Angry disenchantment with the political and financial establishment has rarely been deeper. David Horspool says that the English rebel — culturally affronted rather than ideologically left-wing — is an honourable archetype of our nation’s history
G.K. Chesterton’s famous line in The Secret People, ‘We are the people of England, that never have spoken yet’, still seems to appeal across the political spectrum. It is quoted by BNP bloggers, by socialist thinkers agonising over a nation without an identity, and it was famously invoked by Martin Bell, the white-suited independent. In truth, Chesterton’s picture of a quiescent English population doesn’t reflect today’s brash, opinionated culture, where queuing is obsolete and ignorance seems the best qualification for airing your views or demanding ‘respect’. But was it ever credible? If you went only by the most solid evidence of our past, you might think it was. The bits of England’s heritage that footsore children will traipse round this summer are the ones left by history’s winners, the castles, palaces and country houses that still survive all around us. Unlike rulers, however, rebels don’t often get the chance to build things. And rebellion is part of England’s heritage too.
If I were asked to take someone on a rebels’ tour of London, I might start in Stoke Newington in north London, say Walford Road, where one of the Angry Brigade was picked up in 1972, and a stone’s throw from the flat on Amhurst Road that four Angries turned into a bomb factory. Then we could head for Church Street, past Defoe Road, where Daniel Defoe, who fought with the rebel Duke of Monmouth in the last pitched battle on English soil, once lived. On Church Street itself once stood Wallingford House, where a clique of New Model Army officers gathered to plan the overthrow of Richard Cromwell, the unlucky heir to the reluctant revolutionary Oliver. From Stoke Newington, we could travel into central London, going past Highbury, where the medieval manor was ‘consigned to destruction in the ravening flames’ by Essex rebels in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. As we reached Clerkenwell, we would pass Spa Fields, where a meeting of parliamentary reformers turned into an insurrectionary riot in 1816; and Coldbath Square, once Coldbath Fields, where a policeman was killed in a rebellious demonstration after the ‘betrayal’ of the Great Reform Act in 1833. We could pause for a moment at Gray’s Inn, where Thomas Percy, one of the Gunpowder Plotters, stayed in a local pub on the night before Guy Fawkes was discovered.
Actually, what I’ve described isn’t a special tour of London designed to take in historical associations with rebellion. It’s my school run and journey to work. Most journeys in London could be rebel tours. The journey to my old office used to take me past Hoxton, where Lord Mounteagle received the letter that revealed the Gunpowder Plot, and past the Tower, which rebels attacked, were imprisoned in, escaped from or were executed at, for about 800 years. If I came in from south London, I could stop at London Bridge, where (in the bridge’s earlier incarnation) rebels resisted William the Conqueror, where the Kent contingent of the Peasants’ Revolt crossed into the city, and where Jack Cade’s rebels fought a bloody battle in 1450. Rebels, like rulers, tended to aim for the capital, but from Cornwall to Norfolk, from Sussex to Northumbria, England is crisscrossed with the ghosts of rebels marching, meeting and fighting.
So Chesterton was wrong: the people of England have spoken repeatedly. The idea that English history is one of peaceful evolution or a ‘silent’ populace, dominated by solid uncomplaining yeomen or loyal public servants, is a fantasy. It is, admittedly, one with a long pedigree, visible in Edmund Burke’s self-satisfied trust in the ‘simplicity of our national character and ... a sort of native plainness’ as a safeguard for a conservative constitution, or Wyndham Lewis’s ideal Englishman: ‘straightforward, tolerant, peaceable, humane, unassuming, patient’. But to accept that these are the principal characteristics of English history or English people is to ignore those times when tolerance, peaceability and patience were cast aside. Nor is rebellion confined to ‘the people’. Rebellion has permeated English society from top to bottom.
Rebellion, not revolution: rebels needn’t have tried to overthrow the government or the state. They needn’t have been violent, or even ‘left-wing’. Rebellion is a cultural as well as a political expression, but even strictly political rebels are more than straightforward political opponents. They are opponents who take serious risks — of losing life, limb or liberty.
I am thinking specifically of ‘English’, not ‘British’ rebels. England’s history as a coloniser can be an obstacle to seeing the importance of the rebel tradition at home. A country that spends so much time putting down external rebellion seems less likely to contain a rebellious nature itself. The Irish, Scottish or Welsh rebel, let alone the Indian or American one, is familiar enough. Yet, while the search for English identity, for what makes the English different, has been addressed with increasing urgency as Scottish, Welsh and Irish identity becomes ever more confidently defined, the English rebel has been neglected. Historians of England have concentrated instead on ‘continuity in the institutions of government’, or the fact that ‘in no other [country] has there been such continuity in the exercise of effective authority over so wide an area for so long’. But English individualism has also been a constant, and that has more to do with the numbers of Englishmen and women who were rebels rather than conservatives by instinct. As for those institutions, many of them, from parliament to the police, have their origins tied up with the history of rebellion.
Granted, most rebellions were failures, particularly in the short term. This is partly because if they succeed, they aren’t called rebellions any more. Or as Sir John Harington put it more eloquently in 1618: ‘Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason?/ For if it prosper, none dare call it treason’. The result is it’s easy to think of most (failed) rebellions as insignificant, mere interruptions to the steady flow of the mainstream. But that assumes that we know where the mainstream is going, and that rebels haven’t caused an interruption or diversion, however imperceptible at the time. Looking at rebels, the ways they tried to interfere with the flow, is a useful corrective to reading the present back into the past, one result of the tendency known as the ‘Whig interpretation’ of history. It can cast even the most familiar parts of English history in a different light. So the Norman Conquest is shadowed by the English resistance, the Tudor reformation by the risings that challenged it, the top-down reform of parliament by the drawn-out struggle for voting rights. Some rebels can seem before their time, introducing democratic or socially levelling ideas that are universally accepted now but were once dismissed. The important thing about these rebels, however, as well as the ones who promoted causes that seem less palatable to us (the xenophobes, religious bigots and megalomaniacs), is that they were of their time. It is important that they had their ideas and promoted them when they did.
A history of failure is not a history of insignificance. Rebellions reveal the alternative histories contemporaries wanted to write. Different rebels imagined a world where England was still ruled by Anglo-Saxons, where the king couldn’t dispense justice on a whim, where a different king, or none at all, might be in charge. Others conceived of England as a ‘common property’, as a country where every man and (later) every woman had the vote. Some rebels imagined England as a Protestant land, some dreamed of returning it to Catholicism. Some thought that if you just got rid of the Flemings, or the Non-Conformists, or the Irish, or the Catholics, or the Jews, England’s problems would be solved. Others thought that if you got rid of industrial machinery, or private industry, or capitalism in general, or the banking system, a golden age might return. The least well supported really do seem to have been doomed to failure, and looking at the list, we can be thankful that some were. Yet sometimes the bigots got rather further than the freedom-fighters. Being a rebel sounds like a badge of honour to many modern ears, but some rebels incline one to more old-fashioned judgments that equate rebellion with wrongdoing.
Does all this amount to a rebel tradition, something more than a sequence of unrelated reactions to events? Rebellion certainly doesn’t run like an unbroken ‘golden thread’ through English history. There are (though surprisingly rarely) times without rebellion or the threat of it, and one rebellion does not necessarily draw on its predecessor. Often, rebels stand for the very opposite of what their predecessors fought for, as in the convoluted, serve-and-return history of the English Reformation. If we are looking for an analogy for the English rebel tradition, then perhaps it is closer to a scent that goes cold and is picked up again. Nonetheless, English rebels were inspired by their forebears. Rebels in the 17th century looked back to the 11th. Rebels in the 19th century looked back to the 13th. And rebels in the 20th century looked back to the 14th.
Sometimes the models could be more recent. William of Orange and those who welcomed him in 1688 learnt from the mistakes of the Duke of Monmouth three years before. The suffragettes examined the Chartists. Many of the examples rebels took from their forebears were mythical versions of what really happened, but myths exert a powerful influence, and the myth of the rebel is one of the most powerful. It survives any number of doses of reality. Rebels’ myths can also help to challenge more cherished historical myths, such as that the Tudors ushered in an era of calm after the storms of the Wars of the Roses, or the Whig myth of England’s steady march to democracy.
The story of the English rebel is more often a personal than a principled or theoretically conceived one. In the Middle Ages, rebels were sons, brothers, fathers-in-law, first and second cousins, uncles, even sons and daughters of those they rebelled against. Of course, principles lay beneath some of these rebels’ actions. Indeed, it is sometimes remarkable how far rebels were willing to adapt their own agendas to others’ concerns. But rebellion was frequently a matter of personal, wounded pride, as when the earls around Edward II were goaded to action at the name calling and baiting by Edward’s favourite, Piers Gaveston. Personality carried on fashioning rebels and rebellions, from Oliver Cromwell’s providential zeal to the Duke of Monmouth’s dysfunctional upbringing, through Lord George Gordon’s ‘twist in his head’, right up to the Pankhursts’ weakness for melodrama or Oswald Mosley’s monstrous egotism.
The English rebel may only rarely be a triumphant, or even a particularly likeable character. But he and she are as much a part of the fabric of English history as the monarchs, law-makers and political leaders they defied. They serve as inspiration, as warning, and sometimes simply as example. They may not have left the sort of legacy you can pay to walk around, but they, too, are all around us.