Academic journal article The Historian

"Treacherous Memories" of Regicide: The Calves-Head Club in the Age of Anne

Academic journal article The Historian

"Treacherous Memories" of Regicide: The Calves-Head Club in the Age of Anne

Article excerpt

IN LATE SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY London, rumors of calves-head clubs began to surface in print. (1) These associations of republican incendiaries allegedly gathered every year on 30 January, the anniversary of the regicide of 1649, to celebrate "that Blessed Action in Lopping off the Head of Charles I. (2) A typical gathering met secretly at night. Members began with a prayer of thanksgiving for the king's execution. They proceeded to stage a symbolic regicide in which they decapitated a calf, a symbol of the king. All in attendance feasted on calves' heads or drank liquor out of calves' skulls. The members concluded this celebration by toasting Oliver Cromwell and the other regicides, singing republican anthems in their honor. (3)

Such a feast represented a profane reversal of the Anglican ceremony established at the Restoration that marked 30 January as a day of prayer and humiliation in remembrance of the "royal martyr." While loyal churchmen observed that anniversary by fasting and praying, the calves-head clubsmen feasted and got drunk. These ill-mannered clubsmen clearly violated the boundaries of good taste, but they were also blasphemous and seditious. While loyal churchmen repented the king's murder, the calves-head members drank toasts to the regicides and sang ballads that celebrated them as heroes.

Although stories about calves-head clubs appeared frequently in early eighteenth-century print, modern historians have tended to dismiss the club as a mere fiction invented by Edward Ward (1667-1731), the Tory sympathizer and Grub Street writer. (4) Author of the best-selling and sensational London Spy, A Trip to Jamaica, and A Trip to New England, Ward also contributed to at least part of The Secret History of the Calves-Head Club, or The Republican Unmasked. (5) Published in 1703, reprinted nine times in the next eleven years, and printed once again in 1721, The Secret History became the most important source for disseminating the myth of the calves-head club in early eighteenth-century England. Although it contained sensational fabrications based largely on hearsay and gossip, The Secret History in its multiple editions attempted to consolidate and entrench in the public mind the stereotype of the calves-head clubsman as a republican subversive who wanted to resurrect the "good old cause" in the later Stuart era. (6)

During the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14), a period marked by intense "party" strife between Whigs and Tories, the myth of the calves-head club reached the height of its political usefulness. (7) Although it was not official Tory propaganda, The Secret History invariably reflected the values of the High-Church Tories. Traditionally, historians have studied the Whigs more enthusiastically than the Tories because the progressive ideas of the former--popular sovereignty, liberty, and toleration--were deemed the foundation of modern society. Indeed, Whig historians have largely written history to sanction the present, liberal-democratic political order. (8) Such present-minded historians have tended to cast the Tories, with their devotion to monarchy and established church, as antiquated reactionaries. Yet, more recently, scholars have sought to explain the Tories on their own terms without reference to the political future. From the work of J.C.D. Clark, Linda Colley, H.T. Dickinson, and others, a more nuanced understanding of Tory ideology and party structure has emerged than that advanced by Whig historians. This new Tory interpretation of history has led to a deeper appreciation of the tremendous extent to which royalism and Anglicanism shaped eighteenth-century politics. (9)

As a popular and entertaining expression of the Tory ideology of order that stressed divine-right monarchy, passive obedience, and allegiance to the Church of England, The Secret History of the Calves Head Club illustrated the force of Tory ideas and the lingering fears of social and political disintegration during Queen Anne's reign. …

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