The Hanwell Park Project

DECEMBER 2013 - Office Work

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There was very little out and abouting during December partly because everyone needs a run up at Christmas and partly because I had been charged with the task of writing some history... to see if I could really. You can judge for yourself if you like. Here is the text of a few ideas relating the role of the gentry in the seventeenth century and the way in which they were a stabilising influence during troubled times and also provided the social and intellectual springboard from which scientific developments took off in the 1650s and 1660s.

Time for the Gentry: Stability and Change during the Seventeenth Century

In 1676 Sir Anthony Cope of Hanwell Castle, Oxfordshire is recorded by Robert Plot  (1677: 240) as being the owner of a remarkable water clock  designed after the pattern of one Mario Bettini. What differentiated this clock from others of the period was its unusual mechanism for regulating the passage of time. Most contemporary clocks did this by means of a mechanical escapement but Sir Anthony’s example was controlled by a paddle rotating within a drum of water. The downward force  applied by weights was moderated by the pressure of water against this paddle which was turning through the body of water in the drum. The presence of a small hole in the paddle allowed this by permitting a small flow of water through it. Thus whilst there was local turbulence around the aperture the overall motion of the mechanism was smooth.

Sir Anthony’s ownership of this clock confirmed him in his status as a virtuoso, an appellation given to those members of the gentry who had shown particular application to the pursuit of natural philosophy and who were, perhaps more to the point, able to support their interest financially. The curious nature of the clock, however, would have set him apart from most of his neighbours for whom time was measured more conventionally. Indeed the measurement of time and hence the ownership of clocks became an increasingly important aspect of the lives of the gentry through the seventeenth century, especially following the introduction of Huygen’s pendulum regulator in 1657 after which London became ‘the horological centre of Europe’ (Sherman 1996: 8). Like any aspect of material culture, owning a clock expressed several aspects of elite preoccupations. On the one hand a fine clock was a status symbol demonstrating a certain capacity to spend; in the following century the typical cost of a long case clock was 45 shillings, nearly two months pay for an agricultural labourer (Glennie and Thrift 2009: 221). On the other hand the clock was a practical tool for those with an interest in efficient management of time and by extension their household and estate. Beyond that it can be argued the possession of a clock also demonstrated a commitment to a certain world view in which there was an imperative to make good use of ‘each fleeting hour’ for spiritual or economic advancement. The gurgling rotation of Sir Anthony’s clock  was not as  good an evocation of ‘times winged chariot’ flitting by as the regular tick from a swinging pendulum. He reserved that imperative for the clock he donated to the parishioners of Hanwell  in 1676.

In this essay we will examine the social, economic and political fortunes of the gentry through the course of the seventeenth century and argue that they constituted a powerful mechanism for stability which protected England from the worst excesses of a century of crisis that  brought so much turmoil to continental Europe. Furthermore we will suggest that the resilience embodied in this class  enabled significant developments to occur, particularly in the second half of the century, in the field of science and technology. We will first address issues of definition and then examine the factors behind the increasing economic and social influence of the gentry before touching on their role in the Civil War, Commonwealth and Restoration. Finally we will take a look at the period up to 1688 which culminated in  ‘the glorious revolution’  which has been described, not without question, as ‘the triumph of the gentry’ (Heal and Holmes 1994: 234).

Of course it would have take more than simply possessing a clock to establish one’s credentials as a gentleman, although by 1675 around half  of them did so (Weatherill 1986: 199).  However, any attempt to define the gentry in the seventeenth century must take into account their material circumstances which in turn reflected their wealth. Expressions of wealth were what gave the gentry the external trappings of respectability and so identified them in their own eyes and the eyes of their neighbours as belonging to that class. First and foremost amongst these was a grand house of sufficient size to set it aside from those of yeomen and lesser freeholders with appropriate fittings and furnishings occasionally graced with a touch of what Peck (2005: 13) refers to as a ‘”New Luxury” [… ] based on innumerable choices presented by a growing economy’. A necessary adjunct to  the house was a garden and park of  some pretentions. Gardens offered opportunities for intellectual stimulation, spiritual refreshment and a above all a fine setting for the house itself (Cliffe, 1999: 55). All of this was based on the  ownership of land and on an ability to generate income without the necessity to get one’s hands dirty. In addition as Wrightson puts it (2003: 38) land ownership conveyed ‘superior prestige and cultural force’ and quantifies it for the period by suggesting that the 2% of the population classified as gentry owned 50% of the land (2003: 32).

A sub-set of the class of gentry who were not quite so closely tied to the land were those with professional interests,  for example lawyers, physicians of the better sort, and clergy. These would normally be drawn from amongst the ranks of younger sons and were often in possession of a university education or had been through one of the Inns of Court or both. Being largely an urban group patterns of income and expenditure differed from their country cousins as did their social make-up. Most authors now stress  movement and diversity within the ranks of the gentry (for example Wrightson 2003: 27), this was not a monolithic institution, so it is apposite to consider an example of social mobility.  Someone with such professional interests, who hovered on the boundaries of the gentry, was the mining engineer Thomas Bushell.

The career of Bushell, originator of the ornamental waterworks known as the Enstone Marvels and erstwhile gentleman, illustrates aspects of the struggle to acquire and hold onto wealth both on the way up and the way down. Despite claims to have been of gentle birth he probably came from Worcestershire yeoman stock.  Fleeing the family home in disgrace around the age of fourteen he took service in the household of Sir Francis Bacon. According to the great gossip Aubrey his propensity to over dress his part lead to the nickname ‘Buttond Bushell’ (Dick 1957: 42). The precise nature of his relationship with Bacon remains a matter for speculation, whatever the case he was well provided for and on Bacon’s death he was in a position to marry an Oxfordshire heiress and take control of a small estate at Enstone. Here he spent extravagantly to create a fine garden with attached grotto and banqueting hall as the natural appurtenances of a gentleman. His status as a member of the gentry would have been confirmed if his scheme, by royal warrant, to mine silver in Wales had not been over-taken by the Civil War.  By the time of the Restoration Bushell had been on the run and imprisoned for debt and was, By Aubrey’s account, ‘ the greatest master of the art of running into debt (perhaps) in the world’ (Dick 1957: 42). Nevertheless in 1663 he was  appointed ‘gentleman of the privy chamber extraordinary’ (DNB) a post which permitted him some small measure of financial security and finally gave him the affirmation he had sought. 

Through a combination of self-identification and patronage Bushell managed to create, and against all the odds, maintain a gentlemanly condition. Although this is an unusual case it illustrates the permeable boundaries that existed around  the status of gentlemen and that the confident expectation of wealth was almost as good as cash in hand. What Bushell lacked was a lineage and official recognition of his right to bear arms. Both at the time were considered reliable pointers to a family’s standing but Heal and Holmes are less convinced  (1994: 21) pointing out that of the new baronets created by James I nearly a third of the titles had died out by 1700, genetic weaknesses made a way for the ‘new men’ of the later seventeenth century. Shakespeare’s quest for arms for his family is well known but the various abuses on the occasions of herald’s county visitations did much to  devalue their bearing  (Heal and Holmes 1994: 28).

The trappings of worldly wealth acted almost as a theatrical backdrop against which the gentleman gave expression to those intangible qualities of virtue and godliness which many, particularly later in the period (Heal and Holmes 19945:30), argued were the true markers of status. On riches the cleric and part-time secret agent Richard Allestree wrote ‘without these how can we have men of parts and quality to direct us in the way of virtue and learning?’ (Allestree mss M.3.12: 13).  This direction was expressed on many levels from their leadership of their own households to  patronage of the church, participation in local government and justice, and  periodically taking a role managing local militias.  We see all of this embodied in the careers of several generations of the Cope family so, for example, we have the case of the first baronet, Sir Anthony. In addition to his sitting in a number of parliaments he was appointed to the role of county sheriff on three occasions. Acting as a justice of the peace and deputy lieutenant of Oxfordshire, he also was responsible for selecting  a number of well known puritan preachers to those livings he had influence over (DNB). The Copes and the Bushells were poles apart.

From this we can see that, as with so many social categories, there is no one single definition that matches all cases.  Bryson (1995: 136) sums up the debate ‘gentlemanly identity in early modern England was not a simple matter or wealth or blood but involved complex considerations of style of life and social image’. A gentleman or perhaps more correctly a gentleman’s family had to have certain attributes drawn from a variety of social and economic expectations, on occasions the absence of a single attribute may have been overlooked but the loss of more could be fatal to one’s standing.  The gentry were the product of a particular kind of cultural cohesion which Wrightson ( 2003: 20) views as an ‘expression of an equilibrium between dynamic forces’ an idea which we will return to later.

It appears that few historical subjects have generated more controversy than the rise of the gentry in the early modern period. Indeed the historiography of the period seems to echo the internecine strife of the original epoch. In the 1940s Professor E.H. Tawney’s thesis, published in The Rise of the Gentry 1558 – 1640 and summarised by Coleman (1966: 166 ), was that ‘the gentry were rising on the ruins of an impoverished crown, a plundered clergy and a nobility enfeebled by personal extravagance and political ineptitude’. H. R. Trevor Roper lead a spirited attack on what had become an orthodox view in particular by questioning the statistical basis of these conclusions and indicating that the gentry were more disaffected than dictatorial (Trevor-Roper 1951). Then things got nasty. It seems odd to begin an account of the fortunes of the seventeenth-century gentry with an outline of the controversies of twentieth-century scholars but it is a dispute which appears to rumble on and colour most subsequent accounts.  As noted, the position expressed here is that the gentry did achieve a kind of economic and social hegemony, transmuted into political influence which, despite local turbulence, ultimately enhanced long term stability and promoted further progress.  This cause is advanced in the certain knowledge that it can be challenged on virtually every front but advance we must.

The main thrust of the argument was that a rising population through the previous century put pressure on resources and  especially food prices. The consequent market effects and particularly inflation enabled those members of the  land-owning classes with significant holdings to profit and further expand the amount of land under their control. It was a climate in which ‘the opportunities for landowners to increase their wealth far outweighed the difficulties that might cause a landowner’s wealth to be drastically reduced’ (Coward 1987: 41). This  bullish market was not without its own pressures created by rising demand, however, the erosion of income did stimulate many members of the gentry to invest in new farming methods predicated on improvements to the terms on which they granted leases and particularly on the enclosure of open fields. Hughes (1998: 124) cuts through the controversy and sums it all up, ‘economic historians have quietly concluded that there was a ‘rise in the gentry’ both in numbers and overall prosperity’.

This focus on the land and its productive benefits brought about a kind of localism which  manifested itself in a variety of ways. At the heart of this was the nuclear family and the associated kinship links. Whilst patriarchy was the rule for families and paternalism the rule for estates this was tempered, in many if not most instances, by a strong sense of duty and an appropriate set of moral principles.  Allestree (M.3.10) underscores  this idea of being cognisant of greater things, ‘what is a great estate but a kind of inn, where a man lodgeth for a span of tyme and whence once gon we heare of him no more’.  The imperative towards ‘ godly conduct’ was articulated in a range of self help manuals and written advice from fathers to sons. In most families ‘the lady of the house’ whilst far from an equal partner  did have an important role, ‘a household could not survive without a woman’s work. At the same time, women’s work in and out of the household was continually underestimated and devalued’ (Crawford and Gowing 200: 4). Despite this inequality the family unit ‘existed as the primary focus of reproduction, consumption and socialisation’ (Heal and Holmes 1994:50).            
Within their immediate community of kin and neighbours the gentry were powerful and influential, sometimes in practical ways such as offering easy access to finance, largely it must be said to each other but sometimes to the yeoman classes. The Cope family papers as preserved in the Hampshire County Record Office contain a series of bonds and related defeasances for sums varying between 45 and 3,000. (For example 43M48/333 Bond of Sir Lewis Tresame of Livedon, Northants, to Sir William Cope, Bt, in 300). On a smaller scale they were also important sources of alms giving and charitable offerings in kind. Social and economic stability was further promoted by the relationships the gentry maintained with their tenants. Heal and Holmes ( 1994: 102 ) maintain that whilst there were greedy landlords the majority of gentry were spurred to act with forbearance and consideration both out of a desire to preserve their reputation and in anticipation of divine rewards.
Beyond questions of finance the gentry’s sponsorship of and participation in the seasonal cycle of community events from Whitsun Ales to Christmas festivities were also factors. Wrightson (2003: 199), amongst others, suggested that there had been a ‘reformation of manners’ creating a growing gulf between the gentry and the poor, ‘ the poor had become not simply poor but to a significant degree culturally different’, whilst Underdown (1987) argued that growing cultural diversity lead to growing political diversity and ultimately rising local tensions. Hutton, however, posits a more nuanced view of what he labels the ‘merry equilibrium’, that whilst there were undoubted changes, especially in the perceptions of the increasingly educated and sophisticated gentry, that on the whole they were able to subscribe to ‘ a profound ethic of hierarchy as well as communality’ (1994: 241). This continued a tradition of social cohesiveness albeit based on a recognition of and accommodation to growing social divergence. Of course we have instances where families such as the Copes with their puritan leanings took on popular culture and advanced causes such as the burning of the Neithrop Maypole towards the end of the previous century (Potts 1958:164 ) nevertheless the prevailing climate seemed to be one of  tolerance to the provision of ‘cakes and ale’ which, following specific royal support with The Book of Sports of 1634, extended in many areas right up to the outbreak of war  (Hutton 1994: 198).

At a more formal level the gentry’s participation in the administration of both justice and local  politics again seems to have been, within the limitations of the times, an influence for moderation. As Wrightson notes, ‘government directives had to pass through the filter of local interests’ (2003: 113) and whilst that interest could often be self-interest it was also subject to genuine instances of  compromise  and mediation between different social groups and within the ranks of the gentry themselves. He further points out that there are frequent instances of members of the local gentry intervening in disputes and acting to resolve matters before they could be subject to the full rigour of the law (2003: 165).

The maintenance of good order was certainly a preoccupation of the gentry and they ensured this by a combination of preaching, punishing and the alleviation of distress (Wrightson 2003:159). As we see in the case of the Copes many local families had a good deal of influence over the appointment of ministers whose preaching emphasised that ‘ the attributes of a good life – love of God and monarch, belief in obedience and neighbourliness – were the traits that ensured social quiet’ (Herrup 1989: 4). The prospect of punishment in the world to come would have seemed to have been a good deal more certain than punishment upon the ‘mortal coil’ given that only around an estimated 20% of felonious crimes were detected and brought to trial, and amongst those charged around a third were convicted and around a third of them were hanged (Herrup 1985: 112). Despite the presence of some harsh laws on the statute books the administration of justice was tempered with a good deal of practical mercy and a measure of common sense. Even if this was simply another expression  of the gentry’s ‘will to power’ it still acted as a moderating influence and did much to ensure that the ‘crisis in order’  (Underdown 1987:40) was a crisis in perception rather than actuality. From the start of the century the gentry had a role in administering the poor law on which, by the 1630s, Heal and Holmes (1994: 184) are able to comment ‘the general record is one of compliance and efficiency’. When this is coupled with a social and religious imperative towards alms giving we have some explanation  as to why it was, even in years of bad harvests, the early 1620s and the 1630s, the instances of wide-spread starvation amongst the poor were limited (Coward 1987: 58).
Although some areas were notoriously prone to rioting, Kent for example (Smith 1997: 192),  levels of public disorder for the first half of the century appear to be comparatively low, only forty five major outbreaks of rioting were recorded between 1585 and 1660 (Walter and Wrightson 1976: 26) and they were rarely violent. Hindle describes an exception in a series of anti-enclosure riots known as the Midland Rising of 1607 which ended in pitched battle at Newton in Rockingham Forest on June 8th. During the course of this a crowd of several hundred were driven off and around fifty dispatched on spot.  There are few instances of these ‘rebellions of the belly’ (Hindle 2003: 137) resulting in direct attacks on the gentry, indeed, as far as one can see the English riot was a peculiarly ordered affair and was about petitioning those who ran the system to make it work fairly rather than tearing the whole edifice of local government apart. Conflict there was but Wrightson’s analysis (2003: 69) seems compelling ‘ such equilibrium as society possessed was the product of a constant dynamism in its social relations and the impetus of this dynamic came, as often as not, from conflict’. The ‘beast with many heads’, was fed and to a certain extent tamed by the good husbandry of local elites.

This is not to say that everything was entirely parochial or provincial; part of the dynamism referred to above lay in the tension between the local and the distant, Heal and Holmes (1995: 93) itemise the factors tending to a less introspective view of the world as being greater mobility, especially in terms of access to London, a growing appetite for luxury goods, often foreign in origin, and increasing literary and cultural sophistication derived  from greater access to education. There were plenty of incentives to ‘go beyond the spungie braine of common knowledge’, as Bushell put it (1628:124). It is clear that educational opportunities for the gentry had expanded enormously with admissions to the universities rising from around 800 a year in the  1560s to 1,200 a year by the 1630s. (Coward 1987:60). Similarly admissions to Oxford for the propertied elite rose from an average of seven in the 1570s to forty five in the 1630s (Heal and Holmes 1994: 264). As well as a growth in places at Oxford and Cambridge there were many additional choices for schooling at a lower level although only, of course, for those who could afford to pay for it and manage without the consequent loss of a working pair of hands.  The curriculum was of less consequence to most than the social connections that were formed and the cultural cohesion that this promoted. Of course there were some who took aspects of their learning very seriously and as a result  ‘the English intelligentsia […  came ]  to incorporate a significant proportion of the  propertied laity’ (Wrightson 2003: 201). A further effect of an improved education system was a growing number of  graduate clergy.

By the fourth decade of the century the gentry were a well established and identifiable feature of most communities with their roots firmly anchored in whatever constituted their native soil. One result of this localism was that it impelled many of the gentry to stand up for local interests against aristocratic and notably royal interference. Those who were active in parliament  are described by Coward thus, ‘the usual type of seventeenth-century MP: university and Inns of Court educated, drawing their wealth mainly from the land and serving on the commissions of the peace in their home counties’ (1987:223).  Whatever part the gentry played in the political machinations of the reign of Charles I it tended to be intermittent as parliaments were called and dismissed and it did little to shift their attention away from county affairs. This level of divided attention may be one of the reasons why in Coward’s phrase   ‘the constitution continued to work until 1640’ (1987: 81) .
This is not the occasion to examine in detail the causes of the Civil War, the contents of any powder keg require a number of ingredients and a good deal of mixing before one or more sparks shower down upon it. What is striking is the degree to which in the opening months of the war many members of the county gentry struggled to maintain neutrality.  As Heal and Holmes put it (1994; 216) ‘ in 1642 a minority of parliamentarian gentlemen confronted another minority, the Royalists’. In the middle stood a cautious majority who at the outset wished to preserve the ‘peace of the county’ or as Sir John Holland memorably expressed it ‘upon noe Commissions or directions whatsoever the noyse of drum might for present be heard in Norfolk’ (Quoted in Holmes 1974:57). However, this neutrality was hard to maintain and, as has been seen in many modern conflicts, as hostilities mounted the remainder of the population almost inevitably got drawn in.

The earlier view of the war on the part of some historians and criticised by Tennant (1992:xi)  was one ‘in which a number of set-piece battles did admittedly take place [… but] left the bulk of the population relatively unscathed’. This perspective has been untenable for some time. Indeed more recent views of the conflict emphasise the large number of small scale skirmishes and campaigns, the on-going contest for resources and the sieges carried out against many towns and cities. The first two in particular struck at the heart of the gentry’s interests and there is evidence that commanders, the majority of who were gentlemen, on occasions actively worked to limit damage to property even if it belonged to those allied with the opposing side (for example  Porter 1994: 45, Tennant 1992: 210). This is not to say that the scale of destruction, primarily the result of looting and pillaging, was not vast and the degree of suffering immense, but it could have been much worse. It seems likely that there were considerable efforts made by some gentry families to call on past friendships and alliances and to steer a path between the two factions as appears to be the case with Lady Elizabeth Cope who during the minority of her son Anthony started out a puritan, ended up a Royalist and preserved the castle largely intact. The ties that bound the gentry together were in some ways stronger that the political divisions that forced them apart and as Donagan (1988: 31) explains, the  ‘social links between participants[… and] the shared interest among many on both sides inhibited dangerous opportunities for unrest and disorder’. All of which contributed to some easing of the otherwise terrible impact of civil war. If we consider the scale of destruction as applied to country houses it appears that something between 150 and 200 were completely destroyed whilst the total for all dwelling places, including those in towns, may be in the region of 11,200 with a total of around 55,000 people being rendered homeless at some point (Porter 1995:66), a fearsome total but a total which represents something like 10% of the total population. 

As the country became polarised into Royalist and non-Royalist areas the role of the gentry, in terms of local administration, changed as those with particular political leanings were eased out of their posts (Heal and Holmes 1994:220). Sir John Oglander, an avowed Royalist summed up the position, ‘O the tyrannical  misery that the gentlemen of England did endure [… ] they could call nothing their own, and lived in slavery and submission to the unruly base multitude’. (1936:110). This may be an unduly bleak assessment but what does appear to be the case is that many, perhaps the majority, of the gentry withdrew from the conflict and in the later 1640s faded back into the countryside and to their fractured estates.  Despite Cromwell’s assertion that the nation’s best interests were served by the maintenance of the existing hierarchy with the gentleman being neatly sandwiched between the nobleman and the yeoman it seems that those individuals who constituted the new ruling elite became increasingly detached from regional and local  concerns (Woolrych 1982: 395 -97). Their properties provided the gentry with a constituency to which they could retreat during the difficult years of the 1650s and from which they could emerge renewed post-1660. Heal and Holmes (1994: 224) suggest that they gave themselves over to rural pursuits which included significantly both the improvement of their holdings and the advancement of their learning . This period of consolidation during the uncertainties of the Commonwealth enabled the practical expression of an ‘eagerness amongst the propertied classes for the restoration of political order’ (Coward 1987: 193) as well as providing the setting from which a new generation of academics arose.

The events involving scholars and divines at the University of Oxford are a particularly interesting parallel to the course of the rural gentry from whose ranks they were largely drawn.  For much of the war Oxford had been the King’s capital and hence had attracted intellectuals with Royalist sympathies. After the war  Parliament instituted an order whereby from 1647 onwards a series of visitations were made and many individuals were removed from their university posts. They went on to constitute an academic elite who were effectively banned from any formal participation in university life. Gouk (1996) contends that these individuals, freed from their usual responsibilities, came together to form a rather amorphous group who nevertheless shared an interest in natural philosophy in all its branches. Initially these meetings were striking in their ‘extreme social diversity’ but as time went on the social exclusivity of the university elite reasserted itself (1996:281).  The names of some of the individuals participating in these gatherings: Wren, Hooke, Harvey, Boyle read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of early modern science. The impetuous that they gave collectively to the development of scientific thinking and practice was enormous. They represent perhaps a pinnacle of scientific achievement yet one which rests on the broad foundations derived from that section of the gentry who had had the leisure and the opportunity to embrace intellectual pursuits.

Some authors stress the notion that far from being a revolutionary period there was a high degree of continuity from the 1630s to the 1660s especially amongst the landed gentry and that this contributed much to economic and social recovery after the Interregnum (For example Hughes 1998: 116 and Harris, Seaward and Goldie 1990: 6). Not that the path had not been a rocky one and Hutton  (1993:219) comments on, as a legacy of  the period,  the ‘tremendous unifying force [… that was] the determination of the English and Welsh gentry that never again would they go through an experience such as the civil wars and Interregnum’.

Given that ‘over the past generation powerful trends in historical study have discouraged historians from thinking big’ (Benedict and Guttman 2005: 11) it seems a little rash to end this essay by giving a little thought to these two big questions. Firstly did the English gentry act as a factor to ameliorate the worst effects of the century’s turmoil and secondly coming out of this did the gentry form the seedbed from which a scientific revolution grew? What is known as the ‘general crisis theory’ of the period has been a cause of contention for well over half a century and like ‘the rise of the gentry’ has generated a huge amount of literature. Parker and Smith describe this crisis as ‘a major hiatus in the demographic and economic evolution of the world which increased the probability that political tensions would escalate into violence’. There is some agreement that the root cause was climate change, the arrival of a ‘little ice age’  which started towards the end of the fourteenth century and  peaked in the middle of the seventeenth century. There is less agreement as to the precise geo-political consequences of this. Parker and Smith further note that ‘the transition from world economic crisis to individual political upheavals depended upon personal decisions, local conditions and unforeseen accidents to a degree that makes generalisation hazardous’ (1985: 6).  One generalisation that one can make with a degree of confidence was that it was a time of appalling suffering on a global scale both as a result of widespread starvation,  epidemics, huge movements of population and the exercise of military might, all conspiring to create a life for many which Hobbes famously described as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ (1651:xiii), yet in many ways England remained insulated from total catastrophe. The huge epidemics which swept Italian towns and cities ( Alfani 2013), the massive scale of rioting in southern France between 1623 and 1648 (Beik 1985 ) and the untold horrors of the Thirty Years War that left much of central Europe a wasteland (Wilson 2009) all found parallels in England during the period but not on the same scale. Of course it makes perfect sense to argue that it all appears to be on a smaller scale because events in England simply involved fewer people but there is more to it than that. As we have seen the gentry by means of the  supervision of poor relief, the administration of justice and an adherence to certain codes of behaviour were positive forces which helped stave off the  kinds of cataclysmic events which wracked continental Europe.  Whilst much of this behaviour was motivated by self-interest and there are many instances of abuses, in general, we can pronounce that the conduct of the English gentry was largely to the good.

Despite Harry Lime’s jibe in The Third Man that the only thing of note produced by the peace-loving Swiss was the cuckoo clock the fact that Britain had not suffered the wide scale dislocation and population loss seen across the Channel meant that conditions were right for an out-pouring of creativity albeit in terms of advances in science and technology. We have already seen how the rather unusual circumstances at Oxford produced something of a hot house for scientific endeavour but the whole chain of events which lead to the founding of the Royal Society was dependent not only on an intellectual climate established within the ranks of the gentry but also by the economic recovery and political stability they contributed towards (Purver 1967 :237) . In the 1660s particularly local elites acted as a fulcrum about which the various parties of Crown, Church and state could work to establish balance (Hutton 2000: 133) and with that balance came the eventual nativity and advancement of the industrial revolution.  If one were looking for a sobriquet for the seventeenth century it could well be the century of the gentry.

Metaphors for the period are abundant and seductive. For instance the progress of the English body politic was like a tight rope walker wobbling between the tyranny of absolute monarchy and the anarchy of populist unrest only able to maintain balance with the long pole of gentlemen’s enlightened self-interest.  Wrightson’s descriptions of a dynamic equilibrium puts one in mind of two children hands joined swinging each other round at high speed yet staying in one place. For my part I prefer to contemplate the slow gurgling progress of Sir Anthony’s water clock but perhaps we should leave the last word to Allestree ‘In matters of controversy away with metaphors they are like pictures in a window which obscure the light’ (Allestree M.3.7).


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