Parliaments, politics and people seminar: Gary Rivett, Information regimes and governance in the English Revolution: Parliament and the case of the Committee for Plundered Ministers

At the last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ Seminar of the academic year, Dr Gary Rivett (York St John University) spoke on ‘Information regimes and governance in the English Revolution: Parliament and the case of the Committee for Plundered Ministers.’ Here he gives us an overview of his paper…

Established towards the end of 1642 and increasingly formalised as a parliamentary body in early 1643, the Committee for Plundered Ministers found its workload increased as Parliament enlarged its duties and jurisdictions. Initially, the Committee was only tasked with supporting the ministers who had been removed from their livings by royalists. Quickly, though, the committee was given the ‘power to consider of the informations against scandalous ministers, though there be now malignancy against him; and shall have the power to put out such as are scandalous, their scandalous being proved against them.’ No longer a body that distributed money to plundered ministers, the committee had evolved into a technique of governance dedicated towards policing dissent. And, with the creation of the Westminster Assembly in 1643, the Committee assisted in the examination ministers who would be inserted into parishes to replace those adjudged to be scandalous. It was therefore an essential protagonist in the implementation of parliamentary religious policy throughout the 1640s.

Underlying the work of the committee was the creation, gathering, analysis and management of information. Like any other parliamentary committee, it generated huge amounts of paperwork. In pursuit of scandalous ministers, for example, it relied upon county commissioners to produce cases consisting of petitions, interrogatories, witness testimonies, the articles against an accused minister. At the level of central government, the Committee generated its own paperwork in the form of receipts, certificates and orders. Tracing this paperwork identifies the connections the Committee had with the revenue-raising committees (Advance Money, Sequestrations and Compounding with Delinquents), the Westminster Assembly, and the House of Commons. There was a dynamic information circuit that, ideally, would allow paperwork to flow around the increasingly complex parliamentary infrastructure. While Committees were certainly delimited by their jurisdictions and responsibilities, their boundaries were porous: they were nodes in information circuits that overlapped, creating networks of association that supported the practices of a government existing during a civil war.

That paperwork now resides as records in archives. There are few hints that point to how the information circuit functioned, it efficacy, or how the politics of the period affected the everyday practices of the committee. A filing hole, a certified true copy, a fold line, an address: the materiality of the documents gesture towards various stages of information management and handling. Registers and their indexes offer nods to committee maintaining and requiring reference and storage devices.

Individual cases emphasise the failings of any information regime designed to process large numbers of cases, generating endless reams of paper that clerks, committee members and secretaries had to process. Problems with provincial information gathering disrupted the entire circuit. Between 1646 and 1648, the the accused minister for Sutton-under-Brailes in Gloucestershire, Henry Watkins, repeatedly avoided attending witness hearings and produced counter-narratives that contested claims of his delinquency. Back and forth went the case, between Westminster and the county committee, and all the while Watkins evaded full censure for his alleged scandal. The reliance upon local information regimes, could inhibit the ability of the Committee to fulfil its agenda. The later case of George Lawson, from Eakring in Nottinghamshire, also demonstrates the dysfunction of the information regime, particularly at the central level. Lawson’s case bounced around from committee to committee in 1652. His case was first sent to Committee for for Compounding with Delinquents. Then, Lawson himself petitioned the Committee for Advance Money for details of the articles against him. Finally, an unknown ‘R.M’ connected to the Committee for Plundered Ministers looked over the case and reasoned, correctly, the case fell under its jurisdiction. Did ‘R.M’ dutifully submit the case to the Committee? No: the entire case had to be resubmitted by the county. Central adjudication of a case could be a slow and convoluted process.

Ultimately, the information infrastructure that supported the work of the Committee contributed to a broader surveillance culture, dedicated to the purging and persecution of scandalous ministers (among other malignants and delinquents). Throughout the 1640s, parliament relied upon this technique of governance to fulfil its military and religious objectives.

GR

Parliaments, politics and people‘ will return in the autumn.

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