I never thought I would see Algernon Sidney on TV. Now I have – on the recent Channel 4 drama New Worlds, which looks at English radicalism during the Exclusion Crisis. He is cast as the grand old man of republicanism (Donald Sumpter, made to look much older than Sidney’s 60 years) who has survived Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration to pass on the torch of the “good old cause” to the next generation. “Let this hand be an enemy to tyrants”, says Abe Goffe (Jamie Dornan) to Ned Hawkins (Joe Dempsie), as they link theirs before the latter returns to right the wrongs in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the New World, while the former, the fictional son of the regicide William Goffe (James Cosmo), who died across the Atlantic, is determined to set an end to the Stuart monarchy in England.
The words written by Sidney into the visitors’ book at the University of Copenhagen in 1659, have become the motto of the new generation. Nevermind that he originally wrote them down in Latin, “manus haec inimica tyrannis”, they now stand for the young radicals’ hatred of monarchy (and would later become the official motto of the state of Massachusetts in the USA). Yet, Sidney himself has mellowed. When Abe goes to meet him for help and advice in episode three, Sidney is no longer keen to rid the world of all kings, he wants to subject them to parliamentary rule to avoid another Civil War.
So Sidney and Goffe get involved in the Rye House Plot to kill Charles II (Jeremy Northam) and his younger brother James, Duke of York (Samuel James), as they are travelling back from the races at Newmarket to replace the King with the Duke of Monmouth (Tom Payne) as a constitutional ruler. When the plot is foiled and discovered they are arrested at Sidney’s home and taken to the Tower. The papers seized from his desk, the manuscript of his Discourses Concerning Government (published posthumously in 1698) are used in evidence against him to prove his hatred of monarchy and murderous intentions. Thus he has to die the death of a traitor in episode four, swearing off violence before he departs from this world, while Ned smuggles his writings into Boston, from where they inspire a new generation of Americans hoping for indepndence from Britain.
While most critics found the much anticipated New Worlds badly written, soulless and disappointing as the sequel to the amazingly popular Devil’s Whore by the same creators Peter Flannery and Martine Brant, I was most interested in the historiographical aspects of the four-part series. The Whig myths around the regicides seem alive and well outside the world of academic history. William Goffe is confirmed as the Angel of Hadley, who defends the English settlers from an attack by Indians before jumping to his death, while Algernon Sidney is confirmed as the mellowed republican and respectable defender of constitutional monarchy, brought to the scaffold by a cruel and unjust government.
As a historian I was also somewhat disappointed that the creators of New Worlds found it necessary to introduce two very contrived love stories, between Abe Goffe and Beth Fanshawe (Freya Mavor) in England, and between Ned Hawkins and Hope Russell (Alice Englert) in the colonies, to get their audience interested in one of the most exciting periods of English history. While I enjoyed some of the period detail and was pleased to see that there are film-makers who share my passion for the seventeenth century, I nevertheless think that the original sources tell the most exciting stories, and that someone should be bold enough to produce a historical drama without artificial enhancements and changes to the original plot. Seventeenth-century history as reality TV, a documentary filmed as drama, now that would create truly new worlds.