Saturday, 19 February 2022

The Devil’s Book

One of the puzzles for the student, amateur or professional, of the outbreak of the English Civil War is how people chose sides. At least, I have this puzzle; it is possible that others do. On the other hand, I cannot for the life of me work out how people choose sides today except on pragmatic grounds. I suppose I line up with W. C. Fields, who is reputed to have said that he never voted for anyone, he always voted against.

Anyway, I have been reading an interesting book:

Dougall, A. (2011). The Devil's Book: Charles I, the Book of Sports and Puritanism in Tudor and Early Stuart England. Exeter: Exeter University Press.

You might well wonder what this has to do with wargaming, and the link is, of course, though choosing sides. The story is a complex one, and adds to, although it does not solve, our understanding of the political and religious stakes in the 1630s, that is, the context in which people, mostly the minor gentry, chose sides.

If you have read anything much about the outbreak of the civil wars you have probably heard of the Book of Sports, or King’s Book. This was a document (actually it is not very long, and is reproduced in Dougall’s tome) first issued by James I in 1618, regulating what could be done on a Sunday aside from divine worship. James, being a rather sensible and peaceable (perhaps lazy) monarch, did not enforce the declaration, which was first discussed on his return from Scotland in 1617, and was first a local, Lancashire, set of rules.

As Dougall points out, there was a twofold process at work in regulating Sunday entertainments (assuming that attendance at church s not an entertainment, of course). Firstly, justices of the peace and other local and county officials were concerned that some of the entertainments could lead to public order problems. It is pretty much the same as today, of course: people drink a bit too much and get involved in punch ups. There were also accusations that such activities as dancing, maypole dancing and Morris dancing lead to sexual offences and illegitimate children, although as Dougall observes, there is no demographic evidence for this.

The other aspect of the process was the rise of Puritanism. This was a development from the Reformation of the mid-Sixteenth Century and the settlement of the Elizabethan church. There were those who thought that the Church of England had not gone far enough in reforming itself, and these people gradually emerged as Puritans. As part of this an argument developed over attitudes to the Sabbath, that is whether everything which was not to do with the divine was banned on a Sunday or whether some things were allowed, provided they did not interfere with church services.

 On the whole, Puritans were on the side of only permitting activities to do with the divine. Bishops were more open to other activities provided they did not stop people going to church. The minor gentry were in favour of controls on what was allowed on public order ground, as the minor gentry, of course, made up the Justices of the Peace and other officials.

It all got a bit complicated, of course. Theologically, the debate was around the application of the Fourth Commandment (‘Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord you God; you shall not do any work…’ (Exodus 20:8-11 NRSV)). Whether this rule from the Old Testament law applied, or perhaps rather, how it applied, mattered. Read literally, it meant that nothing except business to do with the Lord was permitted, and that is how the Puritans who wrote on the subject presented it. Others reckoned that the incarnation of Jesus had set aside the Old Testament law and thus the church, which had after all moved the sabbath day from Saturday to Sunday, could decide what was and was not permitted.

The common people, that is, most people, enjoyed their traditional activities, most of which included drinking, dancing, and other things such as bear baiting, bull baiting and cock fighting. Some JPs worried that banning all other activities would simply land up with people drinking more, and hence fighting and fornicating. Neither of those activities can be done while dancing, at least. Dougall also notes that animal cruelty was not really an issue at the time.

Charles I, as we know, was not quite a subtle as his father, and reissued the Book after some problems were reported in Somerset relating to public order. Some JPs wanted to ban all activities aside from divine worship, not all of them for Puritan reasons. But people generally and the King in particular were averse to banning common entertainments and reissued the Book of Sports and enforced it, or at least tried to. As Dougall notes, enforcement was patchy, even where Puritan clergy who opposed it refused to read it. There are some amusing anecdotes as to how some clergy avoided reading it in church as they were supposed to, including one who got a church warden to read it while standing behind him with his fingers in his ears.

Controversy raged, of course. Dougall’s main point is that it was the Puritans who were innovating here, not that they were returning to a medieval view of Sundays. Thus, he suggests, an individual’s attitude to the Book of Spots is as good a guide as any as to which side they lined up on in 1642. As he notes, there were exceptions. Some who opposed to Book of Sports became Royalists, some who did not fought for Parliament. As with so many things, a sweeping generalisation is precisely that. But perhaps the Book of Sports indicated where gentry sympathies lay.

An interesting book on the background to the English Civil War. Perhaps we can start our campaigns in the future with a game of football and the local magistrate trying to break it up, with disastrous results…


  1. So basically the Cavaliers liked having fun and the Roundheads were a miserable bunch of buggers. 😉

    1. Sort of. Except it turned out under the major generals that everyone wanted to have fun, except a few radical Puritans who had the military force but weren't very popular....

  2. That's an excellent post and recommendation.
    I think it's to do with power blocs and bandwagons ...something which will never leave humanity as group dynamics are a survival trait, no matter how much they try to frown upon 'winning' on school sports day.

    1. Certainly. The discussions of the dynamics of the gentry and JPs in Lancashire and Somerset (who are partly to blame for the whole thing) show that.

      As for sports days... well, a few hours of early modern football would sort out the men from the boys, or the unlucky and unpopular from the rest. Me? I'd just hide in the tavern until it was all over.

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you. It is an interesting book, but the Estimable Mrs P did ask that I read something less academic afterwards...