Parliaments Politics and People seminar: Jennifer Wells, Crafting empire: republican imperialism and parliamentary policy 1647-60’

Our ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar is back for a new term. Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section reports back from Jennifer Wells’ opening paper…

Jennifer Wells’ paper opened with an image of the frontispiece to Sir Anthony Weldon’s tract ‘A Cat May Look Upon a King’ (published in 1652 after Weldon’s death), which detailed the careers of several kings of England, and in particular concentrated on the perceived scandalous shortcomings of James I. By exposing the folly of kingship Weldon’s tract argued in favour of the establishment of a republic. The result, so the tract suggested, would be a marked increase in shipping and trade. During the 1650s various other authors, notably James Harrington in Oceana, also considered the theme of empire, monarchy and the benefits and problems associated with republics. What Wells’ paper proposed was that at the heart of the imperial expansion of the period following the death of Charles I was a programme closely mapped onto the precedent of the republican Roman past. She thus set out to consider how such classical republicanism served to justify English expansion in Ireland and Scotland and how the Roman model offered the new English state a template for managing their new colonies and subjugated territories.

In the course of the paper Wells employed the examples of Sallust, Tacitus and other classical authors to demonstrate how their conceptions of the Roman state were re-employed by the state-builders of the English republic. In so doing, they also followed the example of Machiavelli who in his Discourses, having rejected the models of the ancient Etruscans, and Spartans and Athenians, turned to the Roman model as the most suitable analogy for modern imperial expansionism. For the English of the 1650s the Roman republican state, built in the aftermath of the overthrow of a tyrant monarch (Tarquinius Superbus), also served as a template for their new experiment.

Wells considered how the Roman example was apposite not just in terms of the English need to acquire new territories but also in its management of subjugated areas. Thus the programme of transportation of elite families, colonization in Ireland, and imposition of a lingua franca (in this case English rather than Latin) on Scots Highlanders and Irish speakers whose first languages were differing forms of Gaelic, might also point to an emulation of the way in which the Romans sought to suppress and homogenize those within the imperial bounds.

Wells closed with a brief consideration of some of the central personalities of the period: George Monck (the future duke of Albemarle), Sir Henry Vane, Algernon Sidney and Bulstrode Whitelocke. All in differing ways exercised their influence towards the establishment of English trading or colonial ventures that also drew on classical precedents.

This was a thought-provoking opening to the term and the question and answer session was consequently both lively and lengthy. At the outset Wells had particularly invited comments on her thesis and there were a number of observations made about some of the conceptual problems she had raised; for example, the difficulties of proving that there was any particularly ‘Roman’ model in evidence, beyond the frequent employment of classical rhetoric that was all too common in a classically educated elite. It was also difficult to disentangle to what extent employment of classical models served merely to legitimize an unplanned and ad hoc series of developments rather than being the template for a particular programme. The role of Cromwell himself was raised and the all too complex realities of political society between the fall of Charles I and collapse of the regime. Many of those initially influential (like Algernon Sidney) had after all fallen from grace by the time that Cromwell had taken on the quasi-monarchical position of his later years. Perhaps most of all the various contributions pointed to the difficulties of attempting to observe in the 1650s a concept of empire distinct from both earlier (for example Tudor political rhetoric) and later (the experience of the 1670s and beyond) interpretations of state and imperial developments. The session closed with a warm invitation to the speaker to return at the end of her research and present her eventual conclusions.


Join us next week for a rather different ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ topic. Harm Kaal (Nijmegen) will speak on ‘Popular politics: the friendly match between sport and politics in the Netherlands, c.1960-1980s’.  Full details here.

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