Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Politics and Religion in Restoration Cockermouth by Michael A. Mullett. CWAAS.
When, in 1664, Samuel Pepys saw “several poor creatures being carried by constables, for being at a conventicle”, he felt sorry for them. They had been caught holding an act of worship, which did not accord with the prescribed form of the Church of England. In following their own faith and holding meetings for prayer and bible readings, they risked heavy fines or imprisonment.
After the Civil War and the Puritan Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads, Charles II was restored to the throne of England. The politics of the country shifted and, at a time when politics and religion were closely aligned, the Puritans, the non-conformists or dissenters, found themselves subject to persecution.
This was not just a matter for national politics. Its implications were felt throughout the country.
In the Cockermouth area, the backlash to the rigours of the Commonwealth were seen in the bitter dispute which developed around the Congregational minister, George Larkham from Tallentire. Faced with oppression from the local gentry, he spoke of “the great violence of evil men”. His church met in small groups in the houses of members – “at Sister Eaglefield’s house at Deerham”. The Conventicle Act of 1664 imposed fines of £5 for a first offence for anyone attending an act of worship for more than five people which did not follow the liturgy of the Church of England. A local parson, Richard Rickerby was one of the keenest in persecuting dissenters. In 1668, he entered a private house at Embleton, where Larkham was conducting a service, and, “in a furious manner, made a disturbance”.
Earlier, in 1660, Larkham had been a man on the run. He’d fled to Culgaith, near Penrith, and then, with the authorities seeking him out, he’d returned to Papcastle and then went on to Dearham. In “a time of storm”, he fled to his friend “praying Sawrey” in Broughton in Furness. He then fled to Yorkshire and was arrested “by his pursuers, taken to York, and lodged in prison for five weeks”.
Larkham’s plight was the plight of Dissenting ministers nationwide. After the Commonwealth, it was “an experience of defeat, a loss of power, income and prestige, a reversal of fortunes of seemingly almost apocalyptic proportions”.
The story of the plight of one dissenting minister is only one small fragment of the political life in a small Cumberland borough in the thirty years after the Restoration. However, when we are able to access the details of individuals, of the ordinary people, we can see clearly how they were affected by the larger movements of their times.
Michael Mullett’s closely researched book tells the wider story of political and religious conflict in the Cockermouth area. A wealth of documentary material has enabled him to recreate the life of the place and the times in meticulous detail. The elections of 1660, 1675 and 1685 were balanced between the economic interests of the burgage holders and the respect for the old ways of deference towards the lords of the manor, the Percy family from Northumberland. The political battles fought out in Cockermouth were representative of the process elsewhere. The tensions between the old and the new, between the drive for change and the desire for stability in this uneasy time saw the emergence of the two party system of Whigs and Tories.
The debate in Cockermouth was as lively and meaningful as the debate in Westminister.
This close study, by the Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Lancaster, shows the concerns which activated the small population of Cockermouth 350 years ago. It is an important contribution to our local history.
Politics and Religion in Restoration Cockermouth is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 56 Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.