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Scotland is reviewing its own history.  The BBC’s controversial series, A History of Scotland, has been damned as Anglo-centric but its very production signalled a recognition of the thirst for identity in Scotland.  Scottish schools have been encouraged, as part of the Curriculum for Excellence exercise to re-emphasise Scottish history and culture.  There is no question that we should seek clarity about who we are and how we became what we are but there is also a strong case to ensure that we study English history.
The recent historical bodice-ripper, The Devil’s Whore, was roistering entertainment, centring round one Angelica Fanshaw and her adventures during the English Civil War.  Fanshaw was a fictional character and the series’ portrayal of personal relationships was, alas, entirely based on contemporary norms rather than those of the 17th century.  The programme however probed the history of Civil War England in a way seldom done and with surprising accuracy.
Here was the first country to commit regicide and overturn the concept of the divine right of kings.  England followed a path pursued more than a century later by the American and  French revolutions.  Peter Capaldi was superb as the indecisive, capricious, duplicitous, vain and uncompromising Charles.  He also reminded us, by the gentlest of modulations that the tyrant Charles was Scottish.  What perhaps remains ironic is that having had the moral courage to dispose of such a king, our English cousins should continue to revere him.
The series also illustrated one other aspect of the history of the English Civil War, conveniently over-looked by so many English historians, the role of the radical levellers and diggers.  Three of the series’ main characters, Thomas Rainborough. Edward Sexby and John Lilburne, were historical leaders of the Leveller faction in the army.  The series quoted them accurately and gave a fair picture of the radicalism which existed among the parliamentary forces, a radicalism which presaged the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists by two centuries.
Thomas Rainborough, a participant in the Putney Debates organized by the Levellers in October and November 1647, stated: “…for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…”
John Lilburne, a political firebrand, began his career as a martyr for Puritan doctrine, became a champion of the Levellers and political democracy, and ended his days as a Quaker and pacifist.  He was one of the first champions of universal suffrage.  “The poorest that lives hath a true right to give a vote as the richest and greatest.”  Lilburne also became disillusioned with the tyranny of Cromwell and was exiled on the Continent where he held discussions with prominent Royalist exiles.  Sexby also violently opposed Cromwell’s elevation to the office of Lord Protector in 1653, which he regarded as a betrayal of the principles for which the civil wars had been fought.
Lilburne’s and Sexby’s disillusionment with Cromwell and the parliamentary leaders was based on several quite disparate grievances.  A failure to pay soldiers their wages, and that immediately prior to their disembarkation for Ireland, was a key factor among the private soldiers themselves.  The execution of Leveller leaders and the suppression of the Leveller mutiny at Burford, were perceived as Cromwell’s betrayal of the army in the interests of the propertied Presbyterian grandees.  Revulsion at Cromwell’s being offered the crown and ultimately accepting the kingly status of Lord Protector increased their ire.  The more radical elements even suggested that the Irish and English people had common enemies and, ultimately, that the brutal suppression of the Irish by Cromwell was unacceptable.
Amidst the sex and the entertainment (and today’s radicals need not reject either of these as degenerate) and allowing for the contemporary view of relationships, The Devil’s Whore was a window on the history of England and of its great democratic traditions.  The series, unfortunately, did not illustrate the opportunistic role of Scotland, especially of Presbyterian Scotland, during the English Civil War but it was a reminder that English culture far transcends Macaulay’s Whig view of history, where all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds and the constitution of England is seen as the very best of human institutions.  It reminded us that, contrary to the rampant individualism espoused by Thatcher, there is a radical, democratic and collective tradition in English history, one from which we in Scotland have much to learn.
The above article was first published in Scottish Review on 16 December 2008:

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