Essay

Something better: fundamentalism, revolution, loss of faith and the future

THE CITY IN which I grew up was famed for its part in resisting the militant fundamentalism that swept through Britain three and a half centuries ago.

Worcester was called "the faithful city" in commemoration of its loyalty to the Stuart dynasty. The doors to the guildhall were flanked by a statue of King Charles I on the one side and King Charles II on the other. Up on the lintel, a demonic head was sculpted, nailed there by its ears. It was traditionally identified as the regicide Oliver Cromwell. Historians have questioned the identification, as they have also questioned the city's faithfulness. An examination of the records reveals that there had been an equivalent commitment to anti-monarchical sentiments. Like so much of the United Kingdom, it was, in fact, a deeply disunited city.

The ideological battles persisted through my childhood. In the 1950s, some socialist councillors arranged for a plaque on the canal bridge to commemorate Cromwell's crowning victory, as he had called the Battle of Worcester. The plaque enraged the Tories, and the old gentleman for whom my aunt was housekeeper was tempted to pelt it with tomatoes. But in those days, tomatoes, apart from tasting a lot better than now, were a comparatively rare commodity, so he didn't. Memories of the conflict were all around us; our next-door neighbours kept their gate open with a cannonball that had been ploughed up on the site of the battle. But what was it all about?

Margaret Thatcher once announced, in a jibe at the bicentennial celebrations of the French Revolution, that England had never had a revolution. She was wrong in this as in so much else. But terminology was, and continues to be, important here. It was left-wing historians, like Christopher Hill, who categorised the upheaval of 1639-1660 as the English Revolution. Contemporary monarchists like the Earl of Clarendon had called it the Rebellion. If you preferred to avoid identifying with either faction you called it the Civil War. The 19th-century historian S.R. Gardiner had called it the Puritan Revolution, which indicated its militant fundamentalist roots.

In part, it was a continuation of the old regional confrontations that had spawned the earlier Barons' Wars, when local warlords slugged it out with each other, or each others' troops slugged it out. Charles I had tried to impose centralised control and rule without the trouble of Parliament. He turned to the church to implement his authority. A new book of common prayer was imposed on the population. It stressed hierarchy, monarchy and acceptance of the contemporary social order, with set prayers for every occasion. The fundamentalist puritan preachers preferred divine inspiration and whatever spontaneous prayers that might come to mind. Some of their prayers were worrying to the absolutist tendencies of the monarchy. So were their sermons, which drew on interpretations of the Bible not always endorsive of the status quo. The archbishop tried to enforce an increase in church rituals, music and liturgy as a way of displacing spontaneous sermons that might question the existing system of church and state authority. This only encouraged the radical fundamentalist puritans to question more and more.

The confrontation drew on differing interpretations of the Holy Book. The issues were, in part, a radical puritan rejection of rituals and images, icons and church music. These were seen as the work of the great Satan, relics of paganism, which Roman Catholicism had absorbed and continued to employ. Satan's instrument on earth was the Church of Rome, from which England had broken free a century earlier. Charles I and Archbishop Laud were suspected of being agents of Rome, attempting to suppress the Protestant independence of England, that other Eden.

Inexorably, the conflict moved from issues of church government to a social revolution, still firmly anchored in a fundamentalist reading of the Holy Book. The debate was undertaken in religious terms, with the Bible being rifled for precedents for what were, in effect, social and political positions. There was no way issues of power, authority and property could be expressed in openly political terms. That would have been classed as treason and sedition and dealt with by summary execution. As it was, radical puritans were often enough subjected to hideous torture and degradation: whipped through the streets, put in the pillory, lopped of their ears and imprisoned in appalling conditions. The political was the inexpressible. It was forbidden to publish domestic news. Censorship was rigorous. It was only after civil war broke out that newspapers, reporting domestic events, came into being. They were partisan from the beginning, monarchists and parliamentarians each offering their own paper. There never was political balance in the press; it was, as now, always partisan.

The fundamentalist puritan radicals feared that Charles I was going to return England to the Roman Catholic yoke with the aid of a coalition of foreign troops – French, Spanish and Irish and impose a reactionary, absolutist rule subservient to Rome with its agenda of global domination and the repression of any dissent. England would once again become a client state. Those lawyers and landowners who had benefited from Henry VIII's break with Rome were fearful that the lands they had acquired from the dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of the Catholic estates would be taken from them. They consequently supported the struggle against Charles. The City of London financiers refused to lend Charles more money and, since he was ruling without parliament, he could not get new taxes approved. The Scots Presbyterian church did not accept the authority of the bishops, who were being used to implement Charles's centralised control, and refused to accept the new prayer book. Charles raised an army to suppress the Scots.

The soldiers pressed into the army spent their time smashing the stained-glass windows and defacing the icons and images in the churches they passed on their march into Scotland. To fundamentalists and radicals, stained-glass windows, images and icons, represented idol worship and the reactionary foreign power of the papacy. The very army Charles attempted to employ was in considerable part ideologically opposed to the values it was assembled to impose. Seeing a regime momentarily immobilised, the Irish seized the opportunity to attempt to throw off England's oppressive, colonial rule. Soon it was open and guerilla warfare on multiple fronts throughout the British Isles.

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