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Lecture Report – The Blazing World

Our Autumn Lecture

Our autumn talk was given on 15 September by Dr Jonathan Healey who has recently published his book on the seventeenth century – The Blazing World – the story of a strange but fascinating century, told in sparkling detail. In his book Jonathan describes the lives of ordinary people in ‘vivid technicolour’ and his lecture reflected this tone.

Michael Redley set the scene by reading out the first two sentences of Jonathan’s book ‘The seventeenth century was a tough time to be alive. Not only was the weather unusually cold, but governments had an unhappy habit of collapsing.’

Despite opposition from the jazz band in the adjacent courtyard, Jonathan presented his subject to a full Chantry House with energy and engaging wit, rich with illustrations anecdotes and explanations. He captured the vitality and turbulence of seventeenth-century England, introducing us to many more players than the typical cast of courtiers and parliamentarians – and in particular, the new politicised ‘middling sort’. This newly affluent group replaced their plaster and lathe houses with those made of brick, of which Henley has many fine examples.

Jonathan described how it was that the rise of the increasing vocal cussed ‘middling sort’ set the temper for the century, among whom were local dignitaries Speaker Lenthall, the rather termite-looking Sir James Whitelocke and Sir James’ son, Bulstrode. It was a rather bemused Bulstrode who wrote as the Civil War was about to erupt ‘It is strange to note how we have insensibly slid into the beginning of a Civil War, by one unexpected accident after another, as waves of the sea, which have brought us thus far; and we scarce know how, but from paper combats, by declarations, remonstrances, protestations, votes, messages, answers and replies, we are now come to the question of raising forces, and naming a general and officers of an army.’

He explained that the people of seventeenth-century England, and especially of London, were increasingly literate and better informed than their predecessors, and participated more actively in the public sphere. He took us into the lives of ordinary people to illuminate a revolutionary society that forged a new world. He showed us that the revolution of the 1640s released a cascade of critical print and pamphlets that fuelled a contentious political culture. It was perhaps the start of ‘fake news’. In this context, he amused us with the story of the Adamites.

People power was growing. As Thomas Hobbes observed ‘ the power of the mighty hath no foundation but in the opinion and belief of the people’.

Jonathan concluded by reminding us that the political world in which we live today, based on parliamentary democracy, with a vibrant press and mass campaigns centred on large protests and petitions, was born in the seventeenth century.