By Niles Webb
This collection of three ‘B’s includes the kind of subtle hints which historians are forced to rely upon if they seek to reconstruct the history of religious radicalism in Britain. Radicals themselves left few sources behind, whilst those seeking to discredit them left many. In the words of the Leveller Richard Overton, “Who writ the history of the Anabaptists but their enemies?” Clues like this, however slight, are helpful aids because they are something left by the radicals themselves.
Notice the blemishes: the small gap at the top of the lower half of the ‘B’; the excess mark toward the bottom of the main line; the smudge of the outline on the bottom left of the ‘B’. These indicate that the tracts originated from the Cloppenburg Press which had, as the name suggests, continental origins. The Dutch bookseller Jan Evertsz Cloppenburgh provided this illicit press to English radicals, unauthorised by the clerical authorities who censored any printed material which challenged the orthodoxy of the Church of England.
These blemishes highlight a central role for Dutch connections in preparing dissenters to take advantage of the political crisis engendered by the British Civil War to radically escalate ideological debate. Early Cloppenburg tracts can be dated to 1640, voicing support for the Scottish National Covenanter army which had just invaded England. The Scottish army invaded in protest against Charles I’s ecclesiastical reforms which deeply offended their Presbyterianism. But the Cloppenburg circle went further than the Scots who were merely seeking to defend a national Presbyterian church. The tracts articulate some of the most radical ideas of the era, including advocacy of uncontested parliamentary rule and the abolition of the Church of England. Very few of Charles’s opponents in the Long Parliament would have contemplated this last demand, which is why MPs sought to censor such radical voices whilst waging war on their king.
This is a reminder that the Civil War was not a parochial affair – the religious dissenters who used the political crisis to advance their radical ideas were some of the earliest international revolutionaries.
Como, David R., ‘Secret Printing, the Crisis of 1640, and the Origins of Civil War Radicalism’, Past and Present, 196, (2007), pp. 1-46.
Johnson, A. F., ‘The ‘Cloppenburg’ Press, 1640, 1641’, The Library, s5-XIII, Issue 4 (1958) pp. 280-84.
 Christopher Hill, ‘From Lollards to Levellers’ in Maurice Cornforth (ed.), Rebels and their Causes: Essays in Honour of A. L. Morton (1978), p. 49.
Image credit: Details of three tracts Vox Borealis; Simpson, Sermon Preached at Westminster, before Sundry of the House of Commons; Divine Light, Manifesting the Love of God unto the Whole World with the True Church ([London], 1646).