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The English Rebel

Reviewed by David Kerr

We hear a lot of talk about the French Revolution of 1789 and the American Revolution and war of independence. Nearer to home, our Irish neighbours celebrated the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016 and look back at a long history of unsuccessful and often bloody rebellions against the Crown.

It’s often overlooked that the English too had their revolution. One hundred and forty years before the storming of the Bastille, the English tried and executed their king for treason and replaced him with a radical revolutionary republican government. This was not the first English rebellion against the Crown. The Irish are not alone in this tradition. Rebels opposed the reign of virtually every king who sat on the throne from the Norman conquest right up to the reign of Victoria. These rebels had a mixture of motives; some thought that they would make a better king than the one currently in power; most claimed to be loyal to the king but opposed to his ‘evil counsellors’. English history seems to have been littered with evil counsellors. Some of these rebels had very high motives; they were heroic and public-spirited. Others were self-seeking, manipulative, vicious rogues. Most were like the rest of us; a mixture of high-minded idealism, ambition, and normal human failings. Most English rebels ended up in prison or the scaffold. Hereward the Wake was pensioned off by the Normans, Thomas Becket was murdered in his cathedral, Wat Tyler was treacherously stabbed to death, Simon de Montfort was hacked to pieces and his head paraded on a spear; others suffered the grisly ritual of hanging, drawing, and quartering. Most of the rebels may have failed, but they did transform English and wider British society.

As the author notes; “Different rebels imagined a world where England was still ruled by the Anglo-Saxons, where the king couldn’t dispense justice on a whim, where a different king, or none at all, might be in charge. Others conceived of England as ‘common property’, as a country where every man and (later) every woman had the vote. Some rebels imagined England as a Protestant land, some dreamt of returning it to Catholicism. Some thought that if you got rid of the Flemings, or the Nonconformists, or the Irish, or the Catholics, or the Jews, England’s problems would be solved. Others thought that if you got rid of industrial machinery, or private industry, or capitalism in general, or the banking system, a golden age might return.”

The scope of this fascinating book is very broad, taking in the thousand years from the Norman Conquest right up to the miners’ strike and the Poll Tax rebellion of the Thatcher years. Whatever their success or failure, The English Rebel disproves the old gibe that the English are a nation of shopkeepers. English rebellion is not exceptional. It has happened all through the country’s long history. Whether they are right or wrong, there will always be rebels to put forward an alternative vision of England and someday some of them may have enough organisation to try to bring that vision – for good or ill – into being.

  • The English Rebel
  • David Horspool
  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; UK ed. edition (1 April 2010)
  • ISBN-10: 0141025476
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141025476

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