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Response to Review of Covenanting Citizens: The Protestation Oath and Popular Political Culture in the English Revolution

I want to thank Eilish Gregory for her meticulous review of the central arguments of my book. Towards the end of her review, she raises the interesting question of ‘what the long-term impact of the Protestation was during and after the Civil War’. As I seek to suggest in the final chapter, the Protestation in fact enjoyed a long afterlife. As Conrad Russell earlier argued it was the Protestation, ‘supplying their title to be in arms’, which provided Parliament with what we might call a ‘validating charter’ by which it was able to fight a war against the king.(1a) Consequently, on the outbreak of civil war Parliament made increasing use of the Protestation to mobilise political, fiscal and military support. Reference to the Protestation also remained far more central to the paper wars that continued beyond the early 1640s than has hitherto been recognised in debates over the source, location and nature of political authority in the early modern English state, about the nature of the true church and the relationship of individual believers to Church and God, and about the obligations its taking entailed. This helps to explain why the use of the Protestation to swear the nation both underwrote a role for popular agency in the English revolution and, despite the intentions of its promoters, promoted the politics of conscience.

Subsequently, groups as diverse as the Clubmen or Levellers might also appeal to the Protestation to legitimise their political programmes. But, as I seek to show, debate in Parliament at the very introduction of the idea of an oath, and subsequent changes made to the text of the Protestation that sought to challenge its more radical implications, meant that in later debates appeals could now be made to it in defence of Crown and Church. For the parliamentary leadership this necessitated the introduction of further oaths, the more radical Vow and Protestation and later Covenant, which, despite arguments about their relationship to the earlier oath, effectively superseded the Protestation. Despite this, subsequent political crises saw recurring reference to the Protestation, now more usually in criticism of later loyalty oaths that sought to fix political allegiances in the contested politics of the later 17th century, and there was a lively debate over the provenance and politics of the Protestation in the first ‘histories’ of the Revolution in the 18th century. Nevertheless, it remains an interesting question as to why we as historians, including especially those particularly interested in popular politics in the English revolution, should have neglected the role of the Protestation in promoting the politics of an active citizenry.

Notes

  1. Conrad Russell, The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637–1642 (Oxford, 1991), p. 295.Back to (1a)