Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Polly Ha on the Social Reach of Freedom in the New Model Army

by contributing editor Pranav Jain

Polly Ha is a Reader in Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. Her research focuses on religion and politics in Britain from the late sixteenth through the mid-seventeenth century. She has written several articles on freedom and toleration in early modern England and its empire. Her first book is English Presbyterianism, 1590-1640, from Stanford University Press in 2010. She is interviewed by contributing editor Pranav Jain about her article, “Revolutionizing the New Model Army: Ecclesiastical Independence, Social Justice, and Political Legitimacy” that appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (October, 81.4).

Pranav Jain: In his study All Can Be Saved, Stuart Schwartz suggested that seemingly elite ideas about religious toleration were, in fact, widespread. In his view, this represents the intriguing possibility that these ideas, instead of following a top down model of circulation, might instead have travelled upwards to a select group of thinkers from various segments of society. Is there any evidence to suggest that conceptions of freedom as the absence of the possibility of arbitrary interference in civil war England might have followed a similar trajectory? 

Polly Ha: Stuart Schwartz’s fascinating study fits into a wider scholarship about how popular notions of freedom informed seemingly elite ideas. These could range from appeals to ancient custom to the practice of religious coexistence and toleration. There is still room to explore how the social circulation of independent views informed elite debates in the English Revolution. Take John Milton’s early anti-prelatical tracts. These were closely tied to other independent treatises. But they are more often studied within the corpus of his own work than within the longer history of anti-episcopacy. Like anti-clericalism more generally, anti-episcopal polemic has a popular history that stretches back well before the seventeenth century. Its public expression in the Elizabethan Marprelate Tracts introduced a new genre of satire. Even before the first ‘paper bullets’ were fired during these late Elizabethan literary wars, clerics endlessly complained about how the masses, and especially women, harboured anti-epsicopal sentiments.

But I wouldn’t necessarily characterise Independent ideas as following a bottom up trajectory. Nor did they trickle down from the top in a straightforward direction. I see elite and popular views working together in a synergistic way as the idea of non-dependence expanded through ecclesiastical debate. I deliberately refrained from telling a story about origins. The more interesting question for me is how ideas about freedom which were by definition reserved for an elite class of men in classical antiquity transformed over the course of the seventeenth century to apply more broadly across the social order and began to extend even to women. This gives us a more synoptic approach.

Pranav Jain: Given their focus on preventing the possibility of interference and domination in the future, did these notions of freedom and independence draw upon the prevalent eschatological thinking of the time? 

Polly Ha: Thank you for asking this question. There is an older historiography which used to identify puritanism with a broad sociological definition of millenarianism to explain their revolutionary impulses in the seventeenth century. Having long identified the Pope as the Antichrist, puritans began to heighten their millenarian pitch as the British Isles spiraled into civil war. More recent work has drawn attention to nuances in contemporary eschatological views. Millenarianism was expressed in numerous ways and was never reserved exclusively for puritan radicals. For example, it was espoused by the conformist Joseph Mede. Samuel Hartlib, John Dury, and their circle appealed to it in leading ecumenical efforts for universal reform.

Puritan or not, millenarianism was useful for urging moral improvement and prompting political action. This is where it overlapped with ecclesiastical Independents. There is a clear historical consciousness that informed the emergence of ecclesiastical independence in the early seventeenth century. Apologists positioned themselves within the wider context of the church throughout history. Their concern for protection against future domination was tied to their sense of urgency. It fueled the moral imperative of extending English Protestantism beyond its sixteenth century expressions. They were even self-consciously willing to push reformation beyond Calvin and Geneva.

This expectation of progressive change could easily dovetail with some of the radical apocalyptic thinking that emerged during the revolutionary circumstances of the mid-seventeenth century. The association stretches further back to early Radical Reformation in Europe which was characterized by its anticlericalism and apocalyptic thought. But early independence is instructive. It reminds us that English independents were initially driven by their ecclesiology, not their eschatology. What changed by the mid-seventeenth century in England was that millenarian ideas began to play a more prominent role. It became useful as a political tool and it appealed to a wider range of thinkers.

Pranav Jain: There has recently been a renewed interest in civil war radicalism, as seen in the work of David Como and other historians. How does your argument relate to the broader historiography of civil war radicalism?

Polly Ha: We are very much indebted to David Como for uncovering underground networks in pre-Civil War England. He has more recently explained the development of coalitions among radical parliamentarians, nonconformists, and printers during the English civil wars. My argument fits into this recent interest in civil war alliances by identifying ideological views among radicals that connect their shared interests.

Revisionist scholarship recovered diversity and nuances in the New Model Army’s politics. It disabused us of simplistic readings that lumped them together with other radicals in a generic and homogenous way. But as that façade began to crumble, we were left with the impression that their driving concerns were overwhelmingly pragmatic in nature. From material demands to political interests and religious allegiances, there is a lingering tendency from the revisionism of the late twentieth century to read grievances in the New Model Army in a reductive way. The ideological connections I am seeking to recover in my essay give us a wider context for reconsidering isolated strands within civil war radicalism.

It also offers a corrective to the broader interpretation of the nature of the English Revolution. By challenging the ideological coherence of the New Model Army, previous scholarship was also calling into question its arguments for political agency and legitimacy. This shaped wider interpretation of the nature of the English Revolution at its most revolutionary moment. My essay seeks to open up alternative readings of the nature of the English Revolution by recovering the internal logic of the New Model Army as they organised themselves into a self-authenticating political body. Some historians like Michael Winship are content with identifying parallels between godly ideas and republicanism. But there is still so much more that can be said on the matter. My work is about how the godly transformed those classical ideas, expanded their social reach, and opened up new possibilities in the English Revolution.

In this way the essay builds on Michael Braddick’s recent work on the creative impulses in the English civil wars. It examines the evolution of ideas among the godly. But it also argues for dynamic change in the idea of freedom itself along with its new application across the social order and both genders.

Pranav Jain is a PhD student at Yale University working on early modern Britain, and a contributing editor at the JHI Blog.

Featured Image: “The Royal Oake of Brittayne,” from Clement Walker, The compleat History of Independency, 1661. Courtesy of the British Library.

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