history, politics, ponderations, present, society, writing

The (Public) Rights of Man. And Woman

I got my log-in details for my Public Lending Rights registration today.

Now, unless you’re an author, that probably means very little to you, and if you are an author, you’re probably thinking “PLR? oh crikey yes!”

Basically, I’m now recognised as an author whose work is available in libraries, and I get paid royalties for same. Which is kind of exciting, and makes me kind of sad at the same time, because there should be something more to it than an email saying that I’m now registered. I don’t know, a fanfare? A raspberry? It’s sort of the stamp of recognition that I am a Real Author, and holding my own against people with epic publicity budgets and dedicated PR teams. And there’s me, writing like stink in the back bedroom on a laptop with most of the keys missing.

But more than that, it made me think about libraries, and other institutions that we take for granted – education, that we take for granted, and the ability to read books. I live in Cornwall, and I can’t walk much more than a mile from my house in any direction without coming across one of the Passmore Edwards Institutes.
John Passmore Edwards was born in Blackwater, within walking distance from me, in 1823. He was the son of a carpenter, and like the children of many of the Cornish working poor of the 19th century, pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He became a journalist, and then a media magnate, as well as a delegate to peace processes in Europe between 1848 and 1850. However, and most significantly for me, he was also a passionate believer in the working man’s right to an education; he was a generous donor to the Workers’ Educational Association, and gifted libraries, schools, and art galleries for men and women whose hard working-life meant that they – or their children – did not have the luxury of access to full-time education.

I wonder sometimes if perhaps we turn full circle; if perhaps having been given the right to education, people no longer see it as a hard-won privilege, a thing that men and women fought to achieve. That to many of us now it’s devalued currency, as taken for granted as our air and clean water. Two hundred years ago, my little boy would only have been going to school tomorrow if we could afford it, or if he could be spared from wage-earning labour that put food on the family table. (Yes, two hundred years ago, children were still working in mills, their nimble little fingers, speed, and small stature being valuable, and their poor little bodies being cheap to feed and dispensable.) Schooling until the age of ten was only made compulsory in 1857, and the age at which a child could leave school was only set at sixteen, in 1972.
We – people my age – we have never been part of a society in which we want to learn but are deprived by circumstance of the ability to do so. Have never, thank God, lived in a world where books are “for your betters” – not beyond the reach of poor people, or working people, or children, but are for everyone.
And, you know, maybe we need to think about that. That maybe education and literacy are still a prize, an achievement to be proud of, rather than a casual box to be ticked. That there are still places in this country where adult literacy is not universal, before we even consider that there are countries in the developing world where parents are still fighting for their children’s opportunities to be educated out of poverty. We don’t hold any moral high ground on literacy at all. When you think that Passmore Edwards and his like made it possible for every adult in England to access literacy and learning, the idea that there are grown men and women who have the physical and mental capacity to gain an education, and make a conscious choice to remain ignorant is rather obscene.

Books are not our friends. Books are as necessary as breathing. Not just mine, but science books – romance books – books about keeping fish, or driving test theory.

If you’re reading this, it’s because someone fought for your right to an education. Don’t ever take it for granted.

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history, new books, politics, ponderations, present, religious ponderations, romance, women

The Tudors are SO 2015. This? Is Where It’s All Happening

But the Tudor era is a period of lust, of intrigue and sexy debauchery and passion and jealousy and desire and excellent dresses…. so why don’t I write about the Tudors?

It’s a funny one. I mean, it’d be easier if I did. I’d be riding on the coat tails of Philippa Gregory and Anya Seton and Hilary Mantel – and everybody knows about Henry VIII and his convoluted love-life, and Elizabeth (and Essex….maybe) and her even more convoluted and intriguing passions. The fashions are gorgeous, the TV producers and the film producers are crying out for bodices to rip open and breeches to undo: why, in the name of creation, am I writing about a period mostly known for its unflattering fashions and spawning the man who coined the term “warts and all”?

And I guess the answer is – because I find principle sexier than unprinciple.

I’m fascinated, intrigued, and ultimately repelled by the English Civil Wars – a war without an enemy, as the Parliamentarian commander William Waller wrote in 1643 to his friend the Royalist commander Ralph Hopton. “We are both upon the stage and must act such parts as are assigned us in this tragedy, let us do it in a way of honour and without personal animosities“.
I think it’s interesting that many people’s perception of the protagonists now is that the King’s supporters were fun-loving, free-spirited party animals who loved wine, women and song – 17th century rock stars, in effect – whilst Parliament’s were dour, short-haired, joyless and worthy.
It’s cobblers, of course – both sides had men of fire and honour, as committed to their cause as each other.
And to me, that’s considerably more appealing than a fat old guy with a bad temper and a gammy leg, a sexual predator who abused his power to bribe, flatter and coerce women into his bed and whose politics were – allegedly – based in his codpiece.

I think we love the idea of the Tudors because they’re so marvellously larger than life, an almost Machiavellian world of political treachery and intrigue apparently centred on a thing we all understand – sex. We “get” desire, and jealousy, and love-conquers-all; we understand, we sympathise with, a world where a man-monster is a figure of terror as well as desire – almost the ultimate Christian Grey, the sexy uber-CEO who manipulates as well as seduces.
And maybe the idea of a quieter passion isn’t so flamboyant. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms don’t inflame the public imagination the same way because there is, simply, no sex involved. Oliver Cromwell looked like a potato. (Elizabeth must have seen something worth the having in him, because they had a long and happy marriage and a number of children.) Thomas Fairfax was married to the somewhat volatile Anne for twenty-seven years, and praised her lack of beauty as a virtue in his – somewhat dodgy – poetry. Charles and Henrietta Maria were uxorious enough that she went over to Europe, sold her jewellery, and raised troops for him. Rupert – well, Rupert never married, so let’s not mention Rupert’s love life. (Suffice it to say it was varied and active.)

It’s not that women were not strong, involved, characters in their own right. Why should Brilliana Harley, sending the family plate to safety in boxes marked up as “Cake” to avoid detection by Royalist troops, be any less appealing that poor hapless Anne Boleyn?
Or if your taste runs towards tragic romantic heroines, Bridget Cromwell, travelling across a war-torn country to marry her scarred hero Henry Ireton under siege in Oxford, only to be widowed so short a time later?
Or the King’s spymistress, Jane Horwood, intelligencing for him and loving him at one and the same time? (Oh, I hope she had some happiness with him, even if his letters to her portray their liaison as more pragmatic than romantic. Her husband was such a vile, abusive, violent piece of work, I do hope that Jane found love, after a fashion, with Charles – someone who was decent, and honourable, and treated her with courtesy. Not my type, but then what do I know? I’m a Fairfax girl…)

So many stories, and so much passion – but for the spirit, not for the body. For a cause, for a thing which people – both Royalist and Parliamentarian – believed in with, literally, the last drop of their heart’s blood.

And as for the fashions? Quite like the Elizabeth of Bohemia look, myself.

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politics, ponderations, present, society, women, writing

Fifty Shades Of….. Gender Bias and Sexuality in Historical Fiction

Isn’t it reassuring to know that all those heroines of historical fiction, who found that they just weren’t maternal, or meek, or submissive enough – that they identified themselves more strongly as masculine, that they cut their hair, or wore breeches, or climbed trees – they were all sweet, frilly girlies, really: because with the right man, you can get better!

Five hundred years ago – three hundred, two hundred years ago – women weren’t allowed to identify with masculine gender stereotypes. We conformed, to the Gospel according to St Paul; we learned in all subjection, we were respectful, we covered our hair and our bodies as we were taught, or we paid the price of social ostracism.

You know the old chestnut of the girl who dresses as a boy to follow her soldier lover to war and bring him home safe? Don’t get many of them in the 17th century. In fact, I don’t think I know of a single example of a woman who enlists as a soldier during the English Civil Wars – maybe that’s because women were following the drum anyway, in the guise of camp followers, or maybe it’s because until the creation of the New Model Army in 1645 no one was looking, or maybe it’s because 17th century women were more than capable of fighting the good fight in skirts, viz. Lady Derby, Brilliana Harley, Elizabeth Lilburne, I’ll stop now but I could keep going all night. The 17th century highwaywoman Moll Frith lived and dressed as a woman – as attested by her nickname, Cutpurse Moll – and anecdote reports that at one point she robbed Thomas Fairfax, shot him in the arm and killed two of his horses. Which must have pleased him no end…
But it’s not really till the 18th century that we start to see the “mannish” woman appear – Kit Ross, who followed her man into Marlborough’s Army and then decided that she quite liked the Army life and lived as a soldier for the better part of ten years, serving in two different units undiscovered; Anne Bonney and Mary Read, that pair of unglamorous pirate captains, who were as fierce and merciless as any of their masculine counterparts – what’s interesting is that most of the 18th century women who disguised themselves as men disguised themselves successfully, and lived within close male communities undiscovered for long periods, but that they also were considered as equals of their male counterparts. Kit Ross was officially pensioned off, despite the discovery of her gender; Anne Bonney and Mary Read were sentenced to an equal punishment to their male counterpart, Calico Jack Rackham.
So, you know, there are hundreds of years of history of women living successfully as men, competing with men, existing forcefully in a male-dominated society. Succeeding, on their own terms, against men. (If piracy is your thing, obviously.) Being acknowledged as comrades and peers, by men. Women in Restoration England were running their own businesses, their own coffee-shops, although they weren’t permitting female customers in those hotbeds of political discourse and dissent. Women in 1649 were presenting petitions to Parliament saying…”Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?”
And now, four hundred years later, we’re denying this again in mainstream historical fiction.
The tomboyish heroine, that old favourite of romantic fiction, who’s not satisfied by a life of conventionally girlish pleasures, and who finds freedom and self-expression as an equal in masculine company – she changes, of course, when she meets the right man. (He “makes” her a woman, as often as not. *shudders*)
All those strong women, who lived and worked and loved as women in their own right, who ran businesses and ships and companies of soldiers in their own right – they just needed a man, to make them want to give up their independence and be hobbled by skirts again?
Seriously?
I was talking to Kim Wright from the arts programme Art2Art on Swindon 105.5 FM earlier on (just thought I’d drop that one right there, me on the radio, not swearing, not once. Hardly. Much. At all) – he had the idea that this sudden gender conventionality in fiction was a reaction against women’s freedoms in World War 2, where women were suddenly doing men’s work, men’s equals, threatening established masculine domains, and the womenfolk had to be groomed a little into getting back into their boxes after the war. And, you know, perhaps the reason for the popularity of that aggressively masculine, Chandleresque stuff was that a lot of women were comfortable within those boxes, too. 
And that’s fine, if that’s what works for you, but it’s not right for everyone. We’re still promoting the idea of binary genders – of girlie girls and butch men – and pushing the myth that if you are not a pink princess, or a brave hero, you can’t have romance, you can’t have adventure, you can’t be successful. That to be atypical, in fiction, makes a character a curio, a freakshow. There was a Paul Verhoeven film called “Flesh + Blood” in which Rutger Hauer’s mercenary band contained, amongst others, two sniggering and not always very kind best mates, who were rough and tough, who always had each other’s backs, who were a pair of loutish young gentlemen always spoiling for a fight.
At the end of the film one of them is killed and you realise, by the response of the other, that these two testosterone-fuelled hooligans were a deeply loving and long-established couple.

And it’s not relevant to the plot, it’s just a throwaway scene where actually, these two brawling roughs are seen to have a capacity for deep emotion – but it’s two men who are in love with each other. 

Does that matter? Yes. They’re a pair of aggressive street bravos who’ve systematically gone through life as their own two-person gang, and now all of a sudden one of them is alone, and we see a vulnerable, frightened side to him. 
Does it matter that it’s two men? No. Or it shouldn’t. As Het Babbitt points out to Hapless Russell in “A Wilderness of Sin”, “There is, in my opinion, an insufficiency of people loving each other in this world, dear. As if it were something to be ashamed of.”

Takes all sorts to make a world, as they say in Lancashire, but if youre going to write, the world is at your fingertips. Women, and men, in history fought hard to live outside convention, knowing they faced exposure, ridicule, social ostracism, even death, for disclosing themselves. And they still do, we have not yet come so far. We owe it to readers to write those men and women back into historical fiction, not as plaster saints or  wayward sinners, but as real, rounded human beings. Just lke us.

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Gray, humour, Lucey, poetry, politics, romance, Thomazine. writing, women

To His Coy Mistress, Some Lines After the Battle New-fought at NASEBY

Why court’st thou death instead of me?
Why, mistress, must thou prove thy worth
By putting all thy foes to flee
Despite the virtues of thy birth?
For lady, spurn me as you must
I know and love thy bravery
That’s never failed to keep thy trust
In th’face of the King’s knavery
Yet may I hope, my mistress gay,
My plea your fair ear reaches:
You dress yourself in fine array
And put on skirts instead of breeches?
I dare not test, lest what I find
Is frailer yet, a bubbled glass
That shatters in a changing wind
Or withers, like the mower’s grass
Yet, lady, your secret’s secure
– As yet is mine: that I am yours.
If you wondered what Luce was writing during A Wilderness of Sin….
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Babbitt, history, Levellers, Lucey, new books, politics, ponderations, present, writing

In Praise of the Plain Russet-Coated Captain (or, Why Historical Fiction Needs Anti-Heroes)

 I was reading a review of a Bernard Cornwell novel this morning and once again I am inspired to set fingers to keyboard (around the cat, who is demanding cuddles with menaces)

Once again, you see, I cannot do the dashing white knight on his trusty steed thing.
Sharpe. Let’s take Sharpe. (Please, someone, let’s take Sharpe.)
You know when you open a certain genre of book, or a book by a certain author, pretty much to the last semi-colon what you’re going to get. You’re going to get an infallible hero, who may be wrong-footed but never fail. He will come good in the end – he will get the girl, kill the baddies, and save the entire planet. Laughing in the face of doom, and clearing tall buildings with one bound.
And, you know, that’s kind of nice. It’s all soft and comforting and cosy. No nasty surprises.
But history is full of nasty surprises.
After the battle of Naseby, the godly Army of Parliament hunted down and massacred over a hundred Royalist camp followers for the unpardonable sin of speaking their own native Welsh language, and therefore being suspected of being either whores, witches, or dangerous Irishwomen.
After the siege of Bolton, the Royalists massacred anything between eighty and two thousand people, both soldiers and inhabitants including women, making it reputedly the worst massacre on English soil.
That’s not nice stuff. On either side. 
My Babbitt is anything but indestructible. He spends most of the books wrong-footed, miserable, irritated, wishing he was anywhere else but tagging on the back of the Army of Parliament. Periodically taking a pasting and then, being middle-aged, hurting. Not being irresistible to the fairer sex, even if he wanted to be. Missing his wife and wanting his supper, mostly, and wondering when he’s next going to get paid. Ans how he’s going to manage to run a troop till Parliament gets round to paying them.
A superhero, he is not. (He had a cape when he was seventeen, bought for the express purpose of impressing his first wife, but he never got the trick of not catching his sword hilt in its swirliness and Margriete told him he looked a tit in it, so he never really took to cape-wearing after that.)
Hollie’s a decent man, fighting a war he doesn’t want for a cause that’s shafted him fairly thoroughly, and committed to it for the sake of six troop of horse who expect him to stand their corner because he’s the only bugger stupid enough to open his big mouth in company.
Luce is a ditherer, a dreamer and a romantic. Luce is a nice boy who ought not to be let out of the house without directions. (Luce is not, bless him, officer material. But you work with what you got.)
Russell – well, Russell’s a bipolar functioning alcoholic with anger management issues, and certainly not someone you want to be on the wrong side of.
The Army of Parliament had a bad habit of not winning glorious victories. Powick Bridge – lash-up. Edgehill – no-score draw. Naseby – not the finest moment in Parliamentarian history, gentlemen. No glittering triumphs. No moral high ground.
No heroes. No villains.
Ordinary men – and women – on both sides, people of honour and principle, as well as ruffians and rogues: people fighting to defend their freedom of conscience, or just to stay alive from one week to the next. People not too dissimilar to me and you, standing up for what they thought was fair. A good cause, fought by good men, badly.
Now I ask you. Sharpe and his like – men of honour, or principle? Sexy, maybe, if you like that kind of thing. Love ’em and leave ’em, almost certainly. Daring and gallant and swashbuckling, probably.
Believable – maybe not.
Surprising, amusing, appealing, poignant, gripping – almost certainly not.
So, meh. More people read the adventures of Sharpe et al, knowing what they’re getting, than read the misadventures of one plain russet-coated captain of horse circa 1643, where believe me, they do not.
Be nice if millions of people read the Babbitt books. I’d like it. (He’d like it, the smart-mouthed Lancashire bugger. Be thrilled to bits, he would. In a sort of not-admitting it kind of way.) But…. Would I rather write books that make people laugh out loud on public transport, and three chapters later make them cry?
Where people tell me off because it can’t end like that?
(Google Burford, 1649, and work it out.)
Ah, hell, yeah, I would. Because Hollie Babbitt is real. He’s all the lads in 17th century history whose names never made it into the books, the ones that did their duty and stood their ground, that weren’t glamorous or poetic or noble or well-connected. He is what he is and God willing, the lad will remain a joy and a sweary, scruffy, appealing maverick from now until the end of the Civil Wars.

As you were, gentlemen.

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Colchester, conspiracy, Fairfax, history, Levellers, politics, ponderations, Rainsborough, women

Surely some mistake, Colonel Rainsborough – Royalist propaganda or war criminal?

“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…”.
Thomas Rainsborough, Putney Debates, 1647
When I first started writing the Uncivil Wars books I had a fairly clear picture of the martyred Leveller colonel Thomas Rainsborough, in my head.
The known facts of his early life are fairly scant. He was born in Wapping in 1610 – son of Vice-Admiral William Rainsborough, a captain in the Royal Navy and Ambassador to Morocco. Vice-Admiral Rainsborough was offered a baronetcy for his efforts to end white slavery – an honour which he then declined. Republicanism, then, we can infer, was in the Rainsborough genetic make-up.
Thomas, then, began his career before the civil war in the family business; he and his brother William were involved in an early naval expedition to the Puritan Providence Island colony, off the coast of Nicaragua – and, it may be suggested, a degree of mild pirating of those antipathetic towards England’s interests.
However, after an early command of the Swallow and the Lion in the embryonic Parliamentarian navy (Hull, 1643 – where he first meets Hollie Babbitt in “Command the Raven) he then transferred to the Eastern Association – Oliver Cromwell’s haunt, although bearing in mind that Old Noll was no more than a plain Colonel of Horse himself at this point – where he was himself commissioned an infantry Colonel by the Earl of Manchester. In May 1645, he became a colonel in the newly-formed New Model Army. He fought and distinguished himself at Naseby. He went with Fairfax into the West Country and distinguished himself again at the battle of Langport.
And then at the siege of Bristol, after fierce fighting as the town surrendered, Rainsborough’s troops massacred the defenders of Prior’s Hill Fort. Allegedly.
It says so on Bristol local history sites. It says so in assorted fictional accounts. What it doesn’t say is where primary source evidence on this massacre might have been found. None of the accounts I have discovered (bearing in mind I don’t live in Bristol, so my hands are somewhat tied regarding physical archives…damn it all) annotate this.
However. So. Maybe that upright seagoing Republican with the staunch Puritan friends who came back from New England to fight for Parliament alongside him, maybe he did give the orders to massacre the defenders of Prior’s Hill Fort. Also note that every account I’ve discovered uses the word “massacre”. Now that’s either very definite…or they’re all using the same source material. Interesting.
Now. Rainsborough was then elected recruiter MP for Droitwich in Worcestershire in January 1647, but was allowed to continue with his military duties. Probably just as well, because in his absence in May 1647 his troops mutinied at Portsmouth in protest at Parliament’s plans to disband the New Model without addressing the soldiers’ grievances. Petty grievances, of course, set against the weightier matters of national governance – matters like not being paid for eight weeks, or being sent to fight abroad (in the case of Rainsborough’s troop, in Jersey) without seeing any of their back pay, or the unsettled matter of punishment for “war crimes” such as stealing horses under martial direction for use in cavalry regiments. That particular war crime had ended in the hanging of several soldiers after the first Civil War. I imagine there were any number of uncomfortable troopers around with that particular sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. (There – and you thought Eliot and Ward were made up, didn’t you? Nope…that pair of light-fingered buggers are very much based on historical persons.)
Rainsborough’s troops were preparing to march on Oxford and seize the artillery based there, until the man himself came back and met with them at Abingdon and talked them out of it.
That’s twice that Rainsborough is recorded as being charismatic, and personally involved, enough to influence people who have pretty good reasons not to do what he ends up getting them to do: the officers from New England had the reasonable excuse of several thousand miles of implacable Atlantic between themselves and the troubles back home, and Rainsborough’s own troops wouldn’t have been the first to disregard their commander – look at Waller’s disobedient London-raised troops, who were reluctant to fight outside their home turf regardless of his orders.
So, then, we see Rainsborough as clearly a very charismatic, very engaging, very hands-on man, fully engaged with his own men on a direct and personal level. Evidently a very popular leader and seen as both influential and reliable – he was one of the officers that presented the Heads of the Proposals to King Charles in July 1647. Turned down flat, in the most high-handed manner imaginable, by the King. 1647 really marked the beginning of Rainsborough’s overt involvement in the Army’s political activities, and his role as a leading Leveller light. He led the advance guard of three regiments of foot and one of horse when the Army marched to occupy London, successfully seizing Southwark – where, it must be noted, he had previously inherited property, and was presumably well-known to the locals, being a Wapping boy himself, so unlikely to be seen as some kind of brutal interloper.
During October and November 1647 he was lively at the Putney Debates, siding with the Leveller radicals in calling for negotiations with the King to be broken off immediately and for a new constitution of their own terms to be implemented. (That rebuttal of the Heads of Proposals must have still rankled.) He was also arguing for manhood suffrage, which didn’t go down well with Cromwell and Ireton either. And then in November 1647, he attempted to present a copy of the Levellers’ manifesto, and was ignored by General Fairfax.
January 1648 saw a return to naval service, given command of a squadron guarding the Isle of Wight where the King was held prisoner.
But. What we have been seeing before is a humanitarian man, vociferous in his support for the common soldier…who was so absolutely unpopular with the Navy that a number of Parliamentarian warships declared for the King in the spring of 1648 rather than carry on serving with him, and Rainsborough was put ashore from his own flagship by his crew. Parliament had to re-instate the Earl of  Warwick in his place to restore the loyalty of the seamen. It destroyed Rainsborough’s authority within in the navy, and he transferred back to the Army and took command of a newly-raised London regiment at the siege of Colchester.
And this is where I really begin to struggle with Rainsborough. Because the siege of Colchester was a filthy, vicious, uncharacteristically cruel assault, wholly out of character for both Thomas Fairfax and what we have seen of Thomas Rainsborough. The siege began in June 1648 and lasted for 11 weeks – a siege in which townspeople consistently loyal to Parliament, were barricaded in with an occupying force who were not precisely sympathetic.

Again, anecdotal evidence for Fairfax’s atrocities includes the torture of a messenger boy, the desecration of Sir Charles Lucas’s family vaults during manoeuvres; the inhabitants were certainly starving, reduced to eating cats, dogs, candles and soap – civilian and military alike. Fairfax is alleged to have agreed that his troops could cut off the hands of Royalist soldiers to take rings as booty. It is certain that a starving deputation of women and children was sent to Fairfax to ask for mercy, and were refused. It is again anecdotal that a second deputation of starving townswomen presented themselves to Rainsborough and were stripped, for the amusement of his troops.

Edited: at the end of the siege, Colchester was fined the MASSIVE sum of £14,000 – reduced to £12,000. Previous to the siege the town had been one of the biggest ports in Essex. Afterwards – a rural backwater. Fairfax broke the town utterly.

So. As Hollie Babbitt might put it, not much bloody further on, are we, after all that?
On the one hand, we have Rainsborough the compassionate republican, demanding fair and equal treatment for the poorest he that is in England. On the other we have a war criminal, even by the standards of the 17th century.
But. (I like big buts, and I cannot lie.)

I like a mystery, and I likes both Fairfax and Rainsborough, and it may take me a while, but I’ll get to the bottom of this one. The Lord has smiled upon my endeavours…. Him Indoors is an Essex boy!

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Babbitt, Cromwell, Fairfax, history, Lucey, politics, ponderations, Russell, society

The Poorest He that Is In England…

I have thought long and hard about posting this, and I will try to make it as un-spoiler-like as possible, because somewhat astonishingly there are those people who actually want to know what happens to that russet-haired menace and his rebel rabble. And this will not be that post, so you can breathe.

However. I’m told that my Magnificent Octopus (Octopi?) has been passed on to the Leveller Association to cast an eye over – *waves to the Leveller Association* – and that set me to thinking.

Rosie Babbitt is not, by political inclination, a Leveller. He may spend the first book reading Lilburne and he may pal around with Colonel Rainsborough in the second and third, but he’s not a natural activist. What he is, is a man with a (possibly overdeveloped) sense of fairness.
I think it’s fairly obvious even from the synopsis of “A Wilderness of Sin”, that that notorious gobshite and firebrand is going to end up as one of the two regimental Agitators. And he will do it because he has the tools – ie a big gob and a reputation for saying what he thinks – to do it, whereas the other of his Agitators will do it because he’s essentially a crack-brained romantic with a death wish. Glorious martyrdom, any cause you like? Oh, yes, please!

One wonders, three hundred and fifty years later, how many of the Army Agitators went to Putney, and took up their grievances – not out of a desire to change the world, but because it wasn’t fair. To them, right there, right that minute. Starving in the south-west, with Fairfax cutting deals with the Clubmen that there should be no looting, which is very fine and honourable until you bear in mind that until the Parliamentarian treasure convoy finally arrived in the West Country in early October 1645, the soldiers hadn’t been paid for weeks, and were getting restless. (Again, as Babbitt might say, with some cynicism.) Presumably, when Fairfax agreed in mid-July that the local population should be unmolested, and that the New Model Army would pay for supplies, he was either possessed of supernatural prescience or he was having another attack of Elijah and his infernal ravens – never mind, gentlemen, the Lord will provide. Of course the Army will pay for supplies, but until it has the money to do so, you will keep your hands to yourselves, no matter how hungry you’re getting. Jam tomorrow!

Oh no, Hollie Babbitt wouldn’t ally himself with any organised political movement. He might, on the other hand, find himself being asked to speak for a troop who felt that they’d been well and truly shafted by a Parliament who’d asked them to shed their blood and leave their homes and families, to fight for a cause that many of them still didn’t fully comprehend. Our Rosie might be absolutely appalled that Thomas Rainsborough – who’d served the Army so faithfully both on land and at sea in a military capacity even before he started involving himself in military politics (and who, in the Uncivil War series, happens to be a mate of Babbitt’s) – could be brutally murdered, and that rumour might have it that Oliver Cromwell himself might have been responsible for arranging that murder.A literal and figurative stab in the back.

You can see why a plain fighting man who’d never considered himself a great political intriguer, might have been moved to speak on the soldiers’ behalf – not because he wanted to see a finer England, but because he had the care of a couple of hundred lads, and he could not in all conscience stand in front of them and say he hadn’t tried to see them done right by, to the best of his ability.

 You can see why any man with any sense of honour, might feel that the actual fighting men of the Army of Parliament had been somewhat hard done to, and that in denying them their right to protest, the Army Grandees were going back on any number of their previous promises. The ordinary soldier was fighting and dying for a very nebulous freedom that the King apparently threatened, but suddenly when it came to those freedoms being actually granted it was a different story. The King’s a threat to the stout English church… but no one is allowed to preach to the New Model after February 1645 who isn’t an ordained preacher. (Not that we want to stop those nasty little Dissenting voices who wanted to say things like, but you won’t grant us indemnity for crimes like stealing horses that you commanded us to steal, how does that work? That King who’s an evil threatening menace… you want him back? What – tell him he’s been a very naughty boy and he’s not to do it again? That kind of thing?)

Ah, poor old Hollie, he had no choice about it, did he?

Bloody Russell, on the other hand, that rather endearing Puritan nutjob – he’s in it for the dream. Typical bloody Hapless Russell.

(And Luce, that most middle-class and pragmatic of idealists, thinks it’s all a splendid and noble idea, but, er, chaps, can you – you know – not upset anyone? Some of us might have to work again after these wars, you know.)

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – Thankful Russell and Hollie Babbitt, the first, and to the best of my knowledge the only, Leveller heroes in popular historical fiction.

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