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Civil War London

Mobilizing for Parliament, 1641-1645


Jordan S. Downs


Politics, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain Series

Manchester: University Press, 2021

Hardcover. xi + 326 p. ISBN 978-1526148810. £85


Reviewed by Sarah Covington

The Graduate Center and Queens College

City University of New York




While studies of the English civil wars have certainly benefitted from approaches that extend the conflict to a larger “three kingdoms” or “four nations” framework, an apparently concomitant decline has appeared since the 1990s in studies of the local, regional, or municipal aspects of this most important “internecine” conflict. Peter Lake and Richard Cust, in their recent book on Cheshire before the civil war, have described the historiographic decrease in local histories, once so dominant in the 1960s and 1970s, as “entirely inexplicable.” But historiography, like history itself, is never entirely unfathomable, and one could find answers (or theories) in a number of externally-driven explanations. The aforementioned three kingdoms approach, inspired in part by J.G.A. Pocock’s manifestoes in the 1970s, succeeded in restoring Ireland as a co-equal actor in the conflicts, even if many studies which contained the title “in Britain and Ireland” tended to remain firmly anglocentric. Equally important and beginning in the 1990s, the dominant neoliberal discourse around economic and political globalism, or the term “globalism” or transnationalism generally, has perhaps contributed to the turn away from the local, given that “global history” is more professionally validated as well. Whatever the case, the local tends to become subsumed if not erased in the process, even in studies that take up the relatively recent theories of glocalization. It is therefore refreshing to see an emerging scholar return to local, regional, county or in this case municipal contexts, extracting deeply from one terrain to produce rich and exciting yields that start and remain with the local and reveal expansive understandings and insights in the process. 

Focusing on London in the years from 1641 to 1645, Jordan S. Downs’ Civil War London : Mobilizing for Parliament, 1641-1645 offers an impressive portrait of a city responsible in great part for the unfolding of the war to come, even if it was not monolithically in favor of the parliamentary cause. Building on and departing from the works of other historians, including London civil war historians Keith Lindley, Stephen Porter, Ann Hughes and Elliot Vernon, Downs investigates wartime military, financial and ideological mobilization in order to uncover larger issues of popular politics, print culture, livery companies and church parishes, city and state interactions, and the essential role of leadership in directing and manipulating London’s vast resources. One of the key early events to propel events forward was the 1641 uprising of Catholics in Ireland against protestant settlers, resulting in violence, the appearance of protestant refugees in London (and elsewhere), and not least, the production of pamphlets, sermons, and petitions that drummed up hysteria around a “Popish plot” against the city. Stirred on by a “zealous leadership that would repeatedly agitate” the crowds against the king in turn, events in Ireland, according to Downs, “helped to prime London logistically and ideologically for the coming war at home” [35, 30]. The weaponization of scriptural verse and use of “providential exhortations” further connected Ireland and London, and shaped by extension the civil war to come [40].

Downs is very good in this early chapter and those which follow in detailing the charitable efforts in London toward the refugees and later the war wounded. Equally important is his focus on those in the city, including “’ill-effected’ ministers,” who remained loyalist, neutral, or of the peace party, and whose “oppositional” voices were a target of suppression for those leaders advocating for war [50, 52]. One of the most effective leaders in this regard, and a central character in the book, is Isaac Pennington, soon to become Lord Mayor and a man who was “nearer than most to the beating heart of parliament’s wartime mobilization” [10]. Indeed, Pennington appears throughout as a wily machine politician, removing the existing loyalist mayor from office in 1642 and after himself installed, quickly becoming a name that was “synonymous with mobilizing efforts” [64]. Downs is excellent in presenting the many ways in which the people and institutions of London were tapped for the war by men such as Pennington: in addition to army volunteers and the donations of horses, the middling sorts, widows and congregants were urged to give to the parliamentary cause, while the estates of unwilling bishops were tapped as well. Not least, Downs delves into the detailed financial contributions of livery companies, which included the twelve great livery companies and other lesser ones. Parliament was involved in all of this, coordinating with city leaders, and “repeatedly turn[ing] to livery companies in order to fulfill wartime financial and military needs,” to the point of great strain for those companies [75]. Establishing the Committee for the Advance of Money, parliament further worked with Pennington—himself an MP— to secure loans through the London parishes, while Downs also offers a very useful and fascinating map, or comparative “topography of support,” from wards within and outside the City [98].

Downs presents a portrait of impressive municipal effectiveness and religious and political leadership when it came to mobilizing for war. None of this proceeded without challenge, however. Public opinion could sour quickly, especially after the losses of the parliamentary army in the early stages of the war; the peace petitioning of 1643 also “threatened to do irreparable damage to wider belligerent interests” and “[erode] the pressing need for mobilization” [123]. The imposition of the excise tax resulted in some grumbling as well. On the other hand, the king’s charge of treason against seven Londoners, for example, allowed the city’s radical leadership “to gain control over London’s press and secure the metropolis,” just as it “steeled proponents of the cause and energized efforts by the accused to mobilize the metropolis” [127, 129]. Pennington, again, was central to this, as he and his allies “tighten[ed] their grip on City pulpits” or “rid metropolitan parishes of lingering loyalism,” among other actions [139, 152]. Other fears, generated by news such as the so-called plot of Edmund Waller, involving a royalist storming of London in 1643, were themselves incentivized by Pennington and (not least) John Pym as an opportunity to enact a loyalty oath and further boost mobilization. Meanwhile, disgruntlement with the Earl of Essex’s leadership or the peace party compelled the city’s leaders to draw up petitions, encourage popular agitations en masse, and throw support behind their man in Sir William Waller.

As Downs writes, “the adoption of the Solemn League and Covenant and the arrival of Scottish soldiers altered the dynamics of the civil war, and by extension the politics of mobilization in the capital, particularly in 1644” [241]. Troops from the Eastern Association of counties also assumed increasing importance, lessening the demand for militia recruitment in London. The demand to enforce loans and raise funds and taxes in London nevertheless continued, just as Londoners generally “had good reason to express their concerns [that] they did in fact pay more on average than their suburban counterparts” [248]. Not least was the necessity to house and care for the sick and wounded, which had “[begun] well before the outbreak of the civil war and persisted well past its end” [257]. Meanwhile, religious divisions intensified over the course of 1644, as reports of mass desertions in the army and the trial of William Laud proceeded to generate yet more petitions, tensions, and counter-acting efforts of officials.

Downs ends his story with the parliamentary victory at Naseby in 1645, in which only providence appeared to free the godly cause “from so many narrowly averted crises” [281]. And many of these crises unfolded in the city. Downs tells a story of plots, counter-plots, tensions and crisis, all of which could have taken the war in another direction. On the other hand, these tensions energized mobilization efforts, as the authorities well knew. Reframing the rhetoric as one of self-defense, or resorting to coercion or even extortion if need be, proved highly successful and even vital to propelling if not quite winning the war just yet. Downs is to be commended for telling such a story, which could only have been done by diving deep into the records of one diverse group of people living in one particular place. Some extension outward might have been useful: work on the Adventurers by Karl Bottigheimer and more recently David Brown could have been employed or acknowledged; on the other hand, the frequent mention in the text of the same historians—Lindley, Brenner, Como—can be somewhat tiresome, even if Downs cites them in order to engage their arguments. Nevertheless, Civil War London is a commendable and meticulously researched study, and one which should be read by all who are interested in the civil wars, civic history, popular politics, print culture, religion, and social and economic history. Hopefully it will also usher in a new age which restores and extends local (or in this case municipal) history in exciting and innovative directions.



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