Wednesday, November 21, 2012

History Corner: The Fifth Monarchists, 17th century London religious radicals

In 1660, the monarchy was restored in England after 11 years in which the country had managed fine without a King. Charles II wasted no time in tracking down and killing the 'regicides' associated with the execution of his father, King Charles I, at the end of the English Civil War in 1649.

The first of the regicides to be hanged, drawn and quartered was Thomas Harrison, who was executed at Charing Cross. He had been one of the Fifth Monarchists, a radical current who believed that the age of earthly kings was over and that Christ would soon return and bring about social justice.

In the aftermath of Harrison's execution, a group of Fifth Monarchists decided to stage an uprising.  On 6 January 1661, around 50 Fifth Monarchists headed by Thomas Venner (a wine-cooper), set off from their meeting house in Swan Alley, off Coleman Street in the City of London. Their manifesto 'A Door of Hope: or a Call and Declaration for the gathering together of the first ripe Fruits unto the Standard of our Lord, King Jesus' called for the abolition of imprisonment for debt, the end of the death penalty for theft, and other social reforms, as well as for the overthrow of the monarchy. After several days of fighting, they were defeated. Venner and ten others were hanged for treason.

In the aftermath of the rising, the government rounded up all kinds of religious dissenters, including Quakers, Baptists and Congregationalists. Their meetings were banned, and thousands were jailed: 'Some 400 Baptists and 500 Quakers were arrested in London alone... So many sectaries were committed at the Croydon sessions for refusing to take the oath of allegiance that Sir John Maynard wondered where they could be detained... According to Maynard, the leader of the Croydon sectaries, Dr Bradley, was allowed by the jailer to 'imprecate destruction on the kings and all the Royall Line, in that which they call there devoction"'.

Despite this repression, dissent continued - including in Southwark and Deptford. In 1661 it was reported to magistrates 'that dissidents were meeting daily at the Southwark home of George Tutchins. Having failed in Venner's attempt, he allegedly said, they would rise again on the next moonlit night, and this time would have the use of fifty five barrels of powder stored in Deptford'.

An intelligence report in March 1661 'noted that a Deptford radical was expending funds to win supporters in the army, while another report of about the same date indicated that ministers in the west who were managing a design were corresponding with the Congregationalist Ralph Venning, lecturer at St Olave's, Southwark'. There were clashes between radicals and conservatives at the time of parliamentary elections in 1661 (albeit elections in which many did not have the vote):  'in Southwark, where there was a long-standing radical community, the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers, under the leadership of Colonel George Thompson and Captain Samuel Lynn, were unable to prevent the election of four conservatives. Once their defeat was apparent, the radicals drew swords and fought with the supporters of Sir Thomas Bludworth'.

Another hotbed was Lee - then in Kent, now part of Lewisham. 'Because it was only a few miles southeast of London, it was easily accessible to radicals from the City. On 1 October [1661], a number of ex-Cromwellians were at Lee, including Colonels Robert Blount (or Blunt) and Thompson along with three other officers. The pulpit at Lee was open to virtually all comers. In the opinion of the informer Edward Potter, its congregation of more than a hundred would "prove as Dangerous to the government of England as any if They are not sudenly prevented". The minister at Lee, William Hickocks, contributed to such fears by preaching that the saints must be willing to die for God's cause'.

In 1662, 'Concerned about meetings of armed dissidents near Deptford in January, the king directed a constable with a band of volunteers to seize all concealed weapons in Blackheath Hundred. In March, London authorities discovered that the grocer Thomas Bone had some twelve pounds of powder and six bullets. Bone not only had ties to the Fifth Monarchist preacher Anthony Palmer, who told him "thes times cannot last long" but was also sending provision to men incarcerated in the Tower for treason'.

In another planned rising (the 'Tong plot' of 1662), conspirators considered a plan to seize the king 'at Camberwell on one of his biweekly visits to Henrietta Maria at Greenwich'.

Re-enactment 2013

Inveterate agitator Ian Bone and others are planning a film/history walk/re-enactment of Venner's 1661 rising early next year. He says:  'On January 6th we will be laying a wreath in Swan Alley off Coleman Street in memory of  Thomas Venner and  his fellow Fifth Monarchists who courageously rose  up here  against the return of the monarchy in 1661'. Meet in Swan Alley at noon - more details here.

Not sure if Ian Bone is a descendent of the Thomas Bone mentioned above, or whether his current home in the borough of Croydon is anywhere near the haunts of the anti-Royalist preacher Dr Bradley.   (Most of the information above, and all the quotes, from 'Radical Underground in Britain, 1660-1663' by Richard Lee Greaves)


ian bone said...

Yes there were reports of a gathering of 5,000 Fifth Monarchists in Horsham in 1659 ready to rise up but apart from Venner's rising they never acted in a united way. Feel free to dress as a Fifth Monarchist on January 6th - maybe have feeder march from south of the river!

John Lilburne said...

Not sure about your statement that "after 11 years the country had managed fine without a King." Cromwell wasn't very good as head of state and it was because the country was in such a bad way that Charles II and the monarchy was brought back.