Imagine a political group infused with Divine righteousness. They brandish a holy book, whose word is literal. They do not recognise the secular state. Politicians are necessarily the Devil’s spawn. They are the soldiers of the Divine, and those who disagree are worthless scum. Any ends justify the means of creating a Holy State in God’s Promised Land.
Sound familiar? Well, the promised land in question is England. The Divine is not Allah, but Jehovah. The centre of agitation is not the Middle East, but London, circa 1655.
This is a London dark with intrigue, fear and religious angst. The Civil Wars are over, but the peace is still to be won. And agitating in the shadows are the Fifth Monarchists – an extraordinary sect which has featured in a number of novels I have read recently, and indeed, one I have just written.
Just out is SG MacLean’s The Black Friar. This follows the fortunes of Damian Seeker, an agent of Thurloe – Cromwell’s spymaster. My review of The Black Friar will be in this Saturday’s Times, all being well. This is the second Seeker book, and I am a big fan of this series. MacLean captures the atmosphere of 1650s London brilliantly.
|Buy this book: it's brilliant.
At the heart of this new novel are the Fifth Monarchists, the millenarian sect. They also feature heavily in The Tyrant’s Shadow, the follow-on to my first novel Treason’s Daughter, which is coming out next Spring.
For a novelist of the seventeenth century, they are irresistible. So who were they?
In the mid seventeenth Century, it was normal to believe in the second Coming of Christ. It was, in fact, inevitable. The question was about the responsibility of the elect – those predestined to reach heaven - to prepare the ground. The Fifth Monarchists took their millenarian responsibilities seriously. It was not sufficient to anticipate the Second Coming; a Godly Saint had a responsibility to act.
A useful historical analogy is the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks: both believed that Marx’s vision of the dictatorship of the proletariat was inevitable. The difference between them lay in how to facilitate that end point.
The Fifth Monarchists initially believed that Oliver Cromwell was the Saint who would lead them to the Godly land. But he quickly disillusioned them. Cromwell, though Puritan, was nervous of anarchy and leant towards the moderate line politically. He wanted to nurture a puritan revolution in England’s soul; the Fifth Monarchists wanted to scour the nation’s soul into Puritan obedience.
The Fifth Monarchists were a heterogeneous grouping, with different dreams and political fantasies crowding under a broad umbrella. Much of their rhetoric centred around the Bible’s more muscular passages – they were long on brimstone and flaming arrows and short on minuted proposals to effect change. One demand was for a Sanhedrin – or a council of Godly men who could take charge of preparing England for Christ’s return. They were Republicans, but no democrats. They wanted a theocracy, but were sketchy on its detail.
|William Blake: The Angel of the Revelation
There was a fear – possibly groundless – that once the Fifth Monarchists had turned on Cromwell, they would join forces with the disenfranchised Royalists. They had common cause in their hatred of Cromwell, the Lord Protector. That “foul, dissembling perjurer” as one leading Fifth Monarchist called him.
Both the Sealed Knot and the Fifth Monarchists loomed large as bogeymen to Cromwell’s regime. The potential of either fringe to act with wide support was overstated – a cynic might suggest that Cromwell and Thurloe used the threat of terrorism on two fronts to tighten their grip on the state. A more generous interpretation would be that both the Royalists and the Fifth Monarchist posed an intellectual threat to the new Commonwealth’s legitimacy that exaggerated their physical threat.
There were, however, a few slightly cack-handed plots against Cromwell. Some of the main Fifth Monarchist agitators were in and out of prison. In London, particularly, they were thick on the ground and clamorous in their dissent. Among their groupings, they allowed – God Forbid – women!
|Cromwell: "Vile, dissembling perjurer.."
They had the façade of Saintliness and the hearts of revolutionaries – and that made them terrifying in an England struggling with a King-shaped hole in the constitution. Cromwell is said to have said of them: “They had tongues like angels, but had cloven feet.”
Numbers are hard to gauge. Bernard Capp, in his book, The Fifth Monarchy Men, says that one of the leading lights, Christopher Feake, claimed to have 40,000 followers – but this figure is almost certainly exaggerated. Vavasour Powell, Wales’ Fifth Monarchist leader, claimed to be able to raise 20,000 armed men – but only gained 322 signatures for his petition A word for God.
But sometimes facts are less important than fiction in the minds of frightened people. And in 1650s London, menace and bloodshed were never far away.