Lost Chances in the English Civil War

Good Work For A Good Magistrate

Review of an Athol Books pamphlet.[1]

Tudor and Stuart governments had a determination to create something new in the world. Francis Bacon’s A New Atlantis in the time of Queen Elizabeth and James I, and the realisation of his ideas in the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge laid the basis for the modem world, far more than trade or banking, which had existed for centuries and produced no very large impact.

I had never been entirely happy with the orthodox Marxist notion that the English Civil War represented a triumph of capitalism over feudalism. The Stuarts as lawful monarchs had the support of reactionary forces, but all of them were keen progressives, anxious to undermine the old order of the nation. Cromwell had no particular notion of what to do, beyond carrying on much as the Stuarts bad done. And when Charles II was restored, he continued the same way, as well as formally establishing the Royal Society, informally set up during the war itself.

In his introduction, Brendan Clifford shows how something really radical almost did happen after the triumph of the Parliamentarians. A real Puritan revolution might have occurred, establishing a system of law based directly on the Bible. Radicals wanted to ignore the jumbled chaos of the English Common Law, a system established by judges for the benefit of lawyers, slow and baffling and not especially just. The Fifth Monarchy group had over a third of the members of the ‘Barebones’ Parliament, and were preparing to replace the Common Law with a code of law derived from the Bible. They failed because at a critical moment Cromwell turned against them. And their role has ever since been played down. (I suppose that if Kerensky had been a great general who had personally defeated Kornilov’s counter-revolution, and then established personal dictatorship after dispersing the Petrograd Soviet, Russian Bolshevism might seem just as cranky and marginal as the Fifth Monarchy men now appear.)

Cromwell “died in 1658, having established neither Kingdom nor Republic. After a year of chaos … Charles the Second returned and punished the surviving leaders of the Rebellion.” Hugh Peters, though not one of the Fifth Monarchists, had urged him to follow a sensible program of reform. But he knew, as they did not, that nothing could be done without Cromwell’s support. His life history is interesting – like Tom Paine, he spent time in America, and developed his ideas while there. Good Work For A Good Magistrate has some remarkable notions, such as a fire prevention programme, the need for which would be demonstrated in the Great Fire some fifteen years later. He proposes a basic welfare state. He proposes a system of Peacemakers, who would arbitrate in “all common controversies” without the need to hire lawyers and engage in a set-piece battle before a judge – a system we still stand in need of. He advocates taking up the ideas of Francis Bacon, who he refers to by his title, Lord Verulam “First for the Improvement of Nature, Lord Verulam hath also manie excellent, and learned Problemes, experiments, and speculations, and more in that kinde may bee added, and brought to act by other learned men, by the incouragement, and help of the publick stock, in times of Peace, when war is ended.” He also anticipates the 18th century building of canals: “cutting of Rivers, where none are”.

Peters was executed in 1660, along with the surviving regicides, even though he had had no official responsibility for the trial of the King.

“His interest for later times arises from the fact that his mind was more in tune with the developments of later times than any other Puritan mind of the period, and that he was one of them.”



This review appeared in January 1993, in Issue 33 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.


[1] A complete reprint of Hugh Peters’ pamphlet of 1651, with an introduction by Brendan Clifford. 48 pp. Athol Books, December 1992