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In 1649 the forces of republicanism and puritanical Christianity reigned triumphant over England following their spectacular military victory over the forces of King Charles I. The king had been executed, the heir had been exiled, and the victors sensed that the moment had come for a profound re-ordering of English society. For over a century the dream of the Puritan minority had been to effect a moral reformation of the English people and to reform the Church of England on Calvinist line. And now that day seemed to have arrived. Yet only eleven years later Charles II returned from his French exile to reclaim his father's throne. How did the planned transformation of English morality fail?
The failure of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth government to follow its spectacular military victory in the English Civil War with a successful moral reformation of the English people was, in the main, the fault of two factors. The principal problem of the Puritans was that they stood against so much of traditional English life; the traditional pastimes they most despised were often those that the average person most cherished. Without the widespread acquiescence of the population to Puritan plans of moral transformation, these 'reforms' would have to be forced through and vigilantly enforced, a task made virtually impossible by the organizational constraits faced by an early-modern government. The other fundamental problem with plans for moral reformation is the question of religious dissidence. The Puritans had long campaigned for freedom of conscience, suffering as they had for so long under state persecution, especially during William Laud's tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1630's. Having seized power they were now confronted by an explosion of theological dissidents, groups who had built on the foundations of Calvinist Puritanism to create new forms of Protestantism. The effect of these splinter groups was to undermine Puritan religious authority throughout the country.
The Puritan plan for moral reform was a deeply ambitious one. Traditional English society, with its communal feast days, its communities revolving around the alehouse (sniffily referred to as ‘dens of iniquity’ by the pious), its passion for swearing, its cheerful habit for breaking the sanctity of the Sabbath, and its love of ‘immoral’ sporting activities from violent games of football to betting on blood sports such as bear-baiting and cock-fighting, was viewed with deep abhorrence by most Calvinists. For them, despite their success in defeating the tyrannical force of Charles I, they would be unable to build the ‘New Jerusalem’ in England without first destroying these remnants of Popery and paganism. This attack on popular activity was an expression of the split in religious belief that cleaved through the English people like a vertical fissure. The list of activities to be proscribed was lengthy, a task made extremely difficult by the fact that, as Christopher Durston pointed out, “Attempts by national governments to bring about radical changes in popular attitudes and behaviour are immensely challenging undertakings, and always more likely to end in failure than success.”
The most concerted effort by Oliver Cromwell to force through the moral reformation came with the dispatch of his major-generals, the ‘living saints’ who had played such a role in guiding the New Model Army to success in the Civil War, to the provinces in November of 1655. There the 'living saints' were meant to act as the fulcrum around which reforming efforts would be focused, in order to fight against what was seen as the chronic irreligion and ungodliness of the average English and Welsh person. There was a political dimension to this, in that traditional culture was associated with the old forces of monarchy and episcopacy; so suppressing ‘corrupt’ religious and social traditions would have the added bonus of weakening the Royalist cause to which so many still cleaved. The difficulty for the major-generals was that, in addition to being expected to act as figureheads for moral reform in their chosen areas (often fairly large ones due to the limited number of 'living saints'), the major-generals were also expected to take an active role in the collection of the Republican decimation tax, to oversee the reformation of the marriage process, to institute the new republican holidays while suppressing those disliked by the Interregnum (such as Easter and Christmas), to manage local elections, and to spearhead security efforts against the possibility of reactionary Royalist revolt. This exhaustive list of responsibilities meant that the major-generals rarely had the time available to devote themselves to overseeing moral reform efforts. Indeed, with little support forthcoming from London they were unable to devote themselves to any of their tasks as much as deserved, meaning that they tended to fail at all of them.
It was the mean-spiritedness of so many of the planned reforms that failed to bring success to the Puritan faction. Seventeenth-century England was, by any standard, a deeply religious society. Religion permeated everyday life in a way that has almost totally disappeared in the modern British Isles. The problem with Cromwell’s government, and the moral policies it pursued under the attentive watch of the Puritan minority, was that it failed to reconcile itself with the lack of interest the public had for disruption to the old patterns of life. This was exemplified by the attack on traditional celebrations, such as feast days and the festivals of Christmas and Easter. The 1645 Directory of Public Worship tried to replace the old Book of Common Prayer with a new Presbyterian liturgy that would both transform the national church and eradicate the traditional festive calendar. Attempts to impose solemn new fast days and days of prayer over the raucous old celebrations were a total failure. Newly imposed ‘rites of passage’ and new rites of marriage failed amongst widespread apathy to reform. To many, it seemed the new government had simply granted every insufferably priggish Puritan in every community their very own license to badger and annoy. It was this local zealotry, whereby the worst tendencies of the most obnoxiously pious were legitimized by the state, that particularly served to turn so many people away from Calvinism.
It is necessary to acknowledge that, despite the fact that the proposed moral reformation was a failure on a national level, there were still places where reform efforts were much more diligent and had more of an effect on local behaviour. One such place was London, where the crusading major-general Sir John Barkstead proved to be a formidable foe to sexual mis-adventurers. In 1656 he arrested hundreds of prostitutes (with a mind to having them deported to the colonies), closed the infamous Beargarden in Bankside (where animals battled each other in front of baying spectators), and cracked down on sporting gatherings throughout the capital and the surrounding region. Over three times as many moral offences were brought in front of the magistrates court in 1656 than had been processed in 1652, a sign that Barkstead and his allies in the area were having an impact on ‘immoral’ behaviour in the area. Certainly he was a dedicated man, but he was undoubtedly helped in his cause by the relatively small size of the capital, and the large numbers of soldiers posted within.
Great Yarmouth in Norfolk was another place where a concerted effort towards moral reformation was put into place, in its case specifically against unlicensed alehouse-keepers. In September 1656, under the major-general for East Anglia, Hezekiah Haynes, ninety-six alehouse-keepers were presented before the court charged with allowing their businesses to be centers of disorder, anti-Sabbatarianism, and immoral behaviour. Impressive, certainly, especially in a small community of only ten thousand people, but many of those appearing before the court had already done so before in the 1650’s. Indeed, for some it was their third time around, which indicates that the fines were never set at a level that could be any more than an unfortunate business expense, as opposed to a career-crippling sum. The fact that so many were able to continue in running their businesses even after being convicted and fined is symptomatic of how efforts at moral reform never had the necessary punitive force to coerce the population into better moral behaviour. Despite a seeming surge in activity, it was never a very deep effort, partly due to time, and also partly becuse the abolition of the ecclesiastical courts meant the law was left to secular magistrates who were less inclined to sanction sinners than their more specifically religious counterparts had been.