Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Huntington Library despatches 4: Voting on God

In the first of these despatches I mentioned RUMP, the collection of anti-royalist poems and songs published in 1662 (there was a shorter collection published in 1660). One of the better-known of those runs:

We fasted first, then pray’d that War might cease
When Praying would not serve, we paid for Peace
And glad we had it so, and gave God thanks,
Which made the Irish play the Scotish Pranks.
Is there no God? let’s put it to a Vote;
Is there no Church? Some Fools say so by rote;
Is there no King, but Pym, for to assent
What shall be done by Act of Parliament?
No God, no Church, no King, then all were well,
If they could but Enact there were no Hell.*

The last six lines were often quoted by nineteenth-century historians, sometimes as an indication of the crazed radicalism of the parliamentarians, sometimes, more sensibly, as an indication of the alarm of the nascent royalist party. They tended to skip the first four lines, which are more period-specific – they seem to put it in late 1641 or very early 1642 – but which feel a bit bolted-on.

Well, a stray page in the Temple correspondence here at the Huntington confirms that. Manuscript HM 46532 is a single sheet containing a sonnet, which I transcribe as follows:

Is there a god? let it be put to vote
Is there noe king but Pym as some men dote?
Is there noe church? bee it soe wee are content
Soe it bee down by Act of Parliament.
Is there noe god noe king noe church tis well
If they can find at last there is noe hell
Is there noe god why doe they the Commons foole
Is there a king why then dothe Pym leave rule
Is thiere a church? why are the members rent
And not made up agayne by Parliament
Is there a god a king a church tis even
As iust they should enact there is a heaven                              
Vnles that god the king hell heaven all
Like Strafford by one king ^Pym^ must stand or fall.

We can imagine that amused / appalled squibs of this kind were circulating widely in 1640-2, as provincial folks tried to keep up with what was happening, just as shocked post-Brexit Remainers spent a few days sharing barbed jokes on Facebook.

The verse here is less polished than the published version, though the whole thing works better. It appears to be earlier – the lack of any reference to the Irish and the allusion to Strafford would put it in mid-1641, at a guess, though those who know the detail better will no doubt be able to be more precise.

It looks to me as if the first line here was simply too good to resist, and made its way meme-like into another verse, and perhaps elsewhere. (The later version is a touch more aggressive, with Parliament apparently presuming the non-existence of God.)

What I like about this is the sense of just how high the religious stakes were from the very beginning of the Civil War era. It is not only with the explosion of Independency and sectarian movements in the age of Gangraena that wild views become possible.

If the Civil War was for one side the last of the wars of religion, it was for the other a war against atheism. The fact that the radicals themselves were often struggling to find firm anti-atheist ground on which they could stand only made matters worse.

*Alexander Brome (ed.), Rump: or An exact collection of the choycest poems and songs relating to the late times (London, 1662), p. 64.

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