On the historical value of ‘bumfodder’ – Loyalty, Memory and Public Opinion in England, 1658-1727


Ted Vallance, University of Roehampton

British Museum, The Elder Women of the City, or the Kiss my Ar-e Addressers, 1868,0808.4336

In a rather pungent outburst, the earl of Lauderdale once told Charles II that loyal addresses were ‘fit for nothing but to wipe his Royal A…’ Until recently, historical opinion on the value of these texts has been no less severe: J. T. Rutt, the editor of Thomas Burton’s diary of the Protectoral parliaments described them as ‘vehicles of servile adulation.’ So why did I devote several years of my life to researching this early modern ‘bumfodder’ and why might these ephemeral texts be of interest to social historians?

At face value, loyal addresses, texts typically sent from English boroughs and counties offering their congratulations to authority, appear to offer exactly the sort of unpromising, repetitive expressions of public sycophancy Rutt described.

Mark Knights, in his Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain (2005) was the first to identify loyal addressing as an important element of the early modern British public sphere. For Knights, however, the more stage-managed phenomena of the loyal address posed a threat to a critical public by squeezing out the more dialogic form of the petition and replacing it with the ‘acclamatory’ address. Equally, though the scope of addressing campaigns was truly national (and indeed international), the extent to which they were centrally coordinated raised concerns about their representativeness.  So, while addresses could claim to capture the ‘sense’ of the nation, they raised anxieties about the manipulation of public opinion.

I’ve been interested in the idea of loyalty since starting my doctoral research on oaths of allegiance over twenty years ago (gulp). One of the things that attracted me to oaths as a subject was the way in which they offer a window into individual political choices in the seventeenth-century. The potential of these texts for exploring popular politics has been brilliantly demonstrated by the work of John Walter, first in his Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: the Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge, 1999) and most recently in his Covenanting Citizens: The Protestation Oath and Popular Culture in the English Revolution (Oxford, 2016).

Loyal addresses had a similar capacity both to express divisions in public opinion and to provide rallying points for new political coalitions (a point also made in Scott Sowerby’s work on the movement in support of James II’s policy of religious toleration.) This was evident from the beginning of their use as mass political medium during the Cromwellian Protectorate. The attempt to shore up Richard Cromwell’s regime through a national addressing campaign quickly became a Cromwellian succession crisis, as ostensibly ‘loyal’ texts actually debated the legitimacy of the new Protector’s title.

As in my work on oaths of loyalty, I was also fascinated by what the manuscript records of addressing activity can tell us about how individuals and communities responded to demands to express loyalty through these texts. A detailed analysis of one address to Richard Cromwell from Leicestershire, featuring roughly three thousand subscribers, provided an opportunity to examine the geographical and social reach of addressing activity, as well as to explore the mechanics of the subscription process itself.

To some extent, this analysis suggests that anxieties about the representativeness of these texts were not unfounded. The Leicestershire address was not subscribed in areas of the county that had either shown support for the Royalist cause during the civil war or which were dominated by ‘Commonwealthsmen’ such as the regicide Peter Temple or Sir Arthur Hesilrige. A comparison of the address with Leicestershire Hearth Tax records also suggests that the contemporary opinion that mass addresses of this kind were dependent on the subscriptions of the poorer sort were not wide of the mark. In addition, Hearth Tax records suggest an element of coercion may have been at play, as the similarities between the two sets of documents in places indicates that subscriptions to the address were gathered door to door. In other ways, however, the analysis of these addresses supports Scott Sowerby’s observation that they could be effective vehicles for coalition building, in this instance providing a means for more moderate political opinion to gather under the banner of Richard Cromwell’s protectorship.

As short-lived as Richard Cromwell’s ‘reign’ was, the addressing activity associated with it appears to have lingered long in the public memory. The unexpectedly enduring legacy of this ‘flash in the pan’ regime drew me towards another significant feature of addresses: their mnemonic nature. Tied to national events, such as the accession of a new ruler, addresses were exactly the sort of ‘time structured’ media Michael Warner has seen as vital to the emergence of a public sphere. Their regular reproduction in printed news provided a barometer of shifts in the national mood (or ‘sense of the nation’ as Daniel Defoe put it.)

One of the aspects of addresses which has probably put historians off tackling them for such a long time – their voluminous and repetitive nature (thousands were issued over the course of the late seventeenth century) also provides an opportunity for understanding the changing language of loyalty over this period.

Historians such as Angela McShane and Matthew McCormack have noted the affective aspects of loyalty. In this book, I employed Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to convert printed collections of loyal addresses into machine-readable text. This was then submitted to the corpus analysis software, Voyant Tools. The results of this analysis confirm some of the trends identified by McCormack: a shift from a personalized form of loyalty, tied to the individual monarch, under Charles and James II, to a post-revolutionary lexicon of loyalty that was more closely associated with institutions such as Parliament. Nonetheless, that language of loyalty continued to be expressed in emotional terms, defying any simple division between the pre-and post-revolutionary political landscape.

In conclusion, I have argued in Loyalty, memory and public opinion in England, 1658-1727 that loyal addresses played an important role in the development of a critical public sphere in the late seventeenth-century. They also help us understand the social limits of that public sphere. The deferential, acclamatory form of the address was perfectly suited to a fundamentally unequal society in which political life continued to be centered around the monarchy. Plus ça change!


Loyalty, memory and public opinion in England, 1658–1727 (2019), is published by Manchester University Press


About the Author: Ted Vallance is Professor of early modern British political culture at the University of Roehampton. He is currently researching the role of witnesses in trials before the High Courts of Justice, including the trial of Charles I.

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