You are here:   Civilisation >  Screen > Leaving God Out of It

Lilburne would not have talked about "levelling". "Leveller" was an insult thrown at him by his Royalist and Parliamentarian enemies. He and his friends indignantly rejected the charge that "we would level all men's estates, that we would have no distinction of orders and dignities among men" as a malicious slander. Meanwhile, modern researchers wonder how seriously the Levellers believed in universal male suffrage - the main demands were for an end to rotten boroughs and for an English republic, not one man, one vote. As for feminism, Lilburne would never have dreamed of advocating "the levelling of women". Our notions of equality between the sexes were beyond the most radical minds of the 1640s.

Historical fact should not bind the writers of historical fiction, of course. But Channel 4's fiction is unintentionally fascinating because it relies on an interpretation of the Civil War that is at least 40 years out of date. From the late 19th century, the rise of the social democratic and socialist movements rescued the forgotten Levellers and the primitive communists of the Diggers movement from obscurity. As Blair Worden says in his Roundhead Reputations: The English Civil Wars and the Passions of Posterity, "once more the present saw its reflection in the past".

The 18th-century Whigs had drawn ideological succour from the parliamentarians' stand against the Crown but deplored the excesses of the revolution. Victorian liberals whitewashed the excesses and turned Cromwell into a plaster saint - a champion of liberty, worthy of a statue in Parliament Square. The mid-20th-century Left went further and argued that the revolution failed because it was not excessive enough. Cromwell and his greedy bourgeois allies destroyed its base by moving against the radical ideas of the Levellers and Diggers - a dampening of ardour that they were determined to resist in their lifetimes.

Students read the left-wing historians Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson. Scratching around for a name, a group of folk-punk musicians decided to call themselves The Levellers. Not to be outdone, Billy Bragg outflanked them on the left and dedicated a song to Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger leader.

Worden stops his account of how successive generations used the past in the mid-1970s. It is a pity he did, because by then historians were beginning to realise that the russet-coated captains of the New Model Army were not always potential readers of the New Statesman. They grasped that men murdered each other, blew up churches and supported or opposed Cromwell's theocratic rule, not because religion was a cover for class or political interests, but because religious passions moved them above all others.

View Full Article
January 4th, 2009
1:01 PM
Cohen's article may have a few errors, but he is bang on in his observation that progressive left opinion just can't handle religion. This religious illiteracy leads to the routine 'recoding' of declared religious motivations as always 'really' about class or power or gender. It is simply unthinkable to certain left-wing temperaments that people might be motivated by ideas of eternal destiny, the immortality of the soul and the eschaton. Revisionist histories of the Civil War have put religion right back at the centre of it. It was a war of rival religious ideas much more than competing classes. A bloody coda to the British Reformation.

Michael Sweeney
December 24th, 2008
11:12 AM
I once recall listening to a BBC play about the civil war where the roundheads were depicted as working class northerners and Cromwell as a 17th century Scargill figure. A very eminent historian I knew back then commented 'But Cromwell was a member of the Cambridgeshire gentry...' The past is a different country etc etc

Ross Burns
December 23rd, 2008
11:12 PM
Resistor, I thought you'd like that last bit.

December 23rd, 2008
9:12 PM
Thanks Steve, now I know that facts are no longer sacred in Britsh journalism. Sadly Nick Cohen is getting a reputation as the best example of that. And Ross, the idea that Billy Bragg would have introduced the song by saying, 'I'd like to dedicate this song to Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers' is laughable. Cohen thought Bragg had written the song and was using the 'fact' as another attempt to bash the anti-war left.

December 23rd, 2008
10:12 AM
Steve, Nick is not writing of the programme with that bit about 'religion being just a gloss' etc - he is saying it was historians in the seventies who were starting to realise that religion was the main motive for the violence, and not what had been accepted by others. And that should answer your last sentence too. If you have an idle moment, would you give 3-5 other excellent historical drama's that prove Nick wrong. You aren't just Nick bashing are you? Resistor, I have checked and Rosselson is the composer of said song. However, this slip shouldn't have caused the start of the earthquake you seem to be experiencing. Have you never been at a wedding party before, when the groom says he'd like to dedicate this song to my lovely new wife and then sings a famous song, probably written by Elton John or the Beatles. Or, perhaps if he isn't Malcolm Rifkind, by Billy Bragg.

December 23rd, 2008
5:12 AM
yeah! bang on there resistor, the entire crux of the review is the billy bragg reference- yeesh.

December 22nd, 2008
4:12 PM
'Not to be outdone, Billy Bragg outflanked them on the left and dedicated a song to Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger leader.' Complete rubbish, the song sung by Bragg about the Diggers, 'The World Turned Upside Down' was written by Leon Rosselson. when was the last time Cohen did any fact-checking.

December 21st, 2008
10:12 AM
The Devil's Whore is the best historical drama in years. nonsense. It had a few good performances but historical drama needs to be wedded to the history of the time. This was more like a Philippa Gregory novel than a proper historical drama. and as for this: 'religion is just a gloss that covers "real" class and political interests'? Religion was ALL OVER the programme. You are watching it selectively, Nick. In fact you seem to have misread almost everything you've watched this year. Maybe that's the fault of the left too. Because everything else is in your eyes. I also fail to understand the immediate parallele drawn between the civil war and Islamist terrorism. Where is the reflection of this aspect of the present in the civil war? you never actually say.

Ross Burns
December 19th, 2008
11:12 AM
Not only is Nick Cohen of the highest standard as an author, journalist and polemicist, his television criticism shares that height too. Brilliant piece.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.