Editor: Jason Peacey

This collection of essays reappraises the origins and nature of the first British empire. Produced in the wake of protracted and sometimes divisive debates about how best to approach this topic, methodologically and thematically, and in the wake of the so-called ‘cultural turn’, it offers new perspectives and approaches, from some of the most important scholars working in the field, both senior and junior. This is not a matter of returning to older modes of scholarship but rather of learning from the ‘new imperial history’ while also re-integrating political and institutional perspectives. It is not a matter of turning from the experience of empire on the periphery to the study of the ‘official’ mind of empire, but rather of exploring contemporary debates, both within the metropole and across the empire, and how these impacted upon imperial ‘policy’ and its implementation, not least in the face of fairly profound challenges on the ground. These debates ranged widely, and were political and intellectual as well as religious and administrative, and they related to ideas about political economy, about legal geography and about sovereignty, as well as about the messy realities of the imperial project, including the costs and losses of empire, collectively and individually. This book will be of interest to historians and political scientists working in a range of different areas, far beyond merely scholars of empire, and its novel approaches and provocative arguments will help to shape the field on this most important of topics.

Jason Peacey

This chapter is a study of the relationships between Parliament, print and petitioning in revolutionary England. Jason Peacey explores the tension between the potential for political participation at Westminster and the problems related to this practice, and argues that this tension allows for a better understanding of political radicalism in the English Revolution. His essay rests on two foundations: first, the idea that an information revolution relating to Parliament developed in the seventeenth century, which made political information affordable; second, a sense that Parliament was extremely useful, hence citizens’ increased participation in its proceedings, not least through petitioning. Peacey highlights the radicalisation of petitioners’ rhetoric from case studies and argues that that radicalism was forged by forces that brought together disparate individuals whose ideas were shaped by their involvement in participatory politics.

in Radical voices, radical ways
Medieval history in parliamentarian polemic, 1641–42
Jason Peacey

This essay examines how England’s medieval parliamentary history – from Henry III to Henry IV – was deployed for polemical purposes in the months surrounding the outbreak of the Civil Wars. In particular, the aim is to both acknowledge and move beyond the ‘baronial context’ of the English Civil Wars, in which reflections on medieval history were used to justify a form of ‘parliamentarian’ rhetoric that afforded the peerage a decisive role. By examining a range of neglected popular pamphlets that appeared in print during the months leading up to conflict, the essay demonstrates instead how evidence relating to the fourteenth century began to be used to reflect on parliamentary power and on the House of Commons, and to discuss the possibility of deposing and executing ‘unprofitable’ kings and of electing and binding their successors. Attention is drawn to an important shift in parliamentarian rhetoric regarding the king and parliament. It is argued that the treatment of medieval parliaments reveals incipient political radicalism in the opening weeks and months of the Civil Wars.

in Writing the history of parliament in Tudor and early Stuart England
Political communication and the rise of the agent in seventeenth-century England
Jason Peacey

The historiography regarding communicative practices in the early modern period tends to involve overly neat trajectories, which map the supplanting of sociable networks by commercial relationships, and trace the decline of scribal culture in the face of a print revolution. At the very least, it has been possible to argue that print became a central mechanism for connecting centre and locality. Of course, scholars continue to debate how best to assess the relative importance of scribal and print genres, as well as the impact of the commercial revolution. What this chapter seeks to argue, however, is that there are other much less well recognised ways of challenging such Whiggish narratives, by questioning the degree to which print was an accessible and unmediated method for obtaining ideas and information, and by recognising the obstacles which continued to undermine the accessibility of print. As such, any appreciation of the significance of the ‘print revolution’ needs to investigate how these obstacles were overcome, and this chapter seeks to highlight the central importance of the professional agent in facilitating a shift from sociable scribal networks to a commercial culture of print, while at the same time making such a change seem much less stark.

in Connecting centre and locality
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Jason Peacey

This chapter sets up the volume by introducing the current state of the historiography on the first British empire, in terms of the sometimes divisive debates about the ‘cultural turn’ and ‘new imperial history’. It highlights the ways in which scholars now seek to build upon such developments while also re-integrating different perspectives and themes, from political economy to religion, law and geography, as well as the interrelationship between policy making in the metropole and policy formation and implementation across the empire. It then demonstrates how the various chapters fit within, but also move beyond, recent scholarship, in order to highlight the wider contribution that the volume makes.

in Making the British empire, 1660–1800
Political communication in early modern England

This collection of essays is set up to explore the dynamics of local/national political culture in seventeenth-century Britain, with particular reference to political communication. It examines the degree to which connections were forged between politics in London, Whitehall and Westminster, and politics in the localities, and the patterns and processes that can be recovered. The fundamental goal is to foster a dialogue between two prominent strands within recent historiography, and between the work of social and political historians of the early modern period. Chapters by leading historians of Stuart Britain examine how the state worked to communicate with its people and how local communities, often far from the metropole, opened their own lines of communication with the centre. The volume then is not meant to be an exhaustive study of all forms of political communication but it nevertheless highlights a variety of ways this agenda can be addressed. At present there is ongoing work on subscriptional culture across the nation from petitioning to Protestation, loyal addresses, lobbying and litigation to name but a few. It is hoped that this volume will provide a reminder of the gains to be made by placing political communication at the heart of both social and political history and to provide an impetus for further scholarship.

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Chris R. Kyle and Jason Peacey

This chapter sets up the volume by exploring the historiography relating to the issues that provide its focus: the relationship between ‘centre’ and ‘locality’ in the early modern period, and the role of communication – including both print culture and manuscript transmission – within contemporary society. This involves reflecting on ideas and arguments regarding the ‘county community’, and on how historians have tackled crucial issues like the ‘social depth’ of politics, state formation and developments in parliamentary politics, as well as the print revolution, but it also involves suggesting that social and political historians have only rarely found ways of entering into a productive dialogue with each other on these crucial issues. Finally, it highlights the fruitful ways in which the chapters use explorations of communicative practices in order to rethink not just relations between centre and locality but also the ways in such terms ought to be conceptualised.

in Connecting centre and locality

This book offers historical reappraisals of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the early modern anglophone world. Prompted by modern debates about whether or not limitations on free expression might be necessary given religious pluralism and concerns about hate speech, it brings together historians, political theorists and literary scholars, and offers a longue durée approach to the topic. It integrates religion into the history of free speech, and rethinks what is sometimes regarded as a coherent tradition of more or less absolutist justifications for free expression. Contributors examine the aims and effectiveness of government policies, the sometimes messy and contingent ways in which freedom of speech became a reality, and a wide range of canonical and non-canonical texts in which contemporaries outlined their ideas and ideals. It is shown that – on this issue at least – the period from 1500 to 1850 is a coherent one, in terms of how successive governments reflected on the possibility of regulation, and in terms of claims that were and were not made for freedom of speech. While not denying that change can be detected across this period, in terms of both ideas and practices, it demonstrates that the issues, arguments and aims involved were more or less distinct from those that characterise modern debates. As a collection it will be of interest to religious and political historians, intellectual historians and literary scholars, and to anyone interested in the history of one of the most important and thorny issues in modern society.

Jason Peacey, Robert G. Ingram and Alex W. Barber

Amid considerable debate within modern societies about whether or not there ought to be limits to freedom of speech, this introductory chapter argues that historical perspectives have been all too lacking, and all too simplistic. This chapter sets the book in its modern context – in terms of the challenges that have emerged to Western liberalism as a result of religious pluralism and the challenge of hate speech – and highlights the rather simplistic ways in which freedom of speech has conventionally been anchored in ideas and developments that emerged in early modern Britain. It surveys the historiographical debates that have seen this ‘Whiggish’ narrative subjected to critical scrutiny, and sets up the volume by demonstrating both continuity and change across the early modern world. This means recognising the centrality of religious issues as well as secular concerns, and the complex ways in which contemporaries grappled with the theory and practice of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It means acknowledging the complex relationship that existed between regulation, restraint and liberty, and the dynamic interplay that can be observed between rights and duties, truth and error, genre and audience.

in Freedom of speech, 1500–1850