- The Politics of Commonwealth: Citizens and Freemen in Early Modern England
What happened to the medieval English town, which was once the bastion of civic identity and corporate privilege? Traditionally, historians have written of its [End Page 293] "irreparable decline" in the early modern period under pressure from a centralizing monarchy and the attractive pull of the burgeoning metropolis. This decline was then followed by an "urban Renaissance" led by a new type of capitalist during the long eighteenth century. More recently revisionist scholars, realizing that politics are local, have neglected cities and towns and focused on the counties as the seat of power in the periphery. Currently Robert Tittler and a few others have recognized that rather than undergoing a decline, England's civic life thrived in the 150 years before the Glorious Revolution. In this carefully argued volume Phil Withington completes this urban rehabilitation. Starting with the obvious — rather than a decline in numbers, there was an "astonishing proliferation" of charters of incorporation issued to cities and towns in the 100 years after 1540, not to mention intense economic growth — Withington convincingly shows that the "city commonwealths" they established embraced an ideal of "civility, governance and commerce" (12) with profound effects on the national polity.
Withington uses a wide variety of sources to substantiate his thesis, ranging from the city comedies of Thomas Middleton — which he contrasts to the court-centered works of Ben Jonson — to More's Utopia versus Bacon's New Atlantis, and to the satires of Andrew Marvell, which he compares to the works of Thomas Hobbes. His purpose is to demonstrate that England enjoyed a self-conscious civic culture despite the rival attractions of the court and the rapidly expanding capital. He bolsters his argument with six maps showing such diverse subjects as the speed of urban incorporations and the geography of provincial theater, and twenty-two tables ranging from the geographical origins of apprentices of various trades in Newcastle to the distribution of wealth in Cambridge.
The specific details he uses to support his claim are equally far ranging, but he tends to focus on the examples of York, Cambridge, and Ludlow to illustrate the range of structural configurations English cities enjoyed while retaining a common ideology. In Ludlow, 13% of the population had held civic office, while in Cambridge only 7% enjoyed the borough's freedom. York, with its ecclesiastical court, presented other issues. What these disparate cities shared was a common culture of urban freedom, which encompassed a sense of honestas and "respublicanism." The latter is a term he uses to describe a commonwealth ruled by common law and parliament to which even the king was to be subservient.
Although Withington's focus is local "urban commonwealths," he cannot escape the broader, national context. For example, he notes that the core of the Leveller authors were enfranchised citizens and cites Ian Gentles's study of the New Model Army to show that about half of its officers came from large cities and towns, not the countryside, as the russet-coated myth had it. Not surprisingly, he likens the Putney Debates to sessions of city common councils debating how to control individual rights while protecting the common freedoms enjoyed by all citizens. Men — and women, too — brought up to consider these issues on the local level were not likely to remain silent when given the chance to comment on the national issues of the day.
Withington's final chapter links Calvinism to citizenship and the English [End Page 294] Revolution, a term he is not afraid to use. He cites Hobbes approvingly to demonstrate that it was "not a revolution against authority so much as a revolt by authority" (232) as citizens, burgesses, and freemen claimed that in resisting the crown they were defending the commonwealth, sentiments they had learned from godly ministers and their civic experiences. He sums up his argument by adopting Marvell's...