Today in London’s surveillance history: ‘Secret apparatus for tampering with, copying & forging letters in the interests of the State’ burned in the Great Fire, 1666.

Think hi-tech state surveillance of your communications are a recent development? Think again… it goes back centuries.

Between Sunday, 2 September and Thursday, 6 September 1666, the ‘Great Fire of London’ in 1666 destroyed 13,200 houses (the homes of some 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants), as well as 87 parish churches, and, famously, St Paul’s Cathedral. It took out most of the administrative buildings of the City authorities.

And it also devastated some of the most secret offices of the English state… including a mysterious machine designed for surveillance of subversive elements.

It is recorded that on September 3rd, the fire spread to Posthouse Yard, lying off Threadneedle Street, where the relatively new General Post Office was based, and that the Postmaster, James Hickes, tried, but failed, to save from the flames the ‘Secret apparatus for tampering with, copying & forging letters in the interests of the State’.

What was this machine…? Initially reading this sentence made me think of a device part kettle, part knife, slitting or steaming open letters… while other arms copy the writing, like a large steaming spider…

Samuel Morland’s design for a multiplying machine

The ‘apparatus’ had been in invented by Sir Samuel Morland, an inventor who had begun his career as a diplomat and spy under the Cromwell regime, as secretary to John Thurloe, a Commonwealth official in charge of espionage. He had then become a double agent & worked for the future Charles II; after the latter was restored to the throne, Morland employed his mechanical talent to creating various innovative devices, including calculating machines, water pumps, and an early type of megaphone or ‘speaking trumpet’…

His double agent work for the royalist cause while still serving Cromwell having led him to be rewarded with a baronetcy in 1660, Morland went to work helping supervise intelligence gathering and espionage/counter-espionage for the new regime. While his character was generally held to be shifty, untrustworthy and his loyalty pretty much for sale, he had an undeniable mechanical talent; being a place-seeker and of limited financial means, he put his abilities at the service of the state (as well as attempting to make some cash on the side).

The restored Stuart monarchy had many enemies, a number of which were to continue conspiring, plotting rebellion, uprising, restoration of the Republic, for twenty years: ex-Levellers, former Fifth Monarchists, puritan activists, ex-Cromwell soldiers… A teeming republican underground had already developed under the protectorate, as disillusion with Cromwell had set in, but this multiplied under Charles II, and was spiced by a general perception that the new reign was gradually sliding towards sympathy for the widely feared & despised catholicism. Soon penetrated by spies, the murky restoration underbelly was complicated by the power struggles of great lords and state officials, often working against each other, so that there were double and triple agents, spying on each other, grassing each other up, and being manipulated by their masters. Add to this the agents of foreign governments… there were quite a lot of people the secret state needed to keep tabs on, and the written communications of whom were of great interest to the spymasters.

The Post office was of central importance to this surveillance. The ‘Secret Office’ – an arm of what was basically a secret service, dedicated to opening post to discover plots against the government – was formed around 1653 under Cromwell’s post-Civil War republican Protectorate; but it proved so handy, the Office was continued after the restoration of the monarchy.

Part of the whole rationale of having a single state-controlled post was to be able to monitor what people were writing to each other, by opening and inspecting their letters. Nearly a century before Thurloe, the Elizabethan state had already been regularly reading the letters sent abroad by French and Spanish diplomats and uncovering plots to overthrow the queen by diehard catholics…

Cromwell’s Parliament enacted powers for a state run post office in 1657 that stated openly that a state run monopoly postal service was the “best means to discover and prevent many dangerous and wicked designs which have been and are daily contrived against the peace and welfare of the Commonwealth, the intelligence whereof cannot well be communicated, but by letter of Escript”.

In May 1655 Cromwell appointed his spymaster John Thurloe as postmaster general. In a secret room at the Post Office, Thurloe’s spies covertly intercepted letters from those suspected of plotting against Cromwell’s Protectorate. Thurloe infiltrated agents into the circles of Royalists plotting to overthrow Cromwell and restore the monarchy; he employed Oxford University mathematician John Wallis to decipher their codes.

Part of Morland’s work under Thurloe was overseeing the opening of letters at the Post office, and he continued this work in the early 1660s. Initially this work was done manually, which was obviously time consuming; but Morland bent his clever mind to obtaining or devising more sophisticated methods. Henry Bennet, Lord Arlington, the secretary of State, claimed, in a discussion with Morland, that the Spanish government had devised ways of sealing letters to make them tamper-proof; Morland, however, asserted that he could open them. Arlington wrote a sample letter to test this and posted it; Morland produced a copy of his letter. This so impressed Arlington that he arranged for king Charles himself to view the process late one night in 1664, where the monarch observed “the opening… [of] all manner of seals, as well in wafer as in wax, and then closing and sealing them up again, so as never to be discovered by the most curious eye”. Year later, Morland reminisced about the occasion: “With these [machines] the king was so satisfied that he immediately put [them] into practice as they were and competent salaries appointed for the same and this practice continued with good success till the fire of London consumed both the post house and all the engine and utensils belonging to the premises.”

At this point the machine Morland had either devised or got hold of seems to have involved dextrously opening the letters (though how this was done this is not fully described) copying them by pressing a damp paper to the writing to transfer the ink, then re-sealing them. This last part may have involved replicating the existing wax seal. The process was said to take less than a minute.

Morland was given two rooms in the post office to put his machines into operation. Relatively quickly the system was up and running, and the government was able to extract letters from the post, open and copy them, and replace them in the post overnight.

Morland also recorded what he saw as the basic function of his devices and of surveillance in general: “a skilful prince ought to make a watch tower of his general post office… and there place such careful sentinels as that, by their care and diligence, he may have a constant view of all that passes.”

After the 1666 disaster destroyed his devices, Morland continued to work on similar schemes. In 1688 he offered to sell a machine along these lines to the Venetian Republic. A year later the new postmaster, ex-Leveller and cunning politicker John Wildman, attempted to instigate a plan to build several more letter-openers, and Morland hired 60 workmen to build them. However, the new king, William III, was for some reason unsupportive, and the plan was eventually dropped.

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If in Morland’s day, surveillance of the post was centralised at Lombard Street, by the eighteenth century, the surveillance function of the post office had been spread out to the local post offices across the country, where the postmasters served as ‘the eyes and ears of the state’, informing on “material transactions and remarkable occurrences”. This involved less opening mail, as reporting on people’s actions and opinions locals to the central post office, which got passed to the authorities. (Actually steaming open the post was still a perk of the central office in London.)

The work of the Secret Office, however, continued for centuries.

Its main role was to intercept and read mail between Britain and overseas. Foreign post and official dispatches passed between Britain and the rest of the world via the Packet Service: a fleet of fast ships sailing regular routes. Foreign mail bags were sent to the office, where on their arrival teams of translators and decipherers read through the contents to copy out any relevant information in English.

The copies were then sent on to the secretary of state, and the mail was returned to the GPO for delivery as normal. From the 1790s, mail arrived at the office twice a day: at 10am and 2pm. In some cases, the inspectors could be given as little as half an hour to read through all the items and send them on their way again.

Secrecy was naturally at the heart of these operations. If foreign governments realised their mail was being read, they could instead send it by special messenger, denying Britain access to valuable intelligence. Located near the Foreign Post Office, the Secret Office was so well concealed that employees of other GPO departments were completely unaware of its existence.

During the second half of the 18th century, it was the role of the chief clerk to examine any letters that he thought might be useful. However, inspections of certain items could also be commanded by the king. In 1755, for instance, King George II specially requested that the French mail bags be inspected for letters from a ‘Mr Barry’.

 At the heart of the Office’ operations was a team of decipherers, which in 1748 included a ‘Chief Decypherer’ and Second, Third and Fourth Decipherers.

These positions were well paid – the head of the group earned £1,000, and his underlings around £80 to £100. Considering the average wage for a mail ship crewman was around a shilling a day, or £18 and five shillings per year, these wages were a strong incentive to keep your mouth shut about your secret work. Even the Office ‘Door Keeper’ got £50 per year. Other employees included a chief clerk, general clerks, and an ‘Alphabet Keeper’.

When Britain was at war the need to monitor communications for possibly valuable information rose sharply. In 1752 the office employed five people, but by the time the American War of Independence was in full flow in 1776, there were 10.

These numbers remained high through the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France, (1792-1815). The number of Packet ships running between Britain and overseas also increased dramatically during times of war. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, there were around 40 ships sailing, carrying letters to and from soldiers’ as well as government dispatches. The Packets also smuggled newspapers out of France and spies into it.

In 1816, after these wars ended, staff numbers in the office were reduced to six.

By its nature secret, it is impossible to know how many letters were opened over the centuries. Opening mail required a Warrant requesting that items of correspondence be sent to the Secret Office, but there was no official practice for recording the warrants: in fact, most warrants were burned after being received by the postmaster general.

Warrants for the interception of foreign mail tended to lead to the copying out of passages, whereas ‘criminal’ warrants relating to domestic mail often simply permitted its seizure.
These inspections certainly led to arrests in Britain. In 1758, Dr Florence Hensey was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death, based on ‘treasonous correspondence’ seized by the office.

Hensey had a friend in France whom he corresponded with and sent intelligence to, for the sum of £25 a month. In an attempt to outwit any other readers, Hensey had written in lemon juice between the lines of a seemingly innocent letter.

In another case, a letter home by a sailor ‘pressed’ – forcibly conscripted – into the Navy was seized during the Napoleonic Wars. Writing to his wife, the sailor complained about his treatment and outlined a plan to escape, but his letter was read and kept as evidence against him.

The technical skills to open, decrypt and re-seal the letters was significant. Opening and closing could be done without a trace, and there were meticulously engraved forgeries of seals and duplicates of the special waxes were developed.  In a typical operation, a letter from the King of Prussia took three hours to open, copy and reseal.”

During the 1840s, the Secret Office was exposed and an inquiry was held to investigate its activities. The interception of foreign mail was not the issue that outraged the public (foreigners basically being less deserving of human rights than freeborn Englishmen obviously!); however there was concern that the government was also spying on domestic mail.

The GPO eventually admitted that British letters had in fact been targeted. In one Post Office statement, it was said that the chief of the ‘Secret Department’ had only read domestic mail very reluctantly, and under government instruction, and that “inspection of private correspondence is altogether and entirely disclaimed”.

There’s an interesting account here on the scandal around the British state spying on exiled ‘foreign’ radicals that broke when the full extent of the secret office’s activities became known in 1844.

The 1840s enquiry into the Secret Office ostensibly marked an end of the institution’s activities, but clearly this didn’t really happen – new forms of surveillance simply replaced them.

During WW1, the War Office employed thousands of bilingual women to work on postal and telegraphic censorship monitoring correspondence with neutral countries all over the world. Assisted by the Post Office, this censorship was the largest of its kind and helped the government to catch spies, control the dissemination of military information and to compile economic data used to better execute the blockade of vital imports into Germany.

Of course, surveillance continues, especially against ‘domestic extremists’, radicals, anarchists, communists, etc… These days keeping tabs on electronic media constitutes much of their work, a huge industry in itself.

The Post Office has continued to co-operate with state surveillance into modern times – as late as the 1990s, in our own experience, Special Branch were still sending plods to Herne hill Sorting office to read the mail to the nearby 121 anarchist centre, which must have been a very dull assignment. Such activities must have been replicated against hundreds or thousands of groups and individuals considered a threat to the state – more or less accurately…

Today in London’s riotous history, 1668: ‘Bawdy House Rioters’ attack brothels across the City

The Bawdy House Riots of 1668 saw crowds attack & pull down brothels, outwardly in a moral crusade; though of course moral causes were a good excuse for a bit of burning & looting. However the mob was also said to have been infected with Leveller ideas, & there was talk of “tearing down the Great Bawdy House at Westminster” (meaning Parliament).

In reality, as with many outbreaks of London rioting, from the Peasants Revolt to 2011, the Bawdy House Riots may have been the product of a mingling of many motives, carried out by several overlapping crowds, and subsequently had contradictory or disputed meanings applied to them by commentators anxious to impose their own fears and obsessions… A tendency repeated by numerous historians, still debating the causes and meaning of the riots 350 years later…

On 23 March 1668 a crowd of London apprentices, servants, and artisans, dressed in green aprons, attacked brothels (‘bawdy houses’) in Poplar—kicking off a bout of rioting that over five days would spread from the east end of the City to the west-end brothels.  On the second day, the crowd, now numbering as many as 40,000 people, organised itself into regiments, with their own captains, and proceeded to besiege brothels in East Smithfield, Moorfields, and Shoreditch.  King Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and Lieutenants of the city to suppress the riot, which resulted in the arrest of a number of participants.  But the crowd responded to the arrests on the third and fourth day by besieging the prisons and releasing their comrades.  On the final day, the attacks continued in Holborn before they were finally suppressed.  Among the rallying cries of the mob were “down with the Red Coats!”  “Reformation and Reducement!”  “We have been servants, but we will be masters now!”  They threatened both “that if the king did not give them liberty of conscience, that May-day must be a bloody day” and that “ere long they would come and pull White-hall down”.

Fears that the attacks on brothels had been a cover for a more revolutionary agenda were exacerbated by satirical pamphlets which appeared in the aftermath of the riots, that compared the events to the popular 1647 uprising led by Thomaso Aniello in Naples; many of the publications dwelt upon the popular perception of the growing connection between bawdy houses and the licentious court of Charles II.  In The Poor-Whores Petition. To the Most Splendid, Illustrious, Serene and Eminent Lady of Pleasure, the Countess of Castlemayne (25 March 1668), Charles II’s powerful mistress is addressed by common whores.  The famous bawds Damarose Page and Madam Creswell petition the grand whore for protection and in The Gracious Answer of the Most Illustrious Lady of Pleasure (24 April 1668), “Castlemaine” promises redress for the “barbarity of those Rude Apprentices, and the cruel Sufferings that the Sisterhood was exposed unto.”

15 of the suspected ringleaders of the uprising were arrested, and charged with high treason: four were subsequently convicted, and then horrifically punished – castrated, drawn and quartered—a punishment usually reserved for traitors and rebels.

Samuel Pepys mentions the rumours that the rioters had men among them who had fought in the civil war, and that some of them talked of attacking the royal palace, ‘the great bawdy house at Whitehall’:

“The Duke of York and all with him this morning were full of the talk of the ‘prentices, who are not yet [put] down, though the guards and militia of the town have been in armes all this night, and the night before; and the ‘prentices have made fools of them, sometimes by running from them and flinging stones at them. Some blood hath been spilt, but a great many houses pulled down; and, among others, the Duke of York was mighty merry at that of Damaris Page’s, the great bawd of the seamen; and the Duke of York complained merrily that he hath lost two tenants, by their houses being pulled down, who paid him for their wine licenses 15l. a year. But here it was said how these idle fellows have had the confidence to say that they did ill in contenting themselves in pulling down the little bawdyhouses, and did not go and pull down the great bawdy-house at White Hall. And some of them have the last night had a word among them, and it was “Reformation and Reducement.” This do make the courtiers ill at ease to see this spirit among people, though they think this matter will not come to much: but it speaks people’s minds; and then they do say that there are men of understanding among them, that have been of Cromwell’s army: but how true that is, I know not.”

As often occurred in London riots in the medieval and early modern centuries, London’s prisons were also attacked, including the Clerkenwell House of Detention…

The implications of the riots were very serious for the authorities – they revived the fears of civil war, a very recent trauma, the spectacle of the levellers, ranters and all the other sects and movements, that had challenged the status quo in the 1640s and ‘50s. The disturbances seemed a revival of overt challenge to the social hierarchy, recalling very directly the myriad ways in which the civil war had opened up questioning of society… When one group of rioters in 1668 broke open Finsbury Jail, in order to rescue some of their fellow rioters who had already been arrested for their involvement in the disturbances, they told the jailer: ‘We have been servants, but we will be masters now’ – a remark which had frightening levelling implications for the authorities.

Commentators of the time, and historians, since, have put forward a number of explanations for the events of 1668… as the product of the apprentices longstanding tradition of “carnivalesque insurrection” and “folkloric unrest”… as a more specific response to Charles II’s reassertion of the Act of Uniformity (restricting the rights of non-conformist churches) in the weeks leading up to the riots, arguing that the apprentices’ politicised resurrection of brothel bashing was aimed against religious policy… as reflecting the apprentices’ longstanding tendency to “define themselves in antagonism against demonised women”.

“For humble tradesmen and apprentices to rise up and instruct the king which laws he should or should not be enforcing, to the point of trying to enforce certain laws (those against brothels) themselves, was indeed a usurpation of the regal authority; the act, by its very nature, places the common man on a level with the king (even if only temporarily), and in this respect was political levelling. If the reading of the riots as an anti-court protest is correct, then the crowd was trying to hold the royal court accountable to the law, and the belief that the law applied to all, regardless of social status (even the king), was a fundamental Leveller principle. The idea embodied in the riots that ordinary people could exercise the power of the sword, use force themselves to impose justice or even to resist duly constituted authority, was indeed political levelling and a Levelling principle. As George Hickes put it in a sermon of 1682, in the context of challenging what he took to be the Whig belief that power lay radically in the people (another Leveller notion): ‘What a great sin it is for the subjects of any government upon any pretence whatsoever, to take up Arms without Authority from the lawfull Sovereign, be it in riots, tumults, or rebellions, or any other illegal meeting howsoever called; for God hath committed the power of the Sword to the lawfull Sovereign onely.’ “

However, while on the one hand the riots contained a powerful echo of the radical ends of the English Revolution, they also reflected both long held prejudices and newer concerns about sexuality and commerce…

The Bawdyhouse rioters possessed republican sympathies – yes, but as in the Civil War years, these were also often deeply Puritan views as well. This expressed itself not only in rebellion against a monarchy that had replaced the ‘Godly’ commonwealth, but also in moral revulsion against the ‘immoral’ persons within the society around them.

“In the 1660s the prostitute very quickly became not only a synecdoche for but the privileged emblem of a new economic and aesthetic order of things.  That a pervasive popular animosity towards both whores and the theatre coincides exactly with the rising celebrity of the actress among London elites, I want to suggest, reflects deep worries about the sexual and labouring identity not only of women, but also of young men from across the spectrum of low-status artisanal occupations… Just as privileged mercantilist and aristocratic sectors of the London population were coming to openly embrace the commercialism that both the theatre and the prostitute had historically embodied, the explicit nature of commercial articulations in the opening decades of the Restoration, by exposing the alienated and objectified condition of laborers more generally, sparked violent protest against this ascendant aesthetic and sexual economy.” (Katherine Romack, Striking the posture of a whore: The bawdy-house riots and anti-theatrical prejudice)

As Romack relates, the Restoration of the 1660s saw not just a concerted effort to re-establish the authority of the king and aristocracy over society (deeply weakened by more than 20 years of rebellion and war), but also to “divide the free-men of the city from their apprentice servants” (weakening one of the bonds that had helped to build the parliamentary coalition against king Charles I).At the same time, apprenticeship as an institution was being rapidly undermined by economic changes within and outside the London guild system. This not only made apprentices’ position within the world of work more precarious (compared to what had been a hard but reasonably stable relationship for centuries) – it also began to dissolve the power of the apprentices collectively, to weaken their power to gather, act as a crowd, affect political and social struggles.

For up to 200 years apprentices had been a central, if not dominant, feature of urban disturbances (often erupting around feast days, and sometimes highly ritualised). Since the late 16th century, many had also been influenced by puritan religious ideas.  By the mid-1660’s, apprentices were also beginning to feel that their futures in their trades were not as stable as previous generations could have expected; apprenticeship was becoming detached from a declining guild system, and established privileges and guarantees were being eroded. Apprenticeship was becoming more and more like servitude on starvation wages. Demarcation between the working poor and apprentices were blurring.

This may have been a factor that drove apprentices to riot both against what seemed like new immorality as well as aiming barbs at authority in general…

To some extent the Bawdy House Rioters were lumped together and described as ‘apprentices’, when many were not; the tendency to label them as apprentices has been seen as part of “a strategy through which the aspiring merchant class shed its republican tendencies”, and made common cause with the restored monarchy.

Katherine Romack sees the antagonism of the Bawdyhouse rioters toward “the mercenary sexual performances of London prostitutes and the growing tension between this class of adolescent males and the theatre” as “the product of a failure of traditional patriarchal ideologies of gender to keep pace with the radical acceleration of wage labour.  We can, from this perspective, read the riots as a failed expression of class-consciousness.  The “craft” of the common whore (her impersonations, imposture, and class transvestitism) elicited a hostile response from the rioters because she presented a challenge to traditional ideologies of youthful masculinity.  The sexually objectified female performer exposed, in short, the young men’s own subjection to the marketplace.  The most violent assault on the theatres and the brothels in this period came, most naturally, from those who intuited their own prostituted condition.” (Romack)

She suggests that as early as 1660, the apprentices were already beginning to understand that the old certainties of apprentice life and the expectation of job security were dissolving, or as he puts it, “patrimonial narratives that had traditionally ensured their subordination” were outdated, that “the prostitution endemic to commerce had pervaded all levels of culture from workshop to court”.

“Exacerbated by the ongoing deterioration of the guild system, the apprentices’ hostility towards prostitutes resulted from the failure of those fictions of servitude that had once rendered palatable their status sexually, in the patriarchal family unit, and on-stage. The violence of the authorities’ response to the apprentice riots of ’68, suggests that they had more to fear from the apprentices than a little festive brothel bashing, for it was precisely the disastrous effects of reification against which these youthful subordinate subjects rebelled.  Their cries of “we have been servants but we will be masters now!” as they ravaged the brothels in ’68 mark not only an implicit realisation but also a desperate denial of their own prostituted condition.  Tragically, however, the rioters fell victim to a fatal misrecognition: they became so caught up in the visual emblems of commodity fetishism (in its objects and proxies—in whores) that they lashed out at women, who were themselves equally subject to the workings of the market.  The young men failed, in short, to understand that commodity fetishism neither inheres in, nor originates from, its objects. Conflating the object of desire with its cause is also, ironically, the pornographic attitude to sexuality.”

According to this reading of the Riots, the apprentices’ hostility toward prostitutes did not arise primarily from a moral objection to sex, but from “a collective response against their increasing alienation and disenfranchisement”… Only rather than substantially attacking any of the economic class that was benefitting from the turbulent changes, much of the disorder was concentrated on targeting women on the margins. Puritan morality successfully diverting confused social anger and economic insecurity into collective male violence.

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Today in London’s Rebel History, 1661: Thomas Venner’s Fifth Monarchist Insurrection

King Jesus, and the Heads Upon the Gate!

“1660:‑ The King had not been many days at Whitehall, when one Venner, a violent fifth‑monarchy man, who thought it was not enough to believe that Christ was to reign on earth, and to put the saints in the possession of the kingdom, (an opinion that they were all unspeakably fond of,) but added to this, that the saints were to take the kingdom them­selves. He gathered some of the most furious of the party to a meeting in Coleman‑street. There they concerted the day and the manner of their rising to set Christ on his throne, as they called it.. But withal they meant to manage the government in his name; and were so formal, that they had prepared standards and colours with their devices on them, and furnished themselves with very good arms. But when the day came, there was but a small appearance, not exceeding twenty. However they resolved to venture out into the streets, and cry out, No king but Christ. Some of them seemed persuaded that Christ would come down, and head them.
They scoured the streets before them, and made a great progress. Some were afraid, and all were amazed at this piece of extravagance. They killed a great many, but were at last mastered by numbers: and were all either killed, or taken and executed.‑”
Bishop Burner, The History of His Own Times.

In January 1661, Thomas Venner led a violent insurrection of fifth monarchists to overthrow the restored Stuart monarchy. According to some reports there were just fifty, or less, of the budding revolutionaries… It’s not how many there are of you, it’s how much madder you are than your enemy…

The Fifth Monarchy movement arose in 1651 in the wake of the English Revolution. The ‘Saints’ were millenarians, who held that the overthrow of king Charles I was only the beginning of a struggle that would end with the events of the Book of Revelations coming to pass, and the kingdom of heaven being built on earth. They held that there should be no king but king Jesus: this was to be the Fifth Monarchy, after the four previous great empires, all seen as rotten and ungodly.

The Fifth Monarchists were not an egalitarian movement, they believed like many of their contemporaries in the reign of the “godly”. However there were significant elements among them who aimed at major reforms, some were moving towards revolutionary beliefs including a number who who saw in the Fifth Monarchy the destruction of all earthly authority, and the levelling of rich and poor. The main plank of the movement that separated them out from the millenarian ideas of the 1640s was the belief that the Second Coming wouldn’t just happen, but had to be ushered in by political and even violent insurrectionary action. (Others however were acting as informers against radical movements like the Levellers… the Fifth Monarchist movement was very much a broad church…)

The Fifth Monarchists aimed at the destruction of tithes, as they supported the national church, which they wanted to dis-establish. They demanded reform of the law, an end to lawyers; freedom for preaching in public places. They attacked army officers who had grown rich on forfeited property from the wars.

About twelve Fifth Monarchists sat in the Barebones Parliament, and forming alliances with other religious radicals, struggled to bring in their reforms. They voted against tithes in November 1653, which their opponents saw as the start of an attack on property, in the tradition of the Munster Anabaptists. The moderates therefore in December resigned their power to Cromwell, who abolished Parliament. Cromwell had been associated with the Fifth Monarchists, and many on the movement had seen him as a kind of mini-Messiah; but from this point he began to repress the movement. (His history of enlisting support from the Levellers to act against the royalists and moderate parliaments, then crushing them, suggested he wasn’t above using the Fifth Monarchists in this way also.)

After the fall of Barebones, the Movement went into opposition… Preachers were arrested, sympathisers in the army were purged or arrested. In 1654, there were rumours of a conspiracy of Levellers, Fifth Monarchists, Commonwealthsmen & even royalists against the government. Followers of Fifth Monarchist preacher Vavasor Powell in Wales prepared for armed insurrection in 1654… Meanwhile, imprisoned preachers Feake & Rogers were preaching through the windows of their cells & subverting their jailers at Windsor.

Thomas Venner and other Fifth Monarchists met and preached in Swan Alley, just off Coleman Street, near Moorgate – then the stronghold of the most radical non-conformists in religion, and a feverish hotbed of political radicalism. [in 1645, women even preached here, against all custom of the time, upsetting the established church hierarchies. Women had “a vocal sub-group…in… Venner’s church”.]

Venner, a cooper, had been sacked in 1655 from his job at the Tower of London – for plotting to blow it up (definitely a case for an employment tribunal there)! In 1657 Venner’s militant Fifth monarchist congregation planned an uprising. They had created a secret organisation of five 25-strong cells, and had obtained maps & telescopes, & studied troop movements. They planned to assemble at Mile End Green, attack the army, and rally to East Anglia where the movement had wide support. Other Fifth Monarchist groups, though, refused to take up arms without a sign from God. Government troops broke up the assembly, arresting 20 rebels & seizing arms and manifestos. A rising near Epping was also broken up. Venner was jailed in the Tower till 1659, the Fifth Monarchy Movement went into a temporary decline.

In 1657 there were an estimated 10-15,000 Fifth Monarchists; in 1661, there were thought to be 5000 in London. Many were apprentices; those who worked in the breweries, silkweavers, and other clothing workers were attracted, as were food workers, and others in industries with little security.

After the death of Cromwell, in the confusion of the rule of his son Richard, and the return of the Rump Parliament, Fifth Monarchists again grew strong, and for a while belief in the impending Millennium revived. But the Restoration of Charles II saw the execution of leading republican army officers and regicides, which included several prominent Fifth Monarchists.

In 1661, Venner’s Congregation’s response to the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy was insurrection. On 6th January, 1661, Venner and fifty followers marched from Swan Alley to St Pauls, published a manifesto which called for ‘King Jesus, and the heads upon the gate.” [meaning the heads of executed regicides, stuck on spikes on London Bridge]. They defeated a band of soldiers sent against them, and retreated to Kenwood in Hampstead. On the 9th, though, they reappeared in the city, they attacked at Wood Street and Threadneedle Street, forcing the a force of 1200 King’s Life Guards to retreat. They then attempted to storm the Comptor Prison to liberate the inmates in order to join them, but were repulsed in fierce fighting. Venner is said to have killed three men with a halberd in Threadneedle Street.

A force of General Monck‘s men under Colonel Cox pursued them to their last stands in the Helmet Tavern on Threadneedle Street and the Blue Anchor on Coleman Street. Royalist troops broke through the clay roof tiles with musket butts and fired upon the wounded defenders, breaking in through the ceiling. Venner was captured after being wounded nineteen times. Others were shot out of hand.

Some escaped, some twenty-six were killed, Venner & others captured. Venner and twelve others were hanged in Coleman Street, on January 19th, and their meeting house was destroyed.

Fifth Monarchists were involved in numerous plots and abortive uprisings, for the next 20 odd years. Members of the movement co-operated with the eccentric rebel Captain Thomas Blood, and were involved in the republican plots of the 1680s, and the Duke of Monmouth’s 1685 Rising. Thomas’s grandson, Colonel Samuel Venner led the Duke of Monmouth’s cavalry and was shot and wounded by a sniper in Bridport, but survived until 1712.

Many others abandoned violent millenarianism and settled down into dissenting religious sects or Quakerism.