Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Henry Marten: Republican. Freethinker. Libertine.

And now for something utterly unseasonal: Thought I’d share a newly discovered hero – Henry Marten, a sixteenth century revolutionary … and general good ‘ole boy.

I only became aware of him through reading Geoffrey Robertson’s The Tyrannicide Brief, and have just done a quick bit of personal research.

A lawyer from Oxford, Marten was probably the first on the parliament side to come out as an open republican. Whilst those who would later be seen as radicals were talking about wooing the king away from his ‘evil councillors’, Marten made it clear that he thought the institution of monarchy should go altogether. For thinking the then unthinkable he was expelled from parliament in 1643 by Pym and the Presbyterian Party. He returned to the parliament following the ascendancy of Cromwell and the Independents, having in the meantime raised a regiment of horse that was absorbed in to the New Model Army.

Marten’s aligned himself with the Levellers and the army, and signed the Agreement Of The People – which called for the king to be held to account. It was no surprise then that he was one of the most prominent judges at the king’s trial, and a signatory to his death warrant. He opposed Cromwell’s dissolution of the Rump Parliament in 1653 and disappeared from public life (largely because he was in prison for debt) until the parliament was recalled in 1659.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660 Marten made no attempt to escape but surrendered to the authorities and fearlessly defended his actions when tried as a regicide. He was imprisoned for life and died twenty years later in Carisbroke Castle.

All stirring stuff but so far typical of many seventeenth century radicals.

But Marten was far from typical. A self-proclaimed sceptic in matters of religion he spoke out for complete freedom of conscience at a time when almost every political idea, even radical ones, were expressed in terms of religion. To an extent unheard for the times, this toleration even included Catholics and led him to oppose Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland.

Described as ‘a puritan but a man of lose morals’ Marten’s personal life was a far cry from the usual image of the godly radicals. He first offended the king, long before the civil war, when he had Marten removed from the horse races for his offensive and licentious behaviour. Drinking and gambling kept him in debt throughout his life, and he was a notorious womaniser. Following the death of his wife he lived openly with his mistress Mary Ward with whom he had three children, leading Cromwell to denounce him as a’ whoremaster’.

Fantastic stuff – why isn’t there a statue to him somewhere ?


a very public sociologist said...

A 'whoremaster' - classic! Any revolutionary notables from the civil war period that caught your eye?

PaulM said...

Marten is an interesting figure, the most consistent parliamentary representative of the Left in the English Revolution.

He died in Chepstow Castle not Carisbroke, it was Charles I who was held in Carisbroke.

There's a pretty competent academic biography of him by Sarah Barber, A Revolutionary Rogue: Henry Marten and the Immoral English Republic, published by Alan Sutton.

It's a few years since I read it but as I recall Barber's conclusion was that the 'whore-monger' 'womanising' accusations are questionable. His relationship with Mary Ward was long lasting and probably monogamous. It was the fact that they never had it sanctioned in Church that annoyed both the Presbyterian 'Grandees' and the Restoration elite, who were hardly paragons of sexual virtue themselves.

Ward was an early sdvocate of women's rights. (And not to be confused with the Elizabethan Catholic of the same name...)