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God’s chosen people

(April 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 174, April 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Fire from Heaven
David Underdown
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It is not often that you find a history book that reads like a novel. But David Underdown’s study of the inhabitants of a Dorset town in the early 17th century does. It tells the story from contemporary documents. Characters appear large as life throughout the book. John White the preacher and William Whiteway the diarist are the zealous campaigners and reformers, while the notorious Pouncey family appear again and again in court records, and the Blachfords are ruthless businessmen.

The town of Dorchester was largely destroyed by fire in 1613. Half of all its buildings – around 170 houses – were burnt down. The fire was commemorated in the town for decades afterwards, and had a major impact on the inhabitants.

The ‘fire from heaven’ of the title describes not only the great disaster, but the sense of crusading zeal which dominated the town in the decades which followed.

The book describes a physical and spiritual rebuilding of the market town. ‘After the great crisis of the fire came the recognition that what was needed was a total reformation of the town.’ The town’s views were increasingly shaped by crusading Presbyterians.

They created a strongly puritan world which extended beyond religion to a wide network of charity and ‘improving’ reforms. In the years between the fire and the outbreak of civil war in 1642 they established almshouses for the old and poor, a fuel house to keep the poor warm in winter, an education system and a hospital.

The charitable works were aimed at creating a more orderly and efficient society, based on religious conviction rather than simply on wealth. They were also about regulating the poor – putting them to work, stopping some of the old customs such as gathering firewood. As Underdown puts it, ‘One side of the coin was reform: the promotion of religion and education, the relief of the deserving. The other side was discipline: the enforcement of personal, familial, and communal order, and the punishment of the idle and the ungodly.’

This scheme resulted in perhaps the most radically religious town in England in the 1620s and 1630s. Its Protestantism was consistently internationalist and strongly anti-Catholic. Dorchester’s townspeople raised large amounts of money in support of the Protestant side in the Thirty Years War in Europe. As late as the 1650s Dorchester raised £147 – a very large sum then – in support of the Protestant victims of the Piedmont massacre, the ‘slaughtered saints’ of Milton’s poem. The two dates most celebrated were the anniversary of the fire, on 6 August, and the nationally observed Gunpowder Treason Day, 5 November.

Unfortunately for its supporters, this world could not survive. The increasing political, social and religious tensions throughout England were mirrored even in Dorchester. The poor did not like the ‘godly reformation’, with its punishments for missing church or drinking and swearing. And many of the better off were uncomfortable with its crusading nature.

A number of Presbyterians left the town for New England, where the town they founded, Dorchester, is now part of Boston. Those who stayed found themselves at odds with national developments in religion (the move closer to Catholicism under Archbishop Laud), foreign policy (Charles I’s diplomacy with Catholic Spain) and taxation, especially Ship Money.

When the civil war came, the town was strongly against the King and for parliament. But its leading figures were much less happy with the revolution that followed and with the rule of Cromwell.

Although the book goes up to the 1680s it is less interesting on the civil war and the restoration, maybe because its leading characters were fairly moderate by the standards of the 1640s. By the 1650s the town’s citizens reflect defeat, demoralisation and a loss of ideals: less money went to charity, most collections were very low, the poor no longer received free handouts. Religious reaction also gathered pace.

Underdown has done a marvellous job in recreating 17th century Dorchester, the customs, religion and cares of people of different classes. Two centuries later the novelist Thomas Hardy based his town of Casterbridge on Dorchester. By then, as Underdown says, the ‘fire from heaven’ had gone, and the town was described as a ‘hoary place of wickedness’.

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