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The Restless Republic: Britain without a Crown by Anna Keay

04 November 2022

Michael Wheeler looks at what ensued when a Stuart king was slain

AMONG the colour plates in this excellent book is Hendrick Danckerts’s painting of Hampton Court in the 1660s, when Oliver and Elizabeth Cromwell occupied the first-floor rooms in the two-storey range on the right of the royal palace. The grazing deer would have been part of the view in the 1650s, we are told, but the canal was dug for Charles II after the Restoration. Sic transit . . .

Dr Anna Keay, Director of the Landmark Trust, is particularly interested in British history and buildings of the 17th century. Her study on Britain without a Crown, published while the country celebrated having one, often focuses on buildings, places, and objects of the period which convey more than the torrent of words, spoken and written, in which modern historians of the “restless republic” have too often come close to drowning.

Keay chooses nine individuals as protagonists who represent “different experiences” during the upheavals of civil war and republic. The most interesting are those at the periphery, such as the young visionary Anna Trapnel and the Norfolk gentlewoman Alice L’Estrange.

Individuals who figure at the centre of events, and of whom we have heard, are brought to life through descriptions of their immediate surroundings. Take, for example, the Cheshire lawyer John Bradshaw, President of the first Commonwealth Council of State, with whom the book begins. On the January day in 1649 when he opened the trial of King Charles I, Bradshaw had dressed in the unfamiliar surroundings of Sir Abraham Williams’s house on Old Palace Yard, recently used to accommodate visiting diplomats, but earlier the house from which Queen Henrietta Maria had watched her husband’s coronation procession.

When Bradshaw walked across the Yard to join his colleagues in the Painted Chamber, he was “dressed in a long black gown edged with tassels, preceded by a sword bearer and a mace bearer and flanked by sixteen scarlet-clad officers each carrying a gleaming partisan”.

While occasionally risking a descent into the kind of “heritage” writing that is characteristic of minor historical novels and National Trust brochures, overall The Restless Republic brilliantly combines local colour with a strong overarching historical narrative. The narrative is fairly conventional until Marchamont Nedham, the “irrepressible newspaperman”, appears on the scene in Chapter 7, “The Infamous Castle of Misery”.

Nedham is introduced as a prisoner of the state in Newgate prison, a stinking hell-hole, after a year in which he dodged the authorities while producing a royalist weekly newspaper, Mercurius Pragmaticus, that attacked the new republic and all its shortcomings. (Previously, he had written for the parliamentarians.) Having escaped from Newgate and gone to ground, Nedham turned his coat for a second time after being rearrested and edited Mercurius Politicus “in defence of the Common-wealth”.

AlamyCharles I at his Trial, 1649, by Edward Bower

Like others among the book’s nine leading actors, Nedham pops up again as the story of the republic unfolds. Towards the end of the story, his weekly issue vaguely announces that the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard, has dissolved Parliament “for diverse weighty reasons”. “No amount of news management”, Keay comments, “could disguise the fact that the new Parliament had been expelled on the army’s initiative.”

As Charles Stuart and his advisers, based in a rented house in Brussels, scoured intelligence reports and Mercurius Politicus for their opportunity, General Monck stuck to the view that the army was the servant of the civilian state, and not the other way round.

The country’s instinctive belief in monarchy is captured in a description of a church: “At All Hallows the Great on London’s Thames Street, the Fifth Monarchist headquarters and Anna Trapnel’s own church, the congregation gathered for their meeting in April 1660 only to see that in the night the arms of Charles II had been once again mounted on the church’s stone walls.” Poor old Marchamont Nedham, who always backed the loser in a crisis, tried to stir up ill feeling towards the royalists and was sacked as editor of Politicus.

When editing Oliver Cromwell’s letters and speeches in 1845, Thomas Carlyle complained of the “infinite ocean of froth, confusion, lies and stupidity, which hitherto constitutes the ‘History’ of Cromwell, as Dryasdust has printed it and read it”. Keay provides us with a lifeboat.


Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Southampton and a former Lay Canon of Winchester Cathedral.


The Restless Republic: Britain without a Crown
Anna Keay
William Collins £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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