1649: the nearly revolution

I did promise much regicide related posted here a few weeks back. However, actual work and other things rather got in the way.

The other day, though, I revisited the BL’s Taking Liberties exhibition, this time with a group of my special subject students. They seemed to enjoy it and looking round it for the second time, I noticed things I’d missed during my first, quick, reconnoiter.

One of those things is Egerton. MS 1048 f. 91-92. This is an MS copy of the so-called ‘Officers’ Agreement’, the form of the Agreement of the People presented to the Rump Parliament by the Council of Officers in January 1649.

The Officers’ Agreement is often dismissed as a mere sop to radical opinion within the army, a document which the officers had no real commitment to and which was allowed to die a quite death at the hands of an uninterested Rump Parliament.

But the Egerton MS in the BL’s most recent exhibition ought to get us to think twice about this. It’s not only that is (as far as I know), as unique manuscript version of documents – the Agreements of the People – which existed predominately as printed artefacts.

The really important bit of this big document is a tiny little scribble in the left hand corner. It says
‘The forme of ye subscription for the Officers of ye Army’.

You can’t see it on this image, unfortunately, but I promise it’s there.

The key word here is ‘subscription’. One of Lilburne’s initial objections to the Officers’ Agreement was that it was tendered to Parliament for approval before being tendered to the people.

There are references, though, in other printed sources, which suggest that the Agreement was already being tendered for public subscription at around the same time as it was being presented Parliament. All of which seems to suggest that recent historians (including Glenn Burgess, David Farr and Clive Holmes) who have argued that some of the officers, Ireton especially, were a good deal more sincere about their commitment to this form of the Agreement are probably in the right.

In fact, with its detailed discussion of the distribution of seats, the Officers’ Agreement looks much more like a worked out transition mechanism to a new, more democratic representative than the two earlier ‘Leveller’ Agreements.

So why did it fail? Less because a Machiavellian Ireton never wanted it to succeed in the first place, and more because the political situation in England and the British Isles was so turbulent and fast moving that the project simply had to be abandon in favour of something much less ambitious. That would turn into the Engagement of Loyalty to the Commonwealth, a bare promise of obedience to the de facto power of the new republic, all that could be wrung out of a political nation broadly unsympathetic to the projects and ideals of radical Levellers.

(More of this in the new book and in my chapter in the forthcoming collection on the Agreements edited by Phil Baker and Eliot Vernon.)

Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 10:18 pm  Comments (1)  
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A Radical History of Britain

has now gone to the publishers. Yippee! It has a new, exciting subtitle,  Visionaries, rebels and revolutionaries: the men and women who fought for our freedoms, and a firm publication date, 4 June 2009.

In other news, over at Me and My Big Mouth, the battle continues between myself and Patrick Dillon, though this round looks more like a dead heat. Scott’s got as far as the revolutionary wars in Ireland and Scotland, so the end result is imminent. Whatever the outcome, history, I think, has been the winner.

Finally, as it’s Halloween, news from CNN that some present-day witches want their sixteenth- and seventeenth-century predecessors to be posthumously pardoned.

Amusingly, someone from the Ministry of Justice has replied to the effect that

“Evidence must prove conclusively that no offense was committed or that the applicant did not commit the offense. It is not enough that the conviction may be unsafe — the applicant must be technically and morally innocent.”

Does the Ministry of Justice believe in the power of maleficient magic? I suppose the recall of Peter ‘Lord Vader’ Mandelson is evidence enough.

Taking Liberties at the British Library, pt. 2.

As regular readers will recall, I posted a week or so ago about the publicity for this forthcoming (31st October) exhibition at the BL. The post got picked up not only by a few other bloggers, but also by Matthew Shaw, the curator of the exhibition. (Does the BL have some sort of web ‘rapid rebuttal unit’? When I wrote some ill-informed guff about their plans for digital theses, I also got a very swift response putting me straight.)

The BL very kindly invited me to have a sneak preview of some of the items in the exhibition. Matthew let me see the London Working Men’s Association minutebook, papers relating to Francis Place and Sir Francis Burdett, and the suffragette Olive Wharry’s prison scrapbook. If there’s anything likely to assuage a grumpy historian, it’s an opportunity to look at some old stuff.

The exhibition will feature items from outside of the BL’s own collections, including the original text of the Putney Debates (on loan from Worcester College) and the 18-foot long Great Reform Act, complete with stitched on amendments. Not only will it stretch chronologically from Magna Carta right up to the present day, but it will also tackle a variety of different themes, from the struggle for democratic rights to campaigns for freedom of the press, to the development of social and economic rights in the modern era.

Aside from the exhibition itself, there will also be a permanent website linked to it (not yet live), and a series of evening events debating key questions with guest speakers including Shami Chakrabati, Baroness Williams, Professor Conor Gearty and Polly Toynbee.

As somebody who likes watching the X-factor and also cares about threats to our civil liberties, I still don’t like the posters, but, hey, they’ve certainly provoked debate. Whatever my remaining reservations about the publicity, the range of documents on show, and the breadth of themes addressed, make this a very important and timely exhibition.

For more info, go here. Thanks very much to Matthew and his colleagues at the BL for letting me have a nose around and ask a few questions.

The British Library – ‘Taking a F**king Liberty?’

Taking a facking liberty

Taking a facking liberty

As Catherine Tate might say…The British Library’s ‘Taking Liberties‘ exhibition – co-curated by Linda Colley and Shami Chakrabati – isn’t open yet, but judging by the advance publicity there’s already some cause for concern.

Outside the main building, a large poster displays clenched fists (grrr! militant!) surrounded by text which declares that more young people now vote for contestants on the X-factor than do in general elections. The problem is that this is a much-repeated urban myth which doesn’t take into account the very different nature of voting in a reality-tv competition (namely, you can vote more than once and, unlike in a general election, each individual vote counts.)

Why has the BL persisted in trotting out this lazy cliché? The next piece of text probably gives a clue.

‘In some countries you wouldn’t have the right to visit an exhibtion about your rights.’

Or, ‘if you like Iraq so much, why don’t you go and live there?’

This statement smacks strongly of the Blair government’s much repeated line at the time of the massive protests against the Iraq war: that protestors should be jolly grateful that they could express their opposition – they wouldn’t be allowed to by Saddam. The suggestion is that the British public somehow ‘luxuriate’ in their capacious freedoms (by exercising them) and so don’t understand how terribly lucky they are.

Underlying all of this, and much of Labour’s recent rhetoric on rights and citizenship, is the repellent idea that fundamental human rights like freedom of expression and association are somehow in the gift of our generous politicians and that we, as citizens, have to ‘earn’  them.

Some newspapers have suggested the ‘Taking Liberties’ is one in the eye for Brown, who reportedly wanted the BL to mount an exhibition on Britishness instead. I’ll reserve full judgment until the exhibition opens, (I’m slightly reassured by Chakrabati’s statement to the press:

“Liberty has been delighted to work with the British Library on its exciting new “Taking Liberties” project. The oldest unbroken democracy has become rather complacent about hard-won rights and freedoms. This important exhibition will remind us how much we have to lose.”)

but from the advance publicity at least, it looks as if it’s actually right up this government’s street.

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