Last Sunday, January 6th, was the Christian festival of Epiphany. It was also the date that, in 1661, one Thomas Venner led the Fifth Monarchist Uprising in the city of London against the restoration of the King. As my good friends the Gillett sisters are involved in making a film, with long-time anarchist, Ian Bone, about these esoteric 17th century prophets and rebels I had my own epiphany and headed off to Moorgate in search of Swan Alley where the revolt began and filming was to commence.
Basically, it felt right. The previous night I’d had a spirited but heated argument about the need political activism and the need for radical new ideas with an old mate and vented my total frustration at the pathetic, ghostly, non-presence of the so called “leader” of the Labour opposition. To take on those vicious Old Etonians who dominate the Tory front bench of Parliament we need people who can give voice to an opposition that demands genuine and radical change. Where’s the sense of rage? The deeper the recession and the more savage the cutbacks. For a lot of people in 2013, young or old, all that’s on offer is hard time pressure – a combination of humiliation and desperation. So, heading off to Swan Alley, to celebrate a rebellion by a small army of historically obscure rebels, who put their lives on the line for a cause, felt like a cathartic and positive start to the new year.
After questioning a historical guide, who was addressing some tourists outside of the Guildhall, as to the the whereabouts of Swan Alley where Venner’s congregation had gathered in 1661 he admitted to having no knowledge of the uprising. However, he did know where there was a good map of the city and along with a Class War veteran, who was also in search of the gathering, we finally reached our destination arriving just as speeches inspired by Venner, Abiezer Coppe, Lawrence Clarkson and the Muggletonian leader Lodowick Muggleton were being delivered by Bone and other activists.
As a long time leftist, I’ve gradually acquired a modest knowledge of the working class activism and rebellion in Britain through the likes of EP Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm and have a soft spot for the Diggers, Levellers and Ranters. I’ve even played the odd deejay set under the moniker of Captain Swing… who inspired the Swing Riots of 1860 and who wrote many a threatening message…
“Sir, Your name is down amongst the Black hearts in the Black Book and this is to advise you and the like of you, who are Parson Justasses, to make your wills. Ye have been the Blackguard Enemies of the People on all occasions, Ye have not yet done as ye ought,…. Swing”
Anyway, I digress. The Fifth Monarchists took their name from a prophecy in the Bible that four ancient monarchies – Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, and Roman – would precede the return of King Jesus and these offbeat Christian fundamentalists were outraged at the fall of the Barebone’s parliament and saw Cromwell as part of a Bablyonian conspiracy. Venner and his congregation were intent on building Zion in this green and pleasant land and the restoration of a King who was “a profest Enemy, a Rebel and a Traytor to Christ” had no place in their vision.
Who could disagree? And so, all fired up, Venner and his congregation took to the streets to do what diarist Samuel Pepys described as “A thing that was never heard of, that so few men should dare to do so much mischief. “ Over forty people were killed and many more wounded. After a fierce fight Thomas Venner and many of his brethren were captured and subsequently executed. Venner himself suffered a traitors death and was hung drawn and quartered, his head displayed on London Bridge.
As our modest little band of former poll tax rioters, new generation anarchists and Occupy activists went, under the guidance of the film makers, from Swan Alley onto the Guildhall (where Venner had failed to arrest the then Lord Mayor). At this point we were led by a pike wielding young woman, who was playing the part of Anna Trapnel, one of the most compelling and prominent Fifth Monarchist prophets.
She like other Fifth Monarchists had embraced Oliver Cromwell as God’s chosen tool to restore King Jesus’ kingdom but in the wake the Barebone’s Parliament disillusionment set in. It was in this political atmosphere that Trapnel made her most famous prophecy, The Cry of a Stone.
Anna Trapnel did not write her prophecies; they were recorded as she spoke in a trance then edited and printed later. The particular trance that resulted in The Cry of a Stone occurred in January 1654 and lasted eleven days and twelve nights! The fact that it occurred in Whitehall was radical and Trapnel singles out Cromwell, figuring him as the Biblical Gideon, for special condemnation for what she sees as his abdication of his divine role. Anna Trapnel was a fascinating woman who, had the Papists been in power, would have been burned as a witch in the blink of an eye.
Chanting “Heads on Pikes”, “Kill The King” we journeyed from Guildhall to King Street and onto St Paul’s where we stormed the steps and gathered around the banner bearing the symbol of the Lion and the declaration “Who will rouse him up”. Our dedication to that “Good Old Cause” and “A Door To Hope” attracted considerable attention and more than a little confusion… “Kill the King?”
As with all such events we finished our journey in a historically apt place of worship, The Cockpit public house, where pints of ale were readily consumed while discussing the May Day deadline for the premier of the film, which is appropriately entitled Epiphany.
Big Thanks to Peter Marshall for donating the photography. You can check his excellent work at: http://mylondondiary.co.uk/ + http://www.demotix.com/
Thanks Paul for such a great piece on our day – so good to have you amongst us.