In honour of Professor John Morrill

Last month, a collection of essays was published in honour of the leading early modern historian, Professor John Morrill: ‘The Nature of the English Revolution Revisited.’ Amongst many other things, Professor Morrill is the chair of the HoP’s editorial board. Our director, Dr Paul Seaward, and one of the contributors to the volume, Philip Baker, take a look at Professor Morrill’s contribution to both the History of Parliament and the impact he has had on 17th Century British history…

The HoP relies enormously on its Editorial Board. Its seven members monitor the quality of the History’s work, keep us plugged into university networks and help to provide us with a perspective on our work beyond our very focussed approach on MPs and constituency politics. They are a tremendous resource and we’ve been privileged to work with some of the greatest names and most creative minds in British history, from Sir Frank Stenton (the first Chairman), Sir Lewis Namier and Sir John Neale, to our last chairman, Professor Paul Langford, and our current one, Professor John Morrill.

The occasion of this blog is to reflect on the contribution of the last – not just to the HoP, but also to British history more generally. John is one of the leading scholars of early modern British history, and in particular the Civil Wars, and is currently the general editor of a new critical edition of the writings and speeches of Oliver Cromwell. For the History, he was already a strong presence even before he joined the Board: several of our Research Fellows were his students and much of the present research agenda in mid-seventeenth century British political and religious history has been set by the questions he asked in well over 100 major publications.

Last month saw the publication of a volume of essays in honour of John, The Nature of the English Revolution Revisited, taking its title from a collection of his essays, The Nature of the English Revolution. The HoP’s Philip Baker – one of John’s former students – is among the contributors to the volume with a chapter entitled ‘The Franchise debate revisited: the Levellers and the Army’. The controversy over whether the Levellers advocated restrictive proposals for parliamentary elections or were supporters of universal male suffrage was fought out in numerous publications between the late 1960s and 1980s. This chapter revisits that debate but from a number of different perspectives raised originally in the work of John Morrill.

First, it argues that the dominant voice at the famous Putney debates of 1647 was that of the New Model Army – not of the Levellers – and that many soldiers’ demands regarding the franchise were above and beyond those of the civilian Levellers. Nevertheless, for all the talk of the rights of ‘the poorest hee’, the army reached a compromise at Putney that would have given the vote to all soldiers – but not to all other men – regardless of their social and economic status as a reward for their personal sacrifice during the civil war.

Second, the chapter contends that the origins of the Levellers’ proposals for the parliamentary franchise should be sought in the practices of civic governance in the City of London, especially the institution of the wardmote, the annual meeting of the city’s wards, where male householders only elected local government officials. Recent literature on early modern England has placed great emphasis on the republican tradition of local office-holding and the practices of self-government, and many Levellers were city freemen with first-hand experience of London’s administration. But the Levellers’ interest in the franchise at both the local and national level – and that of the army, too – points at the same time to a more recognisably ‘modern’ preoccupation with the right to vote as integral to contemporary perceptions of citizenship and political participation during the English Revolution.

Finally, the chapter emphasises a theme always central to the work of John Morrill – the close connection between people and ideas. For the ideas of the Levellers and the army were not confined to the world of political thought with its warring printed texts; they were also the result of political thinking that was intimately connected to individuals’ personal experiences.


For more on the Levellers and the Putney debates, see the earlier blogs by Stephen Roberts and Philip Baker.

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