The History Woman's Blog

Chasing Algernon Sidney in Kent

Posted in Early Modern, History, Political Thought, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on April 14, 2013

‘That sounds like a film’, a friend of mine responded when I told her I was off to the archive again, ‘chasing Sidney in Kent’. That’s true. In fact, I am surprised nobody ever did make a film about Algernon Sidney – or at least I am not aware of one. He clearly is the sexiest of the English Civil War republicans I have been studying for the past few years, and this is not just down to his long wavy hair and striking profile.

Algernon Sidney, republican fireband (1623-83).

Algernon Sidney, republican fireband (1623-83).

As both John Carswell and Jonathan Scott have shown in their biographical works, Sidney was a republican firebrand, a hard-done-by younger son of proud and powerful gentry origin and a conviction politician with a hatred of tyrants and a very short fuse. This short fuse left bridges burnt, while an uneasy mixture of pride and financial hardship, especially during his exile period, meant Sidney was ‘never a man to leave a feeding hand unbitten’ (Worden).

Born in London in January 1623 as the second son of Robert, earl of Leicester, and his wife Dorothy Percy and raised at Penshurst Place in Kent, Sidney never quite forgave his older brother Philip for his prime position in the family; and historians dabbling in a bit of popular psychology have been eager to suggest that his rejection of hereditary monarchy and in particular primogeniture, so eloquently immortalised in his Discourses Concerning Government, were not just a refutation of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (1680), but much more personal indeed.

This lack of place and position in a hierarchical world ruled by monarchs might also have been one reason why Sidney did not return to England after the Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660, but, after a diplomatic mission to Sweden and Denmark, kept erring around on the Continent, attempting to raise an army to invade England and restore the republic. All his life Sidney fought for a world in which merit counted, not birth. (more…)

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An English republican exile in Florence

Posted in Early Modern, History, Political Thought, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on September 23, 2012
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View over Florence from the Boboli Gardens behind the Palazzo Pitti.

Why would a protestant English republican take refuge at the Tuscan court? The answer does not seem obvious. Ferdinando II, Grand Duke of Tuscany when Henry Neville made his way to Italy in 1664, was a staunch Catholic as well as a prince. The Civil War republican Neville (1619-94) was known for his unorthodox views and libertine leanings and accused of ‘atheism and blasphemy’ in Richard Cromwell’s Parliament of 1659. He had to leave England after a period in the Tower for his alleged involvement in the Yorkshire Plot of 1663, and Tuscany and the Florentine court in particular seemed like an ideal place for him to withdraw to.

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Palazzo Pitti in Florence – residence of the Medici Dukes from the 16th century onwards.

Neville had been to Florence before. He had travelled to Italy on his Grand Tour between 1641 and 1645 and acquired friends that would serve him well during his second stay in the country. He was fluent in Italian, as his correspondence reveals, and he was an admirer of Machiavelli and of the Italian city states – notably Venice, which he also visited during the 1660s. And, as he wrote to his brother Richard from Florence in 1665, he found ‘a sensible difference between being civilly treated, … valew’d and esteem’d by princes abroad, and not only hatted but persecuted at home’. If persecution in England was his hell, Italy was his ‘paradise’.

Besides, as I have argued elsewhere, neither the hostility between republicans and princely rule, nor the enmity between Protestants and Catholics were as strong as much secondary literature implies. Neville seems to have moved in Italian high society, he had contacts to the Accademia del Cimento, and – like his cousin and fellow republican Algernon Sidney – he was also well connected among the cardinals in Rome.

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The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence (just because it’s prettier than the Archivio di Stato).

Rome was a city Neville liked to refer to as ‘Babylon’. It was certainly not holy. He thought it made up in entertainment what it lacked in ‘devotion’, and for him it seems to have been a place for various amorous adventures as well as the hub of Catholic politics.

It would be naïve to say that European Catholics and English republicans could not be allies. After all, they had a shared a common enemy in Charles II, and my enemy’s enemies are my friends. This is certainly an area I will further inquire into as I look more at the English republican exiles in Europe.

In the meantime, having spent a week in Florentine archives and libraries as well as wandering around the city, the palazzi, squares and gardens, I also have an alternative explanation for Neville’s choice of exile: Florence is just a beautiful place.

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The Fascination of The Isle of Pines (1668)

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, Political Thought, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on November 28, 2011

Henry Neville’s utopian travel narrative The Isle of Pines (1668) is one of my favourite pieces of literature. It tells the story of the shipwreck of an English trading vessel during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and  of the subsequent survival of one man and four women on a lonely island near terra Australis incognita. The five survivors settle together on the island and create a new society from scratch like Adam and Eve after God’s creation of the earth, or Noah and his family after the Flood, except they keep some of their English ways and make a few new laws to maintain order in their ever-growing society. Several generations later, in 1667, the English Pines are discovered by the crew of a Dutch ship, whose captain publishes an account of the savaged English society he found stranded on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere.

There is no reason why The Isle of Pines should stand out as a literary work. The prose is basic, the story is simple, and the description of the relations of George Pines and the four women worthy of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. But there are most of all two things that make The Isle of Pines such a fascinating work. First, it has so many layers that generations of scholars have not been able to agree whether the work is a utopia, a hoax, a work on polygamy, a coded political pamphlet, Restoration satire, or all of the above. And secondly, The Isle has a complex and highly successful publishing history, including numerous re-issues and translations in several European languages to make it truly one of the international bestsellers of the seventeenth century.

With large parts of the world still unmapped and the story appearing in the news sheets and gazettes, many contemporaries might have believed Neville’s account of the mysterious island was true, while his friends in the coffeehouses of London and Oxford soon smelt a rat and recognised it as the work of a disgruntled republican, who blamed Charles II and his corrupted court for the decline of English fortunes after the defeat in the second Anglo-Dutch war (1665-67). The story had a mixed reception in the seventeenth century, both at home and abroad, as contemporaries tried to work out what they were dealing with. The number of modern editions as well as scholarly works on the piece published in recent years shows that the mystery of The Isle remains unresolved.

Property and Power: On James Harrington’s 400th birthday

Posted in Early Modern, Political Thought, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on January 3, 2011

Power is founded on property. Few people nowadays would deny this doctrine. The political philosopher James Harrington formulated it in the mid-seventeenth century. Living in per-industrial England he still considered land, not money, the most important form of property. The social group that held most of the country’s land also held the largest amount of power. In early modern England this was the monarch and his nobility, including the bishops.

However, from the reign of Henry VII onwards, and especially through the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries and sale of Church lands, power relations began to change. Over time, the King (or Queen) and nobility lost land and power in favour of the next social group, the gentry and the commoners, represented in the lower house of Parliament. By the early Stuart period the power balance had been upset so badly  that struggles between the King and the House of Commons led to a breakdown or ‘dissolution’ of the government in the English Civil War. Anyone trying to reconstruct the English government in the aftermath of the war would therefore have to create a new superstructure that took into account the changed power relations.

The most famous elaboration of Harrington’s theory can be found in his utopian Commonwealth of Oceana of 1656, in which he tried to persuade Oliver Cromwell to play the sole legislator, set up the perfect republican state and retire to the country.

‘Good laws’, Harrington believed, could give the country stability, and these laws had to be infallible, so that bad men would not be able to corrupt the state. Harrington never saw his dream come true. The Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 meant a return of many of the old problems. But his ideas of mixed government and a balance of power remained influential in the writings of the Neo-Harringtonians of the later 17th and early 18th century. They influenced both the American and French Revolutions, while his materialist theory of political change would also strike a chord with Marxists and modern economic and political thinkers.

James Harrington would have celebrated his 400th birthday today. He was born in Upton, Northamptonshire on 3 January 1611 and died in Little Ambry on 11 September 1677.

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Eric Nelson’s Hebrew Republic and the Importance of Jewish Sources

Posted in Early Modern, Political Thought, Religion, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on September 13, 2010

In his book on The Hebrew Republic, Eric Nelson sets out to refute the commonly held assumption in early modern historiography that political science came to be separated from religion over the course of the seventeenth century. Instead, he argues that the concept of the respublica Hebraeica was seen as authoritative by many political thinkers, and that in particular three elements of God’s commonwealth were influential: the republican form of government, the redistribution of property by means of agrarian laws, and religious toleration. In their pursuit of the ideal government, seventeenth-century authors did not just rely on the authority of the Bible, but also on the works of the rabbinic tradition. In the three chapters that constitute the main body of his book, Nelson then goes on to prove each of his points in turn.

First, he argues that republican authors came to consider popular government as the only legitimate form of government instead of seeing it as one possible form only. Secondly, Nelson shows that republican authors, most famously James Harrington, came to put more emphasis on the necessity for a redistribution of property by means of agrarian laws influenced by rabbinic scholarship. And finally, he shows that the pursuit of toleration, usually attributed to a process of secularization which involves a separation of state and church, was perfectly compatible with an Erastian church, i.e. a church under government control. For in God’s commonwealth, Nelson argues, there was no separation between the religious and civil spheres, and God gave his laws to the secular ruler.

If you want to buy Nelson’s argument or not, you have to admit it is well put. His work is clearly structured, the prose flows well, and the book is so highly readable that you don’t want to put it down. A must for everybody interested in early modern religion and political thought.

Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010).