English Micro-history

Mark Knights, The Devil in Disguise: Deception, Delusion and Fanaticism in the Early English Enlightenment

Oxford University Press, 304pp, £30.00, ISBN 9780199577958

reviewed by David Morgan

‘The dramatic story of the Cowpers of Hertford includes a murder mystery, bigamy, a scandal novel, and a tyrannised wife, all set against the backdrop of violently competing local factions, rampant religious prejudice, and the last conviction of a witch in England.’

This sounds like a popular work of fiction from one of our more lurid authors but it is actually a serious work of historical scholarship that is being described. The Devil in Disguise is the latest work from Mark Knights, professor of history at Warwick University and a specialist in the later Stuart period, and the opening pages do read like a crime novel with the discovery, in 1699 in the town of Hertford, of the body of a dead young woman floating in a pond. Was she murdered or did she commit suicide? Was she ‘with child’? Rumours abound and it transpires that the dead girl is a prominent Quaker named Sarah Stout.

Knights uses an individual tale of intrigue to illustrate the political factions, power struggles and religious rivalries in the town. Spencer Cowper is accused of Sarah’s murder, while his brother William is later to become embroiled in a ‘scandal’ of his own when he fathers two illegitimate children (a not uncommon occurrence in the early 18th century, although Knights makes a lot of it and reports the facts with gusto). Some 11 years after Sarah’s death, the two brothers, Spencer and William are instrumental in the prosecution of the preacher Dr Henry Sacheverell, whose trial provoked large-scale riots in London. Finally, in 1712, William Cowper acts to prevent the execution of Jane Wenham, the last woman in England to be convicted of witchcraft. These incidents form the substance of the text as Knights seeks to explore the various social, cultural, religious, political and ideological ramifications of these separate developments which he tries to weave seamlessly together by the fact that two key participants were the brothers from the Cowper family. William rose to become Lord Chancellor and was thus a major figure in national politics.

At a time when the teaching and researching of history are continuously being assailed on all fronts from funding constraints and ideologically motivated politicians attempting to control awkward research, the appearance of a book with the ambitious scope of The Devil in Disguise is most welcome. As a work of scholarship it is a model of erudition, with its superbly imaginative use of sources and, while its academic credentials are uncompromised, it studiously maintains clarity of language and avoids jargon. Knights’ examination of the persecution of the Quakers is one of the most successful parts of the book. Knights makes innovative use of contemporary popular polemical illustrations to show how Quakers were caricatured as hypocrites in league with the devil. He relates that between the years 1650 and 1720 over 500 pamphlets and books were published in England against Quakers, which clearly demonstrates that they were the butt of an orchestrated campaign of discrimination.

The themes addressed by Knights are certainly important ones: the development of a recognisably modern party politics represented by Whigs and Tories; the impact of public opinion and the press in shaping political ideas; shifting alliances and allegiances; the changing role of religion in society and politics; how the dissenters prospered in the years following the Restoration and the lingering legacy of the Civil War in all its many manifestations. Historians such as Tim Harris, in Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms, 1660-1685 (Allen Lane, 2005), for example, have convincingly argued against the royalist national myth of a people united around their king. Harris showed that public opinion after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ remained deeply divided for a very long time; despite a restored monarchy, radical and republican ideas continued to flourish among significant sections of the population and these subversive ideas could not simply be repressed or eliminated by force. It took much ideological persuasion before the public were ready to accept the modern monarchy with much reduced powers.

The book’s title seems to promise a contribution to the social history of witchcraft or belief in the supernatural in the manner of Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin, 1992) or Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford University Press, 2000); both magnificently readable social histories of the subject. But Knights has produced something quite different, an eclectic study reaching well beyond family history to embrace local history, crime and court history, changing beliefs, the social history of religion, the evolution of political ideas; the book even touches on questions of sexuality. It is sweepingly ambitious in scope but is quite a slim volume at less than 250 pages of main text.
David Morgan is a journalist, historian and human rights campaigner, and secretary of the Socialist History Society.