Author: David Bennett

The English Revolution 1640

I have just read The English Revolution 1640 by Christopher Hill. It is available to read online, and that is how I read most of it before I bought the book secondhand. It’s a slim book that shouldn’t cost you more than £3.00.

My particular interest now today is to understand the reasoning and motivation of those in positions of power who favour a hard Brexit or indeed any Brexit. So I start with English history.

In A Nutshell

In a nutshell, the book argues that the monarchy, the landed gentry, the church, the big capitalists, the little capitalists, the merchants, the peasantry, the urban masses, the army – all had their positions to protect and advance, and their shifting allegiances in a changing world.

Capitalists were making money overseas and as pirates on the high seas. Those who bought land following the destruction of the churches under Henry VIII wanted rack rents from their tenants.

They weren’t interested in the feudal relationships that had kept the feudal landlords living like lords and they denied tenants their feudal copyhold entitlement to remain on the land.

Capitalists wanted workers. Tenants weren’t safe from being evicted from their land or unable to pay rack rents and were moving away to the towns to work in capitalist ventures.

The towns were bound by guilds that prevented the opening up of competition. Acts of Parliament prohibited those less well off from entering guilds – Parliament being the King’s parliament made of the King’s friends.

But things were changing, the makeup of Parliament was changing. And the capitalists had other means to circumvent the King.

They established ventures outside the towns, free of the restrictions.

Prices rose, and the feudal order collapsed because it was too expensive to maintain.

Meanwhile, attitudes changed because the Church was no longer the favoured or only route for disseminating truth and propaganda.

Civil War

The result was civil war, the establishment of a republic, and eventually a change in the relationship of a changed parliament that brought back the monarchy stripped back to do its bidding.

What didn’t happen? The mass of the population were not able to take power. They tried but they failed.

What I learned

What can I take from reading the book?

I learned that every group was bound together by self interest; that groups changed their composition as outside forces changed them; that groups formed allegiances with former enemies; that it was always a struggle for ascendancy and someone else’s expense.

Beyond that, that economic changes and the march of history rarely favour those trying to stop change.

I think the look in the face of Charles II in this c.1678 terracotta bust attributed to John Bushnell says it all. He was brought back on condition that he knew his place and kept out of politics.

At the beginning of this article I said that my particular interest now today is to try to understand the reasoning and motivation of those in positions of power who favour a hard Brexit or indeed any Brexit. What make-up of this country do they want to bring about? 

A Longish Quote

In that context, here is a longish quote from near the end of The English Revolution 1640.

Ever since then orthodox historians have done their utmost to stress the “continuity” of English history, to minimise the revolutionary breaks, to pretend that the “interregnum” (the word itself shows what they are trying to do) was an unfortunate accident, that in 1660 we returned to the old Constitution normally developing, that 1688 merely corrected the aberrations of a deranged King. Whereas, in fact, the period 1640-60 saw the destruction of one kind of state and the introduction of a new political structure within which capitalism could freely develop. For tactical reasons, the ruling class in 1660 pretended that they were merely restoring the old forms of the Constitution. But they intended by that restoration to give sanctity and social stamp to a new social order. The important thing is that the social order was new and would not have been won without revolution.

There is a worry from the hard Left and from the hard Right.

St Anthony’s Fire

I’ll tell you a story about ergot. In my spare time at university I read a book (The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire by John Grant Fuller Jr) about the 1951 Pont-Saint-Esprit ergot poisoning.

Ergot contains a mass of compounds, some of which act like LSD and some of which have other effects on the body.

There have been reports throughout history of mass poisoning with ergot.

A 2016 article in the Smithsonian refers to an incidence of St John’s dance (another name for St. Anthony’s Fire) that affected a village in Aachen in 1374 where the villagers danced endlessly and uncontrollably.

Breugel painted the annual procession of people affected by St John’s Dance on their pilgrimage to be cured at the church at Molenbeek.

St John’s Dance, or St. Anthony’s Fire, are thought to be incidences of ergotism. 

Hundreds of people were affected in the 1951 outbreak at Pont-Saint-Esprit in France. Some died, some had gangrenous limbs, some went crazy, and some survived intact.

I remember a sentence near the end of the book where one of the outsiders who came to the village after the outbreak described the villagers as moving together like a flock of geese.

That’s got a science fiction sound to it – that the villagers were somehow telepathically tied to one another.  Or perhaps they were simply shocked and came together as survivors of a mutual tragedy.

You may wonder how an incident like this could go on for days and weeks in the 20th century without the outside world quickly arriving to intervene and help people.

This was an isolated village in rural France in 1951, not long after the Second World War. It happened. 


A friend and I used to cycle from the university to a nature reserve.

One summer’s day we stopped on a small country road and sat back on the grass by a field. I started to tell her about The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire, the book I was reading, and while I was telling her I saw that there was rye growing around the edges of the field.

It may have been the previous year’s crop that had hung on and sprouted again. Or it may have been there for years, stubbornly refusing to disappear.

I reached back behind my head to take an ear of rye to explain how ergot – Claviceps purpurea fungus – grew inside and over the ear of rye.

I looked at what I had picked and one of the ears was a large, dark purple, curved mass of ergot.

We looked for other ears similarly infected with the fungus. Nothing. Never found another one.

I kept the ear in a small quill box. I had bought in a junk shop because it was similar to the one my parents had at home which I liked.

My dad brought that box back from Japan after he was invalided out during the Korean War.

The box was hand made, black wood with porcupine quill inlays.

I don’t know what happened to the ear of ergot or the box I bought. After my parents died, I kept their quill box, which I still have.

Wikipedia – Ergot