Sam Leith

Irate men

The English Rebel, by David Horspool

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The English Rebel

David Horspool

Viking, pp. 453, £

‘No English monarch until Victoria — that is, long after monarchy had become the “dignified”, rather than the “efficient” part of the constitution — remained free from challenge, and three lost their thrones to rebellions.’

David Horspool’s new book is a detailed survey of the English men, women and mobs who have been prepared to risk life and property to rise up against power. It starts in the time of the Norman yoke and ends with the Poll Tax riots in the time of the Norman Tebbit. It is, to adapt Carlyle, a ‘history of irate men’.

There’s an awful lot of ground to cover and Horspool goes over it at a hell of a scamper. The disadvantage is that he sometimes sacrifices detail for dispatch: the catalogues of risings and quashings and exiles and defections, particularly where there’s less colour in the sources, can be a bit chewy.

But the advantage is that the shape of Horspool’s overall argument emerges fluently and persuasively. It is that the history of English rebellion forms a continuous and conscious tradition (or, perhaps, sheaf of traditions). It has seldom been revolutionary in character and never, in the long run, in effect — Horspool suggests that the French Revolution had the effect of putting paid to any prospect of an English one.

But rebellion has been a central rather than a marginal part of the mechanism of English politics — and one whose importance has been wrongly elided, first by Whig history and later by the recent concentration on rebellion against England from Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The Metropolitan Police, Horspool writes, may have been ostensibly founded to fight crime, ‘but it was used almost from the beginning in the politically sensitive role of supervising demonstrations’.

It’s no accident that pop-festival lovers listen to the Levellers and the New Model Army; nor that the term ‘Poll Tax’ caught a wave 600 years on. Horspool sees the Chartist movement taking on the legacy of Wat Tyler and Jack Cade, and consciously so; when he reaches the Aldermaston Marches and the Greenham Common women, he is able to place them variously in the lines of anti-slavery and Corn Law protests, or in Digger and ‘greenwood’ rebellion.  

He reads the present through the past, then — but among Horspool’s virtues is his proper refusal to read the past through the present. He’s very careful to try and see how things looked at the time. MySpace users and, before them, Billy Idol fans may not realise that ‘rebel’ was a boo-word rather than a term of approbation for almost all of history.

The modern notion that rebellion has tended to be a working-class thing, or a left-wing thing, is also carefully unpicked: mob uprising may have been what the authorities most feared (‘their throats sounded with the bleating of sheep or, to be more accurate, with the devilish voices of peacocks’), but, historically, it posed the least threat to the applecart.

Horspool quashes, too, the notion that rebels were all summarily put to death: medieval realpolitik meant that even serial rebels were accommodated, rehabilitated, kept an eye on. Baronial revolt was a move in the game, not a kicking-over of the chessboard. Indeed, the boilerplate rhetoric of rebellion — that the rebel was rising against ‘bad advisers’ rather than the person or the office of the monarch — made it, arguably, a mechanism by which a king could play magnates off against eachother and so diffuse political pressure.

The personal consequences of rebellion could be offputting, nevertheless. My notes include ‘Head hacked off with rusty sword — 167’, ‘Severed head displayed wearing paper crown — 178’, ‘Hit in face with axe — 180’, ‘Hanged by a chain — 202’, ‘Strung up from church — 213’, ‘Ears cut off — 218’ ‘Five-stroke beheading — 286’, and ‘Hung, drawn, quartered — passim’. By the time you get to the suffragettes, being force- fed raw eggs through a two-yard tube pushed up your nose seems lenient in the extreme.

There are plenty of cheering stories along the way. There are those splendidly named imposters Thomas Trumpington, Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck — to say nothing of the gunpowder plotters Ambrose Rookwood and Everard Digby, of whom Horspool judges: ‘It is unfortunate that such desperate men are burdened with names that sound quite so effete to modern ears.’

There’s the rebel castellan of St Michael’s Mount, who ‘died of fright’ on learning Richard I was on his way home; the boy in Robert Kett’s rebel rabble who pulled a moonie at a royal herald and was shot dead on the spot; the popular uprising to which only four people showed up; and the millenarian fruitcake Thomas Venner — who led an assault on London with, um, 35 men. Plus, there’s a droll running gag concerning quite how easy it seemed to be to break out of the Tower of London.

Horspool’s is a survey rather than a polemic. It is marked not, as far as my amateur’s knowledge takes me, with the showy breaking of new ground so much as with its elegant writing and its level and judicious judgments and revaluations.

The ‘Glorious Revolution’, Horspool argues deftly, was actually a foreign invasion dressed up in the rhetoric of an English uprising. He puts showbiz episodes like the gunpowder plot and Essex’s treason against Elizabeth I (‘one aristocratic rising that had more of the characteristics of a psychotic episode than a genuinely threatening rebellion’) into their proper perspective, and even offers a cautionary note of sympathy for the authorities after Peterloo.

Tell you what, though: being an olden-day king was a miserable job. Everyone wanted to overthrow you, bully you, excommunicate you or dispossess you. One little mistake — appointing two sworn enemies to the same job by accident, raising funds for a war you then decide to cancel, or buying Sicily off the Pope — and you’ve got armed men barging over London Bridge yet again, setting fire to stuff. The only thing, apparently, that made people want to stay king was that not being king was even more miserable.

How glad I am that we live in an age of welfare, common law and antibiotics. And how grateful I am, for two out of those three privileges, to the hardnuts and schemers, martyrs and refuseniks, Machiavels and downright heid-the-ba’s who populate Horspool’s fine book.

Written bySam Leith

Sam Leith is an English author, journalist and literary editor of The Spectator.

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