Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Right to Reply - The Seventeenth Century

In the last of the current series of Right to Reply, I gathered three authors who write about the 17th Century and asked them some questions. Would they agree? Or at least agree to disagree? It's a full and lively debate...
Welcome Cryssa Bazos, Deborah Swift, and Jemahl Evans.

Firstly may I ask,
Who do you think is the greatest 17th century character, and why?

Cryssa: I’m entirely besotted with Charles II. Most know him as the Merry Monarch for the wild, decadent court he kept and his many, many mistresses. But we run the risk of underestimating the man if we allow ourselves to be distracted by the sexuality and not give him some due beyond the bedchamber.

Charles grew up during a very turbulent time, when his father, King Charles I, was at war with Parliament. Years later, when he was trying to reclaim his father’s crown, even through to the Restoration, he had to cut some controversial pacts to survive. He was blessed with a very different temperament than his father: more decisive, willing to compromise, and he valued loyalty above all else. 

Charles II in exile

It was this Charles’s sense of loyalty that draws me to him (that and his dry humour). After his devastating loss at the Battle of Worcester, when there was a £1000 bounty on his head, common people risked their lives to hide him and rewarded them for it during the Restoration. 

Oddly, for one that prized loyalty, he had no quibbles about openly cheating on his Queen, Catherine of Braganza. Yet when you look closely at that relationship, one can argue that he did show her a loyalty that many kings would not have extended to a barren queen. Instead of putting her aside for not producing a legitimate heir, he stayed married to her. Granted, having your husband’s mistresses (especially the obnoxious ones) being paraded in court is no joy, but the prospects of dispossessed barren queen would have been grim.

There is much speculation as to why Charles converted to Catholicism. He did make a secret pact with France, promising to convert in exchange for their badly needed financial support. In a true skirting-of-the-line fashion, Charles did…on his deathbed. Why? Was it only to fulfil a political promise? Some speculate on a number of other reasons, namely to pave the way for his brother and heir who was openly Catholic. Many suggest that he truly believed in Catholicism but didn’t dare convert before. I don’t believe he cared for one religion or another, but he did love his brother, and I believe it was his loyalty to him that served as the prime motivation for his conversion. 

Deborah: Although Charles II was undoubtedly influential – he probably couldn’t avoid it, being the King. My choice would be a commoner; a woman born at six in the evening on Saturday 2nd February 1650. We don’t know exactly where, but as her mother was an alcoholic and ran a bawdy house, it was probably a bit of a hovel. I’m talking about Nell Gwyn. 

If you ask anybody the name of a woman from the 17th century, she is nearly always the first on people’s lips because she transcended class and gender barriers to become a familiar figure at court. She slept her way to the top, I hear you say. Ah, but then she stayed there. As an ordinary commoner she must have been extremely intelligent to survive life in Charles’s court, where other pretty women of more noble birth were also vying for his attention. 

Nell - portrait attr to Mary Beale

One of the things that appeals to me about Nell Gwynn is that she was a comedienne, famous for her quick wit. And she would have needed it; for her affair with the King lasted 17 years – all through the Plague, the Great Fire, endless possible political revolts, and a war with the Dutch. She had the ear of the King for a good amount of time, and bore him a son, so her influence was to bring him the voice of the people. She was, in today’s media parlance, the people’s princess, far more popular than the Queen or any of his other high-born mistresses.

Her fame must have shown many other women that it was possible to rise above your rank; that wit and a sense of humour were as important as your appearance, and that having a profession was something a woman could do. She was one of the first female actresses and made her first recorded appearance in 1665, in Dryden’s play The Indian Emperor, and all who saw her noted her vibrant personality. Pepys called her a ‘mighty pretty soul’. But I think the Encyclopaedia Britannica nailed it; the entry called her ‘the living antithesis of puritanism’ - in other words she embodies the spirit of the Restoration in a way no other figure can.

Jemahl: Sweet Nelly would be nothing without Aphra or Dryden’s words, whatever her undoubted charms, and I have never been overly impressed with the merry monarch. I think Rochester sums up the pair of them.
"For though in her he settles well his tarse,Yet his dull, graceless bollocks hang an arse.This you'd believe, had I but time to tell ye,The pains it costs to poor, laborious Nelly."
The individual who dominates the age more than any other, who casts a long shadow over the next two hundred years, and who gave Charles II nightmares all his life, is Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell embodies both the rising prosperity of the middle classes and the religious division of the age, and, perversely for a dictator, he gave us parliamentary supremacy with one swift blow of an axe. He is a colossus of history, perhaps one of the most important figures of any age let alone the seventeenth century. For historians who subscribe to the great man theory he single-handed changed the course of British and world history. Historians of the left, who ascribe change to greater processes than individual action, recognise him as a fulcrum for class war, revolution, and the end of feudalism. 

His victory in the civil wars – whatever Fairfax’s role – and his rule as Protector fixed a fault-line of Roundhead and Cavalier, radical and reactionary, that is still central to British politics today.  It was the memory of Cromwell that forced the Royalist Stuart High Tories to accept the Glorious Revolution rather than a return to the republic or another civil war. 

Cromwell’s fight for the Good Old Cause of no taxation without representation was exported to the colonies and drove the founding of the United States. A century after the Glorious Revolution, as the Marquis de Lafayette strode through the halls of Versailles to ‘escort’ the French King and Queen back to Paris, one lady in waiting was heard to mutter: ‘There goes Cromwell!’ The hero of the American revolutionary war turned and replied: ‘Madam, if I were Cromwell I would have brought more men.’ Louis XVI just like Charles I lost his head. Cromwell was the king-killer that inspired America, France, and Russia to revolution and changed the world. So for me, Oliver Cromwell, war winning general, regicide, sanctimonious bully, iconoclast and religious fanatic is the most important individual of the seventeenth century – warts an’ all.

Which was the most significant event of the century, and why?

Cryssa: On August 22, 1642, King Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham, essentially declaring war against Parliament. This would mark the beginning of the English Civil War that lasted loosely from 1642 until 1651.  This wasn’t the first time that civil war broke out in England: the struggle between Empress Matilda and King Stephen, known as the Anarchy, and the War of the Roses are famous examples. 

But what made the 17th century civil war different was that this wasn’t a dynastic struggle between royal houses for the crown; this was a struggle for Parliamentary and religious reform. Putting this in context, this was a revolutionary concept. The King was traditionally God’s divine representative, head of the church and absolute ruler of the state. What this civil war represented was a seismic shift in thinking toward the rights and freedoms of all men. As is common with all revolutions, the pendulum swung too far and I believe that once the king was executed and Parliament was in charge of the country, they lost sight of what they were fighting for and set up Cromwell as a de facto king. But the seeds for Parliamentary reform were well sown. Even though the monarchy was restored in 1660, its archaic state would not prevail. By the end of the 17th century, England had morphed into the constitutional monarchy in place today. 

Deborah: I totally agree about the English Civil Wars, but I also think that one of the things that makes the 17th century so interesting is the sheer amount of rebellion against the established Church. English dissenters opposed government control of their worship and founded new churches which had no priest or intermediary between the congregation and God. Wikipedia has this list of sects: Anabaptists, Barrowists, Brownists, Diggers, Enthusiasts, Familists, Fifth Monarchists, Grindletonians, Levellers, Muggletonians, Puritans, Philadelphians, Quakers, Ranters, Sabbatarians, Seekers, and Socinians. And they were the ones that were best documented - this engraving shows several others.

This points to a level of confusion in belief which shows a great questioning at the heart of society, at least equal to that of how we should be governed. And that is, what is our relationship with God, and therefore, how should we behave? The ramifications of that discussion sent pilgrims to America, without whom America would be a radically different place today.

Jemahl: At some point in 1666 in a Lincolnshire garden, an apple fell from a tree. The innocuous event was observed by a young scientist who had been struggling with lunar orbits, and the forces that bound the cosmos together. Something clicked in Isaac Newton’s head, and the theory of a universal gravitational field was conceived.

Isaac Newton

OK, the date is unclear and the story may be apocryphal (Newton himself did talk about it though, so... haters gonna hate). He certainly didn’t come up with his theory there and then in the garden. It took another twenty years of theorising and calculating before Newton published Principia in 1687. It instantly became recognised as a ‘masterpiece’ of science, unsurpassed until Einstein and General Relativity or Darwin and Evolution. It was the basis of the scientific revolution that propelled human society towards industrialisation and modernity. A breath of wind, an apple falls, and the world is changed forever; chaos theory in action.

You're in a civil war battle - which is your weapon of choice, and why?

Cryssa: Stylishly, I have a thing for doglock pistols, but for practicality and self-preservation on the battlefield, give me a matchlock musket. The accuracy wasn’t terribly good, and you couldn’t just fire off multiple rounds like the Terminator, but when you didn’t have enough time to reload, the butt end doubled as an effective, if not brutal, weapon in its own right—a two for one deal. 

Deborah: My weapon of choice would be a swept hilt rapier – nice and light for a woman my size. Also, this is personal – one of my books is about a woman learning to fight at a sword school in Spain, and I did a lot of research! What impressed me the most was the sheer craftsmanship of producing a sword. It meant life or death, so they were made with immense care. 

The taking of iron ore and blending it by hand to make steel alloy and then folding and beating the metal to make a blade. The quenching of the red-hot blade – the sound of the hammer, the hiss of steam were familiar in the 17th century. The hilt was often made by a different man from the bladesmith. In a duel or a fight, the twisting quillons(or bars) of the hilt were able to snag an opponent’s blade which might open his guard, so you could make a counter-thrust with a dagger. Often a dagger and sword were used together, or a cloak and dagger.

17th Century Rapier

Of course I would have to play dirty and approach Cryssa from behind because I wouldn’t stand much chance against her gun. Though I hear tell there have been quite a few 17th century accidents with gunpowder…

Jemahl: I would probably have gone to Italy for the duration of the Civil War, but if misfortune found me on a seventeenth century battlefield, I think I would be with Deborah – although I would also want a horse to get away as quickly as I could. A battle is a horrible place to be, and fundamentally I’m a coward.


Cryssa Bazos is a writer and 17th century enthusiast. Her historical fiction novel, Traitor’s Knot, a romantic tale of adventure set during the English Civil War, will be published by Endeavour Press, UK. Traitor’s Knot is the first in a series of adventures spanning from the ECW to the Restoration (Road to the Restoration).
Find her on her website

Deborah Swift is an historical novelist. Before publishing her first novel Deborah worked as a set and costume designer for film and TV. She also developed a degree course in Theatre Arts at the Arden School of Theatre, where she taught scenography and the history of design.  In 2007 she took an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, and since then has juggled writing with teaching. Find her on her website

Jemahl Evans was brought up in a West Wales mining village during the 70s and 80s and educated in Christ College Brecon, St Mary’s University College (Strawberry Hill), and U.W.E. Bristol. He graduated with an MA in History. His interest in the English Civil War was sparked as a child, after reading Simon by Rosemary Sutcliffe, which is probably why his sympathies lie with Parliament! Find him on his website


  1. Cromwell essential to the development of parliamentary democracy, but I always have a soft spot for Nell Gwyn.

    1. Hi John,
      Thanks for your comment. I think a lot of people will be divided on this one; but I suppose it was a time of great division, so it's to be expected. I think the authors were very well-behaved in their disagreement though :-)

  2. Thank you for including me. I loved the discussion!

    1. Thanks for your contribution and insights - what a wonderful (and civilised) discussion!

  3. Having always considered myself a 'Cavalier' (the very name is evocative!) as well as a confirmed Royalist even to this day, I have, naturally, hated Cromewell. But....Jemahl has actually made me think again: what he did was probably for the best, but it was the ramifications of what he did, so eloquently explained by Jemahl, that impressed me because I had never thought further than the actual rebellion. Thank you for a wonderful discussion.....

    1. Thanks Richard - glad it gave you pause for thought :-)

  4. Great post! This is an era of history that I have been wanting to dig deeper into.

  5. Enjoyed doing this - cheers, Annie.

  6. It's wonderful to see the 17th century getting more attention. My series is set during the Restoration, and I felt totally alone until recently. I hope the trend continues and better -- that we can eventually get our own category on retailers outside of the generic "historical"! Keep it up, everyone x

    1. Thanks Jessica - it's one of my favourite periods of history :-)

  7. Thank you for inviting me to this debate, and lovely to see some enthusiasm for the 17th century at last!

    1. Thanks for your contribution - I had a lot of fun with this series, generally, and this one in particular :-)

  8. I suppose Charles II 'valued loyalty above all else' as long as it was to him. Giving it to someone else was another matter as is clearly seen in his betrayal of the Great Montrose to Argyll and his supporters.

    1. I'd have to pass you over to one of our 17thC experts to answer that one!