Eduard Bernstein

Cromwell and Communism

Chapter II
England up to the Middle of the Seventeenth Century


I. Economic and Social Development

IN the seventeenth century England was still to a very large extent an agricultural country. About the middle of the century its population amounted to some 5,000,000, of which at least three-fourths lived on the country-side. With the exception of London, already grown very large, none of its towns was excessively populous. Towards the end of the century Gregory King estimated that a total population of 5½ millions was distributed in the following manner:





Large and small towns


Villages and hamlets




A similar proportion between London and the rest of the kingdom is given in William Petty’s Essays on Political Arithmetic, published in 1687. Petty reckons the population of London and its suburbs at 690,000; that of the whole of England and Wales at 7,000,000. According to him, London had some half-million inhabitants about the middle of the seventeenth century, and, as he knew London during the revolutionary period, his reckoning is probably not very far out. Next to London, Petty takes Bristol as the “British emporium”, and gives its population as 48,000. In fact, Bristol in the seventeenth century was an important staple town. It drove a flourishing trade with Spain and Portugal, and was the centre of the woollen manufacture in the south-west of England. Norwich, the centre of the woollen manufacture in the Eastern Counties, was Bristol’s rival. These were the three most populous towns in England at that time.

Industry was on the whole in a somewhat backward state. In nearly all branches it had lagged behind that of the Continent. Well into the sixteenth century England produced the finest wool, but for long was content to work up the coarser types herself. The combing of the finer sorts was done abroad, especially in Flanders. The situation did not change until crowds of Flemish weavers were driven to England by the consequences of the religious wars in the Netherlands. A result of this immigration in the second half of the sixteenth century was the rise of the English wool-weaving trade, which at first flourished chiefly in Norfolk and certain neighbouring counties and later extended to the west, where we find it had assumed considerable dimensions at the period we are investigating.

It was not until the seventeenth century that the mineral wealth of England, with the exception of tin, began to be exploited to any considerable extent, although it did not play an important part in economic life at the period we are discussing. The value of coal for iron furnaces was beginning to be appreciated, but scores of years were to elapse before England became independent of the Continent as a source of supply for iron. According to Macpherson [1], in 1720 England imported two-thirds of her crude iron from abroad.

According to Gregory King, there were living in England in 1688:



From agriculture


From trades and industries


From commerce


In this calculation domestic industry (production for household needs), still very important at that time, is not taken into account. Nor is there any indication of the many cases in which industrial and agricultural work was still carried on by the same people. It does not, therefore, give a reliable picture of production, although it reveals to how small an extent industry, even at the end of the seventeenth century, had broken away from its elementary connection with domestic and agricultural work.

The population living by agriculture was subdivided into the classes of the great nobles, the landed gentry, the small peasants, the agricultural day labourers, and the great mass of paupers. The great nobility, even when of feudal origin, had already got rid of most of their feudal obligations, and managed their estates as seemed good to them. Part they placed under stewards and part they farmed out. The landed gentry consisted of the smaller landowners, the descendants of the purchasers of the confiscated feudal and monastic properties, farmers who had grown rich, and others. The numerous small peasants were partly freeholders, who were exposed to injury through the constant filching of common lands by the great, and copyholders, tenants at will, etc., who bore the brunt of the pressure exercised on farmers by greedy landlords. “The rents of the seventeenth century, small as they seem to us, began with competition rents, which rapidly slid into famine rents, by which I understand rents which leave the cultivator a bare maintenance, without the means of either improving or saving”, writes Thorold Rogers. “There was, however”, he adds, “in some parts of England, notably in the Eastern Counties, in the west and north, a by-industry of sufficient importance as to make the tenant-farmer comparatively indifferent to accretions of rent.” [2]

This by-industry would be the wool and linen industry, which was carried on in most of the cottages of whole districts. But in Yorkshire and Lancashire the woollen industry was not so important in the seventeenth century as it was in East Anglia, where we should look for a class of small farmers enjoying some degree of independence.

It may appear surprising that in seventeenth-century England there should have been such a host of small peasants and small tenants at will, in spite of the working of the land by capitalistic farmers, which began at the end of the fifteenth and increased during the sixteenth century, and in spite of the expropriation of peasants involved in converting arable into pasture land. But the agricultural revolution did not pursue an unbroken and unimpeded course. Under Henry VII and his successors various laws were passed designed to maintain a considerable peasantry, and while those laws were frequently a dead-letter when they collided with the land-hunger of the great nobles, they did prolong the process here and there. But there is another important circumstance, mentioned by Karl Marx, which may be regarded as the chief cause of the phenomenon. “England”, writes Marx, “is at one time chiefly a cultivator of corn, at another chiefly a breeder of cattle, in alternate periods, and with these the extent of peasant cultivation fluctuates.” [3] Thus during the religious wars in the Netherlands England ceased to sell her wool there, and the breeding of sheep stopped. On the other hand, weaving as a by-industry spread over the country, and, as shown above, averted the ruin of the small farmers by the rent-raising landlords.

The agricultural labourers lived under the ban of the famous Statute of Labourers of Elizabeth, the threefold aim of which is thus described by Thorold Rogers: “(1) to break up the combinations of labourers; (2) to supply the adequate machinery of control; and (3) by limiting the right of apprenticeship, to make the peasant labourer the residuum of all other labour, or, in other words, to forcibly increase the supply.” [4]

As is well known, the Statute of Labourers prescribed a seven years’ apprenticeship to any branch of industry, and, further, merchants and masters in certain trades could only take as apprentices the sons of freeholders of landed property of a fixed value. The wages of agricultural labourers and journeymen in different trades were fixed by the Justices of the Peace at Easter of each year, and Thorold Rogers testifies that, in spite of threats of punishment, the wages actually paid were always higher than those fixed by the justices. On the other hand, W.A.S. Hewins, in his English Trade and Finance, Chiefly in the Seventeenth Century, adduces certain facts (pp.82-159) pointing to the conclusion that, upon the whole, “the justices’ wages were paid”. W. Cunningham, in his work, The Growth of English Industry and Commerce, maintains, in opposition to Rogers, that in the time of James I the Statute was so altered that only the paying of less wages than those fixed by the Justices of the Peace was made penal, and not the paying of higher wages. If so, the effect on wages would scarcely have been unfavourable, so far as the law was observed at all. It is true that the Statute of Labourers of 1604 only refers to penalties for those who pay lower wages than are fixed. But the preamble to the law gives no indication that this new wording was intended to express a new principle. The sole aim of the Act is declared to be the extension of the law of Elizabeth to the clothmakers and others and the alteration of the rules of procedure in the fixing of wages.

According to Cunningham, the wage of the agricultural labourer of the time we are now considering was 6d. a day in summer and 4d. in winter, in addition to three meals, including butter, milk, cheese, and eggs or bacon. Having regard to differences in the purchasing power of money and the general standard of life, the agricultural labourer was probably better off than his posterity of three hundred years later.

Another fact mentioned by Thorold Rogers, of special interest for our subject, is that during the period of the Commonwealth, the legally fixed wages were higher than they were under the monarchy that preceded or the monarchy that followed the republic. In 1651 they were only 4¼d. below the wages actually paid; in 1655 only 2¼d.; but no sooner is the monarchy restored than the justices are up to their old tricks again and fix the wages at 3s. less than those actually paid. “The Puritans were perhaps stern men, but they had some sense of duty. The Cavaliers were perhaps polished, but appear to have had no virtue except what they called loyalty. I think if I had been an agricultural labourer in the seventeenth century I should have preferred the Puritan.” [5] So long as the republic lasted, the mass of the English people of all grades rose from the degradation into which they had sunk under the Tudors.” [6] That the justices were suddenly affected by the sense of duty of the Puritans, of which Rogers speaks, may be ascribed to the greater influence which the struggle between King and Parliament had given to the working classes.

The general conditions of agricultural life prevented the development of a sharp class antagonism between the small peasant and the agricultural labourer. These classes resembled each other too closely in ways of life and labour (if we except those agricultural labourers who had been reduced to “vagabonds”) for any serious conflicts to arise. A real class antagonism, in some phases sharply accentuated, existed only between small peasants, small farmers, and the agricultural labourers joining them, on the one hand, and the great landlords, particularly as the latter were mostly of recent origin, on the other hand.

The same considerations apply to handicrafts in town and country. The wages question being so completely settled by legal determination, there was scope only for minor individual adjustments. While conflict was not entirely absent, no employee thought for a moment of questioning the right of existence of the master as an established class or felt any solidarity with the employees of another trade. Moreover, owing to the long apprenticeship to the chief industries, the number of journeymen was very limited, a point to which we shall return later.

A stronger antagonism, however, existed between members of the handicraft industries, now developing into staple industries and manufactures, and the merchants who dealt in their produce. As early as 1555 the weavers complained that “the rich and wealthy clothiers do many ways oppress them” by putting unapprenticed men to work on their own looms, by letting out looms on hire, and “some also by giving much less wages and hire for the weaving and workmanship of clothes than in times past they did”. Thus the preamble of the “Act touching weavers” passed under the Catholic Mary, a law which, admitting the justice of the complaint just quoted, limits the number of looms to be owned by one person to two in the towns and one in the country, and forbids the hiring of looms. This law seems to have operated as a drag upon the development of manufacture, but eventually social forces proved too strong, and the vexatious law was in every way evaded, as is proved by the frequent and increasing complaints of the masters against the merchants. What we have to remember, for the purposes of our investigation, is that a sharp antagonism existed between the weavers and the merchants. And similar divergencies existed in other trades in which merchants had interposed themselves between producers and consumers. Great hostility was further evoked by the monopolies which governments, when in financial difficulties, sold or farmed out to the merchant trading companies. This last point brings us to the political conditions which existed at the beginning of the reign of Charles I.



2. Political and Religious Conditions. Ket’s Insurrection

Parliament in the time of Henry VII, and still more in that of Henry VIII, had become a tool in the hands of the King. Benevolences and duties belonging to feudal times were exacted on an immense scale; loans made to the King were again and again declared forfeit; decrees of the King had the force of laws; new crimes of high treason were created, and a special Court was constituted for troublesome State criminals (the Star Chamber), to which was added, in the reign of Elizabeth, an exceptional Court, declared permanent in 1583 (the Court of High Commission), intended to deal with persons who denied the supremacy of the monarch for the time being over ecclesiastical affairs. This proclamation of the supremacy of the King over the Church was the culminating point of Henry VIII’s “Reformation”. Its objects were: (1) to put an end to the interference of the Pope in English affairs; (2) and, which is of far greater importance, as the Pope’s influence in England had generally been very small, to convert the clergy into a tool of monarchical absolutism. And (3) after the declaration of the supremacy came the dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of their enormous wealth, which the spendthrift King made haste to squander. These methods of reformation, it will be apprehended, did not meet with the enthusiastic approval even of those who, otherwise, were hostile to the Romish Church, especially as Henry retained most of the dogmas and rites of that Church. Catholics and sincere Reformers alike were dissatisfied. There were frequent revolts, in which the country population took an active part, and which were successfully suppressed under Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI, but when the latter died in 1553 a victorious rebellion overthrew the Reformation leaders and established the Catholic Mary on the throne.

The revolt which has a special interest for us occurred in the reign of Edward VI, who succeeded his father in 1547 while yet a minor, and whose Government was at first carried on by his uncle, the Duke of Somerset, the Protector. In June 1549 the peasants of Devonshire rebelled and demanded the restoration of the ancient faith. They forced the priests to read the Mass in Latin, and besieged Exeter for a week. The revolt was then quelled by an army, composed mainly of mercenaries, led by Lord Russell. While this insurrection was of a religious character, the revolt of the agricultural population of Norfolk, under Robert Ket, which followed in the same month, wore a distinct political and social character, and was directed against the feudal aristocracy.

Ket’s rebellion was not an isolated phenomenon. There was universal unrest among the agricultural population, and the flames burst forth now in one place and now in another. As early as 1537 there was a popular revolt in Yorkshire on behalf of the Catholic faith (The Pilgrimage of Grace), whilst in Walsingham (Norfolk) an insurrection against the “gentlemen” was prematurely discovered and its leaders executed. A woman, Elizabeth Wood of Aylsham (Norfolk), was reported to the Council of State to have said: “It was pitie that these Walsingham men was discovered, for we shall never have good worlde till we fall togither by the earys:

And with clubbes and clowted shone
Shall the dede be done,

for we had never good world since this Kynge rayned.”

She is, says the report, a stiff-necked “ongracious” woman. Much stronger and more ominous sound the words reported of one John Walker from Griston: “If three or four good fellows wold ryde in the night with every man a belle, and cry in every town that they pass through: To Swaffham, to Swaffham! by the morning ther would be ten thousand assemblyd at the lest; and then one bold fellowe to stand forth and sey: Syres, now we be here assemblyd, you now how all the gentylmen in names be gone forth, and you now how little favour they bere to us pore men: let us therefore nowe go home to ther howsys, and ther shall we have harnesse, substance and vytayle. And as many as will not tirn to us, let us kyll them, ye, evyn ther chyldren in the cradelles, for yt were a good thinge if there were so many gentylmen in Norfolk as they by whyt bulles.” [7]

The great land thieves ignored these warnings. They relied upon Henry’s Draconian edicts against all kinds of rebellion, and continued expelling peasants, raising rents, acquiring monastic property at ludicrous prices, and enclosing common lands or taking them for grazing lands.

Whatever his faults, Somerset, the guardian of Edward VI, seems to have sympathized with the poorer classes, for, soon after his assumption of the Protectorate, the harsh laws against the Lollards were repealed and a Bill to prevent the enclosing of land was introduced in Parliament. Neither House, however, would support it, and Somerset’s initiative was ascribed to mere popularity-hunting. Later, Somerset was accused of having provoked the Ket insurrection by his clemency towards the country-people. Alexander Nevil, or Nevylle, the classic historian of the Ket rebellion, refers to these accusations in his work, The Commotion in Norfolk. “The Lord Protector had at that time lost himself in the love of the vulgar, by his severe proceeding against his brother; and in order to regain their love he caused a proclamation to be published in the beginning of May that all persons who had inclosed any lands that used to be common should lay them open again, before a fixed day, on a certain penalty for not doing so: this so much encouraged the commons in many parts of the realm that (not staying the time limited in the proclamation) they gathered together in tumultuous manner, pulled up the pales, flung down the banks, filled up the ditches, laying all such new enclosed lands open as they were before.” [8] That the common people were troubled about the fate of Somerset’s ambitious brother, Seymour, may well be doubted. Somerset had in fact arranged in 1548 for the appointment of a Commission to examine the legality of all enclosures that had been made since a given date, and to order the fences to be taken down in cases of doubtful legality. But as soon as they heard of the concession, the country-folk took the matter into their own hands, and began to “examine” the enclosures in their own way. Somerset is said, in May 1549, to have openly declared “he liked well the doings of the people, the covetousness of the gentlemen gave occasion to them to rise”. [9] The authorities made but feeble efforts to put down the disturbances, while the Commission turned out to be a dead-letter. So in the summer of 1549 the peasants held numerous secret meetings, at which all kinds of diatribes were uttered against the ruling class. Nevylle imparts a somewhat rhetorical air to these speeches, but they probably bore a close resemblance to his report. Here is a specimen of these speeches: “We cannot any longer endure injuries so great and cruel; nor can we without being moved by it, behold the insolence of the nobility and gentry: we will sooner betake ourselves to arms, and mix heaven and earth in confusion, than submit to such atrocities. Since Nature has made the same provision for us as for them, and has given us also a soul and a body, we should like to know whether this is all we are to expect at her hands. Look at them and look at us: have we not all the same form. Are we not all born in the same way? Why, then, should their mode of life, why should their lot, be so vastly different from ours? We see plainly that matters are come to an extremity, and extremities we are determined to try. We will throw down hedges, fill up ditches, lay open the commons, and level to the ground whatever enclosures they have put up, no less shamefully than meanly.” Before this it had been said “... they have sucked the very blood out of our veins, and the marrow out of our bones. The Commons, which were left by our forefathers for the relief of ourselves and families, are taken from us: the lands which within the remembrance of our fathers were open, are now surrounded with hedges and ditches; and the pastures are enclosed, so that no one can go upon them”. [10]

Open insurrection flared out at the beginning of July 1549 Robert Ket, an able and energetic man, of undoubted honesty of purpose, aided by his brother William, endeavoured to transform the rabble into an army capable of resistance and of attack. He held his Council and his Court of Justice under a great oak, which he named the “Reform Oak”. On Household Hill, near Norwich, he pitched his camp, which soon numbered over ten thousand men, and grew day by day. He decreed that enclosures should be annulled, issued summonses and made requisitions “in the King’s name”. Moreover, he drew up a petition to the Government enumerating the complaints and the demands of the peasants, which the Mayor of Norwich and his predecessors were prevailed upon to sign along with Ket.

These demands are, on the whole, very moderate, and contain no communistic tendencies. In addition to the enclosing of the common land, the abuses singled out for attack are the dovecotes of the great, “those nests of robbers”, a number of feudal exactions, and the raising of farm rents to the highest level. The rebels demanded that farm rents should be legally reduced to the level at which they stood in the first year of the reign of Henry VII. Very notable is the demand that the priests shall be forbidden to buy land, because it refutes the charge made at the time that the rising had been instigated by the priests.

This charge is supported by the Catholic historian, Lingard, who contends that the insurrection – like that in Devonshire – was aimed at the restoration of the old Catholic Church. It is true that the rapacity of the new landlords was unfavourably compared with the comparatively indulgent methods of the monasteries, but otherwise Lollard and Anabaptist teachings were much more evident in the insurrection than sympathy with Popery. Sir William Paget, Councillor of State, writes to Somerset on July 7th: “Look well whether youe have either lawe or religion at home, and I feare youe shall find neither. The use of the old religion is forbydden by a lawe, and the use of the newe ys not yet prunted in the stomackes of the eleven of twelve partes in the realm, what countenance soever men make outwardly to please them in whom they see the power restethe.” Paget, one of the most notorious gorgers of Church property, urged a rapid march on the rebels, pointing to the German Peasant War as an example. Ket seems, on the whole, to have let religion remain a private matter. He looked after the clergymen who conducted divine service in his camp, but others, besides them, were allowed to preach, a privilege of which Matthew Parker, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, made use. In the same way, all kinds of people, foes as well as friends of the rising, were allowed to address the people from the Reform Oak.

The friends included various respectable citizens of Norwich, most of whom certainly turned out to be doubtful or even false friends at a later date. This was the case with T. Aldrich, one of the signatories to Ket’s petition. On the other hand, the small handicraftsmen and workers of Norwich were wholly sympathetic to the rising. They frustrated various measures adopted by the citizens against the rebels, and rendered the latter valuable assistance in the collisions that occurred. Subsequently the citizens excused their temporary compliance with the rebels on the ground of the compulsion forced on them by the poorer classes of the town. [11]

We cannot here recount the details of the fighting, the defeat and overthrow of the first army sent against the rebels, under the Earl of Northampton. The first herald from the Protector offered, provided the rebels submitted, an inquiry into the complaints and the King’s pardon for their offence against the authority of the law. Ket sent him back with the declaration that it was the habit of the King to pardon evildoers, not innocent and righteous people. The peasants and their leaders had merited no punishment. Ket refused to lay down arms until definite concessions were made, for he well knew what little reliance was to be placed on general promises. But even if Somerset had been willing to consent to this, the great men beside and behind him would not have yielded, and clamoured for an energetic suppression of the revolt, which was effected on August 28th by an army of German mercenaries under John Dudley, Earl of Warwick. At the last moment Ket seems to have shown himself a coward, but he may be forgiven for fleeing when he saw the battle was lost.

As “the people’s judge” Ket had shown a humanity remarkable for his days. All prisoners and hostages taken by him, whose names are known, returned unharmed. But Ket and his brother William were hanged for high treason. On December 7th, shortly after Somerset had fallen from power and been cast into the Tower, Ket, who had been brought from London, where his trial had taken place, to Norwich some days earlier, was hanged from the top of the church tower of that town.

Warwick remained in Norwich a fortnight after the decisive battle and held a court of justice on the peasants taken prisoners. But severe as he was, the landlords clamoured for more bloodshed. Their thirst for vengeance demanded more and more victims, “whose entrails were torn from their bodies and burnt before their dying eyes”, until at least Warwick said that if this slaughter continued, none would be left to plough the land, and to this argument the landlords yielded.

Somerset was beheaded on January 22, 1552. Warwick, who succeeded him as Lord Protector, and made himself Duke of Northumberland in the following year, also died on the scaffold, after the Catholic Mary ascended the throne. The policy pursued by her Government clearly showed that what the mass of the people wanted was not the reactionary measures of the Roman Catholic Church. The cruel decrees of her reign against all heretics had the effect of drawing the various Protestant sects closer to one another, so that when she died in 1558 the Catholic cause was as unpopular as it had been popular five years before.

In the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603) the work of the Reformation was resumed and finished off, but not without provoking fresh rebellions. These were, however, suppressed with great cruelty, and the Catholic resistance was finally broken down. During this time resistance to the new State Church was growing up on the Protestant side, in the form of the Puritan opposition.

Who were the Puritans particular? The name connotes not merely a religious sect, but a complete religious and social tendency. It was first a collective name for all those for whom the Reformation or purification of the Church from Romish practices and Romish rules did not go far enough, and who connected with the purification of religion that of the morals of the body politic, and eventually it included a political tendency: resistance to absolutism in Church and State. Puritanism was not the movement of a single class. It had its adherents among the upper and lower nobility, among the clergy, the citizens, the handicraft workers, and the peasants. As a moral or social movement it accorded with the spirit of a time when, under the pressure of world commerce, it was becoming increasingly difficult to gain a livelihood, and when the habit of saving money was spreading. The natural economy of feudal times had been characterized by alternating scarcity and abundance, but with the rise of money and the growth of trade, the surplus that was not immediately consumed was turned into money. To consume more than was necessary, to squander what might be converted into money, now appeared as a social sin, and frugality and thrift became social virtues. Christian asceticism had been preached by the Lollard priests as a return to primitive Christianity, by way of protest against the mad luxury of the decayed Romish aristocracy. The peasants and artisans had welcomed the vaguely communistic teachings of the Lollards, because these teachings reinforced their own hostility towards the lords of Church and State. “The Lollard”, writes Thorold Rogers, “was no doubt like the Puritan of two centuries later, sour, reserved, opinionative and stiff. But he saved money, all the more because he did not care to spend on priest and monk, friar or pardoner.” [12] Lollardism was never completely suppressed, but continued to flourish among such classes as the weavers of the Eastern Counties. It must not be imagined that the weavers and peasants who gave heed to the gospel preached by the Lollards were in particularly indigent circumstances. On the contrary, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Norfolk, where the movement was strongest, was, as the various lists of taxes prove, one of the richest counties in England, although its natural resources were not very great. Thorold Rogers attributes the frugality of the population to the Lollard teachings, but we may fairly assume that the gospel of thrift met with approval among them, because it accorded with their economic situation.

It has been said that Lollardism was “the childhood of Puritanism”. The circumstances and methods of the English Reformation contributed in no small degree to the general acceptance of its ascetic teaching. The elements in the population which were not Romish, but which rebelled against centralized, absolute rule in Church and State, were constrained, after the suppression of each rising, to seek refuge wholly in religious introspection, in moral self-discipline, and these habits were contracted by members of other classes whose social conditions did not otherwise foster asceticism. Calvinism, according to which every one of the elect was a chosen fighter for God, assured of salvation, found wide acceptance. This gospel, with its provision for Church government by the laity, reinforced the resistance of the discontented. Along with it, the Anabaptist propaganda, which had never been completely extinguished, made headway among the handicraftsmen and labourers. Of all the so-called Reformation Churches, Calvinism is the one that was most in harmony with the tendencies and needs of the rising citizen class of the towns and the middle-class landowners. According to Calvin, the Church should be linked up with the State, but as the lay element is strongly represented in the Church, it enforces the rigid Church discipline. The laity then consisted of the comfortable classes in town and country. In Geneva, its home, Calvinism had republican leanings, but in England and Germany monarchical absolutism was reaping the benefits of the anti-Romish movement. Where the classes in question were strong enough to resist absolutism, it was natural that they should look to Geneva as the model community for the true reformation of religion. Thus Calvinism rapidly became naturalized in the Netherlands, where resistance to the Spanish rule united the cream of the middle classes and the great nobles. Under somewhat similar conditions it spread through Bohemia and Hungary. It enrolled under its flag the Protestant traders and landowners of France. Calvin’s political creed excluded alike princely absolutism and plebeian democracy, but between these two extremes it offered scope for compromise. Hence the most diverse varieties of Calvinism could fight together under one flag, so long as they were animated by a common hostility. Frederick Engels makes some suggestive remarks upon the connection between the Calvinist dogma of predestination and the contemporary situation of the middle classes. He writes:

His predestination doctrine was the religious expression of the fact that in the commercial world of competition success or failure does not depend upon a man’s activity or cleverness, but upon circumstances uncontrollable by him. It is not of him that willeth or of him that runneth, but of the mercy of unknown superior powers; and this was especially true at a period of economic revolution, when all old commercial routes and centres were replaced by new ones, when India and America were opened to the world, and when even the most sacred economic articles of faith – the value of gold and silver – began to totter and to break down. Calvin’s Church constitution was thoroughly democratic and republican; and where the Kingdom of God was republicanized, could the kingdoms of this world remain subject to monarchs, bishops, and lords? While German Lutheranism became a willing tool in the hands of princes, Calvin founded a republic in Holland, and active republican parties in England and, above all, Scotland.

In Calvinism the second great bourgeois upheaval found its doctrine ready cut and dried. This upheaval took place in England. The middle class of the towns brought it on, and the yeomanry of the country districts fought it out. Curiously enough, in all of the three great bourgeois risings, the peasantry is just the class that, the victory once gained, is most surely ruined by the economic consequences of that victory. A hundred years after Cromwell the yeomanry of England had almost disappeared. Anyhow, had it not been for that yeomanry and for the plebeian element in the towns, the bourgeoisie would never have fought the matter out to the bitter end, and would never have brought Charles I to the scaffold. In order to secure even those conquests of the bourgeoisie that were ripe for gathering at the time, the revolution had to be carried considerably further – exactly as in 1793 in France and 1848 in Germany. This seems, in fact, to be one of the laws of evolution of bourgeois society. [13]

To be sure, during the reign of Elizabeth, Puritanism and its allied sects could only proselytize furtively, as her Government was too strong, too effective, and, we may add, too intelligent to provoke such a volume of discontent as was needed to enrol the mass of the population under the banner of Puritanism. Yet, even during her reign, the sect known as “Separatists”, or Brownists, after the priest and teacher, Robert Browne, split off from the main body of the Calvinists. This sect stood for the complete independence of every congregation of the godly. Browne, who lived for a year among the Dutch fugitives in Norfolk and stayed in Holland for a still longer time, was undoubtedly influenced by the Anabaptists.

Probably Brownism, from the outset, was strongly imbued with democratic political tendencies. In any case, it engendered the religion of the extreme political elements, who as an ecclesiastical organization called themselves “Independents”. The name signified the champions of independence for each congregation, and came to denote a political party. The sect began by preaching a return to primitive Christianity, the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Christ. His spiritual influence alone was sufficient to secure harmony and concord among the congregations of the “saints”, and rendered superfluous such coercive expedients as the organized Church discipline of the Calvinists. The Independents rejected the order of priesthood and everything that smacked of prelacy. “The other sect, or faction rather” we read in the book A Brief Discovery of the False Church, by Henry Barrowe, one of the founders and martyrs of Independency, published my 1590, and referring to the orthodox Calvinists, “these Reformists, howsoever, for fashions sake, they give the People a little liberty, to sweeten their mouths, and make them believe that they should choose their own ministers; yet even in this pretended choice do they cozen and beguile them also; leaving them nothing but the smoky, windy title of election only; – enjoining them to choose some University clerk; one of these college-birds of their own brood; or else, comes a synod in the neck of them, and annihilated the election, whatsoever it be.” [14]

Under James I the disintegrating tendencies in Church and State were accentuated. Even in his first Parliament many Puritans sat, and although, in accordance with custom, this Parliament voted the King tonnage and poundage for life, it refused to discuss any further grants for the King’s maintenance until it had inquired into the mandates and elections of its members. King and Parliament were thenceforward in ceaseless conflict, and while not venturing to the point of open resistance, Parliament refused to be intimidated by the King’s threats and protested energetically against the violation of its rights. One of the most famous of these protests so angered the King that, in December 1621, he, with his own hand, tore the page on which it was written out of the journals of the House of Commons. He then dissolved Parliament and imprisoned certain of its members, among whom was John Pym, member for Tavistock, who subsequently headed the resistance to Charles I. Another member of the opposition in James’ reign was Thomas Wentworth, member for York County, who afterwards became Earl of Stafford and the right-hand man of Charles I. He was destined to die on the scaffold for James’ son.

James tried in every way to raise money: by forced loans, by traffic in titles and honours, by the sale of monopolies. The last Parliament he summoned (when war broke out with Spain), while granting the money for prosecuting the war, declared monopolies illegal, and accused James’ Secretary to the Treasury, Earl Middlesex, of bribery. In 1625 James died, and bequeathed a troubled kingdom to his successor.



3. The Utopia of Lord Chancellor Bacon

One year after the death of James, his sometime Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon, Baron Verulam and Viscount St. Albans, also died. Among his papers was the fragment of a Utopia, the New Atlantis, written in Latin. It is interesting to examine the social ideas of this cultured philosopher one hundred years after the appearance of More’s Utopia.

The title of the work relates to the mythical Atlantis of the ancients mentioned by Plato in Timaeus. Just as the tradition of a great continent beyond the Pillars of Hercules almost suggested an early knowledge of the existence of America, so Bacon’s New Atlantis has been supposed to hint at the existence of the Australian Continent.

Bacon’s New Atlantis describes a model community engaged in scientific and technical pursuits rather than a social Utopia, and subsumes the technological speculations of the foremost thinker of his time. The social and moral side of the narrative is tedious and uninspiring compared with the bold swing of More’s Utopia. “Bensalem”, as the “New Atlantis” is called by its inhabitants, seems to be but little different from seventeenth-century Europe, and presents all the social categories of property, property distinctions, classes, priests, an official hierarchy, and a king who is both wise and absolute. The only touch of originality is an order of learned men devoted mainly to industrial experiments. The institute of these savants, “King Solomon’s House”, is a centre for the cultivation of useful knowledge, and one of the fathers of the order, in his enumeration of the directions, arrangements, and contrivances of the house, sketches the scientific Utopia of Bacon. The name Solomon was a compliment to James I, whose flatterers often compared him with the Jewish King.

A family festival attended by the narrator of the “New Atlantis” depicts a family resembling that of Bacon’s time, but somewhat idealized and organized on patriarchal lines. We learn that in Bensalem rigid monogamy and the strictest chastity reign. Marriages contracted without parental consent, while not invalid, entailed partial disinheritance on the children. All of which was very reassuring to the comfortable classes of the period, for whose edification a corrective is administered to More. “I have read in a book of one of your men, of a feigned commonwealth”, says a Jew (religious toleration being the rule in Bensalem) to the narrator, “where the married couple are permitted, before they contract, to see one another naked. This they (the inhabitants of the ‘New Atlantis’) dislike; for they think it a scorn to give a refusal after so familiar knowledge, but because of many hidden defects in men and women’s bodies, they have a more civil way.” A friend or relation of one of the “high contracting parties” may see the other bathe.

In the “New Atlantis” of Bacon, the ardent advocate of the realistic and inductive method of inquiry, religion plays a much greater, much more obtrusive part than in the Utopia of the Catholic More.

In one respect only does Bacon’s imagination soar, and that is in the enormous volume of the wealth of the “New Atlantis”, the abundance of its means of enjoyment. The inmates of the House of Solomon do not pass their days in abstract speculation; they experiment, calculate, and produce. It is a Utopia with emphasis on the aspect of production, thus chiming in with the intellectual tendencies of the clearest thinkers amongst the middle class of the period, and presents no essential modifications in the modes of production and distribution. The description of Solomon’s House begins: “The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”

In an age of discoveries Bacon stands forth as the herald of an epoch of the great industrial inventions. This is indeed no small thing, but it involves a contracting of the social horizon, as individual utility is the immediate concern. This explains the paucity of ideas in all that relates to social organization as a whole. Bacon’s Utopia reveals the progress which modern industrial doctrine had already made in his time.




1. Annals of Commerce, vol.iii, p.114.

2. Thorold Rogers, The Economic Interpretation of History, pp.174, 175.

3. Capital, Vol.i, p.773.

4. Ibid., p.70.

5. Thorold Rogers, loc. cit., p.44.

6. Marx, loc. cit., p.773n.

7. Russell, Ket’s Rebellion in Norfolk, p.8.

8. p.1 of the English edition published at Norwich in 1750.

9. Froude, vol.v, p.168.

10. Russell, Life of Ket, pp.23, 24.

11. Blomefield’s History of Norfolk.

12. Loc. cit., pp.79-80.

13. Frederick Engels on Historic Materialism, Neue Zeit, 1892-93, Vol.i, pp.43, 44.

14. Quoted in Benjamin Hanbury’s Historical Memorials Relating to the Independents, London 1839, p.47.


Last updated on 16.3.2003