of poetic sensibility. They sit on a bench, two old men. Mercier tells Camier to look north, beyond the stars. He seems to be pointing out… stars… flowers…? Camier refers to them as the Blessed Isles? This is obscure. Then, with characteristic bathos, he points out the grim pile of the hospital for skin diseases.

Camier goes to the edge of the canal. I think it is implied he is having a pee. Then returns to the bench. Mercier reminds Camier of the parrot at Helen’s. He has a feeling the parrot is dead. Camier says it’s time to go. Says, Goodbye Mercier. Alone, Mercier watches ‘the sky go out’ and hears all the little sounds which have been hidden from him by the long day.

… human murmurs for example, and the rain on the water.

So this final passage is unexpectedly poignant. 1. This thread of (possibly sentimental) feeling, along with 2. the shortness of the book 3. its conventional division into chapters and into paragraphs of clearly signposted action and snappy dialogue, and 4. the humour of much of the exchanges – yes, Mercier and Camier is definitely Beckett’s most accessible novel.


Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The restoration of Charles II

Introduction to the restoration of Charles II

When Oliver Cromwell died on 3 September 1658 there was no immediate sense that the Commonwealth would collapse and the king be restored. Rule passed smoothly to Oliver’s son, Richard – but things quickly started to unravel.

Cromwell’s rule had never reconciled the ever-increasing number of conflicting constituencies or parties or groups within not only England, but the other kingdoms of Scotland and Ireland. His rule rested ultimately on his control of the army, and the loyalty to him of (most) of the army generals. From this secure base he made attempts throughout the Protectorate, 1653-58, to reach out to:

  • in religion, episcopalians, moderate Anglicans, Presbyterians and independents
  • in politics, to moderate Royalists, to republicans and to the revolutionaries who had denounced his regime after the regicide
  • in Scotland and Ireland to moderate leaders prepared to accept his authority and work with him

These two central elements a) military authority and b) the intricate skein of negotiated settlements with all these constituencies, often based on personal acquaintance – vanished with his death.

The actual sequence of constitutional, parliamentary and political events following Cromwell’s death are extremely complex, but a high-level summary is that the general in Cromwell’s army tasked with running Scotland, General Monck, got in touch with representatives of the king and offered his services to broker a restoration.

Monck’s main concern was the material demands of the army:

  • there was to be a general pardon for actions carried out under orders
  • arrears of pay were to be fully met
  • titles to former Crown and Church lands bought during the Interregnum were to be confirmed
  • religious toleration for moderate sectarians was to be guaranteed

Charles and his advisers prepared a conciliatory declaration that offered a free pardon and amnesty to everyone who would swear loyalty to the Crown within forty day of the King’s return. However, Charles was canny enough to avoid the main points of contention, saying he’d put them off to be agreed by the first Parliament elected.

The result of these negotiations was the Declaration of Breda, signed by Charles on 4 April 1660, Breda being a town in the southern part of the Netherlands, where Charles had relocated for the negotiations.

Copies of the Declaration were sent to the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the army, the fleet and the City of London. A new Parliament had been elected in April 1660, and when Sir John Grenville delivered the Declaration to it on 1 May, both Houses unanimously voted for the Restoration.

Timeline of the Restoration

The timeline below gives some sense of the confusion and potential anarchy which spread after Richard Cromwell was forced to abdicate and then nobody knew what was happening or what to expect.

1659
May 7 – Richard Cromwell forced by the Council of Officers to reinstate the Rump Parliament.
May 24 – Resignation of Richard Cromwell after Parliament refuses to recognise the Protectorate.
June 7 – Parliament commissions Charles Fleetwood commander-in-chief of the armies in England and Scotland but retains the power to appoint or promote officers.
July 3 – Viscount Mordaunt arrives in England to co-ordinate a general Royalist insurrection.
August 5-19 – Booth’s Uprising: Royalist revolt in Cheshire, suppressed by Colonel John Lambert.
September – Officers of Lambert’s army meet at Derby and draw up a petition setting out their demands for the government of the nation.
September 22-3 – Parliament forbids any further petitioning by soldiers. Sir Arthur Hesilrige calls for Lambert’s arrest.
October 12 – Parliament revokes the commissions of Lambert and eight other senior officers.
October 13 – Lambert’s troops occupy Westminster and prevent Parliament from sitting.
October 15 – The Council of Officers appoints a ten-member Committee of Safety to consider how to carry on the government.
October 20 – General Monck sends a declaration from Scotland demanding the return of Parliament.
October 25 – The Council of State dissolved; the Committee of Safety re-appointed by Army leaders.
November 3 – Lambert marches north from London with 12,000 troops to block Monck’s route into England.
November 12 – Monck’s representatives arrive in London for talks with the Council of Officers.
November 24 – Former members of the Council of State appoint Monck commander of all military units in England and Scotland and empower him to take military action against the enemies of Parliament if necessary.
December 3 – Sir Arthur Hesilrige secures Portsmouth for Parliament.
December 5 – Riots in London for the return of Parliament.
December 8 – Monck crosses the border and establishes his headquarters at Coldstream.
December 14 – Vice-Admiral John Lawson sails for the Thames, threatening to blockade London in support of Parliament.
December 26 – Fleetwood forced to recall the Rump Parliament.

1660
January 1 – General Monck marches from Coldstream for London.
January 9 – Sir Henry Vane expelled from Parliament for having sided with the military junta.
January 11 – Lord Fairfax meets Monck at York and urges him to restore the Monarchy.
February 3 – Monck’s army arrives in London.
February 9 – Parliament orders Monck to remove the City gates and portcullises after citizens of London demand the reinstatement of Presbyterian MPs purged in 1648.
February 11 – Monck demands the re-admission of the purged MPs and apologises for his actions in removing the City gates.
February 21 – The Long Parliament restored: surviving MPs purged in 1648 re-admitted to Parliament under Monck’s protection.
March 5 – John Lambert imprisoned in the Tower of London.
March 16 – The Long Parliament calls free elections and votes for its own dissolution.
April 10 – Lambert escapes from the Tower and tries to rally resistance to the Restoration.
April 22 – Lambert and his followers defeated at Daventry; Lambert returned to London as a prisoner.
April 25 – The Convention Parliament assembles.
May 1 – Charles II’s manifesto the Declaration of Breda read in Parliament.
May 8 – The Convention Parliament declares Charles II to have been King since 30th January 1649.
May 14 – Parliament orders the arrest of all surviving regicides.
May 25 – Charles II lands at Dover.
May 29 – Charles II makes a triumphal entry into London.

The reign of Charles II, the 1660s

Charles’s reign breaks up into a number of periods and is dominated by a few key themes.

First, was how to deal with the legacy of the Civil War. Charles was in favour of forgiveness and tried to steer the first Parliament of his reign, the Convention Parliament, in that direction. However, the second Parliament, which came to be known as the Cavalier Parliament, not to mention the newly restored House of Lords, contained many who had suffered severely, lost land and family to the Roundheads. They were determined to push the clock back, to recover their lost land and money, to savagely punish all those responsible for the wars and the regicide, and to re-establish a rigid conformity in religion.

Convention Parliament

The Convention Parliament sat until the end of 1660. It was responsible for implementing the terms for the initial Restoration settlement under which Charles II established his administration.

The Convention passed the Bill of Indemnity and Oblivion, which was intended to reunite the nation under the restored monarchy by pardoning the majority of those who had opposed the Crown during the civil wars and Interregnum. It also undertook the task of disbanding the army which had underpinned the Commonwealth and Protectorate régimes. First steps were taken towards settling disputes over lands which had been sold off during the Interregnum, and initial legislation to provide revenue for the restored monarchy was set out. Charles dissolved the Convention Parliament on 29 December 1660.

The Clarendon Code

The Restoration religious settlement comprised four acts of Parliament known collectively as the Clarendon Code. The name derived from Sir Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, who served as Charles II’s lord chancellor – though Clarendon was not the chief instigator of the acts and even argued against some of the more severe aspects.

The Corporation Act of 1661 required all office holders in towns and cities to take oaths of allegiance to the Crown, to renounce the Solemn League and Covenant and to take the sacrament in accordance with the doctrines of the Church of England.

The Act of Uniformity of 1662 brought all ordained clergymen under the doctrines and liturgy of the established Church. Candidates for the ministry had to be ordained by a bishop according to the rites of the Church of England. They were required to renounce the Solemn League and Covenant and to declare their acceptance of the revised Book of Common Prayer and all doctrinal articles sanctioned by the Church. Hundreds of Presbyterian and non-conformist clergymen were expelled from their livings on St Bartholomew’s Day (24 August) 1662 for refusing to comply with the Act of Uniformity.

The Conventicle Act of 1664 was intended to prevent clergymen ejected by the Act of Uniformity from forming their own congregations. Fines or imprisonment were imposed on anyone attending an independent prayer meeting or act of worship (a so-called ‘conventicle) that was not in accordance with the Anglican liturgy.

The Five-Mile Act of 1665 was intended to curb the influence of dissenting clergymen by prohibiting them from residing within five miles of any living they had held before the Act was passed. Furthermore, they were required to take an oath of non-resistance to royal authority before accepting any appointment as tutor or schoolmaster.

Money

Once again a Stuart king let himself become poor, spending a fortune on the two stupid Dutch wars and frittering it away on mistresses and favourites at home.

A timeline of the 1660s

1661 Corporation Act – aimed at Presbyterians, the Act provided that no person could be legally elected to any office relating to the government of a city or corporation, unless he had within the previous twelve months received the sacrament of ‘the Lord’s Supper’ according to the rites of the Church of England. He was also commanded to take the Oaths of Allegiance and the Oath of Supremacy, to swear belief in the Doctrine of Passive Obedience, and to renounce the Covenant.
1662 Act of Uniformity compels Puritans to accept the doctrines of the Church of England or leave the church.
1662 Royal Society for the improvement of science founded

Catherine of Braganza Charles married Catherine of the Portuguese royal house of Braganza. He married her for money but her dowry was quickly spent and then Britain found itself drawn into Portugal’s war against Spain. And, crucially, Catherine turned out to be ‘barren’ or incapable of conceiving children. Charles wasn’t. He was to acknowledge fatherhood of eighteen bastards (the most famous being the Duke of Monmouth, born as early as 1649, when Charles himself was only 19).

The lack of a male heir from the Braganza marriage meant the throne would pass to his brother James who was an overt Catholic i.e. more or less condemned the Stuart line to come to an end. As with Henry VIII, the infertility of a royal marriage was to have seismic consequences for the British.

1664 England seizes the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, changing its name to New York.
1665 Outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War
1665 The Great Plague strikes London and over 60,000 die.
1666 The Great Fire of London rages for four days and three nights. Two thirds of central London is destroyed and 65,000 are left homeless

1667 As part of The Second Dutch War A Dutch fleet sails up the River Medway captures the English flagship The Royal Charles and sinks three other great ships. This humiliation provided Charles with a pretext to blame and thus get rid of the Earl of Clarendon, the statesman who had guided and mentored him in exile and dominated the first seven years of his rule.

Fall of Clarendon Clarendon was replaced by a set of five statesmen or advisers who come to be known as The Cabal and held power from 1668 to 1674.

The Cabal The linchpin of the Cabal was probably George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Although he only held the household office of Master of the Horse, with responsibility for overseeing the King’s travel arrangements, Buckingham was a long and close associate of King Charles II. They had practically been raised together since they were children, during the close association of their fathers, Charles I and the first Duke of Buckingham, a relationship they consciously compared themselves to in adulthood, and might have replicated, had the younger Buckingham possessed the skills of his father. Nonetheless, Buckingham was in constant contact and a clear favourite of the king, and the centre of the Cabal’s grip on power. Gilbert Burnet, who knew some of its members personally, said that Buckingham stood apart from the rest of the Cabal, hating them and being hated in return.

The Lord High Treasurer Wriothesley having died just before Clarendon’s departure, the Treasury came under the nominal chairmanship of George Monck (Duke of Albermarle). But as Monck was practically retired from public life, control of the Treasury commission was taken up by Sir Thomas Clifford (Comptroller and soon Treasurer of the Household) and Anthony Ashley Cooper (Chancellor of the Exchequer). With the assistance of their close associates John Duncombe (Ashley’s deputy at the Exchequer), Stephen Fox (the Paymaster of the Forces) and Sir George Downing, the secretary to the Treasury commission, Clifford and Ashley overhauled the monarchical finances, placing them in a much more solvent state than before.

Foreign affairs was directed by Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington (Secretary of the South), with occasional assistance from George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. (Although foreign affairs were notionally in the purview of the Secretary of the North, the Cabal bullied Sir William Morice into selling the seat to Sir John Trevor, and then sidelined the latter.)

John Maitland, Earl of Lauderdale (Secretary of State for Scotland) had already consolidated his position in 1663 by securing the dismissal of his principal rival, John Middleton (Lord High Commissioner to the Parliament of Scotland) and his replacement by the more pliable John Leslie, Earl of Rothes. In 1669, Lauderdale went one step further, and got Leslie dismissed and the Lord High Commissioner position for himself, consolidating his hold and ruling Scotland as a virtual autocrat for the remainder of his career.

Sir Orlando Bridgeman, the Royalist lawyer who had prosecuted the Regicides, and who took over Clarendon’s duties as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal in 1667, was outside of this inner circle, although cooperated with their goals.

Despite their comparative energy and efficiency, the Cabal was a fractious and unpopular group. Although perceived as a secretive and unsavoury junta, they rarely formed a united front, and their internal quarrels often spilled over into the public arena.

J. P. Kenyon suggests that the King actually encouraged the Cabal members to quarrel, in the belief that this made them easier to control. They in turn, never trusted him not to bring them down as he had brought down Clarendon, and as Kenyon remarks, they hardly dared turn their backs on him for fear of sudden dismissal.

It was said that the King treated his ministers very much as he did his mistresses: ‘He used them, but he was not in love with them, and was tied to them no more than they to him, which implies sufficient liberty on either side’.

Sir William Coventry, the Secretary to the Admiralty, resigned from office following a duel challenge from the Duke of Buckingham, and re-emerged in the House of Commons at the head of a group of MPs known as the ‘Country Party’, which loudly opposed the Cabal and its policies.

Charles II acceded to the Cabal’s recommendation to prorogue parliament repeatedly, keeping it out of session for as long as he could, and leaving the Cabal to run the country on their own. When he found himself in financial difficulties following the Great Stop of the Exchequer in 1672 and the outbreak of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, Charles was obliged to re-convene parliament in 1673 and the parliamentarians were bent on revenge.

Fall of the Cabal

The Cabal began to split in 1672, particularly over the autocratic nature of the King’s Royal Declaration of Indulgence, the financing of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, and Britain’s relationship with France.

Personal rivalries and a conflict over foreign policy between Buckingham and Arlington escalated. The Ministry became very unpopular. The public saw them as ‘untrustworthy, venal and self-seeking, their eyes always on the main chance”.

Towards the end of the year, Ashley, now the Earl of Shaftesbury, became Lord Chancellor, leaving Treasury matters to Clifford and the Exchequer to Duncombe. He pressed publicly for greater reform of government, taking the side of the Opposition against his colleagues and the King.

Clifford resigned over the in-fighting and retired from public life: as an open Roman Catholic he would in any case have been debarred by the Test Act of 1673 from holding office in the future. Shaftesbury was replaced by Viscount Osborne, soon to become Earl of Danby, in the summer of 1673, on the recommendation of Buckingham and Clifford.

Danby immediately established his authority over the remaining members of the Cabal. Buckingham’s feud with Arlington saw him leak the details of the Treaty of Dover and fall from favour in 1674. Arlington survived as Southern Secretary until September of that year. Lauderdale retained his position and his relatively autonomous power in Scotland, becoming an enemy of Shaftesbury.

Shaftesbury began to agitate against Charles and his brother, the Duke of York, later James II. He briefly returned to government in the Privy Council Ministry and took a lead in forming the partisan group that would eventually become known as the Whigs.

Reign of Charles II, the 1670s

1670 – Charles signs the secret Treaty of Dover, by which Charles agrees to declare himself a Catholic, suspend penal laws against Catholics in England in return for secret subsidies from Louis XIV of France.
1670 – Second Conventicle Act
1670 – Hudson Bay Company founded in North America

1672 – Charles issues the Declaration of Indulgence, allowing dissenters and Catholics to practice their religion in private
1672 – Outbreak of the Third Dutch War as part of the secret treaty with France, the French invading the Spanish Netherlands while the British fleet engaged the Dutch fleet. The Dutch defeated the British fleet at Sole Bay and repelled a land invasion by France by flooding their dykes.
1672 James Duke of York’s wife, Anne Hyde (daughter of the disgraced Earl of Clarendon) died in childbirth, having delivered him two daughters, Mary (b.1662) and Anne, both of whom were brought up as Protestants. Who suspected, then, that they would both reign as queens of England?

1673 – James, Duke of York remarried, taking as his second wife Mary of Modena, a Catholic who was only four years older than his daughter, Mary. James came out publicly as a Catholic which caused a scandal.

1673 – When Charles allowed the Cavalier Parliament to sit again in 1673, it was inflamed by rumours of Charles’s deals with the King of France and Catholic influence in British statecraft, and so the vengeful Anglicans passed a Test Act which required everybody holding public office to take Anglican communion and swear an oath against a belief in transubstantiation – that the wafer of bread and the wine administered during communion actually and literally become the blood of Christ, a central premise of Roman Catholicism. In other words, the Act was expressly designed to keep Roman Catholics out of political office. The Catholic Treasurer Lord Clifford resigned his office then took his life. Charles’s brother, James Duke of York, resigned as High Admiral of the Navy.

In 1677 the Earl of Danby, who had emerged as Charles’s most capable minister, persuaded both Charles and James to let him make a strategic alliance by marrying James’s daughter Mary to her cousin, the Protestant Stadtholder of Holland, William III of Orange. William was the son of the King’s late sister, Mary, Princess Royal, and thus fourth in the line of succession after James, Mary, and Ann. When James told Mary that she was to marry her cousin, ‘she wept all that afternoon and all the following day’. She was 15.

Reign of Charles II, the Popish Plot and after

1678 – The fantasist Titus Oates concocted the Popish Plot, the notion of a complex, far-reaching plot to murder Charles and convert Britain to a Catholic dictatorship. His initial claims were passed up the chain of command to Charles himself who handed them to Danby to investigate, and with each telling they became more fantastic and baroque. They played into the sense that Britain was being sold into Catholic influence which had haunted the 1670s, what with James’s overt Catholicism, his marriage to a Catholic princess, with Charles repeatedly allying with Catholic France against the Protestant Dutch. Oates’s fabrications helped create a McCarthy witch-hunt atmosphere. Even when he accused the Queen of being a member of the plot to assassinate her own husband, he was widely believed.

A second Test Act (1678) was passed which excluded all known Catholics from both Houses of Parliament. Known Catholics were ordered to leave London and many Protestants in the city openly carried weapons to defend themselves against the impending Catholic ‘onslaught’. Shops in London were boarded up, chains were stretched across major roadways, ferry passengers were detained for questioning, a fleet of lesser crooks and narks emerged to inform on their neighbours and rivals. Some twenty-four utterly innocent people were tried and executed, while Oates was awarded rooms in Whitehall and a pension.

The hysteria lasted from 1678 to 1681. A new Parliament was elected in March 1679 which presented a bill seeking to prevent the succession of the Catholic James. Charles worked on numerous fronts to address concerns, taking opponents into his Privy Council, sending James out of the kingdom, being prepared to sign a bill limiting the power of a Catholic monarch. But he would not concede the right to determine the royal succession to Parliament and so he dissolved this Parliament and called a second one. The second Parliament of 1679 was called amid mounting hysteria and opposition was orchestrated by the Earl of Shaftesbury amid press campaigns and petitions.

The coalition of allies which Shaftesbury put together around this central anti-Catholic approach was arguably the first political party in Britain and became known as the Whigs. The king’s supporters quickly copied the new organisational tactics of the Whigs and began to be known as the Tories. Charles refused to let the second Parliament sit, proroguing it seven times over the course of a year. Whig propagandists played on fears of Catholic tyranny; Tories revived memories of 1641 and the way a Parliament trying to seize the king’s prerogatives had led to 20 years of chaos.

Whigs and Tories

The term Whig was originally short for whiggamor, a term meaning ‘cattle driver’ used to describe western Scots who came to Leith for corn. In the reign of Charles I the term was used during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms to refer derisively to a radical faction of the Scottish Covenanters who called themselves the Kirk Party (see the Whiggamore Raid). It was then applied to Scottish Presbyterian rebels who were against the King’s Episcopalian order in Scotland.

The term Whig entered English political discourse during the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1678–1681 when there was controversy about whether or not King Charles II’s brother, James, should be allowed to succeed to the throne on Charles’s death. Whig was a term of abuse applied to those who wanted to exclude James on the grounds that he was a Roman Catholic. The fervent Tory Samuel Johnson often joked that ‘the first Whig was the Devil’.

In his six-volume history of England, David Hume wrote:

The court party reproached their antagonists with their affinity to the fanatical conventiclers in Scotland, who were known by the name of Whigs: The country party found a resemblance between the courtiers and the popish banditti in Ireland, to whom the appellation of Tory was affixed. And after this manner, these foolish terms of reproach came into public and general use; and even at present seem not nearer their end than when they were first invented

In response, King Charles prorogued Parliament and then dissolved it, but the subsequent elections in August and September saw the Whigs’ strength increase. This new parliament did not meet for thirteen months but when it did in October 1680, an Exclusion Bill was introduced and passed in the Commons without major resistance, but Charles was in attendance when it was rejected in the Lords and Charles dissolved Parliament in January 1681.

As Mark Kishlansky summarises, ‘the governing class was now irredeemably divided.’

The next attempt at a Parliament met in March at Oxford, but when it also determined on the Exclusion Bill, Charles dissolved it after only a few days. He then he made an appeal to the country against the Whigs and ruled for the rest of his reign without Parliament.

In February, Charles had made a deal with the French King Louis XIV, who promised to support him against the Whigs. Without Parliament, the Whigs gradually crumbled, mainly due to government repression following the discovery of the Rye House Plot, which directly implicated many of them.

1683 The Rye House Plot a conspiracy to kill Charles and his brother James and return to parliamentary rule is uncovered. The Rye House Plot of 1683 was a plan to assassinate King Charles II of England and his brother (and heir to the throne) James, Duke of York. The royal party went from Westminster to Newmarket to see horse races and were expected to make the return journey on 1 April 1683, but because there was a major fire in Newmarket on 22 March (which destroyed half the town), the races were cancelled, and the King and the Duke returned to London early. As a result, the planned attack never took place.

There seems to have been disagreement among the plotters on almost every aspect, including whether there even would be an assassination or whether it should be a kidnapping, and exactly how the subsequent uprising would be started and managed.

Once information about it was leaked, the plotters incriminated each other and letters and diaries were discovered which spread the net wider and wider.

Unlike the Popish Plot, Rye House was a genuine conspiracy involving an extended network of Whigs, politicians and non-conformists. Twelve were executed including William Lord Russell and Algernon Sidney, two condemned to death but pardoned, 10 imprisoned including the ageing Leveller John Wildman, 10 fled into exile including the noted philosopher John Locke and, most importantly, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who had been the effective leader of the Whig party. These formed a core of Whig opposition in exile, in the Netherlands.

As Anglican pledges of support flooded in from round the country, the authorities took the opportunity to crack down in dissenters and over 1,300 Quakers were imprisoned over the next 12 months.

Charles undertook a policy of reincorporation, systematically placing loyalist country officers around the country.

Death of Charles II

Charles died on 5 February 1685, aged just 54, only barely outmatching his father, who died aged 48. On his deathbed he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. In the absence of any legitimate male heirs, the crown passed to his younger brother, who became King James II.


Related links

Restoration art

Restoration comedies

Political documents of the British civil wars

Political documents of the civil wars

What follows are summaries of some of the key political documents produced between the start of Charles I’s conflict with Scotland  in 1637 and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Instead of a chronological or thematic approach to the period, this is a different angle from which to consider events, a record of the proliferation of plans and constitutions cooked up by all sides in their attempts to find a solution to the nation’s deep divisions.

Lining them up like this brings out one of the central ideas of Mark Kishlansky’s history of the 17th century, namely the collapse of consensus, the collapse of belief in a central set of political and religious values which characterised the era, and the countless attempts made by different political players to rebuild it.

In the last few documents of the series you can see the realisation emerging that the late-medieval idea of a hierarchical and completely homogeneous society was permanently broken and that only a system which allowed for some measure of tolerance and pluralism could replace it.

The question of just how much pluralism and tolerance could be permitted and society remain, in some sense, united or coherent, remained an open question – in fact, arguably, it’s one of the main threads of British social and political history right up to the present day.

To me what this proliferation of documents indicates is how very difficult it is, once you abandon tradition and precedent, to draw up a new political constitution in a period of crisis. It’s one of the reasons revolutions are so tumultuous. Getting rid of the ancien regime, especially if it’s embodied in one hated ruler (Charles I, Louis XVIII, Czar Nicholas II, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi) is relatively easy. Finding a successor system which all the competing factions can unite behind… almost impossible.

Which is why revolutions often become uncontrollable by all except the most ideological, ruthless and uncompromising: Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin, Ayatollah Khomeini. Or collapse into civil war: Iraq, Libya.

I’m aware that the documents are in a broad range of genres – from constitutions enacted by central government to the manifestos of fringe groups (the Levellers and even more so, the Diggers), from religious oaths to political treaties. A proper study would take this more into account. I am concerned simply to give an indication of a) the sheer number of them b) their range and variety, and – as said above – the way they show how, once a shared consensus has collapsed, it is so very difficult to create a new one.

  • 1638 The Scottish National Covenant
  • 1641 The Grand Remonstrance
  • 1643 The Solemn League & Covenant
  • 1647 The Heads of the Proposals
  • 1647-9 An Agreement of the People
  • 1648 The Army Remonstrance
  • 1649 England’s New Chains Discovered
  • 1649 The True Levellers Standard Advanced (the Diggers)
  • 1650 The Treaty of Breda
  • 1653 The Instrument of Government
  • 1657 Humble Petition and Advice
  • 1660 The Declaration of Breda

1638 The Scottish National Covenant

In 1637 King Charles I and Archbishop Laud tried to bring the separate churches of England and Scotland closer together, firstly by the introduction of a new Book of Canons to replace John Knox’s Book of Discipline as the authority for the organisation of the Kirk, and secondly by the introduction of a modified form of the Book of Common Prayer into Scotland. Charles and Laud consulted neither the Scottish Parliament or the Assembly of the Kirk with the inevitable result that the proposals met with outrage from Scots determined to preserve their national and religious identity.

At the first service where they were introduced, on 23 July 1637 in St Giles’s cathedral in Edinburgh, Jenny Geddes flung her prayer stool at the dean as he read from the book, and started a riot. Similar demonstrations took place in churches all across Scotland where the new liturgy was introduced.

This spontaneous protest was soon organised by Presbyterian elders and aristocrats into a campaign of petitions denouncing the Laudian prayer book and the power of the bishops. These coalesced into a committee which drew up a National Covenant to unite the protesters. The Covenant called for adherence to doctrines already enshrined by Acts of Parliament and for a rejection of untried ‘innovations’ in religion.

In February 1638, at a ceremony in Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, large numbers of Scottish noblemen, gentry, clergy and burgesses signed the Covenant, committing themselves under God to preserving the purity of the Kirk. Copies were distributed throughout Scotland for signing on a wave of popular support. Those who hesitated were often intimidated into signing and clergymen who opposed it were deposed. By the end of May 1638, the only areas of Scotland where the Covenant had not been widely accepted were the remote western highlands and the counties of Aberdeen and Banff, where resistance to it was led by the Royalist George Gordon, Marquis of Huntly.

An Assembly was held at Glasgow in 1638 where the Covenanter movement became the dominant political and religious force in Scotland.

In 1643 the objectives of the Covenant were incorporated into the Solemn League and Covenant which formed the basis of the military alliance between the English Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters against the Royalists.

1641 The Grand Remonstrance

A Remonstrance against King Charles I was first proposed by George Digby, MP for Dorset, soon after the Long Parliament assembled in November 1640. The idea was taken up by John Pym in 1641. Pym planned to use it as part of his campaign to transfer control of the armed forces to Parliament by undermining confidence in the King and his ministers and by demonstrating the integrity of Parliament.

The Remonstrance was drafted between August and November 1641 by Pym and his supporters. These included John Hampden, John Glynn, Sir John Clotworthy, Arthur Goodwyn and others who later formed the ‘Middle Group’ that was associated with Pym’s efforts to bridge the parliamentarian ‘War’ and ‘Peace’ parties during the early years of the English Civil War.

The Grand Remonstrance was a long, wide-ranging document that listed all the grievances perpetrated by the King’s government in Church and State since the beginning of his reign. Rather than blaming the King himself, the Remonstrance emphasised the role of bishops, papists and ‘malignant’ ministers and advisers who were alleged to have deliberately provoked discord and division between King and Parliament.

In contrast, the Remonstrance described the measures taken by the Long Parliament towards rectifying these grievances during its first year in office, including the abolition of prerogative courts and illegal taxes, legislation for the regular summoning of Parliament, and a partial reform of the Church. Thus the House of Commons was presented as the true defender of the King’s rightful prerogative, of the Protestant faith, of the privileges of Parliament and the liberties of the people.

In order to continue its work, the Remonstrance called for the setting up of an Assembly of Divines, nominated by Parliament, to supervise ongoing reform of the Church; furthermore, it demanded that the King’s ministers should be approved by Parliament, with the right of veto over those it considered unsuitable.

On 22 November 1641, after a stormy debate that lasted long into the night, the House of Commons passed the Remonstrance by a narrow margin of 159 votes to 148. The King’s supporters who tried to enter a protest were shouted down in a bad-tempered confrontation that almost ended in a riot. Oliver Cromwell is said to have remarked that if the Remonstrance had not been passed he would have sold all he had and gone overseas to America.

Opponents of the Remonstrance, who included Viscount Falkland and Edward Hyde, formed what was, for the first time, a recognisable Royalist party in Parliament. The Remonstrance was presented to the King on 1 December 1641. He ignored it for as long as possible, so Parliament took the unprecedented step of having it printed and circulated in order to rally outside support. On 23 December, the King finally presented his reply. Drafted by Edward Hyde, it rejected the Remonstrance but in reasoned and conciliatory tones calculated to appeal to moderate opinion.

1643 The Solemn League & Covenant

The alliance between the English Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters was sealed with the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant by both Houses of Parliament and the Scottish commissioners on 25 September 1643. It was a military league and a religious covenant. Its immediate purpose was to overwhelm the Royalists, who in 1643 seemed in a strong position to win the English Civil War.

An alliance between Parliament and the Scots was first proposed by John Pym early in 1643. Parliament was anxious to secure military help from Scotland in order to counter Royalist victories in England. The Convention of Estates in Edinburgh favoured the alliance after the discovery of the Earl of Antrim’s conspiracy to bring over an Irish Catholic army to support a projected uprising of Scottish Royalists. However, the Covenanters regarded the alliance principally as a religious union of the two nations. They hoped to unite the churches of Scotland and England under a Presbyterian system of church government.

In August 1643, the four commissioners appointed by the House of Commons arrived in Edinburgh. They were Sir Henry Vane, Sir William Armyne, Thomas Hatcher and Henry Darley. They were accompanied by two clergymen, the Presbyterian Stephen Marshall and the Independent Philip Nye. Although the House of Lords had voted in favour of the alliance, no peers were prepared to go to Scotland to take part in the negotiations. Sir Henry Vane emerged as the leading spokesman of the English delegation.

Both sides were eager to defeat the Royalists so the negotiations proceeded quickly. The Westminster Parliament ratified the new covenant within two weeks of receiving it at the end of August 1643. Certain alterations were made to avoid an immediate commitment to strict Presbyterianism and these were accepted by the Convention of Estates.

The Scots agreed to send an army into England on condition that Parliament would co-operate with the Kirk in upholding the Protestant religion and uprooting all remaining traces of popery. Although it was implied that Presbyterian forms of worship and church government would be enforced in England, Wales and Ireland, the clause was qualified to read that church reform would be carried out ‘according to the Word of God’ – which was open to different interpretations.

Reform of the Anglican church was debated at the Westminster Assembly, but a Presbyterian religious settlement for England was strongly opposed by Independents and others. The settlement that was eventually imposed was regarded as a compromise by the Covenanters.

In January 1644, the Army of the Covenant marched into England to take the field against the Royalists. Parliament decreed that the Covenant was to be taken by every Englishman over the age of eighteen. Although no penalty was specified, the names of those who refused to sign were to be certified to Parliament. Signing the Covenant became a prerequisite for holding any command or office under Parliament until King Charles I made his own alliance with the Scots in 1648.

After the execution of Charles I, Kirk leaders pressed the Solemn League and Covenant on his son Charles II at the Treaty of Breda (1650). However, the defeat of the Royalist-Scots alliance at the battle of Worcester in September 1651 ended all attempts to impose Presbyterianism in England.

1646 The Newcastle Propositions

The Newcastle Propositions were drawn up by the Westminster Parliament as a basis for a treaty with King Charles I in July 1646 after the defeat of the Royalists in the First Civil War. The King had surrendered to Parliament’s Scottish allies rather than to Parliament itself and was held in semi-captivity at Newcastle.

There was resentment among English Parliamentarians that the King was in the hands of the Scots, and tension had increased after an intercepted letter revealed that secret negotiations had passed between the King and the Scots earlier in the year. Fearing that the alliance with Parliament was under threat, the Committee of Estates in Edinburgh instructed the Scottish commissioners in London to consent to Parliament’s proposals, even though they fell short of the Covenanters’ ideals in the settlement of religion.

The Propositions put to the King consisted of nineteen clauses. The main points were:

  • The King was to sign the Covenant and an Act was to be passed imposing it on all his subjects
  • Episcopacy was to be abolished as it had been in Scotland; the church in England and Ireland was to be reformed along Presbyterian lines as directed by Parliament and the Assembly of Divines
  • The armed forces and militia were to be controlled by Parliament for a period of twenty years before reverting to the Crown
  • Leading officials and judges were to be nominated by Parliament
  • The Irish Cessation was to be annulled and the war in Ireland to be directed by Parliament
  • Conservators of the Peace were to be appointed in England and Scotland to maintain peace between the two nations
  • A number of named Royalists were to be exempted from pardon and punished for their actions in the Civil War
  • Strict laws against Catholics were to be enforced

1647 The Heads of the Proposals

These were a set of propositions intended to be a basis for a constitutional settlement after King Charles I was defeated in the First English Civil War. The document was drafted by Commissionary-General Henry Ireton and Major-General John Lambert. during the summer of 1647 when the Army was engaged in a political power struggle with Presbyterian MPs over the settlement of the nation. The proposals were termed the ‘Heads’ to indicate that they were a broad outline, to be negotiated in detail later.

  • Royalists had to wait five years before running for or holding an office.
  • The Book of Common Prayer was allowed to be read but not mandatory, and no penalties should be made for not going to church, or attending other acts of worship.
  • The sitting Parliament was to set a date for its own termination. Thereafter, biennial Parliaments were to be called (i.e. every two years), which would sit for a minimum of 120 days and maximum of 240 days. Constituencies were to be reorganized.
  • Episcopacy would be retained in church government, but the power of the bishops would be substantially reduced.
  • Parliament was to control the appointment of state officials and officers in the army and navy for 10 years.

Although the Army proposals were more lenient than the terms offered in Parliament’s Newcastle Propositions, the King regarded them as too restrictive and rejected them outright. During the negotiations, Ireton and Cromwell lost the support of the Army radicals, who were disappointed that the proposals made no concessions to Leveller demands for a wider franchise, and who criticised the Grandees’ ‘servility’ in their dealings with the King.

Meanwhile, Charles continued his attempts to play off the Army and Parliament against one another. He also began secretly negotiating with a faction among the Scots, which was to lead to the Second Civil War in 1648.

At the Putney Debates (October-November 1647), where the Army Council discussed a new constitution for England, Ireton promoted the Heads of the Proposals as a moderate alternative to the Leveller-inspired Agreement of the People.

Six years later, elements of Ireton’s proposals were incorporated into the Instrument of Government – the written constitution that defined Cromwell’s powers as Lord Protector. The religious settlement proposed by Ireton in 1647 was virtually identical to that finally adopted in the Toleration Act of 1689.

1647-49 An Agreement of the People

The Agreement of the People was the principal constitutional manifesto associated with the Levellers. It was intended to be a written constitution that would define the form and powers of government and would also set limits on those powers by reserving a set of inalienable rights to the people. It would take the form of a contract between the electorate and the representative, to be renewed at each election. The Agreement developed over several versions between October 1647 and May 1649.

Original Draft, 1647 An Agreement of the People for a firm and present peace upon grounds of common right was first drafted in October 1647 when Agitators of the New Model Army and civilian Levellers collaborated to propose an outline for a new constitution in the aftermath of the First Civil War. It was probably drafted by John Wildman though its authorship is not known for certain. Stating that sovereign power should reside in the people of England rather than with the discredited King or Parliament, the original Agreement consisted of four clauses:

  1. The peoples’ representatives (i.e. Members of Parliament) should be elected in proportion to the population of their constituencies
  2. The existing Parliament should be dissolved on 30 September 1648
  3. Future Parliaments should be elected biennially and sit every other year from April to September
  4. The biennial Parliament (consisting of a single elected House) should be the supreme authority in the land, with powers to make or repeal laws, appoint officials and conduct domestic and foreign policy

Certain constraints were placed on Parliament: it was not to interfere with freedom of religion; it was not to press men to serve in the armed forces; it could not prosecute anyone for their part in the recent war; it was not to exempt anyone from the ordinary course of the law; all laws passed by Parliament should be for the common good.

The proposals were debated at the Putney Debates of October and November 1647 where the Grandees Cromwell and Ireton tried to curb Leveller extremism, particularly over a proposal to extend the franchise to all adult males. Parliament denounced the Agreement as destructive to the government of the nation and ordered Fairfax to investigate its authorship. Attempts to gain wider Army support for the Agreement at the Corkbush Field rendezvous were forcibly suppressed by the Grandees.

The Whitehall Debates, 1648-9 During 1648, civilian and military supporters of the Agreement continued to debate and refine its proposals. The Armies Petition or a new Engagement was drafted by a group of Agitators at St Albans in April 1648 and was published in tandem with a related civilian broadside, A New Engagement, or Manifesto. These documents expanded upon the original Agreement to include more specific proposals for legal and economic reform.

After the King’s defeat in the Second Civil War, John Lilburne promoted an extended version of the Agreement which was discussed by a committee of Levellers, London Independents, MPs and army Grandees at Whitehall in December 1648. These discussions took place in the aftermath of Pride’s Purge when the King’s trial was imminent.

Lilburne wanted to secure Parliament’s acceptance of the Agreement before the King was brought to trial so that the trial would have a basis in a legitimate and legal constitution. However, Lilburne and his colleague Richard Overton walked out of the discussions when Army officers led by Henry Ireton insisted upon making further modifications to the Agreement before it was presented to Parliament.

The discussions continued in Lilburne’s absence. While Ireton appeared to make concessions to the Levellers over the franchise, it is probable that he was playing for time to distract the Army Levellers while preparations for the King’s trial went ahead. The revised Agreement was finally presented to the House of Commons as a proposal for a new constitution on 20 January 1649, the very day that the public sessions of the High Court of Justice began. As Ireton had calculated, MPs postponed discussion of the Agreement until after the trial, and it was never taken up again by Parliament.

Final version, May 1649 The Grandees’ modification of the Agreement of January 1649 was the Army’s last official involvement in its evolution. However, Lilburne and the civilian Levellers regarded Ireton’s intervention as a betrayal and continued to refine their proposals. A fully developed version of the Agreement – An Agreement of the Free People of England, tendered as a Peace-Offering to this distressed Nation – was published in May 1649, signed jointly by John Lilburne, Richard Overton, William Walwyn and Thomas Prince. Its proposals included:

  • The right to vote for all men over the age of 21 (excepting servants, beggars and Royalists)
  • Annual elections to Parliament with MPs serving one term only
  • No army officer, treasurer or lawyer could be an MP (to prevent conflict of interest)
  • Equality of all persons before the law
  • Trials should be heard before 12 jurymen, freely chosen by their community
  • The law should proceed in English and cases should not extend longer than six months
  • No-one could be punished for refusing to testify against themselves in criminal cases
  • The death penalty to be applied only in cases of murder
  • Abolition of imprisonment for debt
  • Tithes should be abolished and parishioners have the right to choose their ministers
  • Taxation in proportion to real or personal property
  • Abolition of military conscription, monopolies and excise taxes

The final version was published after the Leveller leaders had been imprisoned by order of the Council of State and a few weeks before the suppression of the Army Levellers at Burford on 17 May 1649, after which the Leveller movement was effectively finished.

1648 The Army Remonstrance

The Remonstrance of General Fairfax and the Council of Officers was a manifesto adopted by the New Model Army in November 1648 to justify its intention to abandon treaty negotiations with King Charles and to bring him to trial as an enemy of the people. Although it was issued under the authority of Fairfax and the Council of Officers, the Remonstrance was primarily the work of Henry Ireton.

In September 1648, Parliament opened negotiations for a settlement with King Charles at the Treaty of Newport. However, Army radicals demanded that the negotiations should be abandoned and the King brought to justice for inflicting the Second Civil War upon the nation.

Ireton wrote to General Fairfax proposing that the Army should purge Parliament of MPs who supported the Treaty. After Fairfax rejected the proposal, Ireton began drafting the Remonstrance. Several petitions from radical regiments demanding justice against the King were presented to Fairfax during the following weeks, possibly under Ireton’s direction. Under pressure from the radicals, Fairfax agreed to call a meeting of the General Council of the Army at St Albans to discuss the situation. In contrast to the Putney Debates of the previous year, representatives of the common soldiers were excluded from the discussions.

The General Council convened in St Albans Abbey on 7 November 1648. After discussion of the petitions and general grievances of the soldiers, Ireton presented the draft of the Army Remonstrance on 10 November. It was initially rejected by Fairfax and the moderate officers but their opposition evaporated after 15 November when the House of Commons voted to allow the King to return to London on completion of the Newport Treaty and to restore his lands and revenues.

Fearing that Parliament intended to grant an unconditional restoration, the Army united behind Ireton’s Remonstrance. After some last-minute amendments to ensure the support of the Levellers, the Remonstrance was adopted by the General Council on 18 November 1648.

Under the maxim salus populi suprema lex (‘the safety of the people is the supreme law’), the Remonstrance proclaimed the sovereignty of the people under a representative government. Divine providence would prove the righteousness or otherwise of the government’s actions, and would also thwart unjustified rebellion against authority. Thus, the defeat of King Charles in the Second Civil War vindicated the actions of the Army as the defenders of the people. It was argued that the King should be brought to account because he had broken the sacred covenant with his people and attempted to place himself above the law.

The Remonstrance also proposed a set of Leveller-inspired constitutional reforms, including the possibility of an elective monarchy. Parliament was to set a date for its own dissolution, to be followed by annual or bi-annual Parliaments elected on a reformed franchise. There was to be a written constitution with a declaration of parliamentary authority over the King and Lords. All office-holders, including the monarch, were to subscribe to the Levellers’ Agreement of the People.

A delegation of officers headed by Colonel Ewer presented the Remonstrance to Parliament on 20 November. After an initial flurry of opposition led by William Prynne, Parliament postponed further discussion until treaty negotiations with the King at Newport were completed. Meanwhile, the Army moved its headquarters from St Albans to Windsor. On 28 November, the General Council of the Army resolved to march into London. With Parliament still refusing to discuss the Remonstrance and apparently intent on implementing the Treaty of Newport, Ireton initiated the train of events that led to Pride’s Purge in December 1648.

1649 England’s New Chains Discovered

On 26 February one of the leading radicals in the army, John Lilburne, published this attack on the new Commonwealth, in which he asserted the illegality of the High Court of Justice, the Council of State (which, he pointed out ,rested solely on the diminished or Rump Parliament) and the Council of the Army, which he accused of having become an instrument for the rich officers against the rank and file.

His agitation did not go unnoticed. In March 1649, Lilburne and other Leveller leaders were arrested. In October, Lilburne was brought to trial at the Guildhall, charged with high treason and with inciting the Leveller mutinies. He conducted his own defence, during which he raised strong objections to all aspects of the prosecution and quoted directly from Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes, or commentaries on the laws of England. The jury found Lilburne Not Guilty, to enthusiastic cheers from crowds of his supporters and well-wishers.

April 1649 The True Levellers Standard Advanced

This was the manifesto of the splinter group of Levellers who decided to put theory into practice and claimed a patch of common land near Weybridge in Surrey and began digging it. It was written by their leader Gerard Winstanley who has gone down as a hero to Marxists and left-leaning liberals. They thought all hierarchy should be abolished, wealth should be redistributed to abolish poverty, that the land was a common treasury and all the land parcelled out to households who would have equal rights to cultivate them and share the proceeds. As a result they were nicknamed the Diggers. Within months they’d been driven from the original site by the local landowners, and attempted their communal experiment in various other locations until fading away.

1650 The Treaty of Breda

After the execution of Charles I in January 1649, the Scottish Parliament proclaimed his son the new king, Charles II. However, the government of Scotland was dominated by the covenanting Kirk Party, which was determined that Charles should take the Covenant and agree to impose Presbyterianism throughout the Three Kingdoms before he could be crowned King of Scots or receive Scottish help to regain the throne of England.

Initial negotiations between Charles and representatives of the Scottish government were held at The Hague in March 1649 but broke down because Charles did not accept the legitimacy of the Kirk Party régime. However, his hopes of using Ireland as a rallying ground for the Royalist cause were thwarted by Cromwell’s invasion in August 1649. Various European heads of state offered sympathy but no practical help for regaining the throne, so Charles and his council were obliged to call for another round of negotiations with the Scots.

Negotiations between Charles II and a delegation of Scottish commissioners opened at Breda in the Netherlands on 25 March 1650. Aware of Charles’ desperate situation, the demands made by the Scottish Parliament were harsh:

  • Charles was required to sign the Covenant and to promise to impose it upon everyone in the Three Kingdoms.
  • All members of the King’s household were to adopt the Presbyterian religion.
  • Catholicism was never to be tolerated in the Three Kingdoms.
  • The King was to recognise the Scottish Parliament and to confirm all Acts passed since 1641
  • The King was to annul all recent commissions and treaties – this was intended to force Charles to disown Montrose’s expedition to Scotland and Ormond’s treaty with the Irish Confederates

Bad-tempered wrangling continued through March and April. Charles tried to gain concessions that would allow a reconciliation with the Engagers, who were excluded from office in Scotland by the Act of Classes. He would not impose Presbyterianism in England nor would he annul the Irish treaty. But to the dismay of English Royalists, Charles finally agreed to take the Oath of the Covenant. Other contentious issues were to be discussed upon his arrival in Scotland. He signed the Treaty of Breda on 1 May 1650 and took the Covenant immediately before landing in Scotland on 23 June 1650.

Charles then led a Scottish army into England which was comprehensively crushed at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651, the final engagement of the war in England which had started in 1642. Charles escaped the battlefield and was on the run for 45 days till he managed to take ship to France and nine years of exile.

1653 The Instrument of Government

England’s first written constitution, the Instrument of Government was a constitutional settlement drafted by Major-General John Lambert during the autumn of 1653 and adopted by the Council of Officers when the Nominated Assembly surrendered its powers to Oliver Cromwell in December.

Lambert’s original intention had been that the old constitution of King, Lords and Commons should be replaced by one of King, Council and Parliament. In discussion with a few trusted advisers after the abdication of the Nominated Assembly, Cromwell amended the Instrument to avoid reference to the royal title, which was likely to be unacceptable to the Army.

Under the terms of the Instrument of Government, executive power passed to an elected Lord Protector, in consultation with a Council of State numbering between thirteen and twenty-one members. Cromwell was declared Lord Protector for life, though it was stressed that the office was not hereditary. He was required to call triennial Parliaments consisting of a single House of 400 members from England and 30 each from Scotland and Ireland, to remain in session for at least five months.

Parliamentary constituencies were re-arranged in an attempt to lessen the influence of the gentry in favour of the emerging middle class who, it was hoped, would be more inclined to support the Protectorate government. The number of MPs from towns and boroughs (where voting was traditionally influenced by the local gentry) was significantly reduced and representation of the universities was limited. To balance the representative, the number of MPs from the counties was correspondingly increased.

In a direct repudiation of Leveller ideas, the county franchise was restricted to persons with land or personal property valued at £200 or more. The borough franchise remained with aldermen, councillors and burgesses. Furthermore, Roman Catholics and known Royalists were declared ineligible to vote or seek election.

Under the Instrument, Parliament was charged with raising revenue for establishing and maintaining a standing army of 10,000 horse and dragoons and 20,000 foot for the defence of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Liberty of worship was granted to all except Roman Catholics and those guilty of ‘licentiousness’ (i.e. the extreme sectarians).

The Instrument of Government was England’s first written constitution. It was adopted by the Council of Officers on 15 December 1653 and Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector the next day. The First Protectorate Parliament duly assembled on 3 September 1654. However, the abrupt termination of Parliament in January 1655 meant that MPs never finished revising the Instrument of Government and so it was never legally endorsed. Doubts regarding its legal authority led to the resignation of the Lord Chief Justice Henry Rolle in June 1655.

The Instrument was superseded in 1657 by the Humble Petition and Advice.

1657 Humble Petition and Advice

The Humble Petition and Advice was a constitutional document drawn up by a group of MPs in 1657 under which Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was offered the Crown. It represented an attempt by civilian Parliamentarians to move back towards traditional forms of government after the imposition of various army-led constitutional experiments, in particular the unpopular Rule of the Major-Generals.

The offer of the Crown was intended to limit Cromwell’s power rather than extend it, because as King his power would be defined by precedent. The Humble Petition aimed to legitimise the constitution since it came from an elected Parliament, unlike its predecessor the Instrument of Government.

The first version of the Humble Petition was known as the Humble Address and Remonstrance. It was drafted by a small group which included Lord Broghill, Edward Montagu and Oliver St John. The Remonstrance was brought before the Second Protectorate Parliament on 23 February 1657 by Sir Christopher Packe, a former lord mayor of London. It included proposals for the re-introduction of a second House of Parliament and for the establishment of a national church regulated by a Confession of Faith, but its most controversial proposal was that the Protector should be invited to assume the office and title of King.

This proposal was supported by most lawyers and civilian MPs but was fiercely opposed by Major-General Lambert and other army officers as well as by republicans and religious radicals.

Cromwell agonised over the decision for several months and finally declined the offer of the Crown on 8 May. A revised version of the proposal, which avoided reference to the royal title, was adopted on 25 May. Cromwell was re-installed as Lord Protector in a ceremony still reminiscent of a royal coronation on 26 June 1657.

Under the new constitution, Cromwell was to remain Lord Protector for life and could now choose his own successor. He was required to call triennial Parliaments which were to consist of two chambers: the elected House of Commons and a second chamber, or Upper House (referred to only as the ‘other house’), of between forty and seventy persons nominated by the Protector but approved by Parliament. The Upper House was intended to mediate between the Lower House and the Protector. It had the right to veto any legislation passed in the Lower House and was roundly condemned by republicans as too reminiscent of the old House of Lords. The Council of State was to become the Protector’s privy council, consisting of 21 members chosen by the Protector and approved by Parliament.

After the Instrument of Government, the Humble Petition and Advice was England’s second – and last – written constitution. It differed significantly from the Instrument in that it was drawn up by civilian parliamentarians rather than by army officers and also in that it was legally endorsed by Parliament. It remained in force throughout the remainder of the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and during the brief jurisdiction of his successor Richard Cromwell.

1660 The Declaration of Breda

This was a manifesto issued in April 1660 by the exiled Charles II in which he outlined his initial terms for the Restoration of the monarchy. The Declaration was drawn up by Charles himself and his three principal advisers, Sir Edward Hyde, the Marquis of Ormond and Sir Edward Nicholas.

In March 1660, shortly after the final dissolution of the Long Parliament, General George Monck entered into secret negotiations with Charles’ representative Sir John Grenville regarding the possibility of the King’s return to power. Grenville was authorised to offer Monck high office in return for his help, while Monck himself claimed to have always been secretly working towards the Restoration – a view that came to be widely accepted later.

Monck’s terms were geared primarily towards satisfying the material concerns of the army:

  • there was to be a general pardon for actions carried out under orders
  • arrears of pay were to be fully met
  • titles to former Crown and Church lands bought during the Interregnum were to be confirmed
  • religious toleration for moderate sectarians was to be guaranteed

Following Monck’s advice to move from Spanish territory to Breda in the Protestant Netherlands, Charles and his principal advisers prepared a conciliatory declaration that touched upon the major issues of indemnity, confirmation of land sales and the religious settlement. A free pardon and amnesty was offered to all who would swear loyalty to the Crown within forty day of the King’s return.

However, Charles skirted around all points of contention by referring the final details of the Restoration settlement to a future Parliament. Charles was aware that any legislation passed by the forthcoming Convention Parliament would have to be confirmed or refuted by a later Parliament summoned under the King’s authority, and that the blame for inevitable disappointments in the Restoration settlement would then be borne by Parliament rather than by the Crown.

Smart thinking.

The Declaration was signed by Charles on 4 April 1660. Copies were prepared with separate letters to the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the army, the fleet and the City of London. Monck was offered a commission as commander-in-chief of the army. When Sir John Grenville delivered the Declaration to the newly-elected Convention Parliament on 1 May, both Houses unanimously voted for the Restoration.

Sources

The period 1649 to 1658 is covered by pages 189 to 212 of A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603 – 1714 by Mark Kishlansky. I’ve also sourced information from Wikipedia. But the main source for a lot of this information was the excellent British Civil Wars, Commonwealth & Protectorate website, which covers all aspects of the subject and includes really excellent maps.


Related links

A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603 – 1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996) 5

The Commonwealth 1649-1660

In my life I’ve met plenty of earnest republicans, who think we in the UK should abolish the monarchy because it stands at the apex of the system of power and privilege which entrenches privilege and inequality in British society, that we should disestablish the Church of England – whose only role is to prop up ‘the Establishment’ – and we should abolish the House of Lords, a ramshackle combination of Anglican bishops, hereditary peers and dodgy political nominees given places for ‘services rendered’ to the ruling party.

Anyway, all these steps were carried out 370 years ago, during the English Civil War and Commonwealth, and all modern republicans would do well to study in detail what happened.

Basically, the big constitutional experiment of the English Republic (from the execution of Charles I in 1642 to the restoration of Charles II in 1660) was a failure, because nobody knew what to replace the existing system with and all attempts at a replacement were a) unworkable b) unpopular. And because the Republic came to rely on the abilities and achievements of one man, Oliver Cromwell, and when he died the delicate balance of forces he’d held in place collapsed.

The history of the Commonwealth is a political laboratory in which the people who had overthrown the monarchy, the established church and the House of Lords tried to find an equitable and effective replacement – and failed.

In the end it became clear that the country could only be ruled by a strong leader – Oliver Cromwell – and in the end – and I think this is a crucial point – they offered him the kingship. Even his own supporters, republicans and Puritans, eventually tired of the ceaseless constitutional experiments and said, ‘Listen, just be king’.

Why? Because everyone understood kingship. The entire social and legal system was built around it. Everyone understood where they stood in terms of kingship and its powers, in fact it defined where many, perhaps most, people stood. The existence of the monarchy underpinned their sense of identity and meaning.

To effect a revolution you don’t just overthrow the existing order, you have to train everyone in the new order. You have to indoctrinate them in the new set of values. You have to create new identities for an entire nation.

The French Revolution had a good stab at this by declaring 1790 Year Zero, inventing a new calendar and a new religion of the Rights of Man – although all this was to be swept into the dustbin of history only a few years later upon the rise of Napoleon who, as soon as he could, restored all the trappings and regalia of monarchy, much to most peoples relief.

Only the Russians were brutal enough to realise that a revolution requires not just the overthrow but the extermination of the old system (killing not only the Czar but his entire family, and then imprisoning/executing as many of the old aristocracy as they could get their hands on), and the wholesale indoctrination of the entire population in new ways of thinking, something which, under Stalin, they made a sustained attempt to do.

But the English of Cromwell’s day had nothing like the propaganda tools of those later societies (Stalin’s attempts are indoctrinating an entire society happening almost exactly 300 years after Cromwell) – although they used what they had – Sunday sermons, early newspapers and pamphlets – to maximum effect.

After the execution of King Charles I

While he was still alive, King Charles acted as one clearly identified enemy who served to unify the very disparate factions in the Parliament and New Model Army. After the king was executed in January 1649 these differences began to come out into the open. Cromwell, who had been a leading force in the execution, was away on campaign from the middle of 1649 until 1651, and this allowed factionalism to grow in the Rump Parliament.

Once he had defeated the Royalists at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 – the last battle of the English civil wars – Cromwell returned to London and tried to force the Rump to set dates for new elections, to unite the three kingdoms under one ruling body, and to create a large, tolerant national church.

During the crisis leading up to the execution of the king many moderates had expressed all kinds of reservations, reluctant to kill the king, recoiling from the social and religious radicalism which had bubbled up in the New Model Army. Now the Rump dithered about setting an election. It passed a law allowing liberty of conscience but failed to devise any alternative for the tithes or to dismantle other aspects of the existing religious structure which supported the Anglican church.

In frustration, Cromwell demanded that the Rump establish a caretaker government in April 1653 of 40 members drawn jointly from the Rump and the army and then dissolve itself. But for the umpteenth time, the Rump ignored him, preferring to debate its own bill for setting up a new government.

This endless delay was what prompted Cromwell’s famous step of dissolving the Rump Parliament by force. On 20 April 1653 he entered the chamber accompanied by troopers, sat and listened to the debate for a while, and then stepped to the Mace, and declared:

You are no Parliament, I say you are no Parliament; I will put an end to your sitting.

He seized the ceremonial mace, symbol of Parliament’s power, called it a ‘bauble’ and demanded it be removed. The troops, commanded by Charles Worsley, later one of his Major Generals and one of his most trusted advisers, cleared the chamber. England now had no Parliament and no government.

Barebone’s Parliament, 1653

Nine days after the forced dissolution of the Rump, on 29 April Cromwell set up a small Council of State of thirteen members, responsible for foreign policy and administration of the country. The council debated what form a new English constitution should take. Major-General Thomas Harrison called for a sanhedrin of ‘saints’, a sanhedrin being an assembly of either twenty-three or seventy-one elders, appointed to sit as a tribunal in every city in the ancient Land of Israel, as recorded in the Bible.

Harrison was a Fifth Monarchist, who believed that the overthrow of the king signalled the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. Cromwell didn’t share these beliefs but liked the idea of an assembly of men chosen for their upright, religious credentials.

The Council raised the suggested number to 140 – 129 from England, five from Scotland and six from Ireland. The Council nominated all the new MPs themselves, with some informal consultation with independent congregations around the country.

At the opening of the assembly on 4 July 1653, Cromwell gave a speech lasting two hours reviewing the events which had led up to it, highlighting God’s Providence in the course of events, and emphasising that the nominated representatives now had divine sanction to govern the nation.

The Nominated Assembly, sometimes known as the Parliament of Saints, was quickly nicknamed Barebone’s Parliament after one of its members, Praise-God Barebone, a leather seller, Fifth Monarchist and lay preacher from Fleet Street in London.

Cromwell tasked them with finding a permanent constitutional and religious settlement (Cromwell was invited to be a member but declined). But almost immediately the assembly, despite being hand-picked by the narrow group of the Council of State, began to fall out over big issues, namely:

  1. reforming tithes, objected to by many sects on the grounds that they were a remnant of Catholicism, that they supported a professional rather than voluntary clergy, and that their economic burden fell unequally: everyone agreed they were bad, but no-one could devise a workable replacement
  2. the trial of professional trouble-maker John Lilburne, which split opinion
  3. reform of the legal system, with Fifth Monarchists arguing that only laws contained in scripture should be reflected in the temporal legal system while moderates pushed for practical reform

Fierce argument over bills to abolish the Court of Chancery, regulate legal fees, and speed up settlement of cases in the Court of Admiralty added to the splitting of the assembly into factions. Attendance dropped from 140 to 100 to as few as 70 towards the end of its brief existence.

On 6 December the defeat of new proposals to reform tithes led a majority of moderates to give up. They wrote a letter and physically carried it down the road to Cromwell in Whitehall, asking for the Assembly to be dissolved. Faced with its simple refusal to carry on, Cromwell was forced to agree.

The Protectorate: 1653–1658

After the dissolution of the Barebones Parliament, John Lambert put forward a new constitution known as the Instrument of Government, closely modelled on a document called the Heads of Proposals which had first been drawn up by the Army in 1647.

The Instrument made Cromwell Lord Protector for life to undertake ‘the chief magistracy and the administration of government’. Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector on 16 December 1653, with a ceremony in which he was careful to wear plain black clothing, rather than any monarchical regalia.

But Cromwell did start signing his name ‘Oliver P’, P being an abbreviation for Protector, in the style of monarchs who use an R after their name to mean Rex or Regina – and it soon became the norm for others to address him as ‘Your Highness’. When you reflect on this, you realise that apparent backsliding like this from ‘republican principles’ take place because people need to know what they’re doing. They had all been raised in a very hierarchical model of society (and religion). Everybody, including Oliver, needed to know where they stood.

As Lord Protector, Cromwell had the power to call and dissolve parliaments but was obliged under the Instrument to seek the majority vote of a Council of State to do so. Nevertheless, Cromwell’s power was buttressed by his continuing popularity among the army. As the Lord Protector he was paid £100,000 a year, a vast sum.

Cromwell had two key objectives as Lord Protector. The first was ‘healing and settling’ the nation after the chaos of the civil wars and the regicide, which meant establishing a stable form for the new government to take.

Although Cromwell declared to the first Protectorate Parliament that ‘Government by one man and a parliament is fundamental’, in practice social priorities took precedence over precise forms of government. Cromwell was never interested in forms and details. The precise constitutional arrangements, were, Cromwell declared, ‘but … dross and dung in comparison of Christ.’

But Cromwell was no social revolutionary. Despite the revolutionary nature of the government, his thinking was socially conservative. Cromwell declared, ‘A nobleman, a gentleman, a yeoman; the distinction of these: that is a good interest of the nation, and a great one!’

His first Protectorate parliament proceeded to make small-scale reforms in the legal system, but these were outweighed by the broader attempts to restore order to English politics and affairs. Direct taxation was reduced slightly and peace was made with the Dutch, ending the First Anglo-Dutch War.

Cromwell secured the submission to his rule of England’s colonies in America. One of his notable acts was intervening to curb Puritans who were usurping control over the Maryland Colony by confirming the former Roman Catholic proprietorship and enforcing an edict of tolerance there. It’s interesting to learn that of all the English dominions, Virginia was the most resentful of Cromwell’s rule, and Cavalier emigration there increased during the Protectorate, laying the foundation for the elaborately courtly style of behaviour you find in novels about the Old South generations later.

Cromwell convened the first Protectorate parliament on 3 September 1654. He declared that ‘healing and settling’ were the ‘great end of your meeting’. However, the Parliament was quickly dominated by those pushing for more radical, republican reforms. After some initial gestures approving appointments previously made by Cromwell, the Parliament began to work on a radical programme of constitutional reform. Cronwell, a conservative by nature, balked at many of these changes but, rather than enter into endless meetings with constitutional lawyers, simply dissolved it on 22 January 1655.

Cromwell’s second objective for his Protectorate was spiritual and moral reform. He aimed to restore liberty of conscience and promote both outward and inward godliness throughout England. During the early months of the Protectorate, a set of ‘triers’ was established to assess the suitability of future parish ministers, and a related set of ‘ejectors’ was set up to dismiss ministers and schoolmasters who were judged unsuitable for office. The triers and the ejectors were intended to be at the vanguard of Cromwell’s reform of parish worship.

The Major Generals

After the dissolution of the first Protectorate Parliament, Cromwell tried another constitutional experiment. A Royalist uprising was planned for locations around the country early in 1655. In most places it was a damp squib with few if any civilians rallying to the handful of rebels, but the rising led by Sir John Penruddock in the West succeeded in seizing Salisbury for a few days, before being crushed by a troop of the New Model Army.

Since the uprising had been planned for centres all round the country it made sense to reinforce New Model garrisons everywhere. This led Cromwell’s adviser, General John Lambert to suggest going one step further and dividing England into military districts each ruled by army major-generals who answered only to him.

Map of the major generals and the regions they administered (source: BBC Bitesize)

Thus Cromwell appointed 15 major-generals and deputy major-generals each to rule a region of England and Wales. They were called ‘godly governors’ and charged not only – were central not only with maintaining national security, but forwarding Cromwell’s crusade to reform the nation’s morals.

The generals not only supervised militia forces and security commissions, but collected taxes and ensured support for the government in the English and Welsh provinces. Commissioners for securing the peace of the Commonwealth were appointed to work with them in every county.

While a few of these commissioners were career politicians, most were zealous puritans who welcomed the major-generals with open arms and embraced their work with enthusiasm. However, the major-generals lasted less than a year. Many commissioners feared they threatened their reform efforts and authority. Their position was further harmed by a tax proposal by Major General John Desborough to provide financial backing for their work, which the second Protectorate parliament – convened in September 1656 – voted down for fear of creating a permanent military state.

Ultimately, however, the fall of the major-generals was due to Cromwell’s failure to support his men in their conflicts with the commissioners. Their activities between November 1655 and September 1656 had, however, reopened the wounds of the 1640s and deepened antipathies to the regime.

Historians agree that the Major-Generals were tremendously unpopular and left a legacy of hostility towards standing armies which has, arguably, saved Britain from ever coming near the possibility of a military dictatorship.

Cromwell and the Jews Cromwell was aware of the Jewish community’s involvement in the economic success of the Netherlands, by the 1650s England’s leading commercial rival. This, and Cromwell’s principled tolerance of the right to private worship for those outside Puritanism, led to his personal encouragement of Jews to return to England in 1657, over 350 years after their banishment by Edward I, in the hope that they would help speed up the recovery of the country after the disruption of the Civil Wars.

Cromwell offered the crown

In 1657 a cohort of Cromwell’s closest advisers, frustrated by the repeated failures of their constitutional experiments, offered Cromwell the crown as part of a revised constitutional settlement. He agonised for six weeks over the offer. He was attracted by the prospect of stability it offered but finally, in a speech on 13 April 1657, he made clear that God’s providence had spoken against the office of King.

Instead, Cromwell was ceremonially re-installed as Lord Protector on 26 June 1657 at Westminster Hall, sitting upon King Edward’s Chair, which was moved specially from Westminster Abbey for the occasion. The event in part echoed a coronation, using many of its symbols and regalia, such as a purple ermine-lined robe, a sword of justice and a sceptre (but not a crown or an orb). But the office of Lord Protector was still not to become hereditary, though Cromwell was now able to nominate his own successor.

Cromwell’s new rights and powers were laid out in the Humble Petition and Advice, a legislative instrument which replaced the Instrument of Government. This new constitution echoed many aspects of the old constitution, including a house of life peers (in place of the House of Lords). In the Humble Petition it was called ‘the Other House’ as the Commons could not agree on a suitable name.

But the Humble Petition and Advice did not provide for the vetting of members of the House of Commons and when it assembled in 1658 many of those who had been excluded in the first session, retook their seats and immediately began attacking the new settlement – rather as, every time Charles I reconvened Parliament, it picked up its fierce criticism of him exactly where it had left off.

So on 4 February 1658, Cromwell again dissolved Parliament. During 1658 Cromwell increasingly took on the trappings of traditional monarchy, notably creating three peerages: Charles Howard was made Viscount Morpeth and Baron Gisland in July 1657 and Edmund Dunch was created Baron Burnell of East Wittenham in April 1658.

Death and legacy

On 3 September 1658 Oliver Cromwell died, aged 59, exhausted by his efforts to create an honest, godly, English society. The Lord protectorship passed to his son, Richard, who had none of his father’s qualities and struggled to hold together the rival political, religious and military factions of the regime. Nine months later he was gone.

So Cromwell:

  • overthrew monarchy, the House of Lords and the Church of England
  • tried to hold free and fair elections
  • nominated a parliament of the righteous
  • divided the country into administrative units run by army generals in co-operation with civilian commissioners
  • tried to institute freedom of religious belief
  • tried to resist the forceful offer of the monarchy from his closest supporters
  • supervised but then was forced to dissolve two elected parliaments

It’s easy to interpret Cromwell as a religious fanatic, a hypocrite and, from an Irish point of view, as a genocidal bigot. But he can also be seen as a man into whose lap fell a unique, once-in-history opportunity to utterly redraw the constitution of England, something he tried to do again and again – and failed.

In May 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne and with him came the House of Lords, the Church of England and its bishops. The ten-year experiment to devise some other way of ruling this country had failed. Many of the best minds of the time joined in the attempt, but none of could concoct a system which a) could win the support of even a minority of the nation b) could come up with solutions to the numerous issues which confronted them (funding of the church, ownership of church land, reform of the law, management of international affairs, and so on).

Abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords and disestablishing the Church of England would, even today, in a sense, be relatively easy, a few acts of Parliament would achieve it. But:

  1. What, exactly, would you replace them with? that’s the catch
  2. And would whatever you replace them with be in any better position to tackle and solve the intractable social problems which confront us, than Barebones Parliament or the Major-Generals were to tackle the pressing problems of Cromwell’s day?

The restoration of Charles II was greeted with wild enthusiasm, and he has gone down in history as one of the most popular English monarchs and what did he represent, on a popular level? Booze and boobs. Drinking, gambling and mistresses.

What the Restoration proved once and for all is that England is not a nation of high-minded, earnest intellectuals just gagging to be reformed by high-minded Puritans. It is a nation of Sun-readers, who follow the football, like a flutter on the horses, a pie and a pint on a Friday night, and the chance to dress up and go on the pull at the local nightclub every Saturday night. It is a nation of overweight shopaholics with an average reading age of 11.

So when I argue with high-minded and (generally) very well-educated republicans, I ask them, ‘Who do you think you would be abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords for? Apart from your high-minded Guardian-reading friends? Do you think this nation of party animals, obese alcoholics and lager louts will thank you for your efforts? You’re offering a society with no more coronations, no more royal weddings, no more tittle tattle about Megan and Catherine. Do you expect the people of this great nation to thank you for that?’

Old Olly wasn’t jolly, whereas Charles II had at least thirteen mistresses and 21 illegitimate children. Which one did ‘the people’ prefer, then as now? It is a lowering and dispiriting fact, but it is a fact which all leftists and liberals should acknowledge and start from.


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A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603 – 1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996) 3

The reign of Charles I

The 1620s

King James I died on 25 March 1625 and was succeeded by his son, Charles I. A month and a half later Charles married the French Princess Henrietta Maria (sister of King Louis XIII) by proxy in a ceremony in Paris. She was then sent to Kent where they met and spent their marriage night.

Charles was crowned in Westminster in February 1626 but Henrietta’s Catholicism prevented her from being crowned with him and this lack of a formal coronation, along with her overt Catholicism and the stipulation that she be allowed to practice her Catholicism in the royal court, were all to build up popular animosity against her.

In fact, the French stipulation that she be allowed to bring up her children in the Catholic religion lay the seeds of the overthrow of her son James II in 1685. It’s odd that Charles’s advisers didn’t grasp this obvious fact.

With James dead, Charles gave hid father’s former favourite, and his own best friend, the Duke of Buckingham, his head to launch a war against Spain. Yet just like his father, Charles soon found himself stymied.

  1. Brave talk of capturing the annual Spanish treasure fleet coming from South America turned out to be pointless as the fleet had already safely arrived in Spain.
  2. Buckingham led a naval attack on the port of Cadiz which failed to achieve anything.
  3. Ships which the British lent the French to combat the Spanish off the coast of Holland, ended up being used, instead, to attack France’s own Protestant rebels holed up in the Atlantic port of La Rochelle.

Like his father, Charles called a Parliament expecting patriotic enthusiasm and uncritical support, and was taken aback when it promptly launched a series of attacks on him and his favourite adviser.

Instead of voting him the subsidies he wanted, Parliament impeached Buckingham. Charles responded by imprisoning the leaders of the impeachers, which led to predictable outcries about free speech, which Charles ended by shutting Parliament altogether. So much for the Parliament of 1625.

The forced loan Charles initiated a ‘forced loan’ i.e. the compulsory taxation of his rich subjects, but this led to a storm of protest and Charles found himself having to imprison a whole series of eminent protesters and other officials to carry it through. By this stage relations with France had collapsed – both sides were confiscating each others’ ships – and Charles and Buckingham spent the £200,000 raised by the loan to launch a well-equipped campaign to relieve La Rochelle, the Atlantic port which had become the focus for Protestant resistance to the Catholic king and his chief adviser, Cardinal Richelieu.

The British fleet and army attacked the island of Saint-Martin-de-Ré in order to relieve the Siege of La Rochelle but, for a number of reasons, the siege was a failure, many English lives were lost, and the expedition was eventually forced to withdraw in humiliation.

The 1628 Parliament Charles was forced to call another Parliament, in May 1628, which immediately began debating the various measures he had taken the preceding year, plus abuses arising from the passing of martial law to organise the troops sent to France. Many aspects of this – for example, billeting soldiers on civilians – had become deeply unpopular.

The Petition of Right The upshot was that before Parliament voted him more money, it insisted on Charles agreeing to a ‘Petition of Right’. This was drawn up to confirm four traditional liberties:

  • freedom from arbitrary arrest
  • freedom from taxation not approved by parliament aka arbitrary taxation
  • freedom from the billeting of troops
  • freedom from being governed by martial law

Assassination of Buckingham Charles was careful to specify that these liberties did not affect his own prerogative, and then agreed. Parliament voted him the subsidies he wanted. Buckingham hurried off to Portsmouth to ready the fleet for another attempt to relieve the French Protestants. Then Buckingham was assassinated.

The Duke was stabbed to death on 23 August 1628 at the Greyhound Pub in Portsmouth, where he had gone to organise yet another campaign. According to an eye-witness account, he lived just long enough to jump up, shouting ‘Villain!’ and making to chase after his assailant, but then fell down dead. The assassin was John Felton, an army officer who had been wounded in the earlier military adventure and believed he had been passed over for promotion by Buckingham.

Felton Buckingham was by now so hated that his assassin, John Felton, was feted as a hero, had poems and pamphlets written about him. He was tried and executed, of course, but when his body was taken back to Portsmouth to be publicly hung up, it became an object of popular veneration. A few months later, in October 1628 La Rochelle finally fell to French Catholic forces.

So his favourite was dead and the policy which had driven his first four years as king had completely failed. Charles needed to regroup. He sought to make peace with both France and Spain, and he knew he needed to call one more Parliament. The first of his reign had refused to grant the traditional tonnage and poundage tax to him for the whole reign. He needed that money. But in the meantime…

Peace Charles signed peace treaties with France in 1629 and Spain in 1630. Sick to death of confrontations with Parliament he decided – now he no longer needed special funds for war – not to call another one, and so ruled through his council and by exercising the Personal Prerogative. In fact, he wasn’t to call another Parliament until 1640, a period of 11 years which is referred to as the period of his Personal Rule or (by his harshest critics) as the Eleven Years Tyranny.

After the tribulations of the 1620s, Charles tried to make the 1630s a decade of peace and reconciliation. But such was the distrust generated by the opening years of his reign, that everything he did tended to be misinterpreted for the worst, and in four or five main areas of government, he took aggressively centralising decisions which alienated large numbers of his subjects.

Issues of the 1630s

Ship Money Charles was still chronically short of money and his Chancellors came up with a series of ever-more ingenious ways of mulcting money from his subjects. The most controversial was ship money. This was a traditional and well-accepted tax imposed on coastal communities to pay for ships to be built and crewed to defend coastal towns. Ship money had traditionally been authorised only during wars, and only on coastal regions.

Charles, however, argued that there was no legal bar to collecting the tax for defence during peacetime and throughout the whole of the kingdom. Ship money, paid directly to the Treasury of the Navy, provided between £150,000 to £200,000 annually between 1634 and 1638, after which yields declined. Opposition to ship money steadily grew, but the 12 common law judges of England declared that the tax was within the king’s prerogative, though some of them had reservations. The prosecution of John Hampden for non-payment in 1637–38 provided a platform for popular protest, and the judges only found against Hampden by the narrow margin of 7–5.

Monopolies Charles also raised money by the granting of monopolies for specific trades. This was despite a statute forbidding such action, which, though inefficient, raised an estimated £100,000 a year in the late 1630s.

Act of Revocation Charles also raised funds from the Scottish nobility, at the price of considerable acrimony, by the Act of Revocation (1625), whereby all gifts of royal or church land made to the nobility since 1540 were revoked. If the owners wanted to continue in possession of their property, they had to pay an annual rent.

Forest money In addition, the boundaries of the royal forests in England were extended to their ancient limits as part of a scheme to maximise income by exploiting the land and fining land users within the expanded boundaries for ‘encroachment’.

Sales of Royal lands, especially the large expanses of under-developed Royal forests was another way of raising money. The programme arranged for the sale of forest lands for development as pasture and arable, or in the case of the Forest of Dean, development for the iron industry. This included providing compensation to people using common land, but not for people who had settled illegally. Pushed off land they had been working for some time, many of these rioted. In fact such was the sale of the discontent in the west of England it became known as the Western Rising, with other scattered riots in Feckenham Forest and Malvern Chase.

Despite all these measures, Charles still faced bankruptcy in the summer of 1640. The City of London refused to make any further loans to the king. Pushed to extreme measures, Charles then seized the money held in trust at the mint of the Exchequer in the tower of London. This represented the capital of the merchants and goldsmiths of the city. In August Charles seized all the stocks of pepper held by the East India Company, and sold it off cheap.

You can see how virtually every expedient Charles developed to raise money alienated and embittered large groups of subjects, and especially merchants in the City of London, who came to think of the king as a public menace.

Strafford and Ireland Another long term problem for any British king was the situation in Ireland. Throughout the Tudor period, from Henry VIII through Elizabeth, parts of Ireland had been settled by ‘planters’, not without resistance from the native Irish and their traditional lords, who rose in repeated uprisings.

But the so-called ‘Flight of the Earls’ in 1607 had left a lot of the land in north-east Ireland leaderless, and so James I set about organising the Plantation of Ulster, a plan to encourage emigrants from Scotland to settle in what is now known as Ulster, with funding from the City of London.

With the result that Ireland, by Charles’s time, contained about four identifiable groups:

  • the Irish population, mostly rural peasants
  • the Irish leadership – the traditional lords of various lands and estates who, however, a century of negotiating and compromising with their English invaders had split into various parties, some for compromise, some for submission, some burning for rebellion and independence
  • the ‘Old English’ settlers i.e. the originally English families who had been in Ireland for generations and begun to think of themselves as in a sense Irish, appreciated local customs and laws and who were often put out or deprived by the new plantation
  • the ‘New English’ who had arrived in the past generation and who had a vested interest in expanding and consolidating the new plantation

Managing this situation took a firm hand, and Charles was clever in selecting Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, to be his Viceroy in Ireland. Strafford brought all sides to heel, though at the cost of uniting them all in hatred of his strong-arm, inflexible approach.

Archbishop Laud and religion Something similar happened in religion, where Charles appointed Laud as archbishop of Canterbury. Charles wanted order and clarity and beauty in his church. However, religion continued to be a source of discontent among virtually all his subjects.

Arminianism Charles’s reign saw the spread of Arminianism among Anglican intellectuals. The Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius  reacted against the iron predestinationism of Calvin and the Calvinists. According to Calvin, God had already chosen who was saved (the Elect) and who was damned. All we could do was examine our own lives with scrupulous attention and live as purely as possible in the hope we were one of the Elect.

This was in sharp contrast to traditional Catholic teaching which is the more commonsense view that we attain salvation through our works. We may sin and err but we can be forgiven through Church rituals such as confession and the Mass.

Starting in the 1610s, Arminius proposed a sort of middle way, adopting the outlines of Calvinism, and certainly espousing a Christianity much purified of Catholic superstitions (veneration of saints, the Virgin Mary, miracles and so on). But still he modified the harshness of Calvinist theology, asserting that the Atonement of Christ offers each individual some leeway, some freedom, in determining their own salvation or damnation.

To Puritans this was blasphemy, but it was attractive to Charles and his archbishop, Laud. The rise of Arminianism within moderate sections of the Anglican church therefore became a battleground with more radical Puritans.

Buildup to the outbreak of civil war

Thus there were many long-term issues which Charles was struggling with. But the first spark which led to outright violence was his attempt to impose a new prayer book on the Scottish church or Kirk as they called it.

On a visit to Scotland, Charles and Laud had been upset at the variation in church services there, and the scrappy state of many of the churches. Being a devout Christian Charles thought it was his duty as King to renovate and improve the Scottish church. He gave money to repair buildings. But in the same vein he wanted to bring Scottish church practice in line with English. And so he commissioned English clerics to write a new unified prayer book.

When this was first used in a service at Edinburgh in July 1637, it caused a riot. It was seen as an imposition of English values on Scottish religion, and as blasphemously Arminian, or pseudo-Catholic. Religious chauvinism combined with Scottish nationalism. With characteristic arrogance, Charles had held no consultations, either in the Scottish Parliament or in an Assembly of the Kirk.

The protests quickly spread across Scotland, and – as with many religious disturbances – became a handy opportunity for the powerful in the land to push for more independence (and power) from England.

The Scottish National Covenant Quickly they organised the Scottish National Covenant. In February 1638, at a ceremony in Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, large numbers of Scottish noblemen, gentry, clergy and burgesses signed the Covenant, committing themselves under God to preserving the purity of the Kirk. Copies were distributed throughout Scotland for signing on a wave of popular support. Those who hesitated were often intimidated into signing and clergymen who opposed it were deposed. This was followed in August 1639 by a series of acts passed by the Parliament of Scotland that amounted to a constitutional revolution.

First Bishops War Charles decided to invade Scotland and impose his will. A complicated plan to co-ordinate a land invasion and an amphibious landing failed (remember the long list of military failures which characterised the 1620s). A Scottish army was raised and marched to within a few miles of the English border. Talks were held and a peace treaty signed, but both sides regarded it only as a truce.

Charles called a Parliament, as usual hoping for patriotic support and money but, as usual, the Parliament immediately drew up a list of grievances, notably ship money and the arbitrary behaviour of the feared Star Chamber, and called for the impeachment of many of his advisers, so Charles promptly dissolved it.

Second Bishops War Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven, had fought in the Thirty Years War. He led a vastly better trained and provisioned Scottish army into England in August 1640, which swept aside the ill-trained English militias and seized Newcastle, main source of coal for London. The Scots were in the driving seat. The Scots insisted on being paid £850 per day maintenance.

The Long Parliament Charles was forced to call a Parliament to raise the money to pay the Scots. What was to become known as the Long Parliament organised to take revenge on Charles, impeaching his advisers, and demanded the return of Strafford from Ireland. Strafford was tried and executed Strafford in May 1641 and in August the Scots finally evacuated Northern England after the Treaty of London.

The Irish Rising However, the withdrawal of Strafford, the only man strong enough to balance the conflicting sides in Ireland, turned out to be a disaster. In October 1641 the Irish Rebellion broke out, beginning as an attempted coup d’état by Irish Catholic gentry, who tried to seize control of the English administration in Ireland to force concessions for Catholics, but developing into an ethnic conflict between Irish Catholics on one side, and English and Scottish Protestants on the other. Thousands of English and Scots were forced to flee their homes, amid scare stories of burning and looting and murder and rape.

When news of this arrived in London it transformed the atmosphere from crisis into hysteria. Once again the Protestants felt the deadly paranoia of a Catholic conspiracy. Both Charles and Parliament realised an army needed to be raised quickly to combat the Irish rebels, but neither side trusted the other with such a large force.

And that crux, control of the army raised to put down the Irish rebellion, was the immediate cause of the outbreak of the civil war.


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A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996)

Mark Kishlansky (1948 – 2015) was an American historian of seventeenth-century British politics. He was the Frank Baird, Jr. Professor of History at Harvard University, editor of the Journal of British Studies from 1984 to 1991, and editor-in-chief of History Compass from 2003 to 2009.

Kishlansky wrote half a dozen or so books and lots of articles about Stuart Britain and so was invited to write Volume Six of the Penguin History of England covering that period, under the general editorship of historian David Cannadine.

I think of the history of Britain in the 17th century as consisting of four parts:

  1. The first two Stuarts (Kings James I & Charles I) 1603 – 1642
  2. The Civil Wars and Protectorate (Oliver Cromwell) 1642 – 1660
  3. The Restoration (Kings Charles II & James II) 1660 – 1688
  4. The Glorious Revolution and Whig monarchs (William & Mary, then Queen Anne) 1688 – 1714

Although obviously you can go by monarch:

  1. James I (1603-25)
  2. Charles I (1625-42)
  3. Wars of the three kingdoms (1637-53)
  4. Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1653-1660)
  5. Charles II (1660-1685)
  6. James II and the Glorious Revolution (1685-88)
  7. William & Mary (1688-1702)

I appreciate that this is an English perspective, and Kishlansky is the first to acknowledge his history tends to focus on England, by far the largest and most powerful of the three kingdoms of Britain. The histories of Scotland and Ireland over the same period shadowed the English timeline but – obviously – had significant events, personnel and continuities of their own. From the start Kishlansky acknowledges he doesn’t have space to give these separate histories the space they deserve.

Why is the history of seventeenth century Britain so attractive and exciting?

The seventeenth century has a good claim to being the most important, the most interesting and maybe the most exciting century in English history because of the sweeping changes that affected every level of society. In 1600 England was still a late-medieval society; in 1700 it was an early modern society and in many ways the most advanced country on earth.

Social changes

  • business the modern business world was created, with the founding of the Bank of England and Lloyds insurance, cheques, banknotes and milled coins were invented; the Stock Exchange was founded and the National Debt, a financial device which allowed the British government to raise large sums for wars and colonial settlement; excise and land taxes provided reliable sources of revenue for the government
  • empire the British Empire was defined with the growth of colonies in North America and India
  • feudal forms of government withered and medieval practices such as torture and the demonisation of witchcraft and heresy died out
  • media newspapers were invented and went from weekly to daily editions
  • new consumer products domestic consumption was transformed by the arrival of new products including tobacco, sugar, rum, gin, port, champagne, tea, coffee and Cheddar cheese
  • the scientific revolution biology, chemistry and physics trace their origins to discoveries made in the 1600s – Francis Bacon laid the intellectual foundations for the scientific method; William Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood; Robert Boyle posited the existence of chemical elements, invented perfected the air pump and created the first vacuum; Isaac Newton discovered his laws of thermodynamics, the composition of light, the laws of gravity; William Napier invented logarithms; William Oughtred invented the multiplication sign in maths; Edmund Halley identified the comet which bears his name, Robert Hooke invented the microscope, the quadrant, and the marine barometer; the Royal College of Physicians published the first pharmacopeia listing the properties of drugs; Peter Chamberlen invented the forceps; the Royal Society (for the sciences) was founded in 1660
  • sport the first cricket and gold clubs were founded; Izaak Walton codified knowledge about fishing in The Compleat Angler; Charles II inaugurated yacht racing at Cowes and Queen Anne founded Royal Ascot
  • architecture Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh created wonderful stately homes and public buildings e.g. Jones laid out the Covent Garden piazza which remains an attraction in London to this day and Wren designed the new St Paul’s cathedral which became a symbol of London
  • philosophy the political upheavals produced two masterworks of political philosophy, the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which are still studied and applied in a way most previous philosophy isn’t
  • non conformists despite repeated attempts to ban them, Puritan sects who refused to ‘conform’ to the Restoration settlement of the Church of England were grudgingly accepted and went on to become a permanent and fertile element of British society – the Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians

Political upheaval

At the centre of the century sits the great 20-year upheaval, the civil wars or British wars or Great Rebellion or the Wars of Three Kingdoms, fought between the armies of parliament and the armies of King Charles I, with significant interventions by armies of Scotland and Ireland, which eventually led to the execution of the king, the abolition of the House of Lords and the disestablishment of the Church of England – achievements which still form a core of the radical agenda to this day. These revolutionary changes were- followed by a series of constitutional experiments under the aegis of the military dictator Oliver Cromwell, which radicalised and politicised an entire generation.

Soon after Cromwell’s death in 1658, his regime began to collapse and elements of it arranged for the Restoration of King Charles II, who returned but under a new, more constitutional monarchy, restrained by laws and conventions guaranteeing the liberties of British subjects and well aware of the mistakes which led to the overthrow of his father.

But none of this stopped his overtly Roman Catholic brother, who succeeded him as James II in 1685, making a string of mistakes which collectively alienated the Protestant grandees of the land who conspired to overthrow him and replace him with the reliably Protestant Prince William of Orange. James was forced to flee, William was invited to become King of England and to rule according to a new, clearly defined constitution or Bill of Rights, which guaranteed all kinds of liberties including of speech and assembly.

All of these upheavals meant that by 1700 England had the most advanced, liberal and open society in Europe, maybe in the world, had experimented with a wide variety of political reforms and constitutions, and developed one which seemed most practical and workable – which was to become the envy of liberals in neighbouring France, and the basis of the more thoroughly worked-out Constitution devised by the founders of the American republic in the 1780s.

Studying the 17th century combines the intellectual excitement of watching these constitutional and political developments unfold, alongside the more visceral excitement of following the dramatic twists and turns in the long civil wars – and then following the slow-burning problems which led to the second great upheaval, the overthrow of James II. There is tremendous pleasure to be had from getting to know the lead characters in both stories and understanding their motives and psychologies.

Key features of 17th century England

The first two chapters of Mark Kishlansky’s book set out the social and political situation in Britain in 1600. These include:

Britain was a comprehensively patriarchal society. The king ruled the country and his word meant life or death. Le Roy le veult – the King wishes it – was the medieval French phrase still used to ratify statutes into law. The monarch made all political, legal, administrative and religious appointments – lords, ministers, bishops, judges and magistrates owed their position to him. In every locality, knights of the shires, justices of the peace administered the king’s laws. The peerage was very finely gradated and jealously policed. Status was everything.

And this hierarchy was echoed in families which were run by the male head of the household who had complete power over his wife and children, a patriarchal household structure endorsed by the examples in the Bible. Women might have as many as 9 pregnancies, of which 6 went to term and three died in infancy, with a further three children dying in infancy.

The family was primarily a unit of production, with all family members down to small children having specified tasks in the often backbreaking toil involved in agricultural work, caring for livestock, foraging for edibles in woods and fields, producing clothes and shoes. Hard physical labour was the unavoidable lot of almost the entire population.

Marriages were a vital way of passing on land and thus wealth, as well as family names and lineages. Most marriages were arranged to achieve these ends. The top responsibility of both spouses were the rights and responsibilities of marriage i.e. a wife obeyed her husband and a husband cherished and supported his wife. It was thought that ‘love’ would grow as a result of carrying out these duties, but wasn’t a necessary component.

Geography 80% of the population in 1600 worked on the land. Britain can be divided into two geographical zones:

1. The North and West The uplands of the north-west, including Scotland and Wales, whose thin soils encouraged livestock supplemented by a thin diet of oats and barley. Settlements here were scattered and people arranged themselves by kin, in Scotland by clans. Lords owned vast estates and preserved an old-fashioned medieval idea of hospitality and patronage.

Poor harvests had a catastrophic impact. A run of bad harvests in the 1690s led to mass emigration from Scotland to America, and also to the closer ‘plantations’ in Ulster.

It was at this point that Scottish Presbyterians became the majority community in the province. Whereas in the 1660s, they made up some 20% of Ulster’s population… by 1720 they were an absolute majority in Ulster, with up to 50,000 having arrived during the period 1690-1710. (Wikipedia)

2. The south and east of Britain was more densely populated, with villages and towns instead of scattered homesteads. Agriculture was more diverse and productive. Where you have more people – in towns and cities – ties of kinship become weaker and people assess each other less by ‘family’ than by achievements, social standing and wealth.

The North prided itself on its older, more traditional values. The South prided itself on being more productive and competitive.

Population The population of England rose from 4 million in 1600 to 5 million in 1700. There were maybe 600 ‘towns’ with populations of around 1,000. Big provincial capitals like Norwich, Exeter or Bristol (with pops from 10,000 to 30,000) were exceptions.

London was unlike anywhere else in Britain, with a population of 200,000 in 1600 growing to around 600,000 by 1700. It was home to the Court, government with its Houses of Lords and Commons, all the main law courts, and the financial and mercantile hub of the nation (Royal Exchange, Royal Mint, later the Bank of England and Stock Exchange). The centre of publishing and the new science, literature, the arts and theatre. By 1700 London was the largest city in the Western world. Edinburgh, the second largest city in Britain, had a paltry 40,000 population.

Inflation Rising population led to a squeeze on food since agricultural production couldn’t keep pace. This resulted in continuous inflation with foodstuffs becoming more expensive throughout the century, which reduced living standards in the countryside and contributed to periods of near famine. On the other hand, the gentry who managed to hang onto or increase their landholdings saw an unprecedented rise in their income. The rise of this class led to the development of local and regional markets and to the marketisation of agriculture. Those who did well spent lavishly, building manors and grand houses, cutting a fine figure in their coaches, sending the sons to university or the army, educating their daughters in order to attract wealthy husbands.

Vagrancy The change in working patterns on the land, plus the rising population, led to a big increase in vagrancy, which the authorities tackled with varying degrees of savagery, including branding on the face with a V for Vagrant. Contemporary theorists blamed overpopulation for poverty, vagrancy and rising crime. One solution was to encourage the excess population to settle plantations in sparsely populated Ireland or emigrate to New England. There were moral panics about rising alcoholism, and sex outside marriage.

Puritans Leading the charge to control immoral behaviour were the Puritans, a negative word applied to a range of people who believed that the Church of England needed to be further reformed in order to reach the state of purity achieved by Calvinists on the continent. Their aims included:

  • abolition of the 26 bishops (who were appointed by the king) and their replacement by Elders elected by congregations
  • reforms of theology and practice – getting rid of images, candles, carvings etc inside churches, getting rid of elaborate ceremonies, bells and incense and other ‘Roman’ superstitions
  • reducing the number of sacraments to the only two practiced by Jesus in the New Testament
  • adult baptism replacing infant baptism

Banning Closely connected was the impulse to crack down on all ungodly behaviour e.g. alcohol (close pubs), immorality (close theatres), licentiousness (ban most books except the Bible), lewd behaviour (force women to wear modest outfits, keep their eyes on the ground), ban festivals, ban Christmas, and so on.

Trans-shipping The key driver of Britain’s economic wealth was shipping and more precisely trans-shipping – where goods were brought in from one source before being transhipped on elsewhere. The size of Britain’s merchant fleet more than tripled and the sized of the cargo ships increased tenfold. London’s wealth was based on the trans-shipping trade.

The end of consensus politics

The second of Kishlansky’s introductory chapters describes in detail the political and administrative system in early 17th century Britain. It is fascinating about a) the complexity of the system b) its highly personal orientation about the person the monarch. It’s far too complicated to summarise here but a few key themes emerge:

Consensus Decisions at every level were reached by consensus. To give an example, when a new Parliament was called by the king, the justices of the peace in a county met at a session where, usually, two candidates put themselves forward and the assembled JPs discussed and chose one. Only very rarely were they forced back on the expedient of consulting local householders i.e. actually having a vote on the matter.

Kishlansky explains how this principle of consensus applied in lots of other areas of administration and politics, for example in discussions in Parliament about acts proposed by the king and which needed to be agreed by both Commons and Lords.

He then goes on to launch what is – for me at any rate – a new and massive idea: that the entire 17th century can be seen as the slow and very painful progression from a political model of consensus to an adversarial model.

The entire sequence of civil war, dictatorship, restoration and overthrow can be interpreted as a series of attempts to reach a consensus by excluding your opponents. King Charles prorogued Parliament to get his way, then tried to arrest its leading members. Cromwell, notoriously, was forced to continually remodel and eventually handpick a Parliament which would agree to do his bidding. After the Restoration Charles II tried to exclude both Catholics and non-conforming Protestants from the body politic, imposing an oath of allegiance in order to preserve the model of consensus sought by his grandfather and father.

the point is that all these attempts to purify the body politic in order to achieve consensus failed.

The advent of William of Orange and the Bill of Rights in 1689 can be seen as not so much defining liberties and freedoms but as finally accepting the new reality, that political consensus was no longer possible and only a well-managed adversarial system could work in a modern mixed society.

Religion What made consensus increasingly impossible? Religion. The reformation of Roman Catholicism which began in 1517, and continued throughout the 16th century meant that, by the 1620s, British society was no longer one culturally and religiously unified community, but included irreducible minorities of Catholics and new-style Calvinist Puritans. Both sides in what became the civil wars tried to preserve the old-fashioned consensus by excluding what they saw as disruptive elements who prevented consensus agreements being reached i.e. the Royalists tried to exclude the Parliamentarians, the Parliamentarians tried to exclude the Royalists, both of them tried to exclude Catholics, the Puritans once in power tried to exclude the Anglicans and so on.

But the consensus model was based on the notion that, deep down, all participants shared the same religious, cultural and social values. Once they had ceased to do that the model was doomed.

Seen from this point of view the entire history of the 17th century was the slow, bloody, and very reluctant acceptance that the old model was dead and that an entirely new model was required in which political elites simply had to accept the long-term existence of sincere and loyal but completely different opinions from their own.

Political parties It is no accident that it was after the Glorious Revolution that the seeds of what became political parties first began to emerge. Under the consensus model they weren’t needed; grandees and royal ministers and so on managed affairs so that most of them agreed or acquiesced on the big decisions. Political parties only become necessary or possible once it had become widely accepted that consensus was no longer possible and that one side or another in a debate over policy would simply lose and would have to put up with losing.

So Kishlansky’s long and fascinating introduction leads up to this insight – that the succession of rebellions and civil wars across the three kingdoms, the instability of the Restoration and then the overthrow of James II were all necessary to utterly and finally discredit the old late-medieval notion of political decision-making by consensus, and to usher in the new world of political decision-making by votes, by parties, by lobbying, by organising, by arguing and taking your arguments to a broader political nation i.e. the electorate.

In large part the English Revolution resulted from the inability of the consensual political system to accommodate principled dissension. (p.63)

At a deep level, the adoption of democracy means the abandonment of attempts to repress a society into agreement. On this view, the core meaning of democracy isn’t the paraphernalia about voting, that’s secondary. In its essence democracy means accepting other people’s right to disagree, sincerely and deeply, with what you hold to be profoundly true. Crafting a system which allows people to think differently and speak differently and live differently, without fear or intimidation.


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Notes on William Congreve

This short post consists of the interesting points from the introduction to the 1985 Penguin edition of Congreve’s plays, introduced and edited by Eric S. Rump. (I’m afraid I find it funny that a man who edited a book full of smutty jokes was called Rump.)

Congreve was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1670. His family moved to Ireland where he was educated at Kilkenny College – where he met fellow student Jonathan Swift, b.1667 – and at Trinity College in Dublin.

Aged 19, in 1689, Congreve left Ireland to travel to London and make his fortune as a wit. Aged 22 he published a novel titled Incognita: or, Love and Duty reconcil’d, whose title sounds like a play.

He befriended John Dryden, the leading literary figure of the age, who supported him through the rest of his career, writing rave reviews and introductions to his plays.

A year later his first comedy, The Old Bachelor, was performed. In all, Congreve write just four comedies, and in a relatively short career of seven years. They are:

  • The Old Bachelor (1693)
  • The Double Dealer (1693)
  • Love for Love (1695)
  • The Way of the World (1700)

And one tragedy:

  • The Mourning Bride (1697)

Congreve abandoned the stage for good in 1700, just as he turned 30.

A ‘good’ run for a play in those days was fourteen nights. Thus The Old Bachelor was a runaway success and played for… fourteen nights! A failure ran for three nights, the bare minimum required to cover its costs, a fact referred to in several of the plays themselves. William Wycherley’s second play, Love In A Wood, was not a success, ran for just 6 nights, and was never revived in his lifetime.

The Old Bachelor is, according to Rump, ‘a play in which a young, talented writer is content to re-explore the comic territory earlier mapped out by writers such as Etherege and Wycherley, but in doing so, is able to bring to the material’. It has freshness and distinctiveness.

It is also notable for the skill with which Congreve gives each character their own speech rhythms. Some critics claim you could be given any bit of dialogue from any of his four plays and be able to identify the character solely from their speech rhythms and idiolect. Rump thinks that’s pushing it a bit, but the fact people suggest this shows the care Congreve took to give each character their own distinctive speech patterns.

Congreve’s fourth and final play, the Way of The World, followed a gap of five years and was much-anticipated. It opened to great expectation and was presented by an all-star cast – but it was a relative failure. Why?

Well, it was by 1700 twelve years since the Glorious Revolution had swept away the Stuart kings and their world of carefree aristocratic hedonism. The new queen, Mary II, was more like Queen Victoria. She was not amused by the stage’s persistent attacks on marriage and conventional morality.

The times had changed. The overthrow of James II in 1688 represented not just a change in monarch but the triumph of the new mercantile class over the libertine aristocrats of Charles’s court.

Did Congreve intend to cease writing for the stage after The Way of the World bombed? He was certainly stung by the criticism of his plays included in the detailed critique of the stage written by Jeremy Collier (A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage), so much so that he wrote a long reply, Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations.

But Collier was merely reflecting what many people felt by the late 1690s. The Society for the Reformation of Manners had been founded in 1692 and began to bring lawsuits against playwrights for outraging public morality. So did Congreve abandon the stage with an aristocratic flourish of disdain? No.

The record shows that Congreve continued his association with the stage after The Way. He shared with Vanbrugh the management of the new Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket; he wrote the libretto for an opera, Semele, set first by Eccles and a lot later by Handel. He translated the works of Molière, and produced over the next ten years a trickle of poetry and translations of Latin classics for various collections – in other words he continued to be active in the theatre and in literature and letters. But he never again wrote a play.

In 1714, on the accession of the Whig Hanoverian King George, Congreve was given financial security with the award of a sinecure, Secretary to the island of Jamaica. He never married but had dalliances with several aristocratic ladies, most notably Henrietta Godolphin, second Duchess of Marlborough, daughter of the famous general, John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. They probably met some time before 1703 and the duchess subsequently had a daughter, Mary, who was believed to be his child. Upon his death, Congreve left his entire fortune to the Duchess of Marlborough.

William Congreve died in London in January 1729 and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.


Reviews of William Congreve

Reviews of other Restoration comedies

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