Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part II: Some evidence from manuscripts

Brodie Waddell

According to a crude survey of published texts, ‘the people’ were invoked frequently in print in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in times of political turmoil such as the 1640s and 1688-89. However, published texts are notoriously unreliable representatives of actual contemporary discussion. They were produced by the literate, for the literate, often using carefully crafted rhetoric.

Manuscripts can bring us slightly closer to a less skewed view of ‘the people’. Although obviously they too were only produced by the literate elite, they occasionally purport to record the voices of the illiterate and they tend to be less polemical as they were not intended to influence a wide audience. Unfortunately, there is no manuscript equivalent of the huge sample of published texts that have been transcribed by the Text Creation Partnership, though the Folger Library is giving it a go with its own manuscript collection. The State Papers Online is also promising, but only the calendars, rather than the original documents, have been transcribed. The closest to an equivalent to EBBO-TCP is probably the corpus of 240,000 transcriptions on the wonderful London Lives site, though these only cover the period 1690 to 1800 and the early material has many irregular transcriptions.

I’ve mostly drawn on my own little collection of notes from various archival documents (and published editions thereof), amounting to just over 600 pages in total, in which I found about 70 mentions of ‘the people’. Of course my notes are heavily biased in all sorts of ways, with a notable focus on the late 17th century, thanks to my current obsession with the ‘hard times’ of the 1690s. Still, it’s better than nothing. (In what follows, I have not included references, but I’m happy to supply them upon request and I have included links to any quotations taken from London Lives.)

The people enjoying a nice day out at Tyburn?

The people enjoying a nice day out at Tyburn?

So, with that methodological stuff out of the way, who are ‘the people’ in these sources? Continue reading

Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part I: Some evidence from 44,313 printed texts

Brodie Waddell

In our on-going discussions of social description and social identity on this blog, we have tried to think through how we talk about the ‘non-elite’ individuals that we study. We’ve shown the problems with ‘plebeians’ and ‘the people’, yet I think this latter term is worth looking at from another angle. In Mark’s post on ‘the rise of the people’, he focused on how historians have used the term, but he also mentioned that:

It would be interesting to run a project on the history and meanings of the term ‘the people’ across the centuries, as has been done for instance for ‘commonwealth‘.

I can’t claim this little post is even a preliminary report on any such project. However, I did spend a couple hours searching through Early English Books Online to try to get a sense of how contemporaries used this term in early modern England. So, who were ‘the people’?

The first feature to note is that the term was extremely common. There were just over 400,000 hits for ‘the people’ in the 44,313 transcribed texts on EBBO. Continue reading

The Rise of ‘The People’

Mark Hailwood

One of our ongoing conversations on this blog has revolved around the most appropriate terms that practitioners of history ‘from below’ can use to describe their subjects: are we studying ‘the working class’? The ‘lower classes’? The ‘middling and poorer sort of people’? The ‘plebs’? This post doesn’t provide any answers I’m afraid, but in it I want to resume the conversation by highlighting and briefly interrogating a term that seems to me to have been enjoying a certain vogue recently: ‘the people’. Continue reading

Imagining early modern working women, or, economic history’s image problem

Brodie Waddell

In 1658, the Czech scholar John Amos Comenius published what’s been called ‘the first children’s picture book’. It proved extremely popular and was republished many times, in many different languages. What brought it to my attention was the fact that it included 150 pictures of ‘the visible world’, a rare treat in an early modern publication.

It was designed to teach Latin and, in the 1705 edition, English to young people, so most of its illustrations depicted the sorts of things a child might be expected to know from life. They would find, for example, pictures of youth at study and at play, stilt-walking or bowling.

At school and at playHowever, the ones that caught my eye were the many illustrations of working life. If you, like me, teach or write about early modern economic history, you’ll know that this particular subfield has an ‘image problem’. Perhaps thanks to a strong seam of ‘iconophobic’ Calvinism, post-Reformation England was not exactly awash in imagery of any kind and I have often found it particularly difficult to find images of economic life. One can find many pictures of kings and noblemen. But there are frustratingly few depictions of ordinary people doing their jobs, whether as artisans, traders or labourers. This gap is partly filled by the broadside ballad woodcuts on EBBA that Mark Hailwood has discussed here before. However, it remains difficult to find the sort of rich visual material that one can find, for instance, in Dutch ‘Golden Age’ paintings or in nineteenth-century periodicals. Continue reading

The plebs: a brief history

Brodie Waddell

How, in the 21st century, can the word ‘pleb’ lead to a prominent MP resigning his government post and to a £2 million libel lawsuit? The recent conclusion of this ridiculous saga has reminded us that this seemingly obsolete term of social description still has bite, but why?

The BBC has offered its own little history lesson on ‘pleb’, focusing on its classical origins. However, they leap straight from the Latin source to its use in 19th century public schools. What the BBC misses, perhaps justifiably, is the re-emergence of this Latinate language in the early modern period and the fraught use of the term by historians studying that period. Yet for those of us interested the history of social relations and social conflict, the terminology is more than an anachronistic oddity.

Rugby School, beloved by the plebs

Rugby School, beloved by the plebs

The abbreviated version – ‘pleb’ – used by Andrew Mitchell seems to have been an invention of the late 18th century. I haven’t found it in any of the thousands of transcribed texts on Early English Books Online except in Latin passages, and the Oxford English Dictionary records its first example in 1795. It is, by this time, derogatory Westminster School slang for ‘the son of a tradesman’. Mitchell, who attended the equally exclusive Rugby School, probably picked it up through this route though he might have learned a bit more about it when studying history at Cambridge. This explains why, in a moment of angry condescension, he spat out a term that most of us would regard as obscure and a bit silly. Nonetheless many other versions of the term have been circulating for at least a couple thousand years. Continue reading

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot II: The People

Laura Sangha

This is the second of three posts surveying the London Catholic community around the time of the Gunpowder Plot. View the first here. View the last here.

Recusant roll entry edit

Recusant roll entries can give details about social status.

Having established that there were lots of missionary priests about in Jacobethan London, my question today is: how much of an appetite was there for what Catholics were selling? We are fortunate in that recusant rolls survive for Middlesex from 1603-1625, so these provide part of an answer. Recusancy was the term applied to those who refused to attend Church of England services: from 1593 these people were punished with fines, property confiscations and imprisonment. Whilst not all people who were fined for refusing to take communion in Church were Catholics (they might be Protestant nonconformists), Jacobethan Puritans were less likely to avoid attending altogether, and more likely to attend begrudgingly, omitting parts of the service or disrupting the performance as part of a vocal protest. Records were kept of those people that were indicted, and these recusant rolls often give details about the identity and status of absentees, in the process historians have assumed that they furnish us with information about the Catholic community. Continue reading

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot I: The London Mission

Laura Sangha

This is the first of three posts on Catholics in England at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. The second, on recusancy is here. The third, on the places in London where Catholics were often found, is here.

Allegedly Guy Fawkes’ lantern, now in the Ashmolean Museum

On 4 November 1605, during a search at around midnight on the eve of the state opening of England’s Parliament, a soldier by the name of Guy Fawkes was accosted by officials in an undercroft directly beneath the House of Lords. He was wearing a cloak and hat and carried a lantern, and a search of his person revealed several slow matches and touchwood. Nearby, under a pile of faggots and wood, thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were discovered. Fawkes was promptly arrested and taken to the king.

This was of course the moment at which the infamous ‘gunpowder treason’ plot was foiled, bringing to a halt the breathtakingly ambitious plan of a group of Catholic conspirators determined to reduce Parliament to rubble, to assassinate king James VI and I and his family, and to tear the heart out of the Protestant political establishment by killing in one fell swoop privy councillors, senior judges, the leading lights of the aristocracy and members of the House of Commons.

The undercroft beneath the House of Lords, 1799 engraving.

At the trial of the surviving conspirators, the Attorney-General Sir Edward Coke insisted that the plot had been invented by Jesuit priests, depraved fanatics determined to subvert the loyalty of the English people. Historians have interpreted this as part of a consistent policy on the part of James I to separate religious radicals (both ‘papists’ and ‘puritans’) from their more moderate allies, whereby he emphasised the subversive and dangerous nature of the radical fringe in an attempt to persuade their more moderate brethren of the utility and desirability of religious uniformity within the English nation. Continue reading

The Woolcomber’s World, Part IV: Births, deaths, marriages and fighting cocks

Brodie Waddell

On 22 March 1697, ‘there were a great many fighting Cocks carried through Coxall on horsback in linen baggs’. So wrote Joseph Bufton in one of his eleven surviving notebooks.

Watching to cocks tear eachother apart: not as much fun as you might imagine

Watching two birds tear each other apart: not as much fun as you might imagine

But this odd little memorandum was not an isolated scribbling. It was, in fact, just one of about 180 entries in his Coggeshall chronicle, which he began in February 1678 and continued to May 1697. In it, we find festive celebrations, church business, unusual weather, family injuries, highway robberies and much else besides.

The entries from 1693, a fairly typical year, give a sense of the whole:

  • 11 Jan. 1693, John Bufton went to combing.
  • 4 Feb. 1693, my cousin Sparhawk was carried to prison.
  • 15 Feb. 1693, there was a bonfire made by the Crown for the joy that Squire Honeywood got the day of Sir Eliab Harvey and was not cast out of the Parliament and when he came home from Chelmsford through Coxall the night after he was chosen abundance of candles were lighted for joy.
  • 24 Mar. 1693, King William went through Kelvedon and went back again through Kelvedon 28 Mar.
  • early 1693, the new king’s arms and the 10 commandments new writ were set up in the church.
  • 1693, the Quakers made a new burying place in Crouches
  • 1 May 1693, the soldiers set up a Maypole at the Woolpack door
  • 18 May 1693, the poor did rise because the Bakers would not bake, because some of their bread was cut out the day before for being too light.
  • May 1693, my cousin Sparhawk came home.
  • beginning of May 1693 Francis Clark broke.
  • end of May 1693 the same month the Poor had Badges given them to weare which tis said were made of Pewter and Coggeshall Poor 1693 set upon them.
  • 1693, Mr Mayhew sold Coxall Lordship to Mr Nehemiah Lyde of London. 11 May he came first for his rent and 5 Jun kept court and Counsellor Cox was his steward.
  • June 1693, our 4th bell was carried to Sudbury to be new shot and brought home and the other were chipt to make them tuneable. They were first rung 6 July.
  • 30 Oct. 1693, King William went through Kelvedon.
  • 2 Nov. 1693, John Ancil had hung himself but was cut down in time.
  • 1693, a new pound was set up on Grange hill and the shambles was repaired.

Continue reading

The Woolcomber’s World, Part III: Rich clothiers, poor combers and the obscurity of early modern occupations

Brodie Waddell

Whether you’re a historian, a hairdresser or a helicopter pilot, you may well define yourself by your occupation. The same was true in the early modern period, as when legal scribes added ‘labourer’, ‘weaver’ or ‘yeoman’ after each and every name in their records.

Joseph Bufton, the Essex diarist and sermon-goer, was no different in some ways. His father, John, was listed as a ‘clothier’ in at least four documents between 1645 and 1692. His brother, also John, was likewise a ‘clothier’ in 1671 and 1695. Joseph himself was described as a ‘clothier’ when he served as a trustee for a local charity in 1695 and again when he made up his will in 1718. He was, then, a clothier in a family of clothiers.

So why have I titled this series ‘The Woolcomber’s World’? I’ve used that label because Joseph Bufton was – I think – a woolcomber for most of his life, closely linked with the trades of fulling and combing throughout his time at Coggeshall.

Isaac van Swanenburg's 'The Removal of the Wool from the Skins and the Combing' (1595)

Isaac van Swanenburg’s ‘The Removal of the Wool from the Skins and the Combing’ (1595)

The evidence for this comes from yet another almanac-turned-notebook, a Goldsmith’s Almanack of 1686, which Bufton later described as the one which ‘has the orders in Comber’s book, &c.’. In it he recorded the ordinances of his guild, warrants from magistrates to protect the craft, the articles of the journeymen’s ‘purse’, and of course several lengthy poems lauding the glories of the trade. Continue reading

The political economy of racism: the Evil May Day riots of 1517 and the rise of UKIP

Brodie Waddell

The UK Independence Party is doing extremely well in the local and European elections held across England yesterday. It is, to put it mildly, an unpleasant sort of political party. It has more than its fair share of bigots and homophobes. But it is more than simply a tribe of disgruntled nostalgics. It’s also a protest party, and its particular brand of protest has venerable linage that goes back to at least the Evil May Day riots of 1517.

The anti-immigrant violence that erupted in London at that time is sometimes dismissed as a mere race riot, emerging from hatred and hardship and nothing more. But when we look more closely at the various accounts of these events, we see that it too was a political protest. One chronicler described how Londoners saw the foreigners in their midst:

the Genowayes, Frenchemen and other straungers sayde and boasted them selfes to be in suche favoure with the kyng and hys counsaill, that they set naughte by the rulers of the citie: And the multitude of straungers was so great about London, that the pore Englishe artificers coulde ska[r]ce get any living: And most of all the straungers were so proude, that they disdained, mocked and oppressed the Englishemen, whiche was the beginning of the grudge.

Locals complained that the ‘strangers’ from overseas flouted the law with impunity, engaging in theft, kidnapping and even murder without facing the punishments that would have been meted out to a common English criminal.

The political element becomes even clearer when we examine the rioters’ main targets. The crowds of hundreds, or possibly thousands, who rushed through the streets that night did not burn and loot indiscriminately. Instead, they attacked the house of a French merchant who was also a royal secretary, the homes of alien artisans at a site officially designated for foreigners, and two ambassadors who were supposed to be under the king’s protection. When the rioters were captured, at least 15 were hanged, drawn and quartered for ‘treason’ because their attacks on the strangers had ‘broken the truce and league’ between Henry VIII and the other princes of Europe.

So, in the eyes of Tudor Londoners, what made these immigrants so dangerous was the apparent alliance between ‘the multitude of straungers’ and ‘the kyng and hys counsaill’. That is to say, the foreign threat came not from poor or marginalised immigrants but from outsiders who enjoyed special privileges and had the support of the political elites.

It would be easy to multiply such examples by looking at other moments of heightened anti-foreigner sentiment in early modern England. One could cite, for example, the opposition to King James I’s favouritism towards his fellow Scots, the francophobic riots of Charles II’s francophile reign, or the anti-Dutch sentiment that bubbled up after William III took the throne in 1689. In each case there were very real resentments about the apparent social and economic impact of immigrant groups, but these were combined with a sense that the current political regime was in league with the foreigners.

UKIP posters

A forlorn British worker, supposedly abondoned by Europhile political elites, and a big pointy hand.

UKIP offers a very similar argument. Unlike the BNP, its ideology is not built purely from racism. Instead, it incessantly attacks ‘the political establishment’ in Westminster and in Brussels for compromising British sovereignty by granting special privileges to immigrants. According to Nigel Farange, UKIP is simply providing voters with a weapon with which to attack this two-headed monster: ‘They [the voters] have made the connection. It took me bloody years to get immigration and Europe together, but I knew at the local elections this year it was now the same thing.’

Racism, then, is certainly an important ingredient in UKIP’s noisome ideology but it is not the only one. If we want to understand and counteract the rise of this dangerous party, we need to acknowledge that a vote for UKIP is as much a protest against the failures of Britain’s governing class as it is an anxious reaction against newcomers.


The events of 1517 are described several primary sources, all of which are freely available online: the chronicle of Edward Hall (1904 edition, edited by Charles Whibley, pp. 153-64, quote at 153-4), the chronicle of the Grey Friars and the Calendar of State Papers, Venetian.