The parliamentary diaries kept by the MP Simonds D’Ewes are crucial sources for the Long Parliament, while his autobiography affords important insights into Puritan piety and family relationships. While most historians have used just a few of D’Ewes’ manuscripts, however, Sears McGee’s authoritative account is founded on half a century’s research in the complete archive: 70 volumes of diaries, letters, notes, and drafts in both Latin and English. Many scholars have found the sources more interesting than their author, often dismissed as a prig and a pedant. McGee is aware of such views, but provides a fundamentally sympathetic and also a more complex and satisfying picture of D’Ewes, as “a Puritan, a Parliamentarian, a lawyer, genealogist and antiquarian” (p. 435)—and, it should be added, as a son, brother, husband, and father. The record of D’Ewes’ life is unparalleled in early modern Europe, and McGee’s book does full justice to its range and depth. His structure, combining chronological and thematic approaches, makes for occasional repetition but is an effective means of dealing with the multiplicities of D’Ewes’ life. Political historians familiar with D’Ewes will learn much from McGee’s study, which also provides many insights into less well known and sometimes surprising aspects of D’Ewes as newshound, antiquarian, and family man.
It was typical of this compulsive writer and staunch Calvinist to write, after his own conversion, a treatise of the “marks and signs” of assurance. Predestinarian theology, a powerful sense of God’s providence, and a committed regime of Puritan piety were fundamental to all D’Ewes’ endeavours. His greatest delight, however, was in his “precious studies” in genealogy, numismatics, politics, and history. Like his father, Simonds trained as a lawyer, but marriage to the heiress Anne Clopton and his father’s death removed any need to practise. From 1631, D’Ewes combined life as a country gentleman at Stowlangtoft, Suffolk, with frequent trips to London to gather news and pursue research.The book includes an important account of D’Ewes’ news-gathering networks and methods. An interest in news was in itself a political activity, but McGee notes that until relatively late in life D’Ewes regarded formal political office as a diversion from scholarship. Unlike his father, he was never a JP; only in 1639 was he handed a poisoned chalice as ship-money sheriff for Suffolk, and then in 1640 elected MP for Sudbury in the Long Parliament.
McGee’s energy and learning have matched D’Ewes’ own, working steadily through the voluminous sources produced by this “industrious mind.” D’Ewes loved collecting and taking notes of ancient manuscripts; he liked organizing his notes and even planning and drafting treatises on a host of topics from ancient British history to the contemporary triumphs of Gustavus Adolphus, but few works were ever finished. McGee’s account of D’Ewes’ intellectual interests is a very significant contribution to scholarship on the learned gentry. His discussion is inevitably based largely on the intimidating D’Ewes archive, so that we see the world largely through D’Ewes’ eyes; it is not always clear where he is typical or distinctive. Unlike some of his antiquarian contacts, D’Ewes was not nostalgic [End Page 213] for a pre-reformation England; his historical researches reflected Puritan anxieties about contemporary religious developments. D’Ewes was convinced that the true religion of the early Britons had been attacked by the free-will doctrines of the Welsh monk Pelagius; in D’Ewes own time the “brain sicke Arminius” had revived the “dregs of Pelagian blasphemies,” combining with popery to threaten the true Protestant (Calvinist) religion (pp. 127, 159).
In discussing D’Ewes’ religious and political life, McGee does locate D’Ewes within recent scholarship, but he is rather reticent on how this account of D’Ewes might modify that scholarship. McGee elaborates a familiar distinction between a man radical in his religious views, while being in the main “deeply conservative” in social and political terms (p. 435), but his...