The History Woman's Blog

What Germans made of the English Revolution

The Works of John Milton in an C18th edition held at Leipzig University. Library.

I know, it does not seem the best time to start a new research project in the midst of a pandemic. To begin with, many libraries and archives are still shut or operating a limited service, and I might not be able to make full use of my new office for quite some time. 

Moving from Berlin to Newcastle was enough of a challenge in itself, given I had to quarantine for two weeks on arrival, while also trying to sort out all the things one has to do when arriving in a new, if familiar, place. Still, I am determined to make the most of my fellowship after playing around with the idea for the project for quite a while now. After all, there should be enough quiet time for reading.

My new project explores the way in which ideas from the English Revolution (1640-1660) where received in Germany, or rather the German-speaking lands, through the means of translation and what potential impact they might have had on the constitutional debates before the revolution of 1848-49.

Challenging a largely Anglocentric and transatlantic historiography, I hope to establish the intellectual reach and legacy of English republican ideas in Europe by focusing on the country that from 1701 developed an ever-closer relationship with England through the Succession Act which established the Hanoverian dynasty and its heir as the next in line to the English throne. This will involve looking at the distribution history of English republican works in Germany, either in their original English version, or in a variety of translations that might include Latin, French or Dutch texts besides translations into German.

Proceeding from my work on the English republican exiles on the Continent, this is another transnational as well as (from its source base) multilingual study which addresses the communication and cultural exchange between societies across Europe and the way in which political ideas are understood in different contexts.

It is also timely as the UK is renegotiating its relationship with the EU following the 2016 referendum and the degree to which the UK is part of a shared European culture and value system has once again come under close scrutiny both from backers and opponents of Brexit. Then as now, the debates in Europe were about what we share and what divides us.

An C18th German translation of Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government.

In practical terms, I will be looking at the legacy of key authors emerging from the English Revolution, such as John Milton, Marchamont Nedham, James Harrington and Algernon Sidney, whose ideas were key for the development of modern representative democracy. Tainted as they were by the regicide, however, the ideas of popular sovereignty, religious liberty and the rule of law promoted by radicals during the first English revolution did not spread widely beyond the British Isles until after the second. 

Only after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 which was – however misleadingly – presented as peaceful and bloodless did a concept of ‘English liberty’ emerge that was considered worthy of praise and emulation among the thinkers of early Enlightenment Europe.

In their view, the English had managed to combine the three classical forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy and democracy – in a unique way to balance the interests of the one, the few and the many in a parliamentary monarchy that was held up as a model to the rulers of Europe. By that time, radical republican ideas had been moderated and tamed. They were no longer considered as being in opposition to monarchy, but seen as supporting the rule of a sovereign bound by Parliament and subject to England’s unwritten constitution. 

In contrast, early modern Germany found both democratic government and its own national identity relatively late. It was divided into many smaller states and independent cities, and the territories ruled by the Holy Roman emperors in the seventeenth and eighteenth century were held together only by a loose bond. 

The dissolution of the Empire in 1806, meanwhile, led to the search for a new German identity, first in opposition to the Napoleonic forces and later during the pre-revolutionary period of the Vormärz (c1830-1848/9) against the conservative powers of the Restoration. Besides, many territories still struggled against outdated feudal structures. In this process of state formation and active state building, English republican ideas could offer a model for a parliamentary monarchy and clear constitutional order within the framework of a nation state. 

This does not mean that Germans aimed to emulate their English neighbours, but their identity was shaped through comparison and contrast with other European powers, notably France and England. My new project hopes to capture part of this debate and to contextualise it to gain a better understanding of contemporary constitutional discourse and the formation of national identities in Europe.

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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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