Monthly Archives: February 2010

Skippon, Bethan, Mabbott, and the Provost Marshall

I will have something up on Tolmie soon, but first I thought I would discuss a little problem I have finally solved.  On Aug. 31, 1648, Mabbott requested further (but unrecorded) powers for suppressing illegal printing.  Most sources report that Parliament was happy with his suggestions, and the matter was promptly referred to a committee.  On Sept. 13, the Commons, following a report from Derby House, appointed Capt. Francis Bethan as Provost Marshall with the power, among others, to suppress pamphlets.  Historians have assumed that Bethan was given the powers that Mabbott had requested for himself.  The insinuation is that this was a repudiation of Mabbott as licenser.  This interpretation has never set entirely well with me.

For starters, nowhere do we have any indication that Bethan was granted the powers that Mabbott had requested.  The only suggestion that the two were connected in that way comes from Mercurius Elencticus, a royalist newsbook, which reported that Mabbott, “upon second Thoughts and the secret Checks and Twitches his Conscience gave him, he declined the Imployment,” and thus it was granted to Bethan.  J. B. Williams (Muddiman) bought this line in toto.  As nearly as I can tell, this is the only source that puts Mabbott’s request and Bethan’s appointment together, but Elencticus‘s specious claim lived on through Williams and into the modern historiography.  Fortunately, no one else that I have seen seems to believe that Mabbott’s conscience kept him from taking the job.

In case you are wondering why you’ve never heard of Bethan before, it would probably be because he came out of nowhere.  I have no idea who he is, and apparently neither did the newsbook editors and parliamentary clerks who gave several different versions of his name: Bethen, Bethan, Betham, Bethum, Bethel…  I suppose I could understand the first four, but Bethel?  That one was from Pragmaticus.

There is good reason that most contemporaries did not comment on the connection between Mabbott’s proposals and Bethan’s appointment.  Suppressing pamphlets was one of the smaller aspects of Bethan’s commission.  The order from the Commons on Sept. 13, following the report of Richard Knightley from the Derby House committee, read:

Ordered, That Francis Bethan have a Commission granted unto him to be Provost Marshal, for Apprehension of such as are within Twenty Miles of London, without the Liberties of the City, against the Ordinances of Parliament; and of other dangerous Persons that have listed, or are listing themselves: And that the said Provost Marshal have Power to apprehend and surprise all such Person or Persons as sell, sing, or publish, Ballads or Books, scandalous to the Parliament, or their Proceedings; and to suppress Playhouses, and apprehend the Players; and keep the said Persons apprehended in Custody; and carry them to the Committees of the Militias of the several Counties and Places where they shall be apprehended; to take Course with them, according to Ordinance of Parliament: The said Power to continue for Three Months.

As you can see, there isn’t really any indication that he was being granted whatever powers it was that Mabbott had requested.  Moreover, according to the original report in the CSPD from Derby House on Aug. 7, Bethan was originally only going to be recommended for the former part of the commission, rounding up malignants around London.  The responsibility for plays, ballads, and books was added at some later date.  Bethan’s ultimate appointment as Provost Marshall on Sept. 13 had clearly been intended, originally, for a separate purpose, beyond the suppression of pamphlets.  One also has to wonder about the delay from Derby House’s decision on Aug. 7 and its report on Sept. 13 (and the Lords’ concurrence on the 23rd).

I would argue that, rather than a repudiation of Mabbott, Bethan’s commission was an attempt to buttress Independent control in the metropolis.  The explanation lies in Skippon and the City.

Major-General Skippon had been in charge of the security of London and the surrounding areas.  While it would at first seem that Bethan’s duties would overlap with Skippon’s and thus undermine him, Skippon would never have agreed to his appointment were that the likely outcome.  Skippon was on the Derby House Committee, which was no longer under Presbyterian control, and was present on the day that the committee decided on its recommendation.

Skippon had also been called on to help suppress suppress stages and plays in Middlesex alongside the Committee of the militia of Westminster (CJ, July 26, 1648).  Considering the seemingly ad hoc nature of Bethan’s commission, it appears that Bethan was being enrolled to help Skippon in performing his various duties.  Defense of London (and its morals, evidently) required more than one man, especially when City government had so decisively turned away from him.

In the same way, Bethan was also to aid Mabbott, who was clearly incapable of halting unlicensed publication and was indeed asking for further powers.  While this could have been an attempt to undermine Mabbott, Skippon’s alliance with the army would have made him and Mabbott allies.  It is more likely that this was an attempt to strengthen Independent authority around an increasingly royalist London.

The fact that Derby House did not convey its request until Sept. 13, two weeks after the successful conclusion of the siege of Colchester, indicates that the move was not solely concerned with royalist invasion.  Rather, it would likely have been a result of the increasingly hostile mood in the capital (partly a result of the influx of royalists leaving Colchester).  Bethan’s official charge as Provost Marshall was “for the Safeguard of the Parliament.”  This is perhaps why the Commons and Lords agreed to the recommendation, but were very slow to go about it.  The Lords likely held out hope that Bethan would be more congenial, as their very next order of business after confirming Bethan was to order an inquiry into the authorship of the Moderate.  It is almost enough to make wonder if Bethan was chosen expressly because he was a nobody; it was not immediately obvious for whom he would be working.

There is certainly some guesswork in the story so far, but I think that it is plain enough that Bethan’s appointment was part of something much larger than Gilbert Mabbott (who would have imagined such a thing?).  Because of Skippon’s seat at Derby House, I have assumed that Bethan’s appointment had his blessing.  Parliament’s own fears about insurrection rather than invasion drove them to ultimately accept Bethan as Provost Marshall.  I argue that the move was meant to give support to both Skippon and Mabbott in keeping London and its presses in line.

Why devote this much space to something which no one has ever really cared enough to examine before?  Well, for my own purposes, it is useful for further explaining Mabbott’s career.  More generally, it is a reminder to those of us who have become so specialized in certain brands of history (print culture, in my case) that we need to remember to consider that print was only one front in a larger political and military battle.  Having only examined Bethan’s appointment in a print context, it certainly looked like an affront to Mabbott, but by looking at the larger political context, it was clear that it was part of an Independent push to control the capital.  The appointment of Bethan as Provost Marshall ultimately did very little to effect the outcome of the conflict, but it is a useful example of Independent strategy as well as of one of the ephemeral, omnipresent, miniature political battles that made up the parliamentary war effort.

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