Riotous or Revolutionary: The Clubmen during the English Civil Wars

Riotous or Revolutionary: The Clubmen during the English Civil Wars

By John Staab

Historia, Volume 12 (2003)

Introduction:  The English Civil Wars and Regicide, 1642-49, has been viewed as one of the “great” revolutions. Like the French and Russian Revolutions, the earlier English Revolution saw protests against the government coalesce into armed rebellion, civil war, and then the overthrow of the old order, including the execution of the monarch and establishment of the new rule. In these great Revolutions, historians have pointed to revolutionary moments, such as the peasant uprisings in France in the summer and fall of 1789. To Marxist historians like Christopher Hill, these peasant uprisings act as a prelude, or stepping stone, to a larger social revolution.

In the English Civil Wars, which pitted the supporters of the King (Royalists, or Cavaliers) against the Roundhead Parliamentarians, some might point to the rise of the 1644 Clubmen in the countryside as just such a lower class, agrarian revolutionary moment. This paper uses the demands and actions of the Clubmen as a test case to see if definitions of revolution apply to such a group. It also compares them to the French peasant revolts of the mid-seventeenth century, such as the Nu Pieds, in order to question the general revolutionary content of agrarian movements in the early modern period.

This essay falls back on historian Perez Zagorin’s broader and more inclusive definition of revolution. When one glances at Zagorin’s broad definition of what constitutes a revolution, the Clubmen of the 17th Century seemingly fit it in a limited manner. But were the Clubmen truly revolutionary? Did these men understand the larger context as to why England was embroiled in a colossal civil war, or comprehend the loftier ambitions of the leading parliamentarians and royalists battling for control of the kingdom? Upon a more in-depth examination of Zagorin’s hypothesis, one can make a much more definitive case for the Clubmen being more riotous than revolutionary.

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