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4  Revolution

The Outbreak of the English Revolution, 1640-42

During the earlier seventeenth century Parliament, especially the House of Commons, was becoming more assertive in its political position vis-a-vis the monarchy. From 1629 to 1640 Charles I attempted to circumvent this problem by refusing to convene any parliaments. But when in 1637 Charles tried to impose the Anglican prayerbook on Presbyterian Scotland, the Scots revolted. The King found that, without parliament-authorized taxes, he could not finance the military effort needed to suppress the revolt. He was therefore forced to recall Parliament once more.

     The Long Parliament, as it came to be called, met in November 1640. It determined no more to be shackled to the arbitrary will of Charles. It refused to provide finance until its political grievances were redressed. The key bone-of-contention came to be the trial of Charles's chief minister, the Earl of Strafford, on charges of 'attempting to subvert the fundamental laws of the Kingdom'. When the trial was seen to be failing, the House of Commons simply passed an Act of Attainder declaring him guilty and demanding his execution (April 1641).

     Affairs had now reached a very dangerous stand-off. The more conservative House of Lords seemed unlikely to pass the Attainder, and the King was indulging in a plot with his army (though its seems likely that the most he intended was to intimidate Parliament). It was now that the radical leadership of Parliament played their key card. For the past few months they had been cultivating an alliance with the people of London, who shared their hopes. On 3 May several thousand middle-class demonstrators surrounded the Lords, calling for Strafford's execution. The following day the House was besieged by a far larger crowd armed with swords and clubs. One report described them as 'the ordinary canaille mechanic people, many out of Southwark'; watermen, porters and carters were among their ranks.[1] The Lords, intimidated, gave way.

     On 8 May the Attainder was taken to Whitehall Palace for the King's assent by a delegation of MPs, and they were accompanied by an armed and roaring mob. The delegation was brusquely informed that Charles would consider it at his pleasure. An attack on the palace then appeared imminent, and was only prevented by the completely unauthorized statement of a leading churchman, who said that when they received the King's reply it would be 'all that they could wish for'. All the following day the mob besieged Whitehall, menacing the King and his family. At last, on 10 May, Charles, fearing not only for the security of his family but of his entire Kingdom, gave in and signed the Act. Simultaneously he assented to an Act in which he agreed not to dissolve Parliament without its own consent. Strafford was executed on 12 May in front of a crowd reputed at 200,000, and amid national rejoicing.

     The King was now reduced to powerlessness, as a wave of parliamentary legislation swept away the foundations of his 'prerogative' rule. The institutions of royal government were either abolished outright (as the court of Star Chamber) or emasculated (as the Privy Council, whose judicial powers were abolished). One 'democratic' reform was the opening up of hearings of parliamentary bills to public debate (25 May).[2] The watermen took advantage of this ruling to put mass pressure on their rulers (see below).

     With the victory of the 'constitutional revolution', the cause of anti-regime unity in the political nation was removed. A split began to emerge between radical members of Parliament, who wanted to push the revolution further, and moderates who considered that enough had been done. The radicals, who were prepared to ally themselves with the London mob, managed to retain a majority in the House of Commons and push their policies through. This divergence pointed the way to the Civil War. The final political crisis came in January 1642 when the King attempted to arrest six leading radical MPs. They fled to the protection of the City of London, whose population rose in a body to protest and protect them. Parliament now organized a 'triumphal procession' to bring their leaders back to Westminster. The latter set out along the Thames from the Three Cranes, accompanied by forty longboats manned by volunteer seamen[3] and armed with pieces of small ordnance. The trained bands or militia of London accompanied them along the banks of the Thames (Parliament ordered that their guns be not loaded, however). In the face of this de facto uprising, Charles fled from London.

     The scenario was now set for civil war. King and Parliament still attempted dialogue, but their exchanges became more acrimonious. Some of the moderate MPs, including a majority of the Lords, went over to the King. Increasingly there was violence between the King's supporters and opponents. The Civil War officially began on 22 August 1642, when Charles raised his standard at Nottingham.

There was also a revolution in the municipal government of London in 1641-42. Its pattern and chronology parallelled those of the revolution in the Watermen's Company (described below), and it probably facilitated the latter. It was also of great importance for the Parliamentarian struggle as a whole, since it secured the great financial and demographic resources of the City for Parliament.[4]

     In the Middle Ages London had had a 'democratic' government. The City's freemen had the right to elect the Mayor and Aldermen, and also the Common Councillors. But by the seventeenth century the Mayor and Aldermen had become a self-selecting group with a power of veto over the Common Council, and the ability of the freemen to elect councillors had also become restricted.

     The conservative City oligarchy was a threat to the radical Parliamentarians in 1641, while at the grassroots level of local government there was pressure for an increase of democratic practice. Some early reforms were achieved in the summer of that year, and in December such freemen as could vote elected a slate of radical and Puritan councillors, who as a result occupied half the seats of the Common Council. In January 1642 a resolution attacked electoral malpractice, and extended the vote for councillors to all freemen-householders paying scot-and-lot, i.e. any form of tax or rates. (Election of aldermen was not restored at this stage, however.) This extended the franchise to the majority of adult males[5] (but not to the watermen as such, who were not in general free of the City). The Aldermanic veto over the Council was suspended. In August the royalist Lord Mayor was unseated and replaced by a Puritan. The Aldermanic veto made a comeback in a conservative reaction in the mid-1640s, but was officially abolished after the execution of the King in 1649. After 1642 the new Common Councillors were still well-to-do merchants, but of a less-wealthy class, on the whole, than their pre-revolutionary predecessors. A few were reputed ...*

The Revolution in the Company, 1641-42

(a) Revolution at the Grassroots, 1641
The watermen had already tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the annual selection of rulers when in March 1641 they petitioned the House of Lords for redress of their grievances. In the petition, and an accompanying annex, they asked for annual elections of the rulers and assistants by the generality, or at the least by 'the greatest part of able and sufficient watermen'. The 'most able' of the generality should also participate directly in the government, by meeting with the rulers in legislative assemblies at six-monthly intervals.[6]

     No action was taken by the Lords, which was heavily occupied by matters of high politics at this time. But appeals now took a back seat to direct action. On 3 May the Lords heard the rulers' petitions about the great disobedience of the rank and file:

divers refractory watermen boasting that they may do what they list (because now it is Parliament time) have took such lawless liberty upon them[selves] as to go to all the places where watermen do ply, from Gravesend to Kingston, encouraging thousands of them not to obey your petitioners' government, nor to come to their Hall when they are complained on or warned thither for any misdemeanours; and also some of the rude apprentices have come to the Hall to offer [i.e. threaten] violence to your petitioners ... for all their abuses and vilifying your petitioners, they will not appear at our Hall, or if they do appear they do break from our officers; the chief leader of this faction being one Joshua Church, who being told that he ought to be obedient to law, order and the Lord Mayor, replied that it was Parliament time now, and that the Lord Mayor had nothing to do with them, and that the Lord Mayor was but their slave.[7]
     But if Parliament could not find time for the generality, they could do nothing for the rulers either. In March the rulers had introduced a parliamentary bill proposing alterations to the watermen's government. They claimed that the bill had been 'preferred by the consent of such who are trusted by the generality, and contained nothing but that which tended to the good of the company'. But they were vehemently opposed by the rank-and-file radicals, who feared that it would give unprecedented power to the rulers, and hence unprecedented scope for their 'corruptions'. When the bill was before a committee, the radicals
were so far enraged and incensed against your petitioners [the rulers] that they threatened to raise many thousand watermen to be present at the committee, to oppose your petitioners' proceedings, and that they would cut some of your petitioners in pieces, and destroy some of them ...
More generally, the 'disorders' had grown, so that by mid-1641 the watermen no longer obeyed their old government.[8]

     There is no evidence on the rank-and-file's own organization at this time, but they were striving for democracy and doubtless had some rough-and-ready organization spontaneously emerging from the grassroots. It seems that almost all the watermen were involved in this movement; the rulers were unable at this stage to claim that there was any significant minority of watermen against it.[9]

     In August a new parliamentary bill concerning the Company government was introduced. It may have been a revised version of the March bill, and seems to have taken more account of the generality's initiatives and aspirations.[9a]

     The rulers were losing their grip on all aspects of government. In September they petitioned the City to uphold their government in respect of apprentices.[10] A month or so later, Joshua Church removed the table of regulations on display at Waterman's Hall. He was apparently better informed than John Taylor, the accredited clerk of the company, about the company's case in Parliament.[11]

(b) The Overthrow of Oligarchy in 1642
Parliament referred the watermen's bill to the Court of Aldermen for resolution. On 1 February 1642, the generality petitioned the Court. They asked for 'the benefit' of the founding Act of 1555 for a general election of the rulers. The Court stated that the Act had given the power of election to itself, not to the watermen. Nevertheless, it recommended that if 55 of the 'most honest and sufficient' watermen were yearly to put forward the names of twenty of the 'most able and best sort', 'by way of information', the Court could choose eight of these to be rulers. However, it left itself free to choose others if it thought fit. This practice continued for many years. The 55 electors were themselves chosen by the generality, at the individual 'towns and stairs' or plying places from Windsor to Gravesend. Thus what happened in effect was a change in the method of recommending rulers to the Court: the old custom had taken the form of indirect democracy. The Aldermen's ruling made no mention of such democracy; we only know of it from later records. It was a quiet deal with the popular forces.[12]

     The 55 electors made themselves into a court of assistants, which participated in the government of the company. They were annually elected in the first years after the revolution. In the later seventeenth century they were either being elected for life or were choosing themselves. In 1692 the rulers, faced with a co-opting court of assistants who had seized control of the company finances, resorted to the original custom of popular election to break their stranglehold.[13]

     Open financial accountability, another aim of the revolutionaries, was also achieved. In 1700, when many of the gains of the revolution were at last enshrined in an Act of Parliament, it was ordered that the accounts should be put on display at Watermen's Hall, to be inspected by any interested person.[14]

     The auditors of the Company's accounts, hitherto chosen by the Aldermen from among the ranks of the leading gilds, were from now on chosen annually by the court of assistants from among the watermen themselves. The new auditors seem to have been an important agency in decision-making, and sometimes exceeded their official mandate.[15]

     What of the old ruling elite? They were thrown out almost lock, stock and barrel in early 1642. On 3 March, the day the new rulers were to be chosen, the generality told the Court of Aldermen that the rulers had been twice voted against in Parliament. 'Thus by slanders, clamours, threatenings, multitudes, noises, voices, most odious and shameless lies [they] carried [the cause] against us', according to the oligarchy's own account.[16] None of the leading rulers ever served again. Only two or three of the lesser rulers did.[17]

     The new rulers were drawn from the former opposition. Many of them had been in conflict with the old rulers, or had called for democracy.[18] They were also, in the first few years after the revolution, of a lower socio-economic stratum than the old. After 1622, well-to-do rulers had had to share their power with poorer watermen, but had remained in a decisive majority. The rulers of the early and mid 1640s were mainly of the latter poorer type. This may have simply been because, though the Aldermen preferred to choose the well-to-do, there were now few left who had not been discredited by having been pre-revolutionary rulers. After the mid 1640s, however, wealth seems to have made something of a comeback. At the same time, a fledgling new ruling group seems to have emerged.[19]

     The old rulerships had been dominated by the better-off sort of watermen. In the first few years after the revolution, the rulers seemed on the whole to be of a decidedly more modest social milieu. This was probably not because the revolutionaries were against wealth as such; rather that most of the richer watermen were politically tainted by their past rulerships.[20]

     The rulers of 1642 seem to have been the most spectacularly poor. Hugh Dutton was on the borderline of the requirement that rulers be householders. He held a modest house in London, jointly with another man, and in the 1641 poll tax he paid only the basic adult male contribution of 6d. While not appearing as poor as Dutton, Robert Bursey, George Lacy and John Crispine all appear to have been modest people. At least after the first year of revolution, the Court of Aldermen attempted to find at least one well-to-do ruler per year. Thomas Blackman (1643) was almost of subsidyman status. In 1644 and 1645 George Kettle and Thomas Rowe respectively were subsidymen, albeit at the basic assessment. But many others were still modest: Nicholas Nelson, Gilbert Smith and Tobias Urin (1643); Thomas Lowe, Edward Soore and John Nowell (1644; Nowell 1645 too).

     But in the following years wealth (along with oligarchy) may have started to make a comeback. John Bartlett (1646, 47) the son of Andrew the subsidyman of Lambeth; Thomas Price (1647, 48, 60), ?2 assessment for rented property in Southwark, 1642[21]

The Aldermanic ruling of February 1642 put a temporary end to the practice of selecting rulers for multiple years, ordering that no-one be ruler for more than one year. But in the mid 1640s the old practice of choosing rulers for two consecutive years began to make a comeback.[21a]

(c)The Aftermath
Disputes continued between the generality and the new rulers. A petition from the latter to the House of Lords (undated, but marked 'found in 1642') complained of 'divers obstinate and refractory watermen' who abused the officers of the rulers and of the lord mayor, as well as passengers.

[T]he said watermen combine themselves to gather to suppress your petitioners' government and live under no other government but their perverse and wicked humours, and to that end raise tumults and mutinies upon the River, to the utter destruction of government and disheartening of your petitioners and other well affected watermen.
Clearly, the rebels now only represented one faction of the watermen. The rulers asked the House of Lords for a warrant to suppress the disorders. The validity of the previous one issued by the Privy Council in 1631 had lapsed with the circumscription of that body's powers in 1641. [22] In 1648-49 there was a dispute between the rulers and a faction calling itself the 'well-affected watermen' over company finances and the election of rulers. [23] After this, conflict in the company faded out. It was, however, to re-emerge later in the century.

     After the revolution, a struggle began for the reform of the company's rules. Nothing seems to have been achieved until a revised set of regulations was issued by the privy council in 1663. Apart from the ruling on the auditors, only limited revisions are to be found in it. [24]

Watermen in the Armed Forces

In the Civil War, Parliament found that its strength lay in the socially-developed areas of the south and east of England, especially in the wealth of London. The King, on the contrary, based himself on the more backward regions, the north, the west and Wales. The War initially went badly for the Parliamentarians, but later in 1643 they forged an alliance with the Scots, and an invasion of Scottish forces brought about the fall of the north of England to the allies. Oliver Cromwell, a rising military star, distinguished himself at Marston Moor (in July 1644) by leading a combined Parliamentarian and Scottish force to victory over the Royalists. Subsequent political infighting between win-the-war radicals and moderates on the Parliamentarian side threatened to squander this success, however. It was not until the radicals decisively gained the upper hand in policy-making in the spring of 1645 that the scene was set for the final Parliamentarian victories.

(a) The Militia
The trained bands or militia were a traditional armed force employed for dealing with serious breaches of public order. They were drawn from the 'respectable' householder class. In the Civil War they were mobilized to help form the first armies, both Parliamentarian and Royalist. This left a gap in local law-and-order, which in London was filled by the creation of auxiliary forces from volunteer apprentices and other non-householders. In July 1643 a Parliamentary ordinance extended the authority of the London militia committee to the suburban forces.

     As may be expected, there were many watermen amongst the ranks of the Southwark Auxiliaries. Of twenty-six soldiers whose trades have been identified, no less than fifteen were watermen. The youthfulness of some of the auxiliaries is striking. Three identified soldiers were sixteen, and one apparently only fourteen.[25]

(b) Naval Service
In the libertarian atmosphere of the early 1640s the seamen considered service to be voluntary. In the absence of any effective means of enforcing impressment, the naval authorities were forced to raise wages, and were exhorted to use 'cordial persuasion' to recruit men.[26]

*Parliament gained control of most of the fleet in January 1642

*Improved employment opportunities (in war conditions)[A] (Thus living up to the Privy Council recommendation of 1624 for the first time)

*?Greatly expanded naval activity under Cromwellian Commonwealth in 1650s (Anglo-Dutch naval wars etc); many watermen impressed - orders for the impressment of 500 watermen were issued in August 1657 and April 1659, for example[B]

(c) The Attempt to Impress the Watermen into Land Service, 1643
In September 1643 moves were made to raise an army in the Home Counties under the command of Sir William Waller, one of the preferred commanders of the Parliamentarians' radical wing. Both volunteers and conscripts were to make up the levy; but it was found that the difficulty in recruiting volunteers was matched by the lack of enthusiasm of the impressed men. In the face of these problems an attempt was made to persuade some of the numerous ranks of the watermen to join the the prospective army. Parliament passed an ordinance (15 September) indemnifying enlisted apprentices against the disapproval of their masters and loss of apprenticeship time.[C]

     The watermen (the writer exaggerates their numbers) were called together in Tothill Fields:

There appeared at the time and place appointed to the number of 6000 of them, and they were at first persuaded in as fair terms as might be, to List themselves under that noble gentleman Sir William Waller (for they resolved to keep the Trained Bands and Auxiliaries for the defence of the City if they could possibly make him up an Army any other way). To which when answer was returned, that if any Sea-service was to be done (which they knew the season was not fit for), they were ready for it, but for these Land-fights they were neither fit nor proper for them ... the Committee [delegated by Parliament] thereupon began to use more severe language, threatening to Press some and to punish others; and the Watermen cried out with a dismal clamour, 'One and all, one and all' and so went their ways.[D]
     The watermen followed up this display of solidarity with a protest petition to the Lord Admiral, who contacted the House of Commons about the matter. The result was a ruling (10 January 1644) that watermen were to be exempted from land service, 'except in case of extreme necessity'. All subsequent impressment legislation issued in the 1640s and 1650s contained the same proviso. Never again, it seems, did the Parliamentarian regimes attempt to violate the watermen's custom of freedom from land service.[E]


1. Bodleian Library, Tanner MS 66, fo.84a; Griffith Williams, The Discovery of Mysteries (1643) in his Chariot of Truth (1663), p.255. Back to text


2. Commons Journal, II, p.156. Back

3. And not, as Humpherus says, by watermen (I, pp.242-3). See ...*

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4. This section is drawn mainly from Valerie Pearl, London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1961), pp.137-9, 147-8, 247-8.
     But since this was written, two further excellent studies of the period have been published: Robert Brenner's Merchants and Revolution ... (1993), and Keith Lindley's Popular Politics and Religion in Civil War London (Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1994). The latter deals with these events more from the viewpoint of the common man.

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5. Valerie Pearl, 'Change and Stability in Seventeenth Century London', London Journal, V, no. 1, 1979, pp.13, 18. Back to text

6. Lords MSS, 10 March 1641, petition of the generality of the watermen; 3 May 1641, petition of the eight rulers of the watermen, annex. The annex, which is a detailed schedule of grievances and proposed remedies, appears to have originally been attached to the generality's petition of 10 March. It seems to be referred to in the latter.

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7. Lords MSS, 3 May 1641, petition of the eight rulers. Back

8. Commons Journal, II, pp.100, 152; Taylor, Commons Petition, quoted in Humpherus, I, pp.239-42. Back to text

9. Whereas John Taylor, the company's clerk, referred to the revolt of 1631-2 as involving 'many hundreds' of watermen, he said that in 1641-2 'many thousands' were combined together. Taylor, Manifestation, pp.3-4.

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9a. Commons Journal, II, pp.258, 274; cf. Diurnall Occurrences, 7-14 Feb. 1641/2, under Wed. 9 Feb. 1641/2. Back to text

10. rep. 55, fo.193b. Back

11. Taylor, Manifestation, p.4; cf. Commons Journal, II, p.274. Back

12. Rep. 55, fos.355, 368, 373b-374; Diurnall Occurrences, 7-14 Feb. 1641/2, under 9 Feb.; Humpherus, vol. 1, pp.236, 372-3, 376; cf. Humpherus, vol. 2, pp.10-11. Humpherus erroneously places the Aldermen's ruling under the year 1641.

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13. Humpherus, I, pp.236, 359, 372-3; PRO, PC 2/56, fos.154b-160b, no. 40; rep. 59, fo.367; Diurnall Occurrences, 7-14 Feb. 1641/2, under 9 Feb.; cf. HMC, Ninth Report, part 2, p.61b. Back to text

14. Taylor, Manifestation, p.6; Humpherus, II, p.10. Back


15. PRO, PC 2/56, fos.154b-160b, no. 40; rep. 88, fo.102a. Back

16. rep. 55, fo.383b; Taylor, Commons Petition, p.10. Back

17. 'The Democratic Revolution ...', p.23. See Appendix 2. The report in Diurnall Occurrences (7-14 Feb. 1641/2, under 9 Feb.) has the relevant Aldermanic legislation saying that 'such Masters of [the Watermen's] Company as had been should be more'; these newsbook reports were often roughly and hastily written and printed, and presumably the text should here read '... should be no more'; but the case cannot be proven.

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18. See 'The Democratic Revolution ...', pp.23-4, for details. Back

19. For the emergence of a new ruling group, see 'The Democratic Revolution ...', p.23. Back

20. For what follows, see Appendix 3.  Back


21. PRO, E179/187/469, membrane 2a. Back

21a. Diurnall Occurrences, 7-14 Feb. 1641/2, under Wed. 9 Feb. 1641/2. The version of the order in the Aldermanic repertory makes no mention of this. Rep. 55, fos. 373b - 374. For the comeback of the old practice, see Appendix 2. Back

22. Lords MSS, 1642, undated petition endorsed 'found in 1642'. Back

23. Rep. 59, fos.166, 202b, 362b, 366-7b. Back

24. Rep. 57, part 1, fos.65, 97, 100; rep. 58, part 1, fos.104b-105; PC 2/56, fos.154b-160b. Back

25. L C Nagel,'The Militia of London 1641-9', unpublished University of London Ph.D. thesis (1982), pp.90, 96-7. Back to text

26. CSPD 1641-43, p.554; cf. Humpherus, I, p.244. Back

A. R McCaughey, 'The English Navy, Politics and Administration, 1640 - 49', New University of Ulster, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (1983), p.154. Back

B. CSPD 1657-58, pp.401, 412; CSPD 1658-59, p.406. Back


C. Calendar of State Papers Venetian [*1643-7], pp.18-19, 21; C H Firth and R S Rait, Acts and Ordinances of the Civil War and Interregnum (3 vols, 1911), I, p.285, quoted in Humpherus, I, p.247. Back

D. Mercurius Aulicus (newspaper), 14 September 1643. Back

E. Commons Journal, *, p.*, quoted in Humpherus, I, p.247; C H Firth and R S Rait, Acts and Ordinances of the Civil War and Interregnum (3 vols, 1911), I, pp.368, 647, 651 ...* Back

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