‘Southwark men, who are but traitors’: merchants, rioters, radicals and the ‘good old cause’ in the mid-seventeenth century

In the latest History of Parliament blog we return to our local history study of Southwark. Following our medieval look at the constituency, today Dr Vivienne Larminie, Assistant Editor of the Commons 1640-1660 project, explores the borough in the mid-seventeenth century.

By 1640 there had been no decrease in the independent spirit and propensity to disorder which had made the borough of Southwark so troublesome to the London authorities in the middle ages. Indeed, alongside a range of deep-seated problems from competing jurisdictions to the brothels attracting various ‘evil-doers’, there had emerged new challenges. Parks like the Bear Garden and playhouses like the Globe provided additional leisure facilities for the peers and country gentry who now flocked to the capital, but they were also seen as centres for the super-spreading of disease, the fomentation of social unrest or the encouragement of immorality. As discontent grew with the government of Charles I there was both rioting and religious dissent.

The Bear Garden. Taken from Claes Van Visscher, Map of London, 1616

The borough had long had a strategic importance stemming from its command of the unique pedestrian crossing of the Thames, London Bridge, but it now also had the second largest population in England – over 25,000 people by the 1630s. It was still home to key industries, but traditional activities like leather processing and candle and soap manufacture were complemented by brewing, dyeing, glassmaking; new waves of immigrants produced luxury tin-glazed earthenware and felt goods. Some low-lying areas regularly flooded and there were great disparities in wealth. The richest parish of St Saviour’s, which included the ancient Borough Market, contained some prominent London citizens, while St Olave’s, the location of shipbuilding and the dirtier industries, held a disproportionate number of the poor; St Thomas’s had the famous hospital and St George’s had four of the borough’s five prisons and the fields where the militia drilled.

Signs of discontent were unmistakable in the summer of 1640 after the dissolution of the Short Parliament. Among local men of substance who refused to pay ‘coat and conduct money’ towards the king’s military campaign against the Scots were distiller and international trader George Snelling of St Olave’s and two churchwardens from St Thomas’s. But more disturbing to the privy council were the ‘rebellious assemblies’ directed partly at nearby Lambeth Palace, home of the archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. The ‘traitorous insolences lately practised by some base disorderly people’ also appeared to threaten the royal family at Richmond Palace and St James’s [TNA, SP16/452, f. 273; SP16/453, ff. 94-7, 193].

Once the Long Parliament assembled that autumn, Southwark was prominent in a barrage of petitioning. One of its MPs, Edward Bagshawe, a lawyer doubtless selected because he had crossed swords in court with the archbishop, was dismayed to be presented by some of his chief constituents with a document calling for ‘the total extirpation of Episcopacy, Root and Branch, as likewise of the Book of Common Prayer’. His attempt to suppress it was thwarted when the other Southwark Member, John White, later to gain notoriety as a scourge of ‘scandalous’ and inadequate clergy, ‘brought the petition into the House with 16,000 hands’ subscribing it [E. Bagshawe, A Just Vindication (1660), 3]. An ‘insupportable grievance’ was voiced in a Remonstrance … concerning … the transportation of leather (1641), which claimed that, because of recent price inflation, 2,800 of 3,600 or more poor working families in St Olave’s were deprived of raw materials for their trade and could not pay taxes. In an apparently unprecedented example of successful female lobbying, ‘the women of Southwark’ requested assistance for Protestant women suffering as a result of rebellion in Ireland and obtained concrete relief measures.

There was no unanimity in opposition to crown policies, but over the 1640s and 1650s radical inhabitants gained the upper hand in local politics and returned MPs in their own image. Cornelius Cooke, vintner and churchwarden of St Olave’s, who in June 1641 was briefly in the custody of the gentleman usher of the House of Lords because he had dismantled newly-introduced altar rails with the encouragement of ‘the godly party’, was a signatory to election indentures and a constant presence on local commissions. In 1645 voters chose George Snelling and George Thomson, disabled army veteran and international merchant; both were Independents and became prominent on the executive committees of the republic (1649-1653). In the meantime, perennial resentment at City authorities who still held sway in some borough matters translated into a fight to control the local militia. While the relatively conservative City forces supported the Presbyterian coup in the summer of 1647, those from Southwark helped the New Model army to cross London Bridge and crush it.

London Bridge seen from Southwark. Taken from Claes Van Visscher, Panorama of London, 1616

Whereas in some constituencies the advent of the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell saw a retreat from radicalism and the return of the traditional elite to Parliament, Southwark behaved differently. The poll in June 1654 ranged Baptist preacher Samuel Hyland and Robert Warcupp, nephew of controversial King’s Bench prisoner marshal, Sir John Lenthall, and of erstwhile Speaker William Lenthall, against the equally controversial Colonel John Hardwicke of the militia and Peter de Lannoy, a dyer of immigrant stock. According to objections lodged by partisans of the latter pairing, the presiding bailiff, Samuel Warcupp, used rainy weather and threats of violence to manipulate the result in favour of his son Robert (allegedly an atheist, tippler and gamester) and Hyland (a mendacious campaigner, over-indulgent magistrate and recipient of bribes including two lobsters). The result was upheld, although in 1656 voters achieved a compromise: the still vocal radical Hyland partnered by the merchants’ champion de Lannoy.

With the fall of the protectorate in 1659, Southwark was to the fore in lobbying Parliament. In May Cornelius Cooke headed a deputation presenting a petition of ‘well-affected inhabitants’ supporting the Rump and ‘the good old cause’. When in October dissident army commanders effected the ‘interruption of Parliament’, ‘the saints of Southwark’ were mobilised to resist. In December its militia forces under George Thomson played a crucial part in effecting Parliament’s return, when City forces proved limp. Thereafter, Thomson opted to facilitate a smooth restoration of the monarchy, but in Southwark contested elections and radical politics persisted and St George’s Fields remained a focus for subversive demonstrations.


Further reading:

J. Boulton, Neighbourhood and Society: A London Suburb in the Seventeenth Century (1987)

D. J. Johnson, Southwark and the City (1969)

London and the Civil War, ed. S. Porter (1996)

V. Pearl, London and the Puritan Revolution (1961)

Biographies or further biographies of Edward Bagshawe, Oliver Cromwell, Peter de Lannoy, Samuel Hyland, William Lenthall, George Snelling, George Thomson, John White are being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 section.

Click here for the first instalment of our Southwark exploration and find more local history blogs here.

One thought on “‘Southwark men, who are but traitors’: merchants, rioters, radicals and the ‘good old cause’ in the mid-seventeenth century

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s