The Philosopher Who Helped Kill the King

The 17th-century philosopher Lucy Hutchinson was among the regicides who sent Charles I to his execution, ushering in an English republic in 1649. The divine right of kings, Hutchinson knew, could indeed be ended.

Lucy Hutchinson’s works shed blazing light on the only successful revolution in British history. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1640s England, a civil war broke out between Parliament and the king. Years of brutal fighting culminated in the victory of the Parliamentarians, the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and a decade-long republican experiment. The men who signed Charles’s death warrant came to be known as “regicides.”

Most of these king killers’ names have been forgotten — but not Colonel John Hutchinson’s. This is in no small part due to his much more interesting wife. Lucy Hutchinson was born in 1620 to a family of landowning merchants. Her family had done exceedingly well from the late feudal order in England — among other prestigious titles, her father was lieutenant of the Tower of London. Lucy became an ambitious gentry intellectual and married John in 1638. She politically dominated the marriage and circumvented social restrictions on women’s participation in public life by acting under his name and through anonymous publication.

The outbreak of civil war saw Lucy spurn her family’s Royalist credentials and commit the couple to the parliamentary cause against the monarchy. In 1643, Parliament rewarded the Hutchinsons by making John governor of the politically divided Nottingham — where Charles I had symbolically launched the conflict one year earlier.

After six more years of violence, frenzied diplomacy, and land redistribution, the couple celebrated Lucy’s twenty-ninth birthday by helping to send Charles I to the scaffold for high treason. Her account of these times, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, is a hagiographic defense of her regicidal husband’s life. It’s also a sociological history of the war that incorporates broad political analysis and recounts brutal, intimate encounters between a range of participants.

Hutchinson’s works shed blazing light on the sole successful revolution in British history. They offer a provocative account of where political conflict comes from and suggestions about what those who want to end the corrupt disorder of their times must be prepared to do.

Behemoth Shrugged

Mainstream accounts of the English Civil War’s causes tend to echo Thomas Hobbes’s Behemoth. Hobbes argued that a combination of ideological fanaticism, base opportunism, and irrational stupidity dragged the kingdom into war. Hobbes’s casting of blame is fairly democratic; he accuses Protestant preachers, Catholic clergy, freethinkers, republicans, greedy merchants, and the ignorant masses of seducing one another into bloody chaos.

Lucy Hutchinson paints unflattering portraits of participants on both sides of the conflict. But her account of its causes bears little resemblance to Hobbes’s. In Hutchinson’s view, England’s long-standing balance of power — the king controlling the executive and the nobility the legislative — was inherently unstable. For hundreds of years, it tilted this way, then that. But kings, preoccupied with defanging the nobility, missed the rise of a more dangerous threat. Henry VIII had confiscated and sold off all the monasteries in England one hundred years before the civil war. This wealth redistribution fueled an unstoppable force: progressive gentry and freeholder landlords. For the modern reader, these roles require some clarification. Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins-Wood explains that

English landlords and their tenants were becoming increasingly interested in agricultural improvement, finding means to enhance the productivity of labour in response to competitive pressures, especially by the innovative use of land, which required redefinition of property rights. This would produce a unique historical dynamic of self-sustaining growth that sharply distinguished England from its neighbours.

The wealth accumulated by these new landlords, Lucy Hutchinson argued, “cast the balance clear on their side, and left them now only to expect an opportunity to resume their power into their own hands.” Hutchinson’s battle lines are not primarily ideological or legal but economic: “The middle sort, the able substantial freeholders, and the other commons, who had not their dependence upon the malignant nobility and gentry, adhered to the Parliament.”

Hutchinson puts this economic determinism viscerally: revenue redistribution planted a kind of seed “which had been many years growing” while the nobility “mouldered.” Thus the “expiring monarchy . . . had no more but a little puff of wind to bear it up, when the full body of the people came rolling in upon it.” The freeholders and their supporters can’t tolerate any feudal regression because it undermines their ascendant interests. It’s momentum, not any sovereign, that commands now.

Not Quite a Marx for the Gentry

So far Hutchinson’s argument looks fairly similar to James Harrington’s famous thesis that the balance of property ownership caused the war. But much of Harrington’s “economic determinism” was read into him later; he barely mentions any concrete economic trends or processes.

Lucy Hutchinson’s narrative is more sociological. As Hutchinson’s righteous people “roll” through England, they dwell more on the redistribution of rents than republics. “God’s Cause,” in Hutchinson’s telling, seems to have an awful lot to do with “improving by enclosure” — the further privatization of the commons to stymie regressive monarchical whim and hostile commoner demands.

Hutchinson’s freeholders and their supporters are not a class-conscious force in the modern sense. They are depicted as shockingly divided, riven by petty ambition, and painfully unaware of their great responsibility. Their deadly clash with the monarchy is inevitable; their victory over it somewhat less so. Hutchinson’s economic determinism certainly doesn’t make her some kind of early historical materialist. She was a staunch Calvinist who produced translations of the Epicurean Lucretius. Whether it was the motion of atoms in void, or the will of God, the idea that unseen forces determine social relations was completely noncontroversial to her, as were the resulting dilemmas of free agency in such a universe.

Religious ideology does play a role here, but not the Hobbesian one. Hutchinson casts doubt on anything defined as a religious conflict, suggesting that economic disputants often wear religious costumes. She claims that, if anything, religion delayed the conflict, as divisions among the freeholders — exacerbated by state Protestant propaganda from the pulpits — distracted them from their inevitable bid for power. To blame these fiery sermons for the war is to mistake effect for cause. As Hutchinson puts it, smoke rises up a chimney before the flames break out the top, not the other way around.

The Powder of One

When underlying economic push comes to overt political shove, the very real question of power is presented. In a famous passage from the Memoirs, the Royalist Lord Newark and his entourage have arrived in Nottingham to seize the county’s gunpowder. Knowing they are liable to use it against the Parliamentarians, John intervenes. A strange sort of dialogue dance begins. John’s first claim is procedural — Newark lacks the proper documentation. This is dismissed, so he shifts to the issue of ownership rights: the people own the powder and the choice is theirs. Newark simply repeats his demand. A clamoring crowd outside then bursts into the room and breaks the awkward impasse. The real balance of forces becomes clear. The Royalists never had any concrete capacity to take the powder. Both men had been pretending there was one legitimate authority in England — but it is now violently obvious there were two.

This dual-power motif reemerges throughout the Memoirs at key moments. When John faces the all-important question of whether to sign King Charles’s death warrant, he doesn’t ponder the legalities of regicide or consider systems of government. Instead, he reflects that the interests of the two rival orders have become irreconcilable. To refuse to act against one now means acting against the other.

Hutchinson’s likening of John to Moses is relevant here: on the cusp of freedom, anything less than drowning the pharaoh’s forces is to entrench slavery. But slaves became free people after crossing the Red Sea. What do progressive gentry, freeholders, and their tenants become once Charles mounts the scaffold? This question is left for the day after the execution. John “cast himself upon God’s protection” and signs his name.

The English republican experiment was fatally factious. Two disastrous poles emerge in Hutchinson’s account. The first is Oliver Cromwell and his Grandees, who successfully vie for a kind of republican oligarchy. Hutchinson is too proudly independent to support their brutal centralization, and she condemns them as corrupt slaves to their own ambition. The second are the Diggers — proto-communists who “endeavoured the levelling of all estates and qualities.” This is no less disturbing to Hutchinson, who viewed private estates — overseen by good-hearted landlords committed to justice for the poor as well as the mighty — as the model community. So this victorious Hutchinson — so attuned to the power dynamics of revolutionary change — finds herself too “virtuous” to further usher in any new world. As Cromwell’s dictatorship fell apart upon his death, the monarchy returned to power in 1660. John was arrested on suspicion of plotting against King Charles II and died in prison.

“An Airy Phantasm Walking About His Sepulchre”

Was Hutchinson remorseful about her part in this failed republican experiment? Her epic poem Order and Disorder, an anachronistic retelling of the Book of Genesis, offers some clues. In Hutchinson’s retelling, God sends a female general, Divine Vengeance, to bring His wrath down on Sodom (a stand-in for the decadent Royal Court). Leading a ghastly army, with smoke choking the “perfuméd courtiers,” she descends in a chariot to burn the stately palaces of the wicked. Hutchinson regrets nothing.

Again, Hutchinson diverges from Hobbes. “Disorder” is not some wild state of nature, but the corrupt existence of man-made hierarchies. “Order” is their destruction and replacement with something natural, good and just. Think of her order-and-disorder schema as a kind of “socialism or barbarism” for the first revolutionary movement of early capitalism.

Lucy Hutchinson’s war against the disorder of England’s craven nobility is a mess of paradoxes. She was an anti-hierarchy elitist, a pagan-promoting Puritan, and a revolutionary politician who decried the role of women in public life. But her works retain their sting, warning us that economic contradictions set the scene for our politics, and to be ready when struggle poses the question of power.

During the Restoration, she wrote of herself as a ghost haunting a Royalist prison. The social changes brought about by the revolution also loomed over the new regime; shared power would ultimately stifle absolutist ambition forever in 1688. But Hutchinson has left clear lessons. Drunkenly triumphant today, the cavalier forces of our contemporary disorder can’t kill the specter of a better world tomorrow.