Scotch-Irish-L ArchivesArchiver > Scotch-Irish > 1998-02 > 0886367083
From: linda Merle <>
Subject: Stab at a notion of who our ancestors were
Date: Sun, 01 Feb 1998 13:04:43 -0800
Hi, I think I have the answer to the contradiction in the ways in
which the early settlers to both Ireland and the Americas are
Some writers have described our ancestors as very pious Christians
-- not only the Presbyterians who are our ancstors but the Quakers
and the Puritans. Others describe a land populated by a chaotic
people without religion or law whether in Ireland or Virginia(esp.
the Rev. Woodmason). I think the answer is that both kinds came to
America -- and to the plantation of Ireland. Our authors have
not clearly understood the culture from which they came. Fischer
for instance, does not understand how the North of England could
be both Royalist during the Civil War and yet also the source of
much revolt both before and after it and the homeland of Quakerism.
However Christopher Hill does understand the complexities of society
in the period from the late Elizabethan (King James) through the
17th century. And with his aid, I am beginning to.
Christopher Hill "The World Turned Upside Down" (England, 1975)
describes England of the 17th century. It consisted of two kinds of
settlements in the countryside: woodland and pasture on the one hand
and arable champaign on the other. The unenclosed woodlands were far
more extensive than now. It included North Essex, the Weald, the
cheese area of Wiltshire, the industrial parts of Yorkshire and
Lancashire, forests of Sherwood, Arden, the New Forest, The Northam-
ptonshire forests, and the highland zones. (p 46) In addition you
need to realize that the population was exploding.
In the unenclosed areas was a "'relatively free and mobile society"
and in the parishes "a relatively static and subservient one". The
majority of people lived in the "felden parishes". The heath and
woodland were often outside the parish system. There was freedom
from the parson as well as the squire. Here in the words of a
well known Leveller, one lived "out of sight or out of slavery".
(p 46). Lest you think dislike of gentry (or the notion that all
men are created equal) is an American invention, be aware that
it is not. In 1614 a Scotsman observed that throughout England
there was a "bitter and distrustful" attitude by the common people
towards gentry and nobility (p19)--that later erupted in civil
The rapid increase in population, esp. of "masterless men" who
had no feudal lord, was a great concern for contemporaries. "One
of the arguments advanced in propaganda for colonizing Ireland in
1594 was that 'the people poor and seditious, which were a burden
to the commonwealth, are drawn forth, whereby the matter of
sedition is removed out of the City'." Hill tells us "The same
argument was often used later to advocate exporting 'the rank
multitude' to Virginia." (p20)
Before the English Civil War, the policy of the gov. discouraged
industrialization as well as the rapid movement of inexpensive labor
to places of employment. Ie you could not really leave the parish
without permission. This was not so in the woods. Here "feudal
subordination hardly existed, and there was little obstacle to
the intrusion of rural industry in search of cheap part-time labour."
We are told by a man of the times (Aubrey): "'The 'mean people' of
the woods...live lawless, nobody to govern them; they care for
nobody, having no dependence on anybody.'" It is from these same
areas that most peasant revolt occured. (p46) These folk were
also open to radical religious sects and probably formed the heart
of the New Model Army of Cromwell.
This picture is probably familiar to us as folklore -- Robin Hood.
These areas were not sparsely populated either. They were
densely populated! Enclosure and deforestation as well as draining
of the fens (swamps) were viewed by the establishment as a religious
duty to root out the witches, puritans and strange sects, and
robbers and vagabonds. In Cumberland in the mid fifties the
Quakers met 'in multitudes and upon moors.' The north was the
breeding ground of Quakerism. (p47).
What is more, the masterless state of the moors, fens, and woods
is what most likely made free thought possible. One professor has
suggested that "Puritan insistence on inner discipline was
unthinkable without the experience of masterlessness....
Conversion, sainthood, repression, collective discipline, were
the answer to the unsettled condition of society..." (48-49) The
other trace of this life which remains in our folk memory is the
So beneath the tranquility of rural England was a 'seething mobility
of forest squatters, itinerant craftsmen and labourers, unemployed
men and women seeking work, strolling players, minstrels and
jugglers,pedlars and quack doctors, gipsies, vagabonds, tramps"...
and where did they congregate? London and the big cities. It is from
this "underworld" that ships' crews and armies were recruited, and
"that a portion at least of the settlers of Ireland and the New
World were found, men prepared to run desperate risks in the
hope of obtaining the secure freehold land (and with it, status)
to which they could never aspire in overcrowded England. In
England mobility was taken for granted, at least outside the cham-
paign agricultural areas." (48-49) "A family which can be re-
constituted....is ...an untypical family."
Who were these people? The staid Puritans, Quakers, and Presbyterian
settlers were sectaries -- ie they had left the established
church and largely rejected the pre-Civil War form of government.
Some like the afore-mentioned, created their own forms of
disciplined society. Others were simply the unemployed, the displaced,
and people who chose a life of freedom, despite the inscurity,
over the disciplined and controled life of the parish. They were
men without masters. It was this group who spread out rapidly
across the frontiers. The lawlessness was not unfamiliar to them,
but very familiar. It was their norm. So often it seems that every
generation moved west -- they had a restlessness that they brought
with them from the old country. They recognised no master.
And even if English -- they hated and dispised authority and
probably had done so for generations.
Hill describes four types of masterless men whose numbers were
increasing at alarming rates throughout the 17th century:
Rogues,vagabonds and beggars. They were ideologically unmotivated.
They attended no church and belonged to no social group. The
Calvinist theologians called them "a cursed generation".
Secondly London, whose population had increased eightfold from
1500 to 1650. It formed the heart of the criminal underworld.
It was the anonymous refuge of the vagabond. There was casual
labour there and also more charity than elsewhere. The London
mob was a scary force but it was basically unpolitical: it
was used by Presbyterians against the Army in 1647, by the
royalists in 1660, and by church and king men under Queen Anne.
It could be had for hire -- and was over and over again.
Protestant sectaries -- Quakers, Presyberians, Baptists,
etc, strongest in the towns where they formed underground
communities of support. They were often immigrants from the contin-
ent -- Huguenots, Dutch, Germans. They were small craftsmen,
apprentices -- freemen but barely. Once they could come out in
the open, they did the things they are still doing: organizing
social services, poor relief, etc.
And lastly the rural equivilent of the London poor -- cottagers
and squatters on commons, wastes and in forests. They were
the victims of the rapid explosion of population, and the enclosures.
Masterless, they now had no one to protect them. They formed
ready pools for additional labour -- knitting, coal mining,
clothiers, etc. (pp 39-44). These were family people, like the
sectaries, but from a humbler place in society -- not freemen.
I suspect society was not so different in Scotland and Ireland.
The one thing all four groups have in common is that they
were people who rejected feudalism or had been rejected by it.
The Protestant sectaries beleived that God's word was found
in the Bible or within -- not in the established Church's
hierarchy, and they also rejected the hierarchy of control which
originated in the Monarchy and descended through the church
Our ancestors are largely drawn from these four types, I suspect.
The orientation to political involvement given above is in
relationship to the English Civil War, not the American Revolution.
|Stab at a notion of who our ancestors were by linda Merle <>|