Civil War Texts and the Origins of Modern Parliamentary Government

Further to my post recommending a number of books on the origins of British constitutional government and democracy, I also recommend anyone interested in the subject to read this one:

Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England, edited and introduced by David Wootton (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986)

Divine Right Democracy

This is a collection of texts from the late 16th to the early 18th century stating the period’s political philosophy and the changing views of the nature of government, the state, and the rights and duties of the citizens. Most of the texts are from the period of the British Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms, and show intense intellectual debate about the nature of government and the people’s right to resist and depose a tyrant.

The 17th century was an immensely formative period in the history of British democracy, when constitutional theorists like John Locke laid the foundations for constitutional, representative government and the rights of the citizens against the power of the monarchy. The book includes the texts supporting the Divine Right of Kings and absolute monarchy, but also the radical texts defending constitutional government and which provided the basis for our modern political liberties. It also includes texts from radical groups like the Levellers, who wanted not only something like the NHS, with state hospitals and homes to care for the elderly and infirm, but a massive expansion of the franchise so that all the male heads of households would get the vote. Needless to say, this was too radical for Cromwell and he suppressed them. They have continued to influence left-wing British radicals, however, including the British punk band, New Model Army.

The book includes the debate on the franchise, and the Putney Debates Cromwell held with the Levellers on the nature of government. Like the other books I’ve recommended, it shows just how hard won the modern, democratic liberties we take for granted actually are, as well as showing the intellectual background from which they developed. Unfortunately, these liberties are now under attack from David Cameron and the Coalition, most recently in the way the Coalition has ignored parliament’s overwhelming call for an inquiry into the alarming rise of poverty in the UK. They must be defended, and books like this help you understand how they arose, and how vitally important they are.

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7 Responses to “Civil War Texts and the Origins of Modern Parliamentary Government”

  1. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political.

  2. Florence Says:

    Too true. People have forgotten their own history – or it is omitted from education for obvious reasons. Another text is “the condition of the Working Class in 1844” (Marx & Engels), which although not read for many years I recall citing the average age of death in Bethnal Green was 17 – yes seventeen – because of malnutrition, working from the 3- 4 yrs of age showing almost universal deformations caused by working machinery. Most females died in childbirth because of malformed pelvic bones from standing at work. The living, working and health conditions of the working poor of the northern industrial cities were worse still.

    The current wave of malnutrition the BMA warned of (also ignored by press and government) holds misery for many in the future. Childhood malnutrition affects mental, social as well as physical development, blighting lives from start to finish, and to be passed on to the next generation through poorly nourished mothers. So it goes on.

    True democracy was more widely discussed in past centuries through coffee houses, ale houses, and working guilds. We are never taught about these, and I think it’s time for a really radical curriculum, not just chanting monarchs reigns, which would seem to be Goves best effort. (Dim, dim, and dimmer.)

    Another book I recommend is “Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman” by Ken Coates (, to remind us that the deprivations did not end after WWII, but have been won -hard fought for- through to the end of the 20th century, and these conditions are now with us again after only 3 years of the coalition.

  3. havantacluotmp Says:

    Please put a ‘Share’ button on your website! I enjoy it tremendously – and can’t retweet it.

    I’ve read all these texts over the years, and you’re quite correct to highlight them. For a non-historian (as I am – my first degree was in Geography) they’re not difficult to read, and broaden the perspective given by ‘The Making of the Working Class’, because they also deal with other class-struggles within the political landscape.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks, Havantacluotmp! I have tried to put a share button on my blog, but for some reason it failed. I’m going to talk to some of my friends, who are much better clued up about computers than I am, and see what they have to say.

  4. Jessowen Says:


    You really ought to be reading Christopher Hill on this stuff

    Along with JGA Pocock

    • beastrabban Says:

      Hi Jessowen! Thanks for the suggestions. I’ve got a copy of Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down on what he’s termed ‘the English revolution’, but I haven’t come across JGA Pocock before, so thanks for pointing him out.

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