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John Lilburne and the new politics

John Lilburne and the new politics

J.C. Davis

Michael Braddick, The Common Freedom of the People: John Lilburne and the English Revolution (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2018), ISBN: 978-0-19-880323-2, 391pp., £25.00.

[1] Dying in obscurity, it was nevertheless almost inevitable that the funeral arrangements for John Lilburne (1615? – 1657), one of the great courtroom battlers of the seventeenth century, should be contested in form. The stark simplicities of a Quaker funeral were too much (or too little!) for some of his more ardent followers. But from the start his celebrity has been touched by controversy. Hero or obsessive, trouble maker or man of principle, self-promoting attention seeker or martyr to injustice, brave or foolhardy, his reputation has oscillated between these polarities over the intervening centuries. From the eighteenth century onwards, progressives and radicals saw him as something of a hero in the forward momentum of the struggle for religious toleration, civil rights, resistance to arbitrary government, promotion of the sovereignty of the people, government by their consent and the rule of law. As Michael Braddick puts it, Lilburne ‘had a long run as a champion for secular political principles’ (291).[1] But of recent years his star has waned. So too has that of the Levellers of whom he was once seen as a principal leader. Once hailed as an innovative movement advocating democracy their democratic credentials and positive influence on the English Revolution have been called in question. So too Lilburne’s grasp of the political realities his day has come to seem fragile by comparison with his robust capacity to make his own occasions the focus of attention.

[2] Yet here we have a comprehensive political life, rather than biography (xv), of him by one of this generation’s most distinguished and productive historians of the English Revolution. As might be expected it is meticulously researched and unlikely to be exceeded in its recovery of many aspects of Lilburne’s life: his networks amongst the godly, the citizenry of London and the worlds of print and radical agitation from the later 1630s down to the mid-1650s. It is particularly strong in tracing his (and his family’s) struggles with Sir Henry Vane sr. and Sir Arthur Hesilrige over the spoils of war in north-east England, his protracted pursuit of compensation and reparations for past injustices to him, and his activities as consultant and lobbyist in the disputes over Fenland drainage in the 1650s. In fact, as Braddick sees it, the balance of this political life lies not so much in engagement as a Leveller as with a new world of politics bound up with print, lobbying and partisan mobilisation.

[3] Born, probably in Sunderland in 1615, into a gentry family with connections through his mother to the royal court at Greenwich Palace, Lilburne retained strong links with the north-east throughout his life. Apprenticed to a London clothier in 1630, he was soon active in the puritan underground opposed to the religious policies of Charles I and Archbishop William Laud. He distributed anti-episcopalian literature smuggled in from the Netherlands and in 1637 witnessed the savage punishments meted out in the streets of London to William Prynne, John Bastwick and Henry Burton for publishing their critiques of the regime. The following year, Lilburne was himself arrested and sentenced to be flogged through the streets of the capital, then pilloried and imprisoned indefinitely. Such exemplary punishment backfired with Lilburne turning it into a personal martyrdom, preaching throughout his ordeal and lambasting his persecutors while insisting that his case was that of all decent Englishmen. It was a self-image he was repeatedly to project throughout his career. But, at this stage, his thought remained a mixture of anti-authoritarianism, fuelled by religious sentiment, and the conservatism of the common law mind, appealing to precedent and inherited rights.[2]

[4] In November 1640 one of Oliver Cromwell’s first acts in the Long Parliament was to raise the case of John Lilburne and obtain his release. The latter was soon campaigning against the Earl of Strafford as a symbol of the personal rule, against the bishops and against Roman Catholic members of the House of Lords. On the outbreak of civil war, in midsummer 1642, he joined the parliamentary army and gave distinguished service at the first major battle, Edgehill, only to be taken prisoner by the royalists at Brentford. Facing a trial for treason at the royalist headquarters in Oxford, in May 1643 he was released as part of a prisoner exchange. He promptly joined Cromwell in the army of the Eastern Association under the command of the Earl of Manchester, seeing service at Lincoln, Marston Moor and, against Manchester’s orders (although the Earl later claimed credit for it), securing the surrender of Tickhill Castle. But increasingly, Lilburne, like others, had to confront conflict within the parliamentary coalition between, in particular, those who advocated a presbyterian church settlement and those seeking greater liberty for the consciences of individuals and gathered churches, and between those who were resigned to the necessity – as they saw it – of negotiated settlement and those who sought outright victory in the war. Manchester backed the former options, Cromwell (and Lilburne) the latter. By later 1644 the quarrel had escalated and resulted in the Self Denying Ordinance (whereby members of either House of Parliament were required to leave the army) and the formation of the New Model Army. At this point. Lilburne abandoned military service principally because of his aversion to the oath of the Solemn League and Covenant which all soldiers in the parliamentary armies were now required to swear. But he took with him his fear of a Presbyterian/Scots imposed settlement and a suspicion that the seeds of a parliamentary defection from the goals for which he and others had seen themselves fighting had already been sown.

[5] By 1646 and once parliamentary victory was assured, that struggle intensified as groups contested the shape of the final settlement. Over the next two years its main focus became the confrontation between the presbyterian majority in Parliament and the city of London, on the one hand, and the army with its amalgam of military grievances and conscientious principles, on the other. At the same time, Lilburne was frequently at loggerheads with the House of Lords and in the process developed a portfolio of demands including equality before the law, the right to a trial before a jury of one’s peers, that trials could only be on specified charges, facing known accusers in established courts under known laws, and a denial of the jurisdiction of the House of Lords over commoners. In 1647 and in the face of the presbyterians’ attempts to mobilise support, Lilburne became prominent in a counter-mobilisation of pamphleteering, petitioning, demonstrations and attempted dialogue with the army.

[6] With the military occupation of London and the virtual purge of Parliament in that year, the dissolution of government looked to be either in train or imminent and, in a letter to Cromwell, Lilburne insisted that tyranny in a parliament had to be as resistible as tyranny in a King. In its search for a legitimate basis for settlement, the General Council of the Army permitted debate on a draft new constitution (an Agreement of the People). The indeterminate outcome of the Putney debates was soon overwhelmed by Charles I’s deal with the Scots and the second civil war. The New Model Army’s decisive victory in the succeeding campaigns led to a further sharpening of issues and the sense of urgency around a settlement. Lilburne and his colleagues were once more engaged in discussions with the military about such constitutional provision as would allow for unicameral government without a King or with a token monarch only. The officers moved to produce their own Agreement of the People at which point Lilburne walked out of the talks, objecting both to their proposed constraints on liberty of conscience and the retention of a punitive capacity in the state which might operate outside of the known law. Moves to bring the King to trial for his life before a new and legitimate authority was erected was a tipping point. But, in effect, Lilburne had abandoned what was to prove his greatest opportunity to influence the course of the revolution.

[7] Faced with Pride’s Purge, the trial and execution of the King and the abolition of the House of Lords by a purged and unrepresentative Rump, Lilburne and his friends excoriated the new tyranny and its machiavellian originators, England’s new chains discovered. Their status and influence was such that their challenge could not be ignored by a regime struggling for support and seeking to escape dependence on force of arms. Lilburne was arrested and brought to trial for treason in October 1649. It was the second most important trial of that momentous year and, to the administration’s chagrin, the jury acquitted him to a display of public rejoicing. Not only was the unpopularity of the government exposed but, in another reproof to them, in December Lilburne was elected to the Common Council of London. That election was quashed by the authorities and he turned to pursue reparations and property claims. He was soon in vituperative verbal conflict with Sir Arthur Hesilrige. The Rump took attacks on such a powerful member of parliament as treasonous and, without any hearing of the case, condemned him to a huge fine. By a subsequent Act of Parliament he was condemned to exile with any subsequent return being a capital offence. Such a civil death penalty, arbitrarily imposed, gave testimony to the regime’s fear of his fame and influence.

[8] The Rump, which had exiled Lilburne, was itself ousted by Cromwell in April 1653 and Lilburne, without waiting for permission, seized the opportunity to return from exile. His claim was that either the Rump had been expelled as an illegitimate authority, in which case its actions against him were illegal, or Cromwell had acted without lawful authority and so had no jurisdiction over him. Inevitably he was arrested and a government, struggling for what shreds of authority it could find, brought him to trial at the Old Bailey in July and August 1653. Lilburne once more turned this into a protracted piece of political theatre, showcasing the flimsiness of the government’s claims to legitimacy and its proceedings against him. In a sensational, if ambiguous, verdict, the jury found him ‘not guilty of any crime worthy of death’. Embarrassed and fearful, the government kept him prisoner, first on Jersey, then in Dover, allowing him parole only in the last few weeks before his death in August 1657. His two trials under the Commonwealth had raised the most fundamental constitutional and judicial questions about the republic. Having abandoned tradition and consent what could legitimately authorise its rule? The onset of the Protectorate and England’s first written constitution, the Instrument of Government, in December 1653 was to a considerable extent shaped as an answer to that question.

[9] How had an agitating apprentice, a restless pursuer of slights and perceived injustices, ‘an impulsive, intemperate man blind to the virtues of prudence’ (110; see also 158), an unsystematic thinker (107, 277-8), and – despite his web of associates – something of a loner (272-3) come to achieve such status as to frighten a revolutionary government with overwhelming military backing into blatantly illegal acts? It is here that Braddick’s new study makes its most interesting and innovative contribution. While fully aware of the importance of Lilburne’s capacity for and skill in self-dramatisation, his exploitation of celebrity and sensation, he sets this in the context of a new and emergent politics. In many respects the context itself was new. From November 1640, Parliament was sitting, for the first time, more or less continuously, displacing traditional curial politics. Parliamentary committees assumed more and more functions of government administration and the details of policy making. As representative of the people, these bodies were subject to outside influences expressing, or claiming to express, the popular will. Petitioning, pamphleteering, demonstrating, lobbying, working the corridors and committee rooms of Westminster, Lilburne was to prove an adept, if not always effective, practitioner of these new arts to the point where, in the early 1650s, he may have been able to earn some of his keep as a consultant to others on them (204-26). But equally, an important part of the developing context was the emergence of new partisan and subscriptional communities,[3] displacing the old political communities of locality, corporation, faction and personal fealty. These new communities had to be identified and mobilised and, for these, print, petitioning, protest gatherings and demonstrations, as well as tavern meetings were all important. Braddick has made this theme of partisan mobilisation something of his own (see for example Braddick 2008, especially Ch. 16). But partisan mobilisation also required ideas and symbols around which followers could rally. Lilburne here becomes a key player in the emergence of this new politics. For that reason, this book will remain a seminal contribution not only to the study of John Lilburne but also in understanding the longer term legacy of the English Revolution.

[10] Braddick is less easy, perhaps less assured, in dealing with key and related aspects of Lilburne’s thought. Two issues stand out. They concern whether he was primarily religious or a secular thinker and whether his appeal was most typically to civic law and civil rights or to natural law and natural rights. On the one hand, Braddick sees him as beginning in intense religiosity, with a sense of the immediacy of God’s presence (xi, 6). Reacting to the brutality of his punishment in 1638, he proclaimed, ‘Wellcome be the Cross of Christ’, and thanked God for seeing him through the ordeal (23). Called by the Almighty to fight the battle of all Englishmen, liberty of conscience, or the freedom to serve God not man, was central to him (86-8, 272). Later, faith sustained him in exile. In a letter to his long-suffering wife, he wrote of God’s dealings with him, ‘if it be his pleasure to let this cross I am under to lie upon me, for the tryall of my faith & patience & sonne-like dependence upon him, his Good will & pleasure be done’ (231). At the same time, Braddick suggests that, even in the face of his punishment in 1638, Lilburne was putting secular before religious concerns (26). In his first prison pamphlet, A light for the ignorant (Amsterdam, 1638), according to Braddick he was arguing for ‘a radical separation of religious and secular authority’ (30).[4] Again, from 1645 his verbal battle with Prynne was ‘more secular’ than religious and legal rights took precedence over liberty of conscience (88-9). In the end while ‘Christian rhetoric had suffused Lilburne’s writings … he had not defined his cause in religious terms’ (262). This is somehow to see language as separable from the substance of the message and one wonders if the secular religious distinction is not something of an anachronism or if Lilburne would have recognised it. Is it more appropriate to think of civic law, natural law, the law of nations and divine law as ideally operating in harmony, as complementary? Certainly, Lilburne did not want the state to interfere with conscience since citizens were not the property of the state but held their consciences in trust from God. The limitations on sovereignty allowed to a state, even one enjoying the consent of the governed – no authority to force conscience in religious or military matters (conscription) – were not secular in origin but were determined by a belief in God’s exclusive authority over conscience, that is by the force of a religious conviction. So there were a set of assumptions about will and law which were underpinned by ideas of the limited nature of autonomy and of stewardship (cf. Davis 2000).[5] And Lilburne and the Levellers seem to have held to these convictions, and little else, with remarkable consistency.

[11] In other respects, Braddick is right to see him as a pragmatic campaigner, a polemicist willing, within reason, to use such languages as fitted the occasion – common law, natural law, the law of nations, divine law (cf. Burgess 1993: 45-67). ‘In truth he was an activist drawing on those arguments that would work at particular moments, while collaborating with people who shared his political goals but not necessarily his ideological grounds’ (107). There was, of course, a Biblical formula which licensed him for such pragmatism in relation to civil affairs. It was that God had ordained government but left its particular form to the choice and creativity of men (Davis 2000: 290. For this formula as commonplace see, for example, Parker 1642: 1; Goodwin 1642: 7-8; Williams 1644: 196.) As Andrew Sharp concluded in a format which almost gets us there, ‘He would rather that all were subject to God’s law, but saw that most were not and tried to come to terms with such a world by way of human lawmaking’ (Sharp 2006).

[12] However questionable the dichotomies of secular and religious in this context, this book remains an important and authoritative contribution, not only to our understanding of Freeborn John but also of his place in the English Revolution and of the Revolution itself. Lilburne’s political influence in his own time and beyond rested not on traditional sources but on skill in mobilising support, exploiting print, lobbying, working the streets and corridors of power and committee rooms and, to a degree, on self dramatisation. It is a form of politics which is with us still.

University of East Anglia



[1] Numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the book under review. [back to text]

[2] For the classic account of the common law mind see Pocock 2008.[back to text]

[3] Some of them, like the Levellers with their constituency and ward organisation and their manifestos, were teetering on the edge of becoming parties.[back to text]

[4] Such a separation of the spheres of Grace and nature takes us back almost eighty years to Woodhouse 1938. For other influential emphases on the Levellers as primarily secular in their thinking see Haller and Davies 1964: 7, and Wolfe 1967: 3. For a more recent emphasis on the secular in Leveller (and Lilburne’s) thought see Foxley 2013, and my review of it (Davis 2014). [back to text]

[5] Davis 2000. For the argument that the Levellers never distinguished between divine and natural law but saw them as complementary see especially 281-7. [back to text]



Braddick, Michael. 2008. God’s Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars (London: Allen Lane)

Burgess, Glenn. 1993. ‘Protestant Polemic: The Leveller Pamphlets’, Parergon 11:2, pp. 45-67

Davis, J. C. 2000. ‘The Levellers and Christianity’, in Peter Gaunt (ed.), The English Civil War: The Essential Readings (Oxford: Blackwell) pp. 279-302

_____. 2014. ‘Review of The Levellers: Radical Thought in the English Revolution, by Rachel Foxley’, in The English Historical Review, 129:538, pp. 717-19.

Foxley, Rachel. 2013. The Levellers: Radical Thought in the English Revolution (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

Goodwin, John. 1642. Anti-Cavalierisme (London: Henry Overton)

Haller, William and Godfrey Davies (eds.). 1964. The Leveller Tracts 1647-53 (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith)

Parker, Henry. 1642. Observations Upon Some of His Majesties Late Answers and Expresses London: Willian Sheares)

Pocock, J. G. A. 2008. The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Sharp, Andrew. 2006. ‘John Lilburne’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/16654

Williams, Roger. 1644. The Bloody Tenent (London)

Wolfe, Don M. (ed.). 1967. Leveller Manifestoes of the Puritan Revolution (London: Frank Cass)

Woodhouse, A. S. P.. 1938. ‘Introduction’ to Puritanism and Liberty: Being the Army Debates (1647-9), ed. by A. S. P. Woodhouse (London: Dent and Sons)

All seasons or none? 500 years of Thomas More’s Utopia

All seasons or none? 500 years of Thomas More’s Utopia

J. C. Davis


Thomas More, Utopia, introduction by China Miéville, essays by Ursula K. Le Guin (Verso: London/New York, 2016). ISBN: 978-1-78478-760-8, 224 pp., £8.99.

George M. Logan (ed.), More: Utopia, translated by Robert M. Adams (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2016). ISBN: 978-1-107-56873-0, 186 pp., £9.99.

Lawrence Wilde, Thomas More’s Utopia: Arguing for social justice (Routledge: London/New York, 2017). ISBN: 978-1-138-18753-5, 138 pp., £24.99.

[1] In a recent review of probably the most extensive series of events and exhibitions marking the quincentenary of the first publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, a series organised by the city and university of Leuven (or Louvain, where the book first saw the light of day), Laura Gascoigne remarked on the relative lack of interest amongst the English and English institutions (Gascoigne, 2016: 21). The contrast is only slightly overdrawn. There have been commemorative lectures, dedicated websites, blogs (most impressively by the History Matters group at Sheffield University), exhibitions and events (most notably at Somerset House in a collaboration between King’s College, London and the Courtauld Institute – Utopia2016.com), newspaper think pieces (in, for example, The Guardian) and, to cross the Atlantic, special issues of journals (Utopian Studies, 27:2 (2016) with an especially valuable group of articles on translations of Utopia). Nevertheless the anglophone commemorations have been decidedly low key compared with the 450th anniversary of More’s execution/martyrdom in 1985. Do we really live in times when decapitation has become more memorable than the writing of a masterpiece?

[2] The three books under review here all suggest otherwise and deliberately mark the quincentenary of Utopia’s first publication. Together they suggest the range of interest which the work still arouses and the diversity of interpretation and uses to which it is still subject. Two of them offer their readers sharply differing texts of More’s classic work. The third, a new interpretation of Utopia, is a volume in Routledge’s Studies in Radical History and Politics series with its focus on the ‘history of documents of the radical left’, barely a description that More would have recognised but perhaps not to be dismissed for all that.

[3] The Verso offering of a version of More’s text is part of Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility, to which two venerable London institutions, King’s College and the Courtauld Institute, have lent their names. It consists of an introductory essay by China Miéville, the text of a translation of Utopia, and a small collection of previously published essays by Ursula K. Le Guin. The text is more or less Gilbert Burnet’s translation of 1684 as edited by Henry Morley in 1885, reprinted in 1901 and, in some unspecified way, amended by David Price. Almost all of this provenance the readers have to discover for themselves. The producers of the volume seem blissfully unaware that translation is not a transparent medium and generates problems of multiple contexts, or, at least, the reader is offered no guidance in this respect. Even so the Burnet text is doctored. The prefatory letter from More to Peter Giles is omitted as, for some mysterious reason, is the last sentence of Burnet’s translation (‘tho it must be confessed, that he [Hythlodaeus] is both a very learned Man, and has had great practice in the world.’ – a phrase which must have some bearing on the reliability of the traveller’s observations). Burnet himself had warned against translators omitting or altering text in the process of translation. At the same time, he believed that the English language had matured to the point where it could be a suitable vehicle for the rendition of More’s Latin into a ‘more Modern English’ than that of Ralph Robynson’s 1551 translation (Burnet 1685: Preface). In other words, Burnet saw his translation as suitable to the language of his time. That language has had, and continues to have, a remarkable run but why it should be chosen for the 500th anniversary of the original and as suitable for a 21st century readership is not explained here.

[4] But neglect of the provenance of the text offered to the reader and the significance of that history is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon. The actual text, like the actual More, is almost redundant here. Utopia has become a springboard for a radical rethinking of any status quo. The work, its complexities and difficulties, are barely acknowledged in the essays prefatory and appended to this volume. As China Miéville declares, Utopia has become a symbol of the desire for change, for ‘something other than the exhausting social lie’ (Verso, 2016: 6, 12). Historical context, as rich in clues as to the work’s original meaning or to the significance of specific translations, is set aside. The principle of hope has taken over the text (version apparently irrelevant) which is become an iconic launchpad for speculation about how to escape the present (depressing) state of public life. For the rest, Miéville observes that every utopia can be both good and bad. It represents an inescapable itch, but to scratch can draw blood (Verso, 2016: 5, 19). Le Guin too expresses her ambivalence about utopianism. The rationalist blueprint of the ‘euclidean mind’ is foresworn and the organic and process preferred to structural design (Verso, 2016: 170-3, 175-6). Not only is this ‘edition’ textually unaware; it also appears wilfully ignorant of current scholarship’s engagement with the idea that Utopia is in fact an anti-utopia, a warning against political over-reach and the inhuman imposition of abstractly rational procedures and norms. As with so much of popular utopianism’s engagement with the genre, there is a hint of non-scholarly impatience with intellectual scrupulosity over text and context.

[5] If, in that regard, the Verso volume, in its not-so-benign neglect of textual scruples is at one end of the spectrum, the new, revised Cambridge Political Texts edition is at the other. George Logan has been a major contributor to More scholarship and, in particular, to the study of Utopia for a generation. His edition of that work, based on Robert Adams’ translation, has been one of the most successful and widely used of all the volumes in the Cambridge series and deservedly so.[1] It is the most accessible of a number of competing modern translations and has the great virtue of including all of the material appended to the Basel editions of 1518 (the parerga) as well as the marginal notes, both of which are so important to placing the writing and the reading of the work in context. Logan’s supporting editorial materials – introduction, notes, chronology and suggestions for further reading – are all done with care and considerable authority. This new edition is ‘fully revised’ for the 500th anniversary. What does this mean and has it enhanced the original of 1989? Overall, Logan’s amendments to the Adams’ translation of More’s text have the effect of making the English simpler, more direct and, on the whole, more economical. Shifts like that from ‘King Utopus’ (1989; 47) to ‘Utopus’ (2016: 48) have an obvious justification. The work’s title changes from ‘Concerning The Best State of a Commonwealth and the New Island of Utopia’ to ‘On The Best State of a Commonwealth and on the New Island of Utopia’ and More is demoted from Sheriff to Undersheriff. On page 52 of the new edition ‘dawn’ is substituted for ‘daybreak’ but, if the objective is simplification and a more accessible English for twenty-first century readers, it seems odd that ‘roistering’ and ‘sloth’ are retained on the same page (compare 1989: 51). Logan is well aware that the subtleties of translation matter. Hence the care and attention he has lavished on fine tuning the text. The question is whether it is always effective and the suspicion lingers that not only has the tidying up led to a less uniform and elegant style but some of the meanings appear attenuated.

[6] Amongst the many examples that could be taken, let us focus on just one. In Book II, Hythlodaeus recounts the visit of the Anemolian ambassadors to the utopian city of Amaurot. Their delight in the display of fine clothing, gold and jewels goes down poorly with the locals and they are obliged to adjust their dress to avoid mockery. In the 1989 edition this episode is introduced with words, ‘Different customs, different feelings. I never saw the adage better illustrated than in the case of the Anemolian ambassadors who came to Amaurot while I was there’ (1989: 63). The same passage is translated in the new edition as follows: ‘These customs so different from those of other people also produce a quite different cast of mind: this never became clearer to me than it did in the case of the Anemolian ambassadors who came to Amaurot when I was there’ (2016: 64). Not only has the punch gone out of the passage, which now reads more as if it had been drafted by a committee than thrown out in a conversation, but the adage has disappeared.[2] And, if we needed the prompt, we have recently been reminded how important adages and proverbs were to More, Erasmus and their friends (Betteridge, 2013). Above all, the significance of this passage as a possible key piece in the jigsaw of Utopia’s interpretation is altered without explanation, and in this connection it is surprising that the ‘Notes on the translation’ which were a feature of the 1989 edition are omitted from the new edition. The footnotes, increased here by about a third, offer helpful additional support, in particular on the influence of Lucian on More, on sources for the character of Hythlodaeus, on forms of rhetoric and in the explanation of terms such as parva logicalia. There is an expanded and refined chronology but, as we shall see, Logan’s suggestions for further reading have missed some important, if late, additions to the literature.

[7] Still the many advantages of this new edition will ensure that it continues to be widely used, although David Wootton’s fresh and incisive translation with its excellent introduction is strong competition[3] (Wootton, 1999). That said, what is the Utopia with which the new Cambridge edition presents us? First, and most significant, we may doubt, according to Logan, that Utopia was intended as what we have come to think of, hijacking More’s term, a utopia. The commonwealth described by Hythlodaeus may be attractive in some ways but its restrictions on personal freedom, its playfulness and Morus’ disassociation of himself from Utopia’s ‘absurdities’ all lead Logan to ask why More invented ‘a flawed commonwealth’ and why he repeatedly undermines Hythlodaeus’s seriousness (Logan (ed.), 2016: xii). For Logan the context for the description of Utopia is the question of whether the moral and the expedient can ever be made compatible in political life. He concludes by depicting Utopia as ‘a rather melancholy book’ (xxvi-xxvii). More shared the Augustinian view that ‘no human society could be wholly attractive’. And Logan inclines to take ‘at face value’ the sceptical judgement of Morus. The best that can be hoped for is perhaps that ‘things can at least be made a little less bad, by working tactfully on rulers and their councillors’ (xxxii). This takes no account of the point eventually reached in the dialogue on counsel where Hythlodaeus asks Morus to imagine a scenario in which his counsel had been successfully received and the power brokers were prepared to act and legislate on his advice. Even so, he argues, such legislation could not cure the body politic which must be radically and totally replaced (Logan (ed.), 2016: 40-41). So Logan appears to adopt an interpretation in which More is endorsing ameliorative or accommodational politics (Davis, 1970). The question then is why go to the trouble of elaborating the design for such a wholly new society and why was this, the burden of Book II, the preliminary exercise. Is it a game or is it a warning? It feels as if we are closer to C. S. Lewis’s verdict on More’s masterpiece as a jeu d’ésprit than we have been for some time. Space constraints obviously limited what Logan could do in terms of his explication of the text and we must turn to his other important works for enlightenment (Logan, 1983; Logan, 2012). Nevertheless, this is disappointing and too question begging to offer serious interpretative guidance for managing the complexities of an informed reading of Utopia.

[8] For a more sustained anniversary interpretation we may turn to Lawrence Wilde’s recent book. Here there is no doubting More’s political seriousness. For Wilde, this is a republican work (Wilde, 2017: 33, 47, 51, 52) pleading for a more just and egalitarian society (19, 99). Utopia is then a radical text but the society described in Book II was never meant as a blueprint but rather as as one possible solution in an unresolved argument (3). If Hythlodaeus, with his ‘maximalist’ dismissal of ameliorative reform, is a full blown radical, Morus, with ‘minimalist caution’, favouring persuasion over revolution (99-100), is closer, Wilde thinks, to More’s own position. There is much that is worth pondering here and Wilde offers some intelligent insight in his reading the text. But doubts creep in. Early on we are told that the contextualisation of the work should not be carried so far as to diminish ‘the continued relevance of its passionate concerns’ (14). Wilde wants Utopia to be a work for all seasons and its rootedness in the past must not be allowed to impede its potential contribution to a continuing radical agenda. Like the Verso Utopia, this reconstructs More’s book as a symbolic weapon in the struggle for social justice. But is it the same Utopia over which scholars like Logan deliberate? Wilde is uneasy about the ‘restrictive customs’ that Utopians are obliged to live under and urges the reader not to condemn the whole design because of them (16). But is ‘condemnation’ the issue rather than understanding and for the latter do we need to think through why More incorporated so many ‘restrictive customs’ in his design?

[9] On private property as a key issue in both books of Utopia, Wilde is sure that he knows More’s mind: ‘More is clearly unconvinced that charity will resolve the problem of poverty, and is convinced that society needs to ensure private property really does serve the common good’ (31). More’s ‘rueful acquiescence’, his acceptance that private property is a necessary evil in our fallen state (30-31, 101), underlines, for Wilde, the notion that he cannot have meant the abolition of private property in Utopia as a model for his contemporaries. However much the text tells us that there can be no justice and no consistent pursuit of the common good where private property leads to the prioritisation of private interests, Wilde fears that, if we are not careful, concern over this will deflect our attention away from the republican ethos of the work and the demolition of monarchy which has already been delivered in Book I (47). It is not wealth which is the problem but the excessive love of it (30-1, 60). More’s radical utopian vehicle, as elicited by Wilde, steers in selected conservative directions. There seems to be an insight which is special to Wilde in operation and the absence of any scrupulous examination of the evidence for it is disturbing. In a similar manner, the ‘problem’ of slavery in Utopia is sidestepped by simply assuming that More was only seeking to open the topic of slavery up for debate. ‘In offering slave labour as a flawed solution, he is actually opening up the institution of slavery as a major concern’ (65). But where does More say that slavery is a ‘flawed institution’? Is there in any sense a debate about slavery in Utopia? Isn’t it the option preferred to the existing forms of penal and capital punishment?

[10] What seems to be at work here is that Wilde would like Utopia to be a radical work speaking to our own times in as liberally social-democrat a mode as possible, just as Miéville and Le Guin want the utopian to underwrite their own socio-political longings. In this respect, Wilde imagines utopian society as having the potential for movement in the directions he aspires to now. So that ‘the possibility is left open that when they [the Utopians] see the light and convert fully to Christianity they will realise that creating slaves to do society’s dirty work subverts the principle of equality on which their society is based’ (77). To get here we have ignore the long history of Christian societies’ association with slavery. But a similar thing happens when the Utopian allocation to slaves of the butchering of animals for food is depicted by Wilde as ‘such an unsatisfactory solution that we can be confident that it is placed there deliberately by More to provoke a radical rethink of the relationship between humans and animals’ (79). Is this confidence or wishful thinking? Whichever it is, Wilde’s assurance extends to ‘seeing’ a potential for the development of ‘radical democracy’ in Utopia, one that will serve a ‘plurality of needs without which there could be no equal respect for persons’ (82). So, ‘The challenge set by Utopia is to work towards a multicultural society in which there is full respect for all religious positions and for non-believers, in a political framework that maintains its secular core as a guarantee of the maintenance of tolerance and understanding’ (98, cf. 105, 106-7). The work for all seasons has here become a double fantasy, one reshaped for the political correctness of the less critical readers of The Guardian. However worthy that readership may be, the historical More and the context of his life and work have apparently to become infinitely plastic to accommodate them.

[11] The pity of all this is that there are occasions when Wilde’s insights lead him close to grasping something more profound about Utopia. He recognises that the particular arrangements of Utopian life are ‘designed to minimise material temptations to pride’, pride which is the ‘prime plague’ (73, 106). But he veers off to make the unjustified reflection that, when Utopian wives and children kneel to confess their sins to husbands/fathers, this is More calling in question patriarchal assumptions. Twenty-first century ‘More’ displaces his sixteenth century original (73). Wilde knows that it is More’s ‘conviction that human behaviour is moulded by social conditions’, and that utopian society is designed to eliminate ‘behaviour driven by pride and covetousness’ (92, 103). But the 21st century desire to retain a text that speaks directly to our present condition (something he shares with Miéville and Le Guin) constrains him to describe, unwarrantedly, the Utopians’ policy of colonisation as ‘cultural “merger” rather than cultural imperialism'(93) and to be disquieted by the observation that Utopia ‘is not a society that can accommodate dissent or even ebullience’[4] (102). Might this be the price to be paid for not allowing historical contextualisation to diminish ‘the continued relevance of its [Utopia’s] passionate concerns’? And, in the end, does it matter? Ought we, after half a millennium, to allow for a timeless, free-floating Utopia, a work for all seasons, to exist in parallel to a Utopia which scholars seek to batten down to a specific time, space and historical context, all informing its circumscribed meaning? Should we be more relaxed about the long and avid representation and misrepresentation of this work, the scant regard for historical specificity of Miéville and Le Guin or the uneasy engagement with it of Wilde? Would this leave the carefully contextualised search for meaning of scholars like Logan relevant only to a tiny minority of self-selected academic specialists and their more-or-less willing students? How should or could a work like Utopia be made to speak to us across a half-millennial hiatus?

[12] These are big questions. As a preliminary to them let us invoke one of the most innovative and stimulating attempts of recent years to situate More’s masterpiece more accurately in its own time, Thomas Betteridge’s Writing Faith and Telling Tales: Literature, Politics and Religion in the Work of Thomas More[5] (Betteridge, 2013). Neither Logan, in his ‘Suggestions for further reading’, nor Wilde make reference to this work). Two aspects of this book command our attention. One is Betteridge’s situating of More’s work in the context of a fourteenth and fifteenth century world of reform, proverbs and story telling, which eschews abstract reasoning in favour of practical and ethical application to everyday life. The second important claim that Betteridge makes is that More’s work has, as a continuing theme, a plea for a social space open for conversation, storytelling and friendship – the paradigm is something like a Chaucerian pilgrimage (100, 112, 136, 157-8, 194). Ecclesiologically, this set him against both the ultraconservatives and the heretics, both of whom would shut down debate. The abstract reason behind their zeal was to be resisted but, while acknowledging the boundaries of reason (74, 76, 98), More also, in Betteridge’s reading, sought to retain a place for reason in our struggle with the human condition. Utopia is both an illustration of the value of reason and a warning against its excesses. Betteridge sees two failed worlds in the book, the island commonwealth and Tudor England (82), and the choice between them cannot be a simple one (91). In his view, More’s letter to Martin Dorp (1515) concedes ‘humanity’s general inability to fully and totally understand God’s word’. (106-7) In these circumstances, it is a Christian necessity to keep open space for scepticism, hesitation, reflection and, above all, conversation. Ideally, a prime function of the Church was to provide such a space and that of the state was to protect it. ‘It is only when texts are read within a community[6] that they make sense or have a purpose’ (105. From this perspective, the claim of intellectual autonomy is a form of pride: see 118). Proverbial, practical wisdom, with which Utopia appears replete, is here the bedrock of More’s opposition to all forms of absolutist knowledge, including heresy and ultra orthodoxy (108. 102). Betteridge’s brilliant recontextualisation of More and Utopia, both in terms of the concerns and genres of late medieval literature and More’s conceptualisation of the Church raise fresh questions about the meaning of Utopia. Space does not allow us here to raise more than two of those questions and they both raise the further question of whether Betteridge has gone far enough.

[13] First, while More may have been ambivalent about Utopian reason, he also questions the role of reason in contemporary society. ‘In other places men talk all the time about the commonwealth, but what they mean is their own wealth; here [in Utopia] where there is no private business every man zealously pursues the public business. And in both places people are right to act as they do‘ (Logan (ed.), 2016: 109. My emphasis). The Yale edition has ‘Assuredly in both cases they act reasonably’ for the last sentence (Surtz (ed.), 1964: 146). The conventions of two different social theatres, Utopia and sixteenth century Europe, constrain the actors to perform by very different standards of rationality. What More seems to be saying here is that, if you wish for a better and more just society than that which you have, it is neither enough to resort to moral exhortation nor to ameliorative reform (Logan (ed.), 2016: 39-41). Rather the theatre of public life must be redesigned with fresh scripts, conventions and rules (Davis, 1999; Davis, 2010). The second key question raised by Betteridge’s reappraisal relates to More’s vision of the Church and its connection with Utopia. As Betteridge sees it, More wanted a Church which was open to reflection and dialogue, which functioned more like a journey or pilgrimage than a final resting place, and where concord and consensus, however slowly arrived at, were valued. Yet this vision has strange echoes in the religious life of the Utopians. In their open-mindedness the Utopians are exemplary. ‘This readiness to learn is, I think, the really important reason for their being better governed and living more happily than we do, though we are not inferior to them in brains or resources’ (Logan (ed.), 2016: 42). They enquire as to the meaning of goodness, discuss morality and disagree with one another (68-9). Their enquiries are bounded by shared principles such that the soul is immortal, ‘by God’s beneficence intended for happiness’, and that at the end of life humans must expect rewards for their virtues and punishment for their sins. They take the view that these religious principles may be arrived at by reason (69). They welcome strangers and learn from them (81). Beyond their basic religious principles, Utopians have a variety of religious practices and beliefs. The majority ‘believe in a single divinity, unknown, eternal, infinite, inexplicable, beyond the grasp of the human mind, and diffused throughout the universe, not physically, but in influence.’ Some of them adopt the Christianity of Hythlodaeus and his fellow travellers. This development elicits neither resistance nor criticism from other Utopians (97-9). The single restraint is that one may only proselytise ‘quietly, modestly, rationally and without insulting others. If persuasion fails, no one may resort to abuse or violence: and anyone who fights wantonly about religion is punished by exile or slavery.’ This rule not only maintains the peace but is seen as benefitting religion itself (99-100). Such open-mindedness and the maintenance of space for discussion, hesitation, scepticism and the emergence of consensus is so strongly reminiscent of what Betteridge see as the ideal of More’s Erasmian ecclesiology, that one is inclined to ask whether Utopian society does not present us with something very much closer to what More would have considered an ideal Church and what the significance of this might be for our interpretation of his masterwork.

[14] By any standards 500 years is a very long time and such textual longevity, even if it is underwritten by textual and interpretative diversity, instability and transformation, represents a cultural phenomenon requiring some explanation. Part of that may lie in the protean quality of the idea of the work as a fountainhead of the modern search for an ideal society. The danger in that is that the ‘text’ can take on mythic status or become merely a point of departure for speculations about the present and the future, unrelated to any documentable and contextualised past. The scholar’s endeavour to document and observe that context, however often frustrated by a work as enigmatic as Utopia, must be sustained since we must expect to engage with the past on its own terms, not have the past engage with us on ours. To close doors on our conversation with the past, in so far as it is our past, is also to close down an important part of the conversation with ourselves. Betteridge evokes a More, less a man for all seasons than one who was telling his contemporary readers something like a message that we also can listen to if we wish and are prepared to make the effort to understand him in his own time.

University of East Anglia


[1] First edition 1989 (reprinted 10 times); revised edition 2002 (reprinted 11 times). [back to text]

[2] See also the change of a section heading from ‘Warfare’ (1989: 87) to ‘Military Practices’ (2016, 89). [back to text]

[3] Also not mentioned in Logan’s suggestions for further reading. [back to text]

[4] For a recent, very different take on these policies see Susan Bruce, ‘More’s Utopia: Colonialists, Refugees and the Nature of Sufficiency’ in Ramiro and Davis (eds.), Utopian Moments, 8-14. [back to text]

[5] Neither Logan, in his ‘Suggestions for further reading’, nor Wilde make reference to this work. [back to text]

[6] As the parerga suggest that Utopia is or may be. [back to text]


Betteridge, Thomas. 2013. Writing Faith and Telling Tales: Literature, Politics and Religion in the Work of Thomas More (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press)

Bruce, Susan. 2012. ‘More’s Utopia: Colonialists, Refugees and the Nature of Sufficiency’, in Miguel A. Ramiro Avilés and J. C. Davis (eds.), Utopian Moments: Reading Utopian Texts (London: Bloomsbury)

Burnet, Gilbert. 1685. Utopia: Written in Latin by Sir Thomas More, Chancellor of England, translated into English (London).

Davis, J. C. 1970. ‘More, Morton and the Politics of Accommodation’. The Journal of British Studies, 9:2, 27-49.

____. 1999. ‘New World/Old World: The Theatre of Interests and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia’, in Jean-Marie Maguin and Charles Whitworth (eds.), Thomas More: Nouvelles perspectives Critiques (Montpellier: Centre d’études et de recherches sur la Renaissance anglaise)

____. 2010. ‘Thomas More’s Utopia: sources, legacy and interpretation’, in Gregory Claeys (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP)

Gascoigne, Laura. 2016. ‘Going to town on an ideal: five centuries of Utopia remembered in Belgium’, The Tablet, 12 November.

Logan, George M. 1983. The Meaning of More’s ‘Utopia’ (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP)

____. 2012. ‘Systemic Remedies for Systemic Ills: The Political Thought of More’s Utopia’, in Miguel A. Ramiro Avilés and J. C. Davis (eds.), Utopian Moments: Reading Utopian Texts (London: Bloomsbury)

Surtz, Edward (ed.), 1964. St. Thomas More: Utopia (New Haven: Yale UP)

Wootton, David. 1999. Thomas More; Utopia with Erasmus’s the Silent of Alcibiades, edited and translated by David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett)