REVIEW: Small earthquake in Wiltshire - two beheaded

Written by Tony Millett on .


SMALL EARTHQUAKE IN WILTSHIRE - Seventeenth-century conflict and its resolution - by Eric L Jones (The Hobnob Press - 2017 - £9.95)

The idea of a revolt against the government beginning in Wiltshire may sound a little fantastical.  

Imagine Salisbury in the hands of the rebels.  Then imagine the rebellion failing, petering out as rebels chose home rather than continuing to unlikely glory - or were captured.

A Wiltshire rising against the nation's rulers?  Relax!  This was February 1655 and this was the Penruddock Rising.   This was Wiltshire gentry rising against the usurpers and regicides of Cromwell's earlier rising, subsequent Civil War and government.  

As Eric L Jones writes in his book Small Earthquake in Wiltshire, during the Commonwealth or, as they would doubtless have seen it, the Interregnum, the county's gentry were "Smarting from fines, impositions and interference by zealots...".

The leader of this 'rising' was John Penruddock - a Wiltshire landowner whose family came not from Cornwall (as their name suggests) but from Cumbria.  His grievances were headed by the deaths of two of his younger brothers in the Civil War.

After the rising's failure, Penruddock was beheaded at Exeter - with Hugh Grove, another leaders of this 'rising'.   But the third leader, Francis Jones, was reprieved and vanished - " if in a puff of smoke".  Jones was a forbear of the author, who undertakes some diligent research to bring this rebel back, as it were, to life - including a mystery possibly involving Francis Jones and Minal church.

There had been a number of plots and mini-revolts against the Roundhead government mainly involving the gentry, but Jones judges the Penruddock Rising to be the most serious - and certainly not just the footnote it is given in some histories.  

The Penruddock Rising certainly worried Cromwell and his spymaster John Thurloe.  Guards were ordered to England's ports and race meetings were banned - an assembly of gentry on horseback posed an evident threat.  Unsuccessful though it was, this 'rising' was the last straw for Cromwell and he introduced 'the rule of the Major-Generals' - a period of direct military rule.

Eric L Jones opens his book in dramatic fashion: troopers from Marlborough are sent to Easton (not yet with its 'Royal' appendage) to arrest John Wildman.  They found him writing a manifesto against 'the tyrant Oliver Cromwell'.   

In modern terms, Wildman was far to the left of Cromwell - he was a Leveller.  When needs must, the far left and the pretty far right can join together to oppose establishment policies - rather as happened, perhaps, in our EU referendum.

The book tells us a little too little about the Penruddock Rising itself.  How long was Salisbury held by the rebels?  And just what in those days did 'held' mean for the citizens of a town?  But it tells a fascinating story about the espionage networks that defended the rulers - and successfully unmask plotters like Wildman before they struck.

Jones delves into some complex family genealogy - with the help of several memorials found in Wiltshire churches.  When he moves to the national scene to look at the restoration of the monarchy he finds a surprising carry-over of policies and personnel from the austere Cromwells' rule to the flamboyant court and rule of Charles II.

Some scores were, of course, brutally repaid as Royalists regained the upper hand.  Those who had signed Charles I's execution warrant - the regicides - were top of the Cavaliers' list for retribution.  

Religious sects that had supported the Commonwealth regime suffered from vengeance attacks.  First in line were the Society of Friends - militias were ordered to break up its gatherings:

"In 1663 one troop dug up the graves in the Quaker burial ground at Manton, just west of Marlborough, a gruesome event that provoked noisy remonstrations from local people, not just from the Quakers themselves."

Jones has found some splendid examples of the capitalist 'Vicars of Bray' who changed their loyalty so easily.  They include the amazingly named Bulstrode Whitelocke, a leading Parliamentarian who after the Restoration retreated to his mansion at ChiltonFoliat, paid a huge fine and bribed various people to keep his name off the list of regicides.

Another to turn with the political winds was the Leveller John Wildman.  By 1689 he was postmaster-general and he ended his life rich and ensconced on an estate at Shrivenham.  Jones tells us that the historian Macaulay wrote of him: "He had a wonderful skill in grazing the edge of treason..."

The book ends with a very interesting chapter on the 'Economic Sequel' to the Civil War, the Commonwealth and the Restoration.  The author finds that despite the politics and theories of the Commonwealth, a society run by those few members of the population owning landed estates continued - and continued to support Britain's in-grained inequality.

After all, as Bishop Burnet of Salisbury said, looking back from post-Restoration days: "We always reckon those eight years of usurpation a time of great peace and prosperity."  

This book has some remarkable and enlightening insights into local happenings and people in villages and towns of Wiltshire.  How many readers, for example, will be surprised to find that the famous agricultural innovator Jethro Tull farmed at Shalbourne?   

Or will they be surprised that the Parliamentary commander-in-chief, Lord Fairfax had a chaplain, Hugh Peters, who saw Stonehenge as a pagan temple and wanted it pulled own?  A narrow escape for the monument as Peters was one of Cromwell's favourites.

When it comes to the post-Restoration national scene, Eric L Jones takes us on an intriguing journey into the complex world of 'development economics'.  Putting aside the inequality, he is certain that the country's economy came out of the upheavals of the mid-seventeenth stronger - and some of the wealth began to trickle down, just a little.


The cover of Eric L Jones' book shows the beheading of John Penruddock as pictured in an old, undated print.