Today in London’s radical history, 1614: Lewisham residents demonstrate against the enclosure of Sydenham Common

“Memorandum that in ye yeares of our Lord 1614 and 1615 we had many troubles and suites concerning our common of Westwood being in quantity about 500 acres of ground whereunto the Lord of his mercy gave a good issue in ye end. The occasion was this: Henry Newport of Lewsham, gentleman, and yeoman of ye boiling-house to King James, having lived long in our parish, in ye yeare 1605 begged this common of the King and made meanes to his Majesty for a lease of it at a yearely rent.” (Abraham Colfe)

The area on the slopes of the ridge of hills that runs across South London, from Norwood to Brockley, was, until the 18th century, largely still woodland, the remnants of the old Great North Wood. This wood, a natural oak forest that had once stretched from unbroken from Croydon to Camberwell, had broken up by the seventeenth Century, into smaller woods and commons, including Penge Wood, Gipsy Wood, Dulwich Wood, Forest Wood (or Forest Hill), and Westwood (also called Sydenham Common).

By the late 1700s many of these woods and Commons were often inhabited by the very poor, squatters with nowhere else to go, some driven by earlier enclosures and social/economic change into scratching a living from marginal land; others were social outcasts like romany travellers, (hence the local area name of Gipsy Hill), though there was also often a smattering of outlaws, robbers and rebels. Smugglers and their contacts used green lanes through Norwood and Peckham to bring contraband up from the south coast.

From the late fifteenth century, common lands began to be enclosed – fenced off, initially mainly for more intensive sheep farming, as wool was very lucrative – the English wool trade was a major driver of the national economy (and a huge factor in the historical development of capitalism). Later, intensive agriculture, economies of scale and technological innovation also pushed large-scale enclosure projects.

Enclosure lined the pockets of the already dominant landowning classes, but also helped enrich merchants and other traders, hungry for social advancement and power.

On top of demand for land for development and more intensive agriculture there was also pressure to clear ‘undesirables’ out; for some local worthies in rural or suburban parishes, this was a useful by-product of enclosures.

While the Lord of the Manor, the landowner, was often the initiator of enclosure, this was not always the case. Increasingly from the 16th century the buying and selling of land was followed by enclosure,

The mass upheavals caused by enclosures were not pushed though without resistance. Those who depended on the rights to collect wood, furze or peat for fuel, gather foodstuffs, or graze animals, fought attempts to shut them out of the land – because they had little choice, it was a matter of survival. Others with some ‘rights of common’ might be small-scale landowners themselves, who would lose out too, but had some chance of compensation.

The latter had more legal clout to challenge enclosure. But tactics were as varied as the complex interwoven web of rights and customs that enclosure sought to do away with – ranging from petitions, court cases, demonstrations, to sabotage and riot, the destruction of fences and ditches, driving of animals onto enclosed land… At crucial periods enclosure led to armed rebellions, as in several counties across the southeast, southwest and East Anglia in 1549, and in several midlands counties in 1607.

Many battles were won – many more lost.

One battle that was fought hard, and enclosure prevented for two centuries (though ultimately lost), was that over Sydenham Common, also was known in early medieval times as Westwood or Westwood Common.  The name Westwood derives from the area being the western part of the parish of Lewisham, and heavily wooded; in fact Westwood was a remainder of the old Great North Wood.

Sydenham or Westwood Common (very occasionally also referred to as Shenewood) covered the area between modern Sydenham and Forest Hill. Bounded in the Southwest by today’s Westwood Hill & Crystal Palace Park, in the Southeast it reached to Mayow Park and Sydenham Road; to the north to where Honor Oak Park and Forest Hill Road now lie. It consisted of open fields and woodland belonging to the Manor of Lewisham, who were in turn, from the middle ages, the Abbots of Ghent, the Priors of Shene (near Richmond) and then the Archbishops of Canterbury. For centuries the common was split between coppices of farmed timber and open tracts where locals and parishioners of Lewisham had ‘Common Rights’ to graze cattle & gather fuel.

Henry VIII acquired Westwood in 1531, as part of the manor of Lewisham, an acquisition ratified by an act of Parliament in 1531.In the Act there was a proviso that the exchange was not to be hurtful to any person concerning the “Commons, ” or any rights of use which any person might or ought to have therein. The Crown, however, thereafter considered that Westwood Common was a portion of the demesne lands of the manor (thus the king’s to dispose of as he saw fit).

The coppice system was gradually abandoned, to allow more mature woods to grow for use by the navy – crucial to the wars waged by successive Tudor monarchs (and most successfully to the officially tolerated piracy in the West Indies that gave birth to both the beginnings of Britain’s naval imperialism and to the Atlantic slave trade). These trees were felled wholesale in the late sixteenth century, leaving a stripped common, apart from two main wooded areas, Coleson’s Coppice and Coopers Wood.

This open land was a strong temptation to potential enclosers.

The battle against enclosure began in 1605-6, when Henry Newport, a gentleman living in Lewisham and a Yeoman of the King’s Household (a royal courtier) persuaded king James I to lease him 500-600 acres of ‘Westwood’, and applied to fence a large part off for ‘improvement’.

Many inhabitants of Lewisham were small farmers or husbandmen who relied heavily on the free pasture available on the common. At this time there were also large numbers of squatters on the common, encouraged by the lack of restrictions on grazing of animals. They supported themselves almost entirely by raising pigs, cows and sheep.

There was an outcry locally in response to the proposal. Abraham Colfe, the vicar of Lewisham, played a central role in organised opposition to Newport. A number of local inhabitants claimed that they had always had common of pasture for all manner of cattle without number and at all times [i.e. that the land was not half year land], and also common of estovers and shreddings of all trees growing on the said common. Their first petition noted the value of the Common to local poor inhabitants:

“The Humble Petition of the inhabitants of the Parrishe of Lewsham :— “Wherefore the poore inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaide doe most humbly praye the Right Honorable the Earl of Salisburye in respect of his greate wisdom and justice and because he is the high Stewarde of Lewsham aforesaide that he wilbe pleased to be enformed of the sayd Newporte’s unjust proceedings and to relieve the poore inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaid that being above 500 poore housholders with wives and manye children greately relieved by the sayde Common and would be utterly undone yf yt should be unjustly taken from them. So shall theese poore inhabitants be alwayes ready to praye God as nevertheles for his honours long life and happie dayes with much increase of honor. “

They produced, in proof, the recollections of the “oldest inhabitants:
“Stephen Batt of Croydon of the age of 98 yeares testifieth for the same Comon by the name of Westwood or Sheenewood in his knowledge 80 yeares agoe and never heard the contrary which testimony was five yeares before the same Acte was made [ie., 1525]. “John Heathe of the age of 90 yeares testifiethe for the same Comon for 75 yeares which was at the time of the Acte made that it was then in his knowledge a Comon and alwaies so was used and that he never harde the contrary. “Thomas Frenche of Bromley of the age of 80 yeares testifiethe for the same common for 70 yeares. Arnolde Kinge of Beckenham of the age of 78 yeares testifiethe for the same comon in his knowledge for 65 yeares.”

Henry Newport asked for a commission of enquiry to look into the matter, and Sir Thomas Walsingham, Sir Ralphe Boswell, Henry Heyman, surveyor, and Michael Berisfforde were appointed “for the surveying and finding of a parcel of waste grounde in Lewsham in the County of Kent called Westwood to be the King’s and therein especially to enquire whether it be the King’s own waste in demeane or whether it be the King’s waste but yet a comon withall and of what yearly valewe it is.”

This commission seems to have found that the land belonged to the king but was a common, with the rights that this implied; however their verdict may not have been reached unanimously:
“On the 25th April 1606 the Commissioners did sitt at Greenwich to enquire and after evidence given to the jurye and the greater parte of the same jury meaninge to give up their verdict that Westwood was the King’s waste and yet a comon, they were dissolved and lefte for that time, wherby that Commission was expired”.(Abraham Colfe)

 

A painting of Sydenham Common, dating from the eighteenth century.

 

Another hearing in 1607 into the intended enclosure was inconclusive:

“The case came again before the Court of Exchequer in 1607, “after dinner, on a Starre chamber day… and againe ye 9th November, 1608,” but Newport either dropped the case at that time, “or other error fell out in ye proceedings, so that he obtained not as yet his purpose.”  The matter was left in abeyance…

But Newport was not, in fact, prepared to give up; he and his allies spent the following six years on ‘secret inquisitions’, plotting carefully to claim the land: “Since which time the aforesaide Henrie Newporte going about to defeate the inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaide of their saide Comon hathe secretly made an inquisition in a remote place and altogether without the knowledge of the saide inhabitants by that meanes seeking to get some sinister testimony uppon recorde againste the inhabitants, and also to prevent them of geving their evidence unto the jury as detendaunts of their righte of Comon.”

In 1614 Newport obviously felt his planning had built a good case, as he, together with two more gentlemen of the king’s household – Robert Raynes, the king’s sergeant of the buckhounds, and Innocent Lanyer, of Greenwich, one of the King’s musicians – approached the king again; this time obtaining a 60-year lease for 347 acres of Westwood – the vast majority of the common.

Locals with an interest in the common remaining open was again quick to organise opposition. They lodged a complaint against Newport and his co-patentees. After some preliminary proceedings it was agreed that Mr. John Burnett, one of the principal parishioners, who amongst others claimed to have common rights in Westwood, should be entered in the proceedings as representing the parish. The trial took place on 14th October, 1614, before the Barons of the Exchequer, touching the ‘Common of Westwood of 500 acres of ground lying in the parish of Lewisham’, with a jury of the County of Kent; John Sherman, of Greenwich, was foreman of the jury, and Henry Dobbins and Henry Abbot, of Greenwich, and John Leech, “of Detford,” were members.

However this hearing went against those opposed to the proposals: the jury ignored their complaints and found in favour of Newport and his allies. It is possible that the jury, drawn from members of local parishes, might have been weighted against the protestors, (perhaps because some of them had links to the enclosers, as a later jury was specifically noted as being drawn from parishes further away).

In response Abraham Colfe led a march of 100 parishioners to Tottenham High Cross, to petition to the king, a few days after the hearing, on October 20th: “Whereupon neer 100 people young and old went through ye City of London and a little on this side of Topnam high-crosse petitioned King James who very graciously heard ye petition and ordered the Lords of his Privy Counsell should take a course that he might be no more troubled about it.”

King James, uninterested, or unwilling to associate himself with a ruling that could alienate either side, passed it to the Privy Council for them to make a decision.

Newport and his fellow courtiers “then began very much to vexe ye inhabitants.” They immediately ordered fences erected around the common, recognising that if he could enclose the land, appeals to reverse the decision were less likely to succeed (a lesson possibly learnt from other previous enclosure battles  – actual possession counted for almost everything). “Presently the patentees began to make ditches about the common and inclosed it and drave out and killed sundry of the cattell of the inhabitants.”

The fences were put up over the winter, a crucial time for common rights, as residents were used to free access to collect firewood or gorse to burn, their only means of heating their homes. Abraham Colfe got busy fund-raising for an appeal. He and others collected money among local freeholders to take the case to the privy council. More than £100 is recorded as being collected. Further sums included £70 from ‘the Mayor and Commonality of London’… an interesting indication that the opposition had some friends in power in the City of London. Another march to petition the king was mounted on 19th December.

Local residents around the common, meanwhile, were not simply willing to accept the loss of rights of fuel gathering, and many continued to enter the common to collect wood. Lanier and Newport’s hired men then attacked some women gathering wood, which provoked a riot.

As with many enclosure struggles, there were different wings to the opposition. Vicar and the local worthies trying to establish an appeal against Newport were keen to see any action confined to court hearings, petitions, and dignified protest at the outside. Others, whose livelihoods or winter warmth depended on their continued ability to use the common, were prepared to use stronger methods – they had little choice.  Some began tearing down the fences and filling in drainage ditches Newport had ordered to be dug. Every time the enclosers men’ put fences up again, crowds gathered to break them down. In response Lanier and Newport’s men drove off more cattle and burned furze (gorsebushes) which were used as fuel by the inhabitants.

Several petitions were entered in 1615 regarding these troubles… including one on 31st March from the inhabitants of Lewisham, concerning a riot that had taken place on 2nd March.

Papers of Colfe from this time include a note on the activities of Henry Benden, a servant of Mr. Lanier, who continued to drive off the cattle of the inhabitants and obstructed the cutting of furze for fuel:  “Henry Benden and other of the patentees’ servants still drove of the cattell and spoiled some of them to death and would not let the poore have furzes. Hereupon the 22nd day being Ash Wednesday, Henry Benden being at church, after service I gave him advise, and wished him not to molest the poore in such sort by driving and hurting their cattell and hindering them of furzes: for if he should be sent for by a pursevant and committed for his contempt I thought his master (namely Mr. Lanier) would not beare him out in it.”

Colfe also noted descriptions of an attack by “one Southwell alias Thomas Foxe on Charles Parker of Lewisham on 20 April, an attack by Anthony Witherings on Thomas Coomes and Henry Hunt of Lewisham while they waited to present their suit to the Privy Council at the Royal Court at the Royal Court at Greenwich, a description of an attack by Henry Benden, Mr. Henry Newport’s son and a brother of Mr. Robert Raynes on Thomas Muscrop of Beknam (Beckenham) and Edward Caustin after they had broken through the new hedges into Westwood, in search of sheep”. Colfe noted the numbers of sheep lost on a small slip of paper.

Colfe drafted several petitions: to the Earl of Salisbury (as high Steward of Lewisham), the Earl of Somerset, (the Lord High Chamberlain), and this one, to the Archbishop of Canterbury:
“To ye right reverend father in God the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury his Grace Primate and Metropolitan of all England and one of his Majesties most Hon. Privy Councell. The humble petition of his Majesties poor tenants ye inhabitants of Lewsham in Kent neare Greenwich:

Most humbly shew to your grace many hundreds of ye poore distressed inhabitants of Lewsham that whereas we have time out of mind quietly enjoyed a wast peece of ground of 500 acres called ye Comon of Westwood (as we can shew by auncient deeds since ye 5th or 9th yeare of King Henry ye 5th being 196 years past, by an Act of Parliament reserving ye commons of ye manor of Lewsham to ye inhabitants, by ye King’s owne records calling it Westwood lying open and common, and by witnesses for 80 yeares as long as man can remember) yet Robert Raynes, Innocent Lanier and Henry Newport three of his majesties servants obtained a grant and a lease for 60 yeares from his Majesty of ye said common upon a rent of 40 markes by ye yeare and ye last terme impleaded your poor suppliants in ye Court of Exchequer and gott a verditt and judgment and are now closing ye said common to ye utter undoing of above 500 poore people. And whereas they had possessed diverse of ye nobles and by them hade meanes to informe his majesty that only 2 or 3 had ye chief benefitt of ye common and not ye poore, we were inforced to goe above an 100 of us ye 19 of December with petition to ye King’s Majestie for his mercifull favore, who most graciously promised we should have justice and in ye end referred ye consideracon of our petition to ye Lords of his Privy Councell. We most humbly desire your grace when our petition shall come to be heard before you that your grace will afford us your gracious favour for our quiet enjoying of ye said common, it being as we do solemnly protest a chief stay and maintenance for pasture of cattail, furses and bushes for fyering to above 500 poore people, and we shall pray to God for your grace’s health, long life and eternall happiness…”

The Privy Council referred the matter to the Lord Chief Baron and Sir Edward Bromley, one of the Barons of the Court of Exchequer, to try to mediate between the parishioners and Newport and his friends. But the patentees demanded £1000 in compensation in the event of not being allowed to proceed with their enclosures, which the parishioners would not agree to. Seeing that there was no chance of agreement, in April 1615 the Privy Council ordered that there should be a new trial, with John Eaton, gentleman, of Lewisham, listed as defendant to represent the inhabitants. At the same time the Privy Council ordered that the patentees (Newport & Co.) being in possession should continue to hold the ground meanwhile, that the gates and ditches destroyed by the inhabitants should be repaired by them; on the other hand the enclosers were banned from burning or selling any of the furze growing in or upon the common nor “disturbe or interrupt the said inhabitants of the manor of Lewsham nor any other his Majesties liege people to the use of all such wayes as have hearetofore byn used in, through or by or over the said parcell of ground called Westwood” until the trial and further order taken.’”

The Justices of the Peace for the area were instructed to punish any offenders, pending a ruling.

Though this may have been intended to prevent violence by either side, by June the Lewisham residents found that no action was being taken by the J.P.s against the enclosers, despite locals’ cattle being found slaughtered in Westwood and the skins of dead sheep being hung provocatively from bushes to deter resistance. The Justices, being local landowners, may have had interests in the enclosure themselves, or been unwilling to offend rich or powerful neighbours with connections to the court. Meanwhile vicar Abraham Colfe was subject to attacks on his personality, portrayed as an instigator of rebellion against the king: a petition from Newport’s group complained that
“Whereas on October 20th 1614 Mr. Abraham Colfe Vicar of Lewisham led through the City of London one hundred of his parishioners to Tottenham High Crosse and there petitioned his Majesty against the privileges granted to our clients in the common of Westwood and made many and slanderous accusations against them thereby filling the ear of his most sacred Majesty with injurious regard of our clients. And whereas our clients are desirous to maintain the good esteem of their most dread sovereign and the peaceable occupation of the lands that have been granted them and which they have at much cost fenced etc. they desire to be confirmed in their possession.”

Colfe’s petition to the Archbishop of Canterbury (quoted earlier) responded to this denunciation:
“Further in particular your humble suppliant Abraham Colf, minister of Lewsham, sheweth to your grace that whereas Robt Raynes, Innocent Laniere and Henry Newport in a late petition to his Majesty have abused your said suppliant Abraham Colf, saying that he out of his seditious spirit stirred up ye people tumultuously to clamour ye King’s Majestie, without any just ground or colour; and further Innocent Lanier hath used sundry other defamations and slanderous speaches ; also that he {i.e., Colfe) hath publickely spoken against ye proceedings of his Majestie’s Court here as though he had called publike meetings in the church to make ye people curse them. That it would please your grace to relieve your said suppliant against ye impudent slanders, and he shalbe bound ever to pray, as he doth every day upon his knees to Almighty God for your grace’s safety and favour with God and men.”

The parishioners of Lewisham also signed the following petition:
“We ye inhabitants of ye parish of Lewsham in Kent whose names are under written hearing of the sundry defamations and uncharitable speaches given out in a petition to ye King’s Majesty against Abraham Colfe vicar of our parish and being desired by him to testify our knowledg of his behaviour among us doe solemnly protest before God and witnes that for a truth unto all those whom it may concerne, that the said Abraham Colfe having lived as a curate and vicar these 10 yeares among us hath not to our knowledg demeaned himself otherwise then becometh the minister of God’s word; for he hath bene very painfull in his calling, duly preaching once (and for ye great part of the summer twice every Sabath among vs) liberall to ye poore, given to hospitality and other good workes, in his life peaceable, not having had any one suit or controversy in law all this time against any of us; no way savouring of a factious or sedicious spirit neither in publick or private speaches or actions; but continually dehorting us during ye time of our distressed suit about our common both from reviling them in speaches that have sought to get away ye meanes of our living and from perfourming any outward act that might be either offensive to his Majestie or prejudiciall to ye lawes of ye realme. In witnes wherof we have willing- and freely subscribed our names…”

The enclosers apparently labelled the protesters rich individuals who would not themselves suffer from the enclosure. Which may have been partly true, in that not all opponents of enclosure were necessarily immediately affected, but was certainly not completely accurate, as the poorer residents taking direct action most certainly were impacted. But they didn’t count as anyone to be worried about…

In July another court hearing was held, but could not resolve the matter. The group who had leased the common may have been willing to give up the enclosure (possibly the resistance had got to them somewhat by this time), but demanded excessive compensation for giving up their holding.

By October 1615, however, the Privy Council had had enough. Clearly the trouble the enclosure had caused was too big a price to pay – social peace had to be restored. They appointed an independent jury, chosen out of Kent, amongst whom it was noted that there was no one belonging to the immediately neighbouring parishes to Lewisham, and a hearing was held on 16th October, again before the Barons of the Exchequer. This time the jury agreed that Westwood was an ancient common with all the attendant customal rights. As Colfe wrote with relief “they passed [a verdict] in the behalfe of the poore inhabitants’ although common rights extended to many more. Mr. Colfe:  “The Lord’s holy name for ever for his great tender mercies be blessed a verdict passed in the behalf of the poore inhabitants and on the 18th November following judgment was also granted and a copy both of the order and of that judgment taken out under the seale of the Exchequier Chamber which is kept by us.”

Part of the reason why the local vicar and some other landowners in Lewisham opposed the enclosure may have been the prospect of the destitute squatters evicted from the Common becoming a burden on the ratepayers of the parish, if they were deprived of their tenuous livings (this is an issue that is quoted in other enclosure disputes). Though a genuine feeling that people across classes should be able to enjoy the economic benefit available to Westwood was also shared by both the very poor and many of their ‘betters’. Many well-off local residents had economic interests in common land themselves, that they resented larger landlords attempting to trample on. Many of those with written or customary ‘common rights’ might themselves be well-to-do landowners or tradesmen.

There were many social tensions at work in the Sydenham events, as with almost all struggles around enclosure. It wasn’t a simple case of class against class. Some existing landowners and rising men with money and power saw the wealth enclosure could bring them; others of the same background felt either social obligations to the less well off, genuinely buying ideologically into their role as protectors of the poor, as part of a paternalist, vertically interdependent society opposed to the ruthless destruction of complex social ties and responsibilities.

Others thought that the upheavals enclosure brought could threaten stability, and maybe lead to rebellion. And not only were authorities afraid of the violent response that enclosures could provoke, but the enclosure process was at this time often opposed by a section of the establishment. In the early seventeenth century, the king and certain sections of the nobility often sought allies among the rural population, for its economic power struggles against the rising merchant & improving classes. Pressure could sometimes be put on the authorities, to stop or reverse enclosures.

Not for the last time in anti-enclosure struggles, a tension existed between the more legalistic approach of Abraham Colfe and the parish worthies, and the violent resistance of the local poor, whose livelihoods were directly threatened. In fact though both strands contributed to the defeat of the enclosure, for this time at least. It’s doubtful that a dual strategy was in any way agreed, but in practice the violence and the petitions showed the Privy Council the potential for disorder but with a moderate party to make a deal with, rather than be shown giving in to the resistance of the poor. But probably the victory might not have been won without both.

Enclosures were a very politically sensitive question at this time. The early seventeenth century brought mass open warfare against enclosing landowners: most famously in the midlands in 1607, where thousands of the landless poor fought the militia, destroying fences, and breaking open enclosures. Interestingly this was where the names of Levellers & Diggers were seemingly first adopted or used to describe these poor rebels. Later these names would assume political significance in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The revolt would have been fresh on the minds of the Privy Council when hearing cases over Sydenham, and they would have borne in mind that King James had given special orders to the Commission appointed to enquire into the cause of the 1607 riots, that care was to be taken that the poor received no injury by the encroachment of their richer neighbours.

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The extent of Sydenham Common shown on a modern map

 

The victory of Colfe and the parishioners of Lewisham seems to have prevented large-scale enclosure in Sydenham for a century and a half, until the 1750s, when trouble broke out over Coopers Wood, once accounted the southern corner of the common, which lay just south of modern Westwood Hill, between the railway line and Lawrie Park Avenue.

Cooper’s Wood had first been detached from the common & begun to be “illegally” enclosed around 1540, though the loss of common rights here was apparently disputed locally for 200 years. Gradually houses built on the edge of the wood acquired large front gardens, and more houses were built, encroaching onto the wood. But many locals had never accepted the shutting off of the wood. In 1754 “persons claiming right of common” several times threw down fences surrounding the Wood and asserted rights of access and gathered wood for fuel. One target of these agitators was George Thornton, landlord of the Greyhound Inn in Sydenham, a tenant of the western part of Coopers Wood; his fences were “thrown down and prostrated”.  (The Greyhound Inn is still there, at the junction of  Kirkdale and Westwood Hill).

A year later, in 1755, there was a legal case in the Exchequer Court involving the denial of common rights to collect wood in Colson’s Wood or Colson’s Coppice, the area to the north of the old Common. This is now an area bounded by Ewelme Rd, Horniman Gardens, Devonshire Road, and Dunoon rd. One John Anderson sued the owner Thomas Hodsdon, who had prevented him from exercising his common rights in the Coppice. The Hodsdon family had bought up many acres of Sydenham land since 1713 – they were wealthy wine merchants, with an eye on possible future development. Hodsdon’s cousin had leased 17 acres of land adjoining Coleson’s Coppice to a brickmaker, clearly intending to begin a house building program in the area. John Anderson was no poor cottager, though; he was a well-to-do merchant living in Sydenham Road, seemingly acting as the representative of a group of residents in a test case. Nothing seems to have come of the claim, though, as Colson’s Coppice continued to be sold as freehold land:  it had been detached from the Common for too long to be considered common land.

Forty years later a last ditch stand against enclosures on Sydenham Common took place in Colson’s Wood. Samuel Atkinson, a Tooley Street cheese merchant, (who is called by some the ‘Father of Forest Hill’) bought the estate, & between 1787 and 1789 created the present Honor Oak Road, a new route from Sydenham to Peckham Rye, (where there had only been a track before) as a first step to opening up the wood for building. In 1789 he had constructed a house for himself, and was selling plots on the new road for development.

Those who still maintained that the wood was common land didn’t take this lying down; but resistance to the enclosure of the Wood was to end violently. In October 1792, the Times reported the death of Michael Bradley, who had a cottage at the Bell Green end of Sydenham Road. He and others had set out to assert a right of way:

“It appears that this Bradley and others belonging to Sydenham Parish, went a few days since on a piece of land called Colson’s Wood, to ascertain their rights of commonage, which have been held upwards of 200 years. Mr Atkinson met the deceased and his associates, and asked them their business; they replied, there was a footway across, which right their fore-fathers had enjoyed and so would they. Atkinson said they should go no further – and the first man who did, he would shoot.”

Michael Bradley stepped forward and Atkinson then shot him; Bradley died a few days later.

“The Wednesday following, Atkinson purchased the right of this wood and pasturage, consisting of 52 acres, out of Chancery for £350 – and has since enclosed it. The Coroner’s Inquest sat on the body of Bradley on Friday and Saturday, the 19th and 20th of October, at Sydenham, and brought in their verdict, Manslaughter, against one Atkinson… The man was shot in the leg by a pistol, which fractured the bone, and a mortification ensued. The deceased has left a family and four children…”

Despite this verdict in the coroner’s court, Atkinson doesn’t seem to have been charged or convicted in connection with Bradley’s death. He continued to own the estate and develop it, though he may have become unpopular locally, and decided it wasn’t a good idea to remain living in the parish, since he let his house to tenants in 1793.

Although the case caused uproar, it seems to have marked almost the end of the two century-long year struggle for common rights here: the whole of what remained of Sydenham Common was enclosed finally by an Act in 1810, during the most intense period for enclosure of open space in Britain. By this time the economic importance of the common for subsistence had declined considerably, as London expanded into the surrounding rural areas, and suburban villas were replacing agriculture. The descendants of the marginalised cottagers who once had made a bare living off the common had flocked into London to try to make a living there.

Landowners in the parish were allocated all the remaining common land, with the power to enclose it. Even after two hundred years of building and clearance, there were still five hundred acres to be developed. The main beneficiary was William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, the largest landowner in Lewisham. (The family had been Lords of the Manor of Lewisham since the seventeenth century: Dartmouth Road and the Dartmouth Arms in Forest Hill are named after their title.)

The only remaining part of the old common which still remains a green space is Sydenham Wells Park, which had become a popular spa of sorts in the 18th century. Interestingly, this spa subsequently became disreputable and infamous. Large numbers of people came to drink the spring’s waters (apparently foul tasting but good for you!). Later the emphasis on the healthy aspects of the Wells declined, giving way to binge drinking: it became popular to mix the ‘waters’ with other liquids (brandy, mostly); rowdy behaviour was rife. There were complaints about the “rabble of Londoners” flocking here. The Wells were eventually closed down in the late 19th century.

One reason Sydenham Common was apparently targeted for enclosure was its annual popular fair, which was resented by the gentry & posher residents for the ‘lowlife’ it attracted. This is a regular theme with proposals to enclose in the 18th-19th centuries, not only for profit but control of open spaces, which often could be used for unruly gatherings of the poor, not only fairs and makeshift dwellings, but later for political rallies and demonstrations. In 1766 the Sydenham fair was moved to Kent House Fields. It was later suppressed in 1836, as were most of the old popular local fairs in the early nineteenth century.

However this wasn’t entirely the end of resistance to privatisation of space in the area. In 1867, wealthy silk warehouse owner Richard Beall tried to block off the upper end of Taylor’s Lane, off Sydenham Hill, to increase the privacy of his posh home, Longton Hall. This enraged locals who used this path, however, and channeling the spirit of Michael Bradley and the rioters who helped see off Henry Newport, unruly elements smashed the walls & fences he had built. At one point 100s turned up with axes & hammers… After several attempts & continued demolitions, Beall gave up, eventually going insane. Taylor’s Lane was permanently re-opened.

Nearby One Tree Hill also became the arena for an anti-enclosure battle in 1897… (During this struggle investigations turned up the fact that One Tree Hill had never in fact been a part of Sydenham Common, which initially kyboshed any claim for common rights – though the fight was eventually won anyway…)

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Read other past tense posts about enclosures

Today and tomorrow, in London’s festive history, 1682: Bonfire Night rioters big up the Duke of Monmouth

The late 1670s and early 1680s saw a constitutional crisis in England and Scotland, as a growing group of nobles, with some popular support, attempted to prevent a Catholic heir to the throne from succeeding as king, and resorted to plots, conspiracies and open rebellion when parliamentary methods failed.

The English Civil War had left resentment among some of the population about the monarchy and the penalties which had been imposed on the supporters of the Commonwealth. Fears of a potential Catholic monarch persisted, intensified by the failure of Charles II and his wife to produce any children. This was spiced not only with growing resentment of Charles’ methods of governing and the growing centralised power of the monarchy, but also the widespread survival of veterans of the English Revolution – old Cromwell supporters, civil war soldiers, remnants of the Leveller and Fifth monarchist movements, non-conformists in religion whose freedom to worship had been established in the war then severely curtailed under the restoration… For instance you have figures like Colonel Henry Danvers, a fifth monarchist and republican, who plotted with Clement Ireton and other republican groups around 1665, planning to kill the king, seize the Tower, said to have been plotting establish a republic and redistribute property. (Although this last may have been black propaganda against them?) Danvers had been captured April 1665, but rescued by a mob!

A turbulent mix, with lots of anti-popish populism and suspicion thrown in. Ploys abounded.

A defrocked Anglican clergyman, Titus Oates, exposed a supposed “Popish Plot” to kill Charles and to put the Duke of York on the throne – largely a combination of conspiracy theory and witch-hunt. The Earl of Shaftesbury, a former government minister and a leading opponent of Catholicism, attempted to have James excluded from the line of succession. Some members of Parliament proposed that the crown go to Charles’s illegitimate son, James Scott, who became the Duke of Monmouth. In 1679, with the Exclusion Bill – which would exclude the King’s brother and heir presumptive, James, Duke of York, from the line of succession – in danger of being passed, Charles II dissolved Parliament. Two further Parliaments were elected in 1680 and 1681, but were dissolved for the same reason. The Exclusion Crisis contributed to the development of the English two-party system: the Whigs were those who supported the Bill, while the Tories were those who opposed it. Ultimately, the succession was not altered, but James was convinced to withdraw from all policy-making bodies and to accept a lesser role in his brother’s government. Monmouth was a protestant, popular, although something of a chancer…

During 1682 tensions were rising across the country, as the king got older and the prospect of his brother succeeding inspired plots, attempted mini-coups… Monmouth was persuaded by the protestant conspirator Lord Shaftesbury to progress through several counties in triumphant and semi-rebellious processions, in 1680s thorugh the southwest of England , and in September 1682 in Cheshire and Merseyside… The rapturous receptions there indicated some of the feeling of dissatisfaction, projected onto a royal playboy, who was flattered into slowly believing he could be a rival for the throne.

Whether or not Monmouth was himself conspiring at this point to seize the throne, he was certainly the figurehead for many who did want to see the Duke of York excluded and even Charles deposed… His popularity when he travelled the country seemed an opportunity, to many notables opposed to any hint of Catholicism, but also to the ‘arbitrary’ royal power and increasingly modern centralised state, that often trespassed on the interests of wealthy aristos and merchants (similar to the questions and conflicts that had led to the Civil war). It would certainly later persuade Monmouth himself that he had a chance of seizing the throne from his uncle.

On Bonfire Night, November 5th, for 80 years a bonanza fest for anti-catholic hysteria, London saw its usual rowdy scenes, with multiple bonfires, drinking, burning of effigies… This year, however, the festivities were jacked up a notch, and the usual good humoured banter seemed to have a subversive edge: about 10 o’clock, 500-600 people marched through the city shouting ‘A Monmouth! No York!’ They then proceeded to try to burn the Mitre Tavern on Poultry, smashed the windows of prominent ‘Tories’ (high church, seen as neo-catholics), and attempted a few lynchings… The rioting continued into the next night. Arrests followed – and 13 men were condemned to death.

Early in 1683, “Six apprentices of the City were found guilty  of a riot committed on the 6th of Nov. last, for which  they were fined twenty marks, and sentenced to stand on  the pillory, which was accordingly performed, two in  Cheapside, one in Cornhill, the others in various parts of  the City, but instead of having any abuse offered them,—  which is usual in such cases— not a pin*s head was  flung at them, instead they had money, oranges, etc thrown to them during their stay before the pillory.”  For the authorities did not venture to place them in the pillory — and ** a bottle of wine was brought to the two in Cheapside to drink the Duke of Monmouth and Lord Shaftesbury’s health.”

Clearly the rioters had a great deal of popular support… What isn’t totally clear is the basis of the rioters’ anger, though it appears from to have been more of the usual Bonfire night anti-catholicism, rather than necessarily radical sentiment… But the two were often mingled together at this time, the idea that Catholicism meant tyranny and protestantism liberty, at its most simplest, but also with more complex religious and political ideologies underlying.

Monmouth gathered support from the remnants of the republican and fifth monarchist undergrounds, who had plotted and schemed against the restored monarchy from 1660s on, though largely futilely and increasingly penetrated by govt spies, and manipulated by political opportunists, leading ‘Whigs’ and anti-catholic nutters… Stalwart civil war era republicans, ex-Cromwellite soldiers, even former levelers and fifth monarchists who had ended up opposing Cromwell, all dipped into the plotting and would up snared in conspiracies like the Rye House Plot, and supporting Monmouth’s 1685 rebellion against James when he became king. To some extent the November 1682 riots were a prelude or an episode in this long murky resistance.

The Rye House Plot was a shadowy London conspiracy which, early in 1683, [Whigs] may well have discussed  murdering the King as he returned to London from the Newmarket races. What the Rye House Plotters actually planned and wanted are much debated.  Some believe Monmouth and other prominent Whigs led by Shaftesbury to be planning the murder or abduction of the king.  on June 12th 1683 Josiah Keeling, a minor Whig figure in the City, made a deposition before Secretary Jenkins saying that a few weeks prior he had been engaged in a conspiracy with old Cromwell supporter Richard Rumbold and others to assassinate the King on his return from Newmarket.

Whether this was true or not, the Tories seized on the admission: many Whigs were forced out of the country, among the Duke of Monmouth (although he tried to convert to Catholicism and grassed up a few of the plotters first, showing his unwavering commitment to the cause).

When Monmouth ‘invaded’ England in 1685, following Charles II’s death and James’ succeeding to the throne, he won most support among the West Country poor, including impoverished and discontented, but notably, among them, a number of former levellers or those who looked back to the Commonwealth and the civil war political ferment for inspiration. People who turned out to cheer Monmouths as he marched through Devon and Somerset openly wore green ribbons – the emblem of the Levellers. Around the campfires of the rebel ‘army’ who rallied to his cause, political discussions were said to have taken place about the kind of kingdom the rebels thought they were fighting for, which directly echoed the highly politicised soldiery of the New Model Army, the Putney Debates, the Agreement of the People… Whether Monmouth himself would have approved or any successful Monmouth regime would have even tolerated such assertions (a dubious question at best), elements of his support were again stating the old Leveller principle that the common people of the nation have a right to a say in the direction of the country, the law – all social strata are concerned in how society is run. The revolutionary potential of this idea had terrified the restored Stuart regime throughout king Charles’s life (most of all when working people rose up, as in the Bawdy House riots or the 1675 silkweavers’ riots in London); its re-appearance in Monmouth’s army have led some to call the rebellion the last Leveller uprising.

However, the radicals’ and non-conformists’ desperate hope that this royal bastard would bring about the triumph of the ‘Good Old Cause’ was not only over-optimistic, but misplaced. There were not enough of them, and large numbers of potential rebels in other areas did not come out in support; possibly very sensibly guessing that it wouldn’t end well. The rebellion was heavily defeated, 100s of rebels killed in the battle of Sedgemoor, and many more brutally executed in the reprisals thereafter; and when king James was ousted 3 years later and replaced with William III, it was by the conservative elements opposed to arbitrary royal power in their own interests. The powerful who masterminded the Glorious Revolution, created a political settlement based on a constitutional agreement, yes, but based on top-down hierarchy, not a radical conception of the nation that would allow all social classes a voice in power.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London rebel history: ranter Jacob Bothumley has his tongue bored through, for blasphemy, 1650.

The Ranters formed the extreme left wing of the sects which came into prominence during the English Revolution, both theologically and politically. Theologically these sects lay between the poles of orthodox Calvinism, with its emphasis on the power and justice of God as illustrated in the grand scheme of election and reprobation, with its insistence upon the reality of Hell in all its most literal horrors and upon the most verbal and dogmatic acceptance of the Scriptures, and of antinomianism with its emphasis upon God’s mercy and universality, its rejection of the moral law, and with it, of Hell in any but the most figurative sense, and its replacement of the authority of the Scriptures by that of the inner light. The Ranters pushed all these beliefs to, and sometimes even a little beyond, their furthest logical conclusions, which, when acted upon, soon brought them into conflict with law and authority. The conviction that God existed in, and only in, material objects and men led them at once to a pantheistic mysticism and a crudely plebeian materialism, often incongruously combined in the same person. Their rejection of scripture literalism led sometimes to an entirely symbolic interpretation of the Bible and at others to a blunt and contemptuous rejection. Their belief that the moral law no longer had authority for the people of a new age enjoying the liberty of the sons of God led to a conviction that for them no act was sinful, a conviction that some hastened to put into practice.

The political views of the Ranters were the outcome of this theology. God existed in all things.

But man alone could be conscious of his Godhead and this gave to all a new and equal dignity. The poorest beggars, even “rogues, thieves, whores, and cut purses” are “every whit as good” as the great ones of the earth. The Ranters, and they alone at this date, spoke for and to the most wretched and submerged elements of the population, slum dwellers of London and other cities, though to what extent their message reached these depths it is now hardly possible to say. In Coppe and Clarkson, in Foster and Coppin there is, in different degrees and forms, a deep concern for the poor, a denunciation of the rich and a primitive biblical communism that is more menacing and urban than that of Winstanley and the Diggers. Like the Diggers, and unlike Lilburne and his followers, they were ready to accept the name of Leveller in its most radical implications, but with the difference that for them God himself was the great Leveller, who was to come shortly “to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleyes, to lay the Mountaines low”.  It is hardly accidental that the Ranters began to come into prominence soon after the Leveller defeat at Burford and would seem to have attracted a number of embittered and disappointed former Levellers. Where Levelling by sword and by spade had both failed what seemed called for was a Levelling by miracle, in which God himself would confound the mighty by means of the poorest, lowest and most despised of the earth.

The ideas of the Ranters were not new. They may be traced across Europe and across the centuries from the time, to go back no further, of Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century, with his doctrine of the three ages, in the last of which, shortly to be expected, the sons of God would enjoy perfect spiritual liberty. To trace the course of these ideas in any detail would take me far beyond my present scope – a few salient points only may be noted. A generation or so after Joachim, the Amurians in France added to his doctrine of the three ages a neo-platonic pantheism which declared that “all things are one because whatever is, is God”. Later, in Germany, the loosely connected groups which are known under the general name of the Brethren of the Free Spirit turned this idea into a way of living. While Joachim had expected the age of the spirit in the near future, the Brethren claimed that it was already here and exercised themselves the promised liberty of the sons of God. Sharing the perfection of God all that they did must of necessity be good: sin for them ceased to have a meaning. In the sixteenth century these beliefs received a new social dimension from Thomas Munzer, the leader of the great peasant insurrection of 1525, and among the Anabaptists of Munster. Through various channels they began to reach England, especially the artisans of London and East Anglia. As early as 1646 Thomas Edwards was denouncing those who declared,
That by Christs death, all the sins of all men in the world, Turks, Pagans, as well as Christians committed against the moral Law and the first covenant, are actually pardoned and forgiven, and this is the everlasting gospel; and thatthere is a salvation that shall be revealed in the last time which was not known to the Apostles themselves.

But it was among the Ranters above all that such beliefs and others related to them are found in the fullest and most uncompromising forms. What made them different in kind from their medieval predecessors was the fact that they were the heirs of a successful revolution which they still hoped to see carried to a victorious end. This is why Laurence Clarkson wrote on the title-page of A Single Eye that it was printed “in the Year that the Powers of Heaven and Earth Was, Is and Shall be, Shaken, yea Damned, till they be no more for Ever” and Abiezer Coppe that his Fiery Flying Roll was a “word from the Lord to, all the Great Ones of the Earth” printed “in the beginning of that notable day when the secrets of all hearts are laid open”. Many Ranters and their hearers had been in the forefront of the revolution and their sense of participation gave their message a force and universal applicability previously absent.

The central Ranter doctrine, from which all else logically flows, concerns the nature of God and man and their relationship. John Holland, whose book, The Smoke of the Bottomlesse Pit, though hostile, contains perhaps the clearest and most objective account of Ranter doctrine, writes:
They maintain that God is essentially in every creature, and that there is as much of God in one creature, as in another, though he doth not manifest himself so much in one as in another: I saw this expression in a Book of theirs, that the essence of God was as much in the Ivie leaf as in the most glorious Angel. . . . They say there is no other God but what is in them, and also in the whole Creation, and that men ought to pray and seek to no other God but what was in them.
The titles they give God are these: They call him The Being, the Fulnesse, the Great Motion, Reason, the Immensity.

But the groups and individuals labelled ranters were quickly and heavily repressed by Cromwell’s more orthodox, if puritan regime.

As an example: On Monday, 11 March 1650 Jacob Bothumley, a Leicester shoemaker who had risen to the rank of Quartermaster in the parliamentary army, was tried by a court martial at Whitehall upon several articles of blasphemy contained in his book The Light and Dark sides of God (printed for the pro-Leveller printer William Larner at the Black-more in Bishopsgate-street, 1650).

Bothumley was reported to have taken part in possibly heretical services in Leicester earlier in the deacde, along with his family: At one Bury’s house 2 ministers Mr. Higginson and Mr. Burdin stood by while Bottomley the shoemaker of Leicester prayed.” Bury may be the same person as Jeremiah Burroughs’ who was a noted puritan preacher, an opponent of the civl war presbyterian parliament; Bothumley’s family were said to have been ostracised for hosting Burroughs’ preaching in their house. He was also in trouble for causing a disturbance in All Saints Church. Like many civil war radicals, he served in the Army, which is where he wrote his book. Bothumley is generally lumped in the doctrines of the group called ‘ranters’ by their detractors of the time, and he was treated by the authorities as many other ‘ranters’ were – his books condemned and burned, and he physically punished.

The town authorities of Leicester were sufficiently alarmed by The Dark and Light Sides of God to send it to London for advice, since it seemed to them to be “of a very dangerous consequence and lets open a very wide dore to Atheisme and profanes”.

If there was a central Ranter doctrine, it concerned the nature of God and man and their relationship. As Bothumley wrote:
I see that God is in all Creatures, Man and Beast, Fish and Fowle, and every green thing, from the highest Cedar to the Ivey on the wall; and that God is the life and being of them all, and that God doth really dwell, and if you will personally; if he may admit so low an expression in them all, and hath his Being no where else out of the Creatures.

Bothumley’s book hints at a spiritual struggle, a process which features in many ranter literature of the time; though he describes it in in much less detail than Salmon or Coppe:

I was continually suffering the torment of Hell, and tossed up and down, being condemned of my self … And this is that I found til God appeared spiritually, and shewed me that he was all glory and happiness himself and that flesh was nothing … God … brought me into the glorious liberty of the

Sons of God, whereas I was before in bondage to sin, law, an accusing Conscience which is Hell.

As a result of Leicester alerting the government, Bothumley was tried in London, and condemned to have his tongue bored through with a red hot iron and his sword broken over his head, to be cashiered from the army and to have his book burned before his face in the Palace Yard, Westminster and at the Exchange, London. Sentence was executed on Thursday, 14 March 1650. Copies of his book were also sent to Leicester and Hertford – where he had probably preached – to be burned. This attempt by military authorities to prevent Bothumley from spreading his opinions through the spoken and written word was partially successful, but he continued as an active Ranter in Leicester, to which he returned after his Army service, and Quaker George Fox met him at nearby Swannington in 1655:

“And the next day Jacob Bottomley came from Leicester, a great Ranter, but the Lord’s power stopped him and came over them all….
And we sent to the Ranters to come forth and try their God, and there came abundance who were rude, as aforesaid, and sung and whistled and danced, but the Lord’s power so confounded them that many of them came to be convinced.”

By about 1660, however, he appears to have become sufficiently respectable to be appointed library keeper and sergeant-at-mace in Leicester. He did dispute with Quakers at some point, but his only other publication apart from The Light and Dark Sides of God, his only other publication was A brief Historical Relation of the most Material Passages and Persecutions of the Church of Christ (printed for William Redmayne at the Crown upon Addle Hill, 1676). Dedicated to the Mayor and Aldermen of Leicester, this ‘little Treatise’ compiled from the first, second and third books of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments was intended to show the sufferings of those in former ages ‘whom God hath called out and made eminent, in the witnessing of his truth’.

Read The Dark and Light Sides of God

More on the ideas and fate of the ranters can be read here

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London religious history: Lodovick Muggleton ordered to be pilloried, his books burnt, Old Bailey, 1677.

Lodowick Muggleton was a self-proclaimed prophet, who emerged from the swirling pool of sects, preachers and cults that characterised mid-17th century London. Muggleton could be said to have broadly been associated with individuals who were lumped together as ‘ranters’, though he moved away from this scene and sought to distance himself from its ‘excesses’. Nevertheless his views on religion and his elevating himself as a prophet got him into trouble with the authorities, and he was imprisoned twice for his beliefs. His follower, later called Muggletonians, developed an individual creed, and survived until 1979.

After claiming to have had spiritual revelations, beginning in 1651, Muggleton and his cousin John Reeve announced themselves as the two prophetic witnesses referred to in Revelations 11:3. Their book, A Transcendent Spiritual Treatise upon Several Heavenly Doctrines, was published in 1652. They further expounded their beliefs in A Divine Looking-Glass (1656), maintaining that the traditional distinction between the three Persons of the Triune God is purely nominal, that God has a real human body, and that he left the Old Testament Hebrew prophet Elijah, who had ascended to heaven, as his vice regent when he himself descended to die on the Cross.

According to Muggleton and Reeve, the unforgivable sin was not to believe in them as true prophets. Although they gained some notable men as followers, the group’s notions provoked much opposition. Muggleton was imprisoned for blasphemy in 1653, and his own followers temporarily rebelled against him in 1660 and 1670.

Muggleton also entered into a long feud with the Quakers, which led their leader, William Penn, to write The New Witnesses Proved Old Hereticks (1672) as an attack on him.

Muggleton spent his working life as a journeyman tailor in the City of London. He held opinions hostile to all forms of philosophical reason, and had received only a basic education. His discovery that he was a prophet emerged from his musings about resurrection and hellfire. Having somewhat despairingly concluded that he must leave it all to God, “even as the potter doth what he will with the dead clay”, he then began to experience revelations concerning the meaning of scripture. This was obviously influenced by other ‘prophets’ Muggleton observed speaking in London at the time.

“It came to pass in the year 1650, I heard of several prophets and prophetess that were about the streets and declared the Day of the Lord, and many other wonderful things.” Notable among these preachers mentioned by Muggleton were John Robins and Thomas Tany (Muggleton calls him John Tannye). “I have had nine or ten of them at my house at a time,” reports Muggleton. The prophets claimed power to damn any that opposed them.

Muggleton says of Robins that he regarded himself as God come to judge the quick and the dead and, as such, had resurrected and redeemed Cain and Judas Iscariot as well as resurrecting Jeremiah and many of the Old Testament prophets. Robins displayed considerable ‘magical’ talents; presenting the appearance of angels, burning shining lights, half-moons and stars in chambers, thick darkness with his head in a flame of fire and his person riding on the wings of the wind. This clearly theatrical performance left a lasting impression on Muggleton.

While Muggleton denounced Robins as a false prophet, for ‘self-deification’ and of indulging in dangerous powers many years later, he wrote appreciating Robins’ power and the belief even his enemies had in his curses.

 The Muggletonian ‘movement’ was born on 3 February 1651 (old style), the date Muggleton’s cousin, fellow London tailor, John Reeve, said he had received a commission from God “to the hearing of the ear as a man speaks to a friend.” Reeve claimed to have been told four things:

  • “I have given thee understanding of my mind in the Scriptures above all men in the world.”
  • “Look into thy own body, there thou shalt see the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Kingdom of Hell.”
  • “I have chosen thee a last messenger for a great work, unto this bloody unbelieving world. And I have given thee Lodowick Muggleton to be thy mouth.”
  • “I have put the two-edged sword of my spirit into thy mouth, that whoever I pronounce blessed, through thy mouth, is blessed to eternity; and whoever I pronounce cursed through thy mouth is cursed to eternity.”

Reeve believed that he and Muggleton were the two witnesses spoken of in the third verse of the eleventh chapter of the Book of Revelation.

Throughout the period until the death of John Reeve in 1658, Muggleton seems to have acted only as Reeve’s ever-present sidekick. There is no record of him writing any works of his own nor of him acting independently of Reeve. The pair were tried for blasphemy and jailed for six months in 1653/4.

Apparently, on the death of John Reeve, there was a power-struggle between Lodowicke Muggleton and former ranter Laurence Clarkson (or Claxton) for leadership of the sect, and subsequently there were disputes with those followers of John Reeve who did not accept Muggleton’s authority.

The Muggletonians emphasised the Millennium and the Second Coming of Christ, and believed, among other things, that the soul is mortal; that Jesus is God (and not a member of a Trinity); that when Jesus died there was no God in Heaven, and Moses and Elijah looked after Heaven until Jesus’ resurrection; that Heaven is six miles above Earth; that God is between five and six feet tall; and that any external religious ceremony is not necessary. Some scholars think that Muggletonian doctrine may have influenced the work of the artist and poet William Blake.

The six principles of Muggletonianism were perhaps best summed up thus:

  • There is no God but the glorified Man Christ Jesus.
  • There is no Devil but the unclean Reason of men.
  • Heaven is an infinite abode of light above and beyond the stars.
  • The place of Hell will be this Earth when sun, moon and stars are extinguished.
  • Angels are the only beings of Pure Reason.
  • The Soul dies with the body and will be raised with it.

These principles derive from Lodowicke Muggleton, who added one other matter as being of equal importance, namely, that God takes no immediate notice of doings in this world. If people sin, it is against their own consciences and not because God “catches them at it”.

John Reeve’s formulation also included pacifism and the doctrine of the two seeds This credo held all humans had within themselves something from Seth and something from Cain: the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The former promoted faith within us, the latter promoted reasoning and desire. This is the conflict within every person. This is a predestinarian belief but, because there are two seeds and not one, humanity is not rendered abject and the innocence of Adam and Eve still has a chance of coming to the top within modern humankind.

According to Rev Dr Alexander Gordon of Belfast, “The system of belief is a singular union of opinions which seem diametrically opposed. It is rationalistic on one side, credulous on another.”

Muggletonianism was in many ways profoundly materialist. Matter pre-existed even the creation of our universe; nothing can be created from nothing. God, identified as the Holy One of Israel, is a being with a glorified body, in appearance much like a man. There can never be a spirit without a body. A purely spiritual deity, lacking any locus, would be an absurdity incapable of action in a material world (from which doctrine came Muggleton’s particular disputes with the Quakers). The man Christ Jesus was not sent from God but was the very God appearing on this earth. Speculation about a divine nature and a human nature, or about the Trinity, is not in error so much as unnecessary. At worst, John Reeve said, it encourages people to ascribe to the deity a whole ragbag of inconsistent human attributes expressed as superlatives.

Reason stems from desire and lack. Reason is not seen as a sublime mental process but as a rather shoddy trick humans use to try to get what they misguidedly imagine they want. Angels are creatures of Pure Reason because their only desire is for God so that their lack will be totally satisfied over and over again. The reprobate angel was not at fault. God deliberately chose to deprive this angel of satisfaction so that, by his fall, the other angels would become aware that their perfection came from God and not from their own natures.

Professor Lamont sees 17th century Muggletonianism as an early form of liberation theology. Because there are no spirits without bodies, there can be no ghosts, no witches, no grounds for fear and superstition and no all-seeing eye of God. Once persons are contented in their faith, they are free to speculate as they please on all other matters. God will take no notice.

Through the 1600s and 70s Muggleton entered into hostile polemics with a number of Quakers.

In 1669, Muggleton’s An answer to Isaac Pennington, Quaker was intercepted at the printers by the Searcher of the Press, and Muggleton was tipped off that a warrant for his arrest would be issued and he was able to disappear for nine months to live in hiding amongst the watermen of Wapping.

In 1675, Muggleton, as executor of the estate of Deborah Brunt, became involved in property litigation against Alderman John James. He seems largely to have been successful until his opponent hit upon the idea of trying to get him excommunicated in the Court of Arches so that he could no longer have defence of law in civil matters. At the time, Muggleton was in hiding at the house of Ann Lowe, a believer, from an arrest warrant of the Stationers Company. Hiding was now no longer a solution as Muggleton could be excommunicated in his absence if he did not appear and plead. On doing so, Muggleton was remanded to Guildhall Court on a warrant of the Lord Chief Justice. It was Muggleton’s ill-luck that the Lord Mayor that year was a stationer. Muggleton was bailed to appear to answer charges arising from his book The Neck of the Quakers broken, specifically that he did curse Dr Edward Bourne of Worcester, therein. Muggleton remarks that it was strange that a curse against a Quaker should be considered blasphemy by the established church. Muggleton’s problem was that it was common practice for recently published dissenting books to bear false dates and places of publication to escape the law. Muggleton’s bore a false place (Amsterdam, not London) but a true date, some 13 years earlier, and he should have escaped prosecution. No evidence, other than innuendo, was offered by the prosecution.

On 17 January 1676 (1677 new style) Muggleton was tried at the Old Bailey, convicted of blasphemy, and sentenced to three days in the pillory and a fine of £500. At each of his three two-hourly appearances in the pillory (at Temple Gate, outside the Royal Exchange and at the market in West Smithfield) a selection of the books seized from Muggleton were burnt by the common hangman. Considerable public disturbance arose from fights between Muggleton’s supporters and members of the public who felt deprived of their sport. Nevertheless, Muggleton (who was no longer a young man) was badly injured. Muggleton’s attempts to get himself released from Newgate gaol were frustrated because his keepers were reluctant to let go a prisoner from whom they could derive a profit. Muggleton was advised to get Ann Lowe to sue him for debt so that a writ of habeas corpus would remove him from Newgate to the Fleet prison. Eventually, the Sheriff of London, Sir John Peak was persuaded to release Muggleton for a payment of £100 cash down.

Lodowicke Muggleton died on 14 March 1698 aged 88.

In 1832, some sixty Muggletonians asubscribed to bring out a complete edition of The Miscellaneous Works of Reeve and Muggleton in 3 vols.

Muggletonianism has been called “disorganised religion”. Believers held no annual conferences, never organised a single public meeting, seem to have escaped every official register or census of religion, never incorporated, never instituted a friendly society, never appointed a leader, spokesperson, editorial board, chairperson for meetings or a single committee. Their sole foray into bureaucracy was to appoint trustees for their investment, the income from which paid the rent on the London Reading Room between 1869 and 1918.

Muggletonian meetings were simple comings-together of individuals who appeared to feel that discussion with like-minded believers helped clarify their own thoughts. “Nothing in the Muggletonian history becomes it more than its fidelity to open debate (though sometimes rancorous).”

Records and correspondence show that meetings took place from the 1650s to 1940 in London and for almost as long in Derbyshire. Regular meetings occurred at other places at other times. Bristol, Cork, Faversham and Nottingham are among those known, and there were many others, especially in East Anglia and Kent.

In both London and Derbyshire two types of meeting were held. There were regular discussion meetings and there were holiday meetings of a more celebratory nature held in mid-February (to commemorate the start of the Third Commission) and at the end of July (to remember Muggleton’s release from imprisonment).

There remains a description of a Muggletonian holiday meeting held at the Reading Room at 7 New Street, London on February 14, 1869. There were about 40 members present, of whom slightly more than half were men. One quarter were said to have been born into the faith. Tea was served at 5 o’clock. Discussion continued until 6 when a lady sang “Arise, My Soul, Arise”, one of the Muggletonian divine songs.Then a large bowl of port negus with slices of lemon was served and a toast enjoined to absent friends. More songs were sung by each who volunteered. Beer was brought in and supper served at half past eight. “It was a plain substantial meal; consisting of a round of beef, a ham, cheese, butter, bread and beer. Throughout the evening, every one seemed heartily to enjoy himself or herself, with no lack of friendliness, but with complete decorum.” No speeches were made. “By ten o’clock all were on their way homeward.”

There is also an account for a far older holiday meeting which Lodowicke Muggleton and his daughter, Sarah, attended in July 1682 at the Green Man pub in Holloway, then a popular rural retreat to the north of London. In addition to a goodly meal with wine and beer, a quartern of tobacco, one-fifth of a pound, was gotten through and a shilling paid out to “ye man of the bowling green”.

Outside of holiday times, meetings seem to have altered little with time and place. They comprised discussion, readings and songs. There was no public worship, no instruction, no prayer. There is no record of any participant being moved by the spirit. Until mid-Victorian times, London meetings were held in the back rooms of pubs. In the early days, this is said to have provided an appearance of outward conformity with the Conventicle Acts 1664 and 1667. The meeting would look and sound to outsiders like a private or family party. Nothing would advertise religious observance. By 1869, pub life had become irksome and the London congregation obtained their first Reading Room at 7 New Street, which was reckoned to be built on the former site of Lodowicke Muggleton’s birthplace, Walnut Tree Yard. This was made possible by legacies from Catherine Peers, Joseph Gandar and the Frost family; all of whom had been active in the faith. The money invested in government stock yielded sufficient income to pay the rent and the wages of a live-in caretaker who, for most of the Victorian period, was an unemployed shoe-repairer named Thomas Robinson. 7 New Street is perhaps the only site with Muggletonian connections still extant. However, it may require considerable historical imagination from the modern passer-by to gain a mental picture of what it would have been like in Victorian times. Then, the area was full of warehouses and factories, not the smart, professional consultancies of today.

By May 1918, wartime inflation seems to have undermined the Victorian financial settlement.The Muggletonians moved to cheaper rented premises not far away at 74 Worship Street, to the north of Finsbury Square.They remained there until probably the autumn of 1940 when the building was destroyed by a firebomb during the London Blitz. This was the event which led to the transfer of the Muggletonian archive to Mr Noakes’ farm in Kent. As a fruit farmer, Mr Noakes received a petrol ration to take his produce to Covent Garden market in central London. On the return journey, the archive was packed into the empty boxes and taken to safety.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in vegan history: Roger Crab, pioneering civil war veggie & prophet dies, Stepney, 1680.

“Among the many crazy sectaries produced from the yeasty froth of the fermenting caldron of the great civil war, there was not one more oddly crazy than Roger Crab… His wandering mind, probably not improved by the skull-cleaving operation, then imbibed the idea, that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal food, or to drink anything stronger than water.”
(The Book of Days,
ed. Robert Chambers)

Roger Crab (1621 – September 11, 1680) was an English soldier, haberdasher, herbal doctor and writer, best known for his ascetic lifestyle which included Christian vegetarianism. Crab fought in the Parliamentary Army in the English Civil War before becoming a haberdasher. But later became a hermit and worked as a herbal doctor. He then joined the Philadelphian Sect and began promoting asceticism through his writings.

Crab was born in Buckinghamshire in 1621. At the time of his birth his mother had an annual income of £20. As a young man, he began trying to find a way to live a perfect life. In 1641 he ceased eating meat, dairy and eggs. He also chose to be celibate.

At the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Crab joined the Parliamentary Army under Oliver Cromwell. During a battle in 1645 he received a serious head wound from a sword. He was convinced that his life had been spared only by an act of God and he subsequently underwent a religious conversion, turning to vegetarianism as a form of spiritual purification.

At some point, he was apparently sentenced to death by Cromwell, but was later sentenced to two years in prison by Parliament. Christopher Hill has suggested that Crab may have been involved with the Levellers in the late 1640s and that his imprisonment resulted from this.

After leaving the army Crab moved to Chesham, where he started work as a haberdasher, which he continued between 1649 and 1652. In 1652 he moved to Ickenham, west of London, where he lived as a hermit:

“Determined to follow, literally, the injunctions given to the young man in the gospel, he sold off his stock in trade, distributing the proceeds among the poor, and took up his residence in a hut, situated on a rood of ground near Ickenham, where for some time he lived on the small sum of three-farthings a week”

Around this time he published his autobiography: “The English hermite, or, Wonder of this age”: subtitled “Being a relation of the life of Roger Crab, living neer Uxbridge, taken from his own mouth, shewing his strange reserved and unparallel’d kind of life, who counteth it a sin against his body and soule to eate any sort of flesh, fish, or living creature, or to drinke any wine, ale, or beere. He can live with three farthings a week. His constant food is roots and hearbs, as cabbage, turneps, carrets, dock-leaves, and grasse; also bread and bran, without butter or cheese: his cloathing is sack-cloath. He left the Army, and kept a shop at Chesham, and hath now left off that, and sold a considerable estate to give to the poore, shewing his reasons from the Scripture, Mark. 10. 21. Jer. 35.” (London: Printed, and are to be sold in Popes-head Alley, and at the Exchange 1655)

Holding that profit was sinful, Crab gave away most of his possessions, and attempted to live modestly, wearing homemade sackcloth clothes. Building up a practice as a herbal doctor, he advised his patients to avoid meat and alcohol. He was said to be a popular doctor among the village women. However, he was accused of witchcraft by a clergyman, possibly because he issued prophecies. He moved to Bethnal Green in 1657, and joined the Philadelphians, a local sect founded by John Pordage.

In common with many of the religious radicals of the era, Crab was an anti-sabbatarian, refusing to observe Sunday as a non-working day. Apparently he was at some point put in the stocks for it. He was also a pacifist (presumably after his stint in the army), and had radical views on the evils of property, the Church and universities.

Crab ate a vegan diet from 1641 until his death in 1680, holding that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal for food. Though unusual in the context of the political and religious upsurge of the mid-17th century, this form of personal stand did crop up among the many radical sects and individuals of the English Revolution. Forgoing the roast mutton, rabbit and other ‘dainty’ dishes of his former life, he lived on an ascetic menu of vegetables. Crab initially included potatoes and carrots in his diet, but later gave them up, eating mostly bran and turnips, before reducing his intake to only rumex (a kind of sorrel leaf) and grass, claiming to spend just 3/4 d. (three farthings a week) a week on food. Late in his life he pushed the boat out and added parsnips to his diet. Sellout. He also refused to drink anything stronger than water. Crab’s asceticism and vegan diet developed from a vow of poverty inspired by the figure of John the Baptist (whom Crab regarded as the first Leveller).

After his death he was buried at St Dunstan’s Church, Stepney, London. His grave is no longer seen, but the slab was imbedded in the walkway. Wikipedia has a transcription of his epitaph:

“Tread gently, reader, near the dust
Committed to this tomb-stone’s trust:
For while ’twas flesh, it held a guest
With universal love possest:
A soul that stemmed opinion’s tide,
Did over sects in triumph ride;
Yet separate from the giddy crowd,
And paths tradition had allowed.
Through good and ill reports he past,
Oft censured, yet approved at last.
Wouldst thou his religion know?
In brief ’twas this: to all to do
Just as he would be done unto.
So in kind Nature’s law he stood,
A temple, undefiled with blood,
A friend to everything that ‘s good.
The rest angels alone can fitly tell;
Haste then to them and him; and so farewell!”

Much of what of known of the life of Roger Crab is derived from the four pamphlets he printed in his lifetime, most notably The English Hermite (1655) and Dragons-Downfall (1657).

Read Crab’s The English Hermite

Some interesting observations on English Civil War era vegetarianism:

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s conspiratorial history: Thomas Blood tries to nick the crown jewels, 1671.

We all used to learn at school how Thomas Blood tried to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. But strangely, this is only the tip of the iceberg of this mysterious man’s story…

Thomas Blood (also known as Thomas Ayliffe, and Thomas Allen) was probably born around 1618, the son of an Irish blacksmith.

Not much is known about his early life. The first that is really known is that he was involved in the English Civil War on the parliamentary side, where he appears to have been involved in espionage. He was rewarded for his services with large estates in Ireland (very likely seized from rebels or pro-royalist forces during the Cromwell’s campaign of genocide and repression there), and was appointed a member of a Commission of the Peace.

However, when the monarchy was restored in 1660, Blood lost his lands and his position, like many another parliamentarian veteran. He began to associate with plots against the restored king:

“Upon associating a little with the malcontents, he found his notions exactly justified, and that there was a design on foot for a general insurrection, which was to be begun by surprising the castle of Dublin, and seizing the person of the Duke of Ormond, then Lord Lieutenant. Into this scheme he entered without any hesitation; and though many of the persons involved in the dangerous undertaking were much his superiors in rank, yet he was very soon at the head of the affair, presided in all their councils, was the oracle in all their projects, and generally relied on in the execution of them. But, on the very eve of its execution the whole conspiracy, which had been long suspected, was discovered, His brother-in-law, one Lackie, a minister, was, with many others, apprehended, tried, convicted, and executed; but Blood made his escape, and kept out of reach, not withstanding the Duke of Ormond and the Earl of Orrery laboured to have him secured, and a proclamation was published by the former, with the promise of an ample reward for apprehending him.”

Escaping to Holland, Blood made contact with former republicans, exiled opponents of king Charles, and remnants of the Fifth Monarchy movement. The 1660s and 1670s saw a number of plots and conspiracies, plans for uprisings or assassinations. But most of them were heavily penetrated by spies working for the English government, and Blood realised this early on. He fled to Scotland, where he again became involved in a planned rising against the king in 1666, but this was disastrously routed by soldiers, and Blood had to flee again.

Blood next surfaces in an attempt to kidnap the powerful Duke of Ormonde, an Irish aristo, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, at Dublin Castle, who had already marked him down as being involved in the earlier Irish plot. Blood’s plan was to seize Ormonde from his carriage while he drove through London:

He actually put his design in execution on 6th of December, 1670, and very nearly succeeded… The terrified Duke was pulled from the coach by Blood and an accomplice and thrown onto the horse of another henchman – who rode as far as Tyburn before the cry went up that the nobleman had been kidnapped. Ormonde was dragged from his coach, bound to one of Blood’s henchmen, and taken on horseback along Piccadilly with the intention of hanging him at Tyburn. The gang pinned a paper to Ormonde’s chest spelling out their reasons for his capture and murder. However one of his servants gave chase on horseback, and with his help Ormonde succeeded in freeing himself and escaped.

However Blood was not recognised, and “himself and his associates escaped, though closely pursued. An account of this transaction was immediately published by authority, together with a Royal Proclamation, offering a reward of one thousand pounds for apprehending any of the persons concerned.”

This brings us to the event in 1671 for which Blood is best remembered; the theft of the Crown Jewels.

“He proposed to those desperate persons who assisted him in his former attempt to seize and divide amongst them the Royal Insignia of Majesty kept in the Tower of London —- viz. the crown, globe, sceptre and dove —- and as they were blindly devoted to his service, they very readily accepted the proposal, and left it to him to contrive the means of putting it into execution. He devised a scheme of putting himself into the habit of a Doctor of Divinity, with a little band, a long false beard, a cap with ears, and all the formalities of garb belonging to that degree, except the gown, choosing rather to make use of a cloak, as most proper for his design. Thus habited, he, with a woman whom he called his wife, went to see the curiosities in the Tower; and while they were viewing the regalia the supposed Mrs Blood pretended to be taken suddenly ill, and desired Mr Edwards (the keeper of the regalia) to assist her with some refreshment. Mr Edwards not only complied with this request, but also invited her to repose herself on a bed, which she did, and after a pretended recovery took her leave, together with Blood, with many expressions of gratitude. A few days after, Blood returned and presented Mrs Edwards, the keeper’s wife, with four pairs of white gloves, in return for her kindness. This brought on an acquaintance, which being soon improved into a strict intimacy, a marriage was proposed between a son of Edwards and a supposed daughter of Colonel Blood.

 The night before the 9th of May, 1671, the doctor told the old man that he had some friends at his house who wanted to see the regalia, but that they were to go out of town early in the morning, and therefore hoped he would gratify them with the sight, though they might come a little before the usual hour. [In this enterprise Blood had engaged three accomplices, named Desborough, Kelfy and Perrot.] Accordingly two of them came, accompanied by the doctor, about eight in the morning, and the third held their horses, that waited for them at the outer gate of the Tower ready saddled. They had no other apparatus but a wallet and a wooden mallet, which there was no great difficulty to secrete.

 Edwards received them with great civility, and immediately admitted them into his office; but as it is usual for the keeper of the regalia, when he shows them, to lock himself up in a kind of grate with open bars, the old man had no sooner opened the door of this place than the doctor and his companions were in at his heels, and without giving him time to ask questions, silenced him, by knocking him down with the wooden mallet. They then instantly made flat the bows of the crown to make it more portable, seized the sceptre and dove, put them together into the wallet, and were preparing to make their escape when, unfortunately for them, the old man’s son, who had not been at home for ten years before, returned from sea at the very instant; and being told that his father was with some friends who would be very glad to see him at the Jewel Office, he hastened thither immediately, and met Blood and his companions as they were just coming out, who, instead of returning and securing him, as in good policy they should have done, hurried away with the crown and globe, but not having time to file the sceptre, they left it behind them. Old Edwards, who was not so much hurt as the villains had apprehended, by this time recovered his legs, and cried out murder, which being heard by his daughter, she ran out and gave an alarm; and Blood and Perrot, making great haste, were observed to jog each other’s elbows as they went, which gave great reason for suspecting them. Blood and his accomplices were now advanced beyond the main-guard; but the alarm being given to the warder at the drawbridge, he put himself in a posture to stop their progress. Blood discharged a pistol at the warder, who, though unhurt, fell to the ground through fear; by which they got safe to the little ward-house gate, where one Still, who had been a soldier under Oliver Cromwell, stood sentinel. But though this man saw the warder, to all appearance, shot, he made no resistance against Blood and his associates, who now got over the drawbridge and through the outer gate upon the wharf.

 At this place they were overtaken by one Captain Beckman, who had pursued them from Edwards’s house. Blood immediately discharged a pistol at Beckman’s head; but he stooping down at the instant, the shot missed him, and he seized Blood, who had the crown under his cloak. Blood struggled a long while to preserve his prize; and when it was at length wrested from him he said: “It was a gallant attempt, how unsuccessful soever; for it was for a crown!” Before Blood was taken, Perrot had been seized by another person; and young Edwards, observing a man that was bloody in the scuffle, was about to run him through the body, but was prevented by Captain Beckman.”
(Newgate Calendar)

Locked up in a cell at the Tower, Blood insisted he would speak to no-one about the attempt unless it was the king… Possibly intrigued by this bold request, Charles II did in fact interview him. After this conversation, even more bizarrely, Blood was pardoned, and his confiscated estates restored to him, together with a pension. For a while he hung around the court, apparently high in the king’s favour… This raised eyebrows among many who had come into contact with Blood (especially Ormonde, who was outraged). But had Blood told the king something that helped him escape punishment… threatened an uprising of fifth monarchists in revenge of he was executed? or was Charles just capriciously attracted to the roguish bluster of the Irishman…? It is still unclear and likely to remain so.

Blood survived a number of years, seemingly part of the court, sometimes working for powerful figures, sometimes involved in murky plots. His patron for a while was the Duke of Buckingham, who was seen as an opposition figure within the court, (it has been suggested that Buckingham may have been behind the Ormonde kidnap plot) but Blood fell out with Buckingham, and jailed on charges of libeling him in 1679. Though he managed to get bail, he died shortly after, in August 1680.

Blood clearly had little allegiance to any religion or political group unless it suited his own ends. Was he just an adventurer, but Blood could also have been in the pay of some powerful figure. Many suspected him of being a spy – but a spy for whom? A double agent? He did tend to stay with rebellious groups until they were about to be eradicated or arrested. Perhaps he was always an infiltrator working for the government? In our own time we have seen numerous undercover operatives, involved in political and campaigning groups. And there have been hundreds of government agent provocateurs in the history of radical politics, betraying or even initiating uprisings or rebellious actions so as to destroy and divide movements. Blood could have been one – or he could have been something more complex, somewhere between wide boy, infiltrator and rebel.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s immoral history: ‘Holland’s Leaguer’, notorious Bankside brothel, resists siege by constables, 1632.

Holland’s Leaguer was a notorious 17th-century brothel which stood, near London’s playhouses, on the south bank of the River Thames.

It was run by a famous prostitute named Elizabeth Holland, and its prestigious clients included King James I himself. The ‘leaguer’ – meaning fortress – was a mansion with a moat and drawbridge, near Southwark’s Old Paris Garden. In winter 1631–32, King Charles I ordered for it to be raided, but the prostitutes outwitted the soldiers by luring them onto the drawbridge and plunging them in the moat below. Nevertheless, Holland’s Leaguer was closed later that year.

Holland’s Leaguer had originally been part of the estate known as the Liberty of Old Paris Gardens, later a famous centre of pleasure and wild nightlife.  It lay on the South Bank of the river Thames, In Southwark’s Bankside, an area long famous for brothels, prostitution and immoral goings-on. The Leaguer stood close to the Thames bank; being close to the Swan, Globe, and Hope theatres meant it attracted those attending plays, as well as being popular those who hired a waterman to row them across the river to the waiting women. It was run by a prostitute named Elizabeth (Bess) Holland. Bess was possibly married to a member of the Holland family, big in the Elizabethan underworld.

Opened in 1603, Holland’s Leaguer was the congregating place for all the Dutch prostitutes in London. It sat alongside the river and was described in 1632 as a ‘Fort citadel or Mansion Howse’; fortified by a moat, drawbridge and portcullis. In general most other houses of prostitution at the time were barely different from ordinary dwellings.  But Holland’s Leaguer was exceptional, and claimed to be an island, outside local legal jurisdictions. The Leaguer hired an armed bully or Pandar to deal with disagreeable patrons or intruders who got in without paying.   The place ran on an organized system, forming a sort of community for the women who worked there.  There were garden walks for sauntering and “doing a spell of embroidery or fine work,” (apparently this meant flirting).  The property extended to a summerhouse, which was used for liaisons. The river was used for disposal of awkward customers. Unlike the less decent Bankside stews, Holland’s Leaguer was generally a high-class affair: patrons included King James I and his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.  It had a business-like atmosphere, good food, luxurious surroundings, modern plumbing, medical inspections, clean linens, and high-class prostitutes. A visit to Holland’s Leaguer and dinner with the top prostitute or ‘queen’, Bess, cost around £20 a head (maybe £1700 today), and this presumably did not include any after dinner activities.

Holland’s Leaguer operated as a female community, in some ways set apart from the rest of society, owned and managed by a woman, which was unusual enough to be controversial, and may have contributed to the attempt to raid the brothel in 1632. Holland’s Leaguer became so popular that in January 1632 it was besieged by soldiers on the orders of Charles I who had ordered it to be closed down. However, when a troop of soldiers arrived, the story goes that Bess lured them onto the drawbridge and let it down, depositing them into the moat. The prostitutes inside then emptied the contents of their chamber pots, which were filled with boiling hot water, on to the soldiers who naturally hastily retreated. Bess evaded the city authorities and despite two summons to the Court of High Commission in 1631, she managed to escape the city and set up shop elsewhere by the end of 1632. She became known widely as “Elizabeth Holland a woman of ill reporte.”  Holland’s Leaguer ran on its own for a few years but eventually closed down and the property sold in the 1680s.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s theatrical history: playing Bottom on a Sunday gets Mr Wilson into trouble, 1631.

The branches of protestant Christianity generally lumped together and described (particularly when discussing the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Britain) as puritanism were in fact widely variable.

But we’re not going to go into that… What follows may include a lot of simplification.

Puritans were generally concerned to reform and ‘purify’ the existing church, or to separate themselves as an elect apart from those they considered unsaved or unsaveable.

One well-known aspect of puritan belief was their attack on popular culture; a widespread attempt to close down many of the festivals, holidays, pastimes, performances and other daily pleasures that had characterised everyday life for centuries. Puritans were far from alone in campaigning to shut down the teeming rambunctious whirlwind of drink, dancing, sex, satire and abandon that made life bearable – catholic and protestant authorities were also often jointly keen to clean up daily life and its immoralities. The puritans were pretty dedicated however…

Puritan activists had tried and failed in the late sixteenth century to capture and reform the national church according to their program… However to some extent they fell back on what has been called the “puritan reformation of manners” – attempting to impose their moral reforms on the communities around them at a local level. This took the form of denouncing what they saw as the excesses of popular culture, trying to enforce restrictions as to how people were allowed to behave in their daily and weekly life, especially their pleasures. Most notably on Sunday, the Sabbath, the day Christians considered holy, a day puritans thought should be spent in worship of God only. But Sunday was most people’s only day off, so where they could, large numbers would spend the day in pleasure, whether taking part in games and sports, drinking, meeting up and hanging out… The puritans did not originate the idea of the Sabbath as holy, or a day that should be upheld morally, it had a long history on various branches of Christianity

So on a local level, puritans attempted to enforce the ‘holiness’ of the Sabbath; in the early 17th century, they were successful in London (and elsewhere) in making links with constables and justices, through whom they administered their moral agenda, which became translated into ‘county and corporation orders’…

Attempts to repress culture they considered immoral and ungodly took many forms, and formed a constant barrage of local laws, agitation, denunciation… Another aspect of life many (though not all) puritans took a dim view of was theatre. Between the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth century, sections of puritan opinion waged a propaganda war against the putting on of plays; when a Parliament with a substantial ‘godly’ element came to power as the English Civil War was fermenting and breaking out, the banning of theatre in 1642 was among its early acts relating to social policy.

For many of the Godly, theatre encouraged disorder, immorality, sexual banter and frivolity. Philip Stubbes in his Anatomie of Abuses, (1583), levelled a barrage of charges against plays: “Do they not maintain bawdry, insinuate foolery, and renew the remembrance of heathen idolatry? Do they not induce whoredom and uncleanness? Nay, are they not rather plain devourers of maidenly virginity and chastity? For proof whereof mark but the flocking and running to Theaters and Curtains, daily and hourly, night and day, time and tide, to see plays and interludes, where such wanton gestures, such bawdy speeches, such laughing and fleering, such clipping and culling, such winking and glancing of wanton eyes, and the like is used, as is wonderful to behold.”

It wasn’t just the content of the plays themselves, it was also the nature of the threatres, spaces where crowds of man and women gathered together, jostling and unruly, encouraging intimacy, levity, intermingling… But the huge popularity and attention given to plays was also time and energy that should be directed to more serious matters – theatre is mocking godliness, in that “the attention which the plays commanded is not unlike worship… there are analogies between dramatic and and religious expression in the ritual participation of actor and audience, in the use of heightened language and dressing up…” (Margot Heinemann). Theatre is setting itself up as dangerously close to a mockery of true religion.

Puritan repression could fall not only on the licensed theatres. On the 27thSeptember, 1631, a Sunday, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was privately performed in the house of John Williams, the Bishop of Lincoln, in London, “by order of the right reverend prelate, and for the amusement of himself and divers knights and ladyes…”, beginning about ten at night and ending about two or three in the morning.

Putting on plays on Sunday was bad enough – a definite breach of the Lord’s Day; however there is also a suggestion that Mr Wilson, the actor playing the character of Bottom (said to have been the brains behind the event), had perhaps offended against other mores.

The Puritans had become a powerful force in London life by this time, though still in opposition to the hierarchy of the established church. Their political influence led to an inquiry into the affair. Puritan preacher John Spencer condemned the bishop, wrote at least one letter a letter of reproof from John Spencer, a Puritanical preacher, to a lady who was amongst the audience; and Mr Wilson was punished.

Although puritans are sometimes labelled as being humourless, as the writer of the Chambers Book of Days commented: “there is something rather humorous in what was decreed to the performer of Bottom the weaver”:

‘We do order that Mr. Wilson, as he was a special plotter and contriver of this business, and did in such a brutish manner act the same with an ass’s head, shall upon Tuesday next, from six o’clock in the morning till six o’clock at night, sit in the porter’s lodge at my lord bishop’s house, with his feet in the stocks, and attired with an ass’s head, and a bottle of hay before him, and this subscription on his breast:

‘Good people, I have played the beast,
And brought ill things to pass;
I was a man, but thus have made,
Myself a silly ass.”

Mr Wilson was described as a ‘cunning Musition’… It has been suggested that he could be John Wilson, known as having written songs for theatre company the Kings Men from 1614, and as being a lutenist in this company in 1635. He was later a professor of music at Oxford in 1656.

To some extent, its thought that this may have been an episode in an ongoing culture war, which also played out in political faction fighting in London in the tense years pre-civil war. Bishop Williams was a major player in church and state hierarchies, an opponent of the high church authorities like Archbishop Laud, and tolerant towards puritanism, but a liberal, who tried to steer a middle course in the civil war years… Whether this played part in the puritan denunciation of the play in September 1631 is hard to discern.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: 4 day silkweavers’ riot against machine looms erupts, 1675.

For centuries Silk Weaving was the dominant industry in Spitalfields and neighbouring areas like Bishopsgate, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, spreading as far as Mile End to the east, and around parts of Clerkenwell further west.

For two hundred years, through the 17th and 18th centuries, the Silk Weavers of the East End conducted a long-running battle with their employers over wage levels, working conditions and increasing mechanisation in the industry.

Although skilled, and often reasonably well-paid, the weavers could be periodically reduced to poverty; partly this was caused by depressions in cloth trade (one of the earliest recorded being that of 1620-40). “On the occurrence of a commercial crisis the loss of work occurs first among the least skillful operatives, who are discharged from work.” This, and other issues, could lead to outbreaks of rebelliousness: sometimes aimed at their bosses and betters, and sometimes at migrant workers seen as lowering wages or taking work away from ‘natives’.

From its early beginnings silkweaving in the East End was a cottage industry, with workers mainly operating handlooms in houses doubling as workshops, at piece work rates, employed by small masters or through middlemen and dealers. Silk clothing and products were highly desirable, and profits were to be made, but the independence and skill of the weavers brought inevitable pressure to find ways to cut labour costs.

Machine looms began to replace handloom weaving for the manufacture of silk ribbons in the 1660s. But in August 1675, in a three-day riot, dozens of bands of weavers roamed the city, smashing machine looms or burning them in the streets; they also attacked french weavers who were accused of competing for jobs. Outbreaks of class violence often bubbled over with competing complaints and motivations, and we know today nationalist or xenophobic resentment often sits side by side with more clear-sighted recognition of where the power really lies.

Some of the crowds in the 1675 riots wore green aprons, then a suspect colour politically, having been associated with English Civil War radical grouping the Levellers. Following so soon after the 1668 Bawdy House Riots, where wearing of green had been accompanied by more overtly seditious slogans about liberty and tearing down parliament, the weavers’ movement scared the authorities; although they quickly realised the weavers were centrally motivated by solely economic grievances. However the government worried that such movements could be manipulated by the scattered republican and fifth monarchist underground, still sporadically attempting to launch uprisings or assassination plots.

The powers that be seized a former Fifth Monarchist radical and silkweaver, John Mason, whose interrogation produced “desperate words”, where Mason is said to have looked forward to a time when men would not “labour and toyl day and night… to maintain others that live in idleness.” But he had also been more of a victim than a ringleader (having had an engine loom of his own smashed). Perhaps he was expressing a dream of an end to wage labour… or maybe he saw in mechanisation a vision of an easier working life.

The insurrection was suppressed by the army, but a result of the riots was that full mechanisation was delayed in the Spitalfields silk industry for a century.

But the pressure to reduce costs would remain, and the need would be met eventually, by slow expansion and technical innovation, by gradual employment of ‘unskilled’ workers (often women, migrants or children) to ‘mind’ the machines; in some cases by moving production away from London to other town where workers could be found outside the reach of the East Londoners’ powerful moral code. The issue could be put on hold but not deferred forever.

The 1675 events also left the authorities with a healthy fear of the effects of poverty among the weavers. When recession in 1683 caused great ‘distress and desperation among the journeymen weavers”, it was suggested that a troop of cavalry be stationed in Whitechapel as a precaution against disorder. Again and again the riotous nature of the weavers would necessitate state violence to put it down. Just as often, however, Parliament or the local state (in the form of the magistrates), would find ways to accommodate the weavers’ demands – sometimes from a desire for social peace, sometimes as winds of political and economic theory chimed with the voice of the silkweaving trade.

The riots also showed the silkweavers the power they could exert if they acted collectively, and collective organization, not always expressed through violence (but often enough, as seemed necessary), became a hallmark of their struggles to maintain a good standard of living. This would emerge as struggles to impose decent wages and conditions on their employers, to force restrictions on imports of cloths and fabrics that competed with silk, and to prevent under-cutting of the wage rates by mechanized weaving. As with John Mason’s case, this led to confused and seemingly contradictory movements within the same moments. For over a century and a half after 1675, though, the East London silkweavers fought for their interests with a determined collectivity.

More on the Spitalfields silkweavers and their struggles can be read here

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s religious history: Bartholomew Legate burnt for heresy, 1612.

Bartholomew Legate or Legatt, dealer in cloth, and his two brothers, Walter and Thomas, from Essex, were active in and around London ca. 1590-1612, and were cited as having Anabaptist beliefs, rejecting the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and their rituals. The brothers’ views probably influenced the emergence of the sect known as the Seekers. In 1611, Bartholomew and Thomas were imprisoned for heresy: Thomas died in Newgate Prison, Bartholomew was tried in February 1612, was found guilty of heresy, and refusing to retract his opinions, burnt at the stake at Smithfield on 18 March 1612. He was the last person burned in London for his religious opinions, (Edward Wightman, burned at Lichfield a month later, was the last to suffer in this way in England.) After 1612 most ‘heretics’ were simply sent to prison and there left to rot.

Anabaptist is a bit of a catch-all term, applied to describe a broad clutch of religious groups, at least forty independent sects, holding widely varied views, at the beginning of the Radical Reformation (1520-1580). Anabaptism was not a centralized or homogeneous sect; and many dissenters were lumped together and persecuted under the Anabaptist label, accurately or not. Even the name (meaning “rebaptiser”) was generally one used by their enemies as a term of abuse: some groups used the term Brethren to describe themselves. By 1525, Anabaptist congregations had spread across most of German speaking Europe. Rejecting both the corrupt practices of the Roman Church, and the new reformed Protestant Churches, they sought instead to re-establish Christian communities based on their conception of early Christian congregations. They often disregarded both religious ceremonies or complex theological questions, preferring to emphasise ‘the inspired Word of God, and a love for their fellow man’. Some of their core theology was radically opposed to established churches: most rejected the traditional practice of baptizing babies into the church, instead practising adult baptism, as a conscious pledge of faith, or symbolic rebirth. Unlike the new Calvinist churches they believed in free will, but they mainly also saw Christ as not truly deriving from his human mother, but being of ‘celestial flesh’.

Many groups preached the separation of the Church and State, including the abolishment of any State religion, or rejected the State completely and opposed state wars; members were often fined or imprisoned for refusing to pay taxes, take up arms or for acts of civil disobedience. They preached complete religious freedom based on a literal Bible, and the total independent control of their own congregations and the election of their own clergy, often shunning contact with the corrupted ‘worldly society’ outside their own communities.

A few Anabaptist leaders preached that a Millennium of the Saints, a golden time when Jesus would return, was at hand, and more militant congregations started to prepare to overthrow of the current ungodly and corrupted society. Some of these militant Anabaptist groups developed into quasi-communistic communities. Anabaptist uprisings took place in Europe, notably in the German town of Münster in 1532-35. Both Catholic and Protestant Europe raised an army to oust these militant Anabaptists, capturing Münster in 1535. A general persecution followed throughout Europe against all Anabaptists. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the Catholic Church soundly denounced the Anabaptism. By 1540, most of the early Anabaptist leaders were imprisoned or executed, but persecutions against Anabaptists continued in various portions of Europe into the 1580s.

In the early years of the Reformation, a number of Anabaptist groups were active in London, notably the followers of Melchior Hoffman, who came to England in the 1530s from the Netherlands. Around 1535, the authorities arrested four Englishmen in London for their part in the distribution of an Anabaptist confession of faith. At the house of one of them, John Raulinges, “many of the sayd faction dyuers tymes assembled,” and their “bishop and reder” was a Fleming by the name of Bastian. The foreign Anabaptists in England were the chief victims of persecution under Henry VIII. On 25th May 1535, twenty-five Dutch Anabaptists were examined at St. Paul’s for ‘heretical’ views regarding the incarnation, the mass, and baptism – fourteen were condemned. Two were burned at Smithfield on 8th June 1535, and the others sent to various English towns for a similar death. The king appointed an ecclesiastical commission “to search for and examine Anabaptists . . . and destroy all books of that detestable sect.” On 24 November four Dutch Anabaptists recanted publicly, but five days later three were burned at Smithfield: Jan Mathijsz van Middelburg, a well-known Anabaptist leader in the Low Countries, and Peter Franke and his wife, a young couple from Bruges in Flanders. (On 3 May 1540, three Anabaptists were executed at Southwark, of whom two were foreigners and one an Englishman).

Under Queen Elizabeth I Anabaptist activity openly revived; as did Church and Crown presecution. The Crown was busy trying to keep control of all religious dissidents, perceived as potential problems to the State and to the Crown. In 1575, twenty-seven German and Flemish Anabaptists were arrested in London. Accused of a series of heresies, eleven of them were convicted and condemned to be burned at the stake. Queen Elizabeth then commuted the sentences of nine of those condemned, banishing them instead of executing them. But the last two, John Wielmacker (also known as Jan Pieters) and Hendrick Ter Woort, were burned at the stake at Smithfield on July 22nd, 1575.

In 1590, Anabaptists were ordered to leave England, or to either join the National Church, or the Strangers Church at Austin Friars which had been reestablished under Elizabeth I, but most continued to meet in secret. Under James I similar policies were continued, but Anabaptist influences continued.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online