On this day in 1661: Religion, rebellion and repression

On this day in 1661, a group of religous and political radicals occupied St Paul’s Cathedral and proclaimed the overthrow of Charles II’s government and the imminent reign of King Jesus. The radicals were known as the Fifth Monarchists.

They took their name from a prophecy in the Book of Daniel suggesting that the four major monarchies of the world would be succeeded by a fifth monarchy, which in the seventeenth century was interpreted as meaning the Kingdom of Jesus.

The group had been more active around a decade earlier, when the overthrow of Charles I encouraged them to believe that more radical political and economic change was possible. They combined passionately apocalyptic language with a commitment to equality and economic justice. Many, perhaps most, of their active members were women.

With Charles II on the throne from 1660, radicals generally were disheartened. Charles II had the most prominent Fifth Monarchist, Thomas Harrison, hung, drawn and quartered as a signatory to Charles I’s death warrant. But the Fifth Monarchists weren’t giving up, and on 6 January 1661, Thomas Venner led a final attempt to overthrow earthly monarchy and bring in the reign of Jesus.

It took the authorities several days to suppress the rising, despite the relatively small numbers involved. The Fifth Monarchists resisted violently, although most of the violence seems to have been carried out against the radicals by the state’s troops . The leaders, including Venner, were hanged for high treason. Over 4,000 other radicals were rounded up and imprisoned without due process. Most of these were Quakers, but they also included Fifth Monarchists and Baptists.

The Venner Rising, as it tends to be called, is generally seen as a footnote to the tumultuous history of mid-seventeenth century England. In Antonia Fraser’s biography of Charles II, for example, it takes up only half a sentence. But the rising led to other events of great importance, and probably of greater historical significance than the rising itself.

Firstly, in the wake of the rising there was a crackdown on religious and political dissent. This was a straightforward betrayal of Charles II’s promise the year before that he would respect religious liberty. This promise had been part of the agreement under which he had been invited to take the throne. Now it was abandoned. Over the next few years, a string of laws was passed aimed at the persecution of dissenters.

Secondly, the Quakers responded to the incident by denouncing violent rebellion and producing the first formal statement of Quaker pacifism. This is sometimes seen as an attempt to assure the king that they were not a threat to him. However, the statement was not as straightforward as this. While rejecting violence, it also seemed to reject serviility to earthly kings. After delcaring that they would not fight “with outward weapons” for either “the kingdom of Christ or the kingdoms of this world”, the Quakers went on to say, “As for the kingdoms of this world, we cannot covet them, much less fight for them…”.

There’s a final point of interesting historical confuson about all this. The Quakers’ pacifist declaration is frequently misdated to 1660 rather than 1661. This is because at the time the year was considered to begin on 25th March, not 1st January. Thus what we would call 6th January 1661 was viewed as being 6th January 1660. The date 1660 therefore appears on the Quakers’ statement. A number of reputable books, including many written by Quakers, mistakenly attribute the declaration to 1660. By modern reckoning, however, this is impossible: it followed an incident that took place on what we call 6th January 1661.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s