Pamphlets From British Civil War Era Reveal World Of Fear

Roundup: Talking About History

Louise Jury, The Independent (London), 12/13/04

Samuel Pepys may have been the best-known chronicler of the 17th century but he was not the only one. The passionate views of others affected by the turbulent events of the Civil War are revealed in more than 900 pamphlets being given to the British Library today.

Bound into 17 giant volumes by their unknown owner or owners, they were effectively the beginnings of the popular press in Britain and document the turmoil of a time when many citizens feared the overthrowing of the king might trigger the end of the world.

Stories of miraculous sea-monsters and traumatic natural events like volcanic eruptions were gathered eagerly as evidence of the danger of disrupting the perceived natural order by rising up against the monarchy. Other pamphlets, ranging from four to 16 pages long, address such issues as king, Parliament and the law, religious divisions and toleration, and betray clear Royalist sympathies.

As such, they provide a counterfoil to the biggest collection of such pamphlets in the British Library, which once belonged to George Thomason, a London bookseller sympathetic to the Puritan Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell. The 17 volumes have been in the Home Office library for decades and are now being handed over by Fiona Mactaggart, the minister responsible for freedom of information, in the spirit of encouraging greater public access.

More prosaically, the department is having to sort its large collection of rare books prior to moving to new offices.

Giles Mandelbrote, a British Library expert, said the pamphlets dated from 1623 to the 1870s and some were very rare. The bulk are from the 1640s and 1650s, when Royalists and Roundheads were clashing in bitter battles, Charles I was beheaded and the Commonwealth declared. Armies involved in the war printed their own propaganda pamphlets with portable presses as they fought around the country."This was a very exciting time in British history and this sort of collection is very important for the kaleidoscopic picture it gives of a range of opinions about the burning issues of the times," Mr Mandelbrote said.

"Its importance as a collection lies in the sense it gives us a different view of the whole time from other collections we already have. People were aware they were living in exciting times. They made collections of this material to show what it felt like to be living in the middle of the world turned upside down. But people also referred to their personal libraries as being, in literary terms, armouries. They were material to mount assaults on the opposition."

It is thought the collection may have been pulled together by someone with close connections to the court, but at least four different hands have annotated the pamphlets. At least two names inscribed on many of the pamphlets are identifiable in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Arthur Turnor was a lawyer who died in 1651. His son was one of the judges who, after the restoration of the monarchy, was responsible for prosecuting for treason those who had executed Charles I. The other name is Edward Northey, a younger lawyer who was at university in Oxford, the Royalists' stronghold, in the 1660s.

The pamphlets were apparently bound in the second half of the 17th century as the contents list is in a 17th century hand, Mr Mandelbrote said. But how they ended up at the Home Office is a mystery as it did not exist at the time. Other papers in the Home Office library, however, are thought to have been the private papers of early secretaries of state.

"Scholars, historians and anyone with an interest in 17th century politics will be able to give the English Civil War pamphlets the attention they deserve," Ms Mactaggart said.

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