We have been here before...

  • Posted on 9 November 2017 at 2:49pm
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I am sure I am not the only person to have seen Australian digital artist Matayo Moshi’s strangely compelling physical map of the post-Brexit United Kingdom, with areas that voted Remain in the 2016 Referendum represented as islands in a vastly-expanded North Sea, and thought that it reminded me of something else.


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What it reminded me of was the map of allegiance to Crown or Parliament in the English Civil War (1642-1651), with areas and cities that declared for Parliament represented as islands in a sea of mostly rural monarchism. Thus Parliament’s strongholds comprised London and Bristol (then Britain’s second largest city), its alliance with the then independent kingdom of Scotland and most other major trading hubs, Leicester, Norwich, Birmingham, Plymouth, Southampton among them, and control of the strategic ports of Belfast and Dublin in Ireland (though it was itself engulfed in its own, related ‘Eleven Years’ War’). This contrasted with Royalist allegiance in the west and north of England and most of Wales. The subsequent Industrial Revolution transformed some regions that were agricultural at the time of the Civil War in the Midlands and the North of England into large productive conurbations that voted Remain in 2016 (Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Liverpool and so on), whilst the status of the prosperous wool-trading region of East Anglia in the 17th century gave it a relative economic power that it does not retain in modern Britain. Whether the university city of Oxford, for example, a Remain redoubt in 2016, would have chosen to ally with the King had he not moved his court and garrison there in 1642 is debatable (its sister university town Cambridge was as firmly Remain as it was Parliamentarian).


Civil War historians will have far greater detail and insight to offer than I can on the parallels and differences between the struggle for sovereignty in the mid 17th century and our own time but one thing is certain and that is manipulation and fabrication of information was as vividly relevant to that struggle as it is now. Which brings me to music.


At a charitable event at London’s Guildhall a short while ago I heard an eminent, educated speaker refer in a matter-of-fact way to the ‘cultural repression’ of the Commonwealth and Protectorate that followed Parliament’s victory in the war(s), when the British Isles briefly became a confederated republic. This view is widely held. It is largely based, as far as I can tell, on the elision of four separate aspects of the war and the Republic’s policies. The first is the ransacking and desecration of stained glasses, ornate carvings and statues, and the destruction of organs in cathedrals by anti-royalist troops. The second is the sale of part of Charles I’s enormous private art collection after his execution, the third is the closing of London’s theatres and the fourth is an Act of Parliament alleged to have ‘banned Christmas’. It is worth remembering, however, that modern-day perceptions of the Commonwealth period are still – despite the research of historians in recent decades that gainsay them – the product of history being written by the royalists of the Restoration at a time when everything about the Republic, including its deceased leaders, was exhumed and traduced. I say ‘history’ but some of it is nothing more than crude, unashamedly inaccurate propaganda.


Let’s look at these accusations a little more closely. In this Luther anniversary year it is worth reminding ourselves that the religious conflicts that engulfed all of Europe between the 1520s and the coming of the Enlightenment were often characterised by the desecration of churches and those of the Civil War of the Three Kingdoms in the British Isles were as much a symptom of this long-running religious dispute as of the particular political power struggle of the moment. The pillaging or destruction of churches and physical harm to priests, monks and nuns was also an ugly feature of subsequent revolutionary conflicts, for example in Russia a hundred years ago and during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). In 1640s Britain, as in 1930s Spain, the church was an arm of secular authority, with the ability to control, judge, punish and execute citizens with the power invested in it by monarchy. A church that exerts this kind of aggressive secular power over people has to expect that if those people rise up against authority it may also be the target of angry mobs, alongside the other branches of repressive state authority.


It is also worth noting that attacks on cathedrals by Parliamentary irregulars in previously-held Royalist areas during the Civil War were haphazard and localised: after Parliamentary troops finally took the besieged Royalist stronghold of York in July 1644, Lord Fairfax, newly in control of the city, ordered that no churches or the Minster be vandalised, an order that was duly observed. Attacks on churches and their art were not systematic nor were they ordered by the Parliamentary government (though no-one is denying that much damage was done in many places). It is nevertheless true that a stricter, more Puritan approach to church services, the silencing of church organs and the disbanding of choral foundations did accompany the reforming religious mood and governance of England and Scotland after the victory of Parliament’s armies in the field. Whether this trend would have persisted as the 1660s progressed, without the Royalists’ return to power, is an intriguing question. The Calvinist reforms (and church desecrations) that swept France in religious wars that raged there for most of the 16th century tended to ebb and moderate once periods of conflict died down, and the strictures of early Puritan settlements in New England (including similar ordinances against the secularisation of Christmas and the complexity of choral singing in church) relaxed into more plural forms after a dozen or so years without the need for a king to effect such a change.


But preferring one style of ‘simple’ worship to another (a shift that occurred after all in the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation, authorised by the Pope) is a long way from ‘cultural repression’ and neither the Commonwealth nor blindness prevented John Milton, one of our greatest poets, from embarking during this period on his epic master-work ‘Paradise Lost’ nor defending the Republic (and ecclesiastical reform) in countless pamphlets. Milton challenged Parliament to address changes on divorce (in a series of pamphlets between 1643 & 1645 which were instrumental in influencing reforms later made in the post-war puritan/presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith) and famously on free speech (in his much-quoted 1644 polemic, Areopagitica).  If the Republic had been a ‘military dictatorship’ these serious interrogations of authority would have been squashed, rather than responded to. At the Restoration, on the other hand, the Royalists issued a warrant for Milton’s arrest (and likely execution had he not gone into hiding) and burnt his writings. Similarly, John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, was arrested and imprisoned for twelve years for his support of the Parliamentarian cause and for his Puritan sermons. Remind me, who is accusing whom of cultural repression?


Then there’s the sale of the executed King Charles I’s art collection, which was portrayed after the Restoration as a philistine act of vandalism. First, the paintings were sold (some of which eventually ended up in the Louvre and the Prado where they were seen by many more people than in the late king’s private accommodation), they were not desecrated or damaged, which is the implication of ‘vandalism’. Some were preserved for the nation at Hampton Court by Cromwell. Many were returned to the monarchy after the Restoration. The reason for the sale was not, though, pure revenge on the king nor was it anything to do with ‘puritanical’ suppression of art: the purpose of the sale was to pay off the late king’s huge war debts and to help fund the expansion of the Navy. ‘Outrage’ at the auction did not emanate from the population of the time. They would barely have known of the existence of the collection, never mind cared which aristocrat owned it, since this was long before the creation of public art galleries in Britain. The ‘outrage’ was the confection of Royalist spin after the Restoration, nothing more. (Fascinating detail on this affair can be found in Francis Haskell’s book, ‘The King’s Pictures: The Formation and Dispersal of the Collections of Charles I and His Courtiers’).


It has suited the retrospective Royalist narrative to blame the ‘killjoy’ Puritans for closing England’s theatres by parliamentary order on September 6th 1642 but the truth is a little more prosaic. Whilst there were undoubtedly some Parliamentarians who disapproved of the potential for lasciviousness and immorality presented by London’s playhouses, the main reason for their closure was that London was at war and the closures were intended as a temporary, practical measure until the hostilities were over. As it happens, actors at the time were almost all employed or supported by rich, aristocratic patrons and sponsors, including the king, so their livelihoods depended on their finding common cause with these patrons, most if not all of whom left Parliamentary London to raise or join private armies in the country in support of Charles I (without whose legitimacy and ‘divine right’, of course, their own wealth and power would mean nothing).


By the early months of the war, theatres had also become not-very-clandestine meeting places for royalist plotters so closing them was a relatively straight-forward security precaution. When the military campaigns were over, without aristocratic patrons, aristocratic audiences or aristocratically-funded actors, post-war London theatres remained closed until the Restoration in 1660, when the nobility and their retinues returned to the capital, ready to party. (It should be added that despite the closure of the capital’s playhouses, dramas continued to be mounted during the Commonwealth in the private homes of the nobility outside London, and at the Red Bull Theatre on St John Street in Clerkenwell).


However, royalist apologists rarely point out as a balance to the closure of theatres that the period of the ‘Puritan’ Commonwealth also saw the emergence of the first English opera, not in an atmosphere of suppression and disapproval, it may surprise you to learn, but with the knowledge and acquiescence of the Protectorate. Who’d have thought it, eh?


Though straight, spoken drama was banned in London (almost), the law permitted singing and ‘recitative music’, thus allowing a loophole for England’s first opera to be written and produced, in 1656, under the pithy title, ‘The siege of Rhodes made a representation by the art of prospective in scenes, and the story sung in recitative musick, at the back part of Rutland-House in the upper end of Aldersgate-Street, London’, Rutland House being the large home of the opera’s chief author, William Davenant (who had fought on the Royalist side in the war, was in exile in Paris between 1645 and 1650, after which he was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London, and released in 1651 thanks to the advocacy of John Milton). The music was written by a team of five composers, Matthew Locke, Henry Lawes, Henry Cooke, George Hudson and Charles Coleman, whose wife, Mrs Coleman, England’s first professional actress, performed in the première performance too in the part of Ianthe, according to Samuel Pepys, who was part of the paying audience (the Puritans’ disapproval of boys playing women’s parts on the stage may have inadvertently accelerated this development towards gender equality in theatre).


And so to Christmas. In 1647 the English Parliament, dominated at that time by some hard-line Puritans, voted for an order banning carol-singing in churches along with other non-essential trappings of Christmas. A few years later New England Puritans in colonial Boston ordered a similar prohibition, lasting twelve years. The 1647 Act has since acquired the status of notoriety and is usually reported as if it was more or less the end of civilisation as we know it, as if in 1977 the government had taken Morecombe & Wise off the TV. But it is only fair to make one or two observations about the 1647 ordinance to put it in context.


First, the Puritans of the Long Parliament were expressing a disapproval that had been voiced many times before throughout the centuries by people of faith of all denominations, namely that Christmas, the legitimate religious observance of the birth of Christ, had had attached to it carousing and ribaldry that had nothing to do with the religious festival. They objected to the drinking and debauchery, the commercialism, mischief and frivolity of the season which seemed to them to be contrary to the frugal message of the nativity story. These objections are still occasionally voiced by sincere and thoughtful people today. You don’t have to be a Cromwellian Puritan to have anxieties about the inappropriateness of some Christmas revels. What’s more, the Puritans were absolutely correct in claiming that most of what was being celebrated at Christmas was in fact a pre-Christian, midwinter Saturnalia, complete with all its pagan symbols and customs. Many early ‘Christmas’ carols are subtly re-branded country folk songs marking the winter solstice (for example, The Holly and the Ivy or The Boar’s Head Carol). Rowdy singing and dancing, in the minds of the 17th century puritans, were all trappings of a partying culture that had too readily appended itself to Christmas.


When the ban became law, carols disappeared from churches, which, incidentally, were free to continue celebrating Christ’s birth on Christmas Day with services and due solemnity (rather disproving the notion that Christmas itself was banned). Carol-singing per se was not banned and – removed from church – migrated to people’s homes, taverns and streets, where it thrived. Indeed, the surviving tradition of progressing from door to door with carols, or of ‘pub’ carolling, owes its existence in large part to the period of the Commonwealth.


The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 repealed the Parliamentary ban on Christmas festivities, but carols continued to be eschewed in church for over a hundred years thereafter. If the prohibition of the singing of carols in church at Christmas had been such a cultural calamity, an example of totalitarian repression, why were they not immediately re-introduced in churches after 1660 too?


Carolling wasn’t all that re-positioned itself from a sacred to a secular space during the Republic. The same can be said of choral singing generally and of instrumental music-making, which became a domestic activity. Not only that, domestic music-making which had once been the preserve of the wealthy, began to spread into ordinary homes, taverns and open air gatherings. It is significant that the two most popular publications of music during the Commonwealth were secular, instrumental collections: Christopher Simpson’s The Division-Violist, a compendium of pieces and a player’s instruction manual for the instrument (a bowed string instrument played between the knees), and John Playford’s The English Dancing Master, first published in 1651 and reprinted continuously until the present day. This makes it one of, if not the most successful printed music book in world history. The English Dancing Master’s first edition (it was expanded considerably in subsequent imprints) contained 105 country dance tunes with tutorials on how they were to be danced and played. It goes without saying that its very existence, never mind its immense popularity, is a conspicuous contradiction of the myth that the Puritan Commonwealth suppressed culture and jollity in general or musical and Terpsichorean activity in particular. Playford’s wife ran a dancing school adjacent to her husband’s offices, and in 1649, what we would describe as a specialist arts school was set up in Bethnal Green by Sir Balthazar Gerbier for the teaching of music, dance and stage-speaking. Nine years after the Restoration, by contrast, Josias Priest (the choreographer who later mounted Blow’s opera Venus and Adonis and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at his girls’ school in Chelsea) was arrested for dancing and making music without a licence, a crime and punishment never mentioned in eulogies to the returning king’s glorious reign. Oliver Cromwell himself was a music-lover who during the Protectorate gathered eminent composers and players to Hampton Court Palace (as well as the organ of Magdalen College Oxford), whose talents were frequently called upon to entertain delegations from foreign powers. In February 1657 the Council of the Protectorate established a Committee for the Advancement of Music. Hardly the symptoms of a society crushed by the yoke of artistic censorship.


When later, though, monarchist politicians regained control of the country and were intent on portraying the Parliamentary Republic as a repressive, joyless, totalitarian regime, they made it their business to have these inconvenient facts disappear, replacing them with a Restoration narrative at the wonder of a benign, liberating monarch. That narrative has been so successfully embedded in our culture that old ghosts and allegiances have been very hard, perhaps impossible, to dislodge.