University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Laughter as a political weapon after the English Civil Wars.

Dr Fiona McCall is a lecturer in early modern history at Portsmouth, teaching units on the British Civil Wars, and Crime, Sin and Punishment in early modern Britain, amongst others. Her current research project investigates religion in the English parish during the period of Godly rule of the 1640s and 1650s.

What do you do if you are utterly defeated in a Civil War, and governed by a religious zealouts who have executed your ruler and are determined to stamp out most of the religious practises you hold dear? Fighting back has proved no use. You can retreat from public life and count what money the sequestrators have left you.  You can, as many did, self-medicate your depression with alcohol.  Or you can use laughter as one of what James Scott terms the ‘hidden transcripts’ of resistance available to those subjugated.

Loyalist mockery of the interregnum church provided a means to preserve loyalist identity under English Republican rule. Some of the published loyalist satire of this period is justly famous.  Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, written in the 1640s and 1650s circulated amongst royalists in manuscript, and became a runaway best seller when published in 1663, after the Restoration of the monarchy and the Church of England (although curiously Samuel Pepys detested it).  Its ‘hero’, Sir Hudibras, is purportedly modelled on the Bedfordshire puritan Sir Samuel Luke:

For his Religion, it was fit

To match his learning and his wit;

‘Twas Presbyterian true blue;

For he was of that stubborn crew

Of errant saints, whom all men grant

To be the true Church Militant;

Such as do build their faith upon

The holy text of pike and gun;


John Cleveland is even more savage in his portrayal of the real Sussex puritan Francis Cheynell:

Hee’s as prodigiously furious, as if he had been bolted out oth’ Monks pot when he invented gunpowder, … begot by a whirlewind … raised by a Conjurer, or all Aeolus bag’d up and sold by a Laplander.

John Cleveland, Midsummer-moone, or, Lunacy rampant (1648)

Cleveland and Butler were part of a broader tradition of satirising puritans, much of it unpublished, as I discovered when studying loyalist memories in the John Walker archive in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. In satire, puritans were generally attributed four main traits: firstly they were ignorant and stupid.  Secondly, they were disapproving. Thirdly and fourthly, they were covetous and hypocritical, particularly about sex: puritans in Restoration comedies are always secretly having it off with their patronesses in closets. The ranks of puritan characters in 17th century plays include Snarl in Thomas Shadwell’s The Virtuoso (1676), described as ‘a great Admirer of the last Age, and a Declaimer against the Vices of this, and privately very vicious himself’, Mr Smirk in George Etheredge’s Man of Mode (1676) and Mr Scruple is John Wilson’s very popular post-Restoration play The Cheats (1663).  (I always think the choice of the names Obadiah Slope for the villain in Trollope’s Barchester Towers and Severus Snape in Harry Potter places them within this tradition.)

All the above traits were found in Walker’s collection of stories, but they relate to real interregnum clergy. Walkers’ correspondents laugh at ridiculous preaching: the Gloucestershire preacher who thanked God for not turning a child into a toad; the carpenter parson who reportedly preached that your fingers would drop off if you took communion unworthily, ‘freakish’ sermons that drove listeners to violent laughter. Their style of preaching was mocked: their ‘whining’ delivery and ‘ridiculous’ postures: the ‘saturnall grimaces’ and ‘terrible ill-favoured wry-mouthes’ of John Kemp at Brixham, ‘sufficient to affright the Devil’. The length of puritan sermons was proverbial: the purchase of an hourglass was often the first sign of the switchover to Godly religion in parish accounts.  At Chew Magna in Somerset, the sermons were apparently so long that the congregation went to sleep until after three hours the preacher called out ‘awake sinners’.  Stories of German exile Christopher Jellinger fill several folios: his habit of popping up unexpectedly by wedding couples’ bedsides to interrupt the ‘work of the night’; prayers on behalf of his sick horse, the time he told parishioners Jesus Christ was coming bodily into South Brent Church, pointing at the door, ‘there a Comes there a Comes … now now now ‘.

Loyalist satire against Presbyterians usually centred on severity taken to self-defeating ends: telling congregations they were damned, for example. Independent clergy attracted ridicule by their calculated abandonment of the ‘black coats’ of their rivals the Presbyterians for more flamboyant dress: Theophilus Polwhele was said to have married a couple at the Angel Inn in Tiverton dressed in ‘slashed sleeves, short doublet … and Breeches all set of the knees with Ribbons’.  Vitriolic stories were spread about the sexual misbehaviour of the interregnum clergy.  Northamptonshire minister Theophilus Hart was described as a ‘Mongrel between an Anabaptist and a Presbiterian’ who, not content with filling a London street with his bastards, was eventually found ‘stark-naked in bed’, with the wife of a butcher, who proceeded to cleave his head with an axe, the ‘brains followed the Axe, and Hart Expired with his Head hanging out of Bed over an open Close-stool’.

The sheer quantity of humourous material sent to Walker suggests a ready supply, circulating wherever loyalists gathered; even bishops compiled jest-books and staged mock-Presbyterian sermons. Loyalists in subjection to a hated regime developed their use of irony as a safely coded and psychologically satisfying way to express their views and distance themselves from the times.  It strengthened their group identity and made it hard for their nonconformist opponents to respond. But it was also an expression of anger and frustration. ‘Most of the appearing mirth in the world is not mirth … The wounded spirit is not seen, but walks under a disguise’, wrote Robert South.   ‘The Christian rage of a church in extremis’, often made for the very blackest of humour.

Fiona’s book chapter ‘Continuing Civil War by Other Means: Loyalist Mockery of the Interregnum Church’ is published in Mark Knights, Adam Morton (eds),  The Power of Laughter and Satire in Early Modern Britain, (Boydell & Brewer, 2017), pp. 84-106

, , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply