A revolution made in England

Jim Moody reviews 'The Devil's Whore' tx Wednesdays and Saturdays, 9pm, Channel 4 and online (1), writer: Peter Flannery; director: Mark Munden

By some accounts, this four-part production was cut down from an initially intended run of 13 episodes. If so, it shows.

The momentous events that constitute the English Civil War (1642-51), rocking the crown and briefly establishing a republic, are represented as well as can be in the time allowed. But what the talented actors and production team are unfairly expected to portray in so few episodes cannot do more than partial justice to this crucial episode of history.

Nonetheless, this artistic telling of the story of the English Civil War through the eyes of the democratised aristocrat of the title has merit. Even if Angelica Fanshawe (Andrea Riseborough) is a composite character, constructed from the Memoirs2 of Lady Ann Fanshawe (1624-80) and 17th century women’s gallows speeches, clearly Oliver Cromwell (Dominic West) and Charles Stuart (Peter Capaldi) are iconic historical figures. And, in addition, most other leading characters are based on key individuals of the time: Edward Sexby (John Simm), Thomas Rainsborough (Michael Fassbender), John Lilburne (Tom Goodman-Hill), and Elizabeth Lilburne (Maxine Peake).

Opening with the public flogging of John Lilburne for pamphleteering against the king’s arbitrary rule, the drama sees his wife, Elizabeth, bravely continue to distribute their jointly written pamphlets even while he is being brutalised. Her pleas to Angelica, when she buttonholes her, are hardly understood, though it marks the beginning of the latter’s awakening, especially after visiting Lilburne in Fleet prison, accompanied by soldier-for-hire Sexby.

Failing to get parliament to hand over five of its members to his tender mercies for impeachment, Charles Stuart flees parliamentarian London to set up court in Oxford. The first civil war battle, at Edge Hill, Kineton on October 23 1642, follows, but is inconclusive.

We see parliamentarian forces under Cromwell and Rainsborough take Croyland Abbey from the royalists on Christmas day 1643, with Rainsborough railing against those who would sacrilegiously give Jesus a birthday party.

When he fails to get the complete obeisance he expects, Charles Stuart comes down mightily. Caught up in these momentous events, and subject to the king’s absolutist bent, Angelica’s royal-loyal husband is executed on Charles I’s orders. She is cast out of court to become near-destitute. She comes up against lascivious merchants and is further radicalised, taking up arms; Angelica and Sexby take £28 of merchants’ gold to Lilburne for a printing press.

Later, Angelica marries Rainsborough; he is soon after killed, here allegedly by Cromwell’s agents; historically he is thought to have died during a bungled royalist kidnap attempt.

The whole piece marches inexorably on towards the Cromwellian army’s conquest of Ireland on behalf of the newly confident English bourgeoisie. Triumphalism was to know no bounds, as the democrats within the Levellers and Diggers were undermined by stronger ruling class forces. Out of desperation, some Levellers such as Sexby became embroiled in a plot to overthrow Cromwell by force. As we know, Cromwell survived to become a quasi-monarchical Lord Protector of England. The short-lived Commonwealth of England was no more, with monarchical restoration quick to follow.

Viewing matters on a wider canvas than this artistic portrayal allows, there is no doubt that a full-blown social revolution was afoot in England in the 17th century. It is for this reason that the three component civil wars (1642-46, 1648-49, 1649-51) are considered by Marxists as part of a larger English Revolution. This revolution saw masses of ordinary people, formerly subjects of the crown, awakening and becoming actors in a political process. Without doubt, the ancien régime was on its way out and a new state form was being ushered in. No-one could fail to see that enormous changes were occurring in all spheres: cultural, economic, political and social.

Although there is allusion to the Putney Debates in the dramatisation, they are omitted, which is sad. They were an important bellwether of how much stronger the left was becoming within the parliamentarian forces. The fact that generals Cromwell and Ireton, the grandees who stood at the head of the army, found it necessary to take part in these debates marks out their staging as a big advance for the democratic element. The debates were held under the aegis of the General Council of Officers (ie, the general council of the army, which also included representatives of the regiments) at Putney from October 28 to November 11 1647. Cromwell and Ireton tried forcefully to counter the Leveller tendency during often fiery debates on what was the latter’s political programme, the Agreement of the people. 3

Rainsborough, the highest ranking Leveller supporter in the army, John Lilburne, Sexby, and army agents (regimental representatives) attended and spoke in the debates. From the first meeting in what is now St Mary’s church, Putney, 4 Levellers opposed any deal with the king.

The freedom to debate and to organise could not last, given the relative strength of class forces. Clearly, once united, a capitalist class could not tolerate such dangerous democracy. Campaigning by the Levellers to prevent the army going to Ireland was met with arrests and crackdown by Cromwell on discussions within the ranks and eventually beyond them. Some activists were shot. The army went to Ireland (where this production has unflinching cameo portrayals of the barbarity of Cromwell’s soldiery against the majority Catholic population) and the Levellers’ and Diggers’ radicalism was crushed.

Before long, and before it could be seriously threatened by undesirable outgrowths of democracy and the dangerous hopes it raised in the overwhelming majority of the people, the monarchy was restored, though under control of parliament.

Shot in a very ‘English’ landscape in South Africa, director Mark Munden and cast and crew have provided a real taste of how a democratic revolution was briefly savoured by masses of ordinary people 360 years ago. And of how the nascent bourgeoisie grasped victory using the masses for its purposes, making the revolution its own.


1. Until December 13. Free catch-up until early January 2009 online at www.channel4.com/video/brandless-catchup.jsp?vodBrand=the-devils-whore
2. books.google.co.uk/books?id=Lj0DAAAAYAAJ&printsec=titlepage
3. Texts of the Putney Debates are available here: oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2183&Itemid=27
The three drafts of the Agreement of the people are available at www.british-civil-wars.co.uk/glossary/agreement-people.htm
4. There is a permanent exhibition on the Putney Debates at their first 1647 venue: St Mary’s Church, Putney High Street, London SW15. Tube: Putney Bridge. See www.putneydebates.com