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The triumph of reason and the beginnings of democracy

Submitted by on July 14, 2012 – 8:37 amNo Comment

By Eric Northey

June 5th 2012 witnessed the last transit of Venus that anyone living will see. Except that we couldn’t see it because it was too cloudy and it was at 5 o’clock in the morning. So sensible members of FC United didn’t get out of bed. But I did write a play about it, because it was first seen by two ordinary North West blokes, Salfordian William Crabtree and Scouser (sorry, I’ve been made aware of sensibilities about these things) Jeremiah Horrocks.

With stunning originality the play is called The Transit of Venus and is set in 1639. You can see it at the Co-op’s old HQ, New Century House, between Friday the 20th of July and Thursday the 26th at times to suit every domestic regime. See http://247theatrefestival.co.uk/show2012transit.html for details.

The 1630s are a confusing period of English history when old certainties were abandoned, new knowledges gained and social conventions overturned. Today, we don’t know what distinguished Presbyterians from Baptists; we’ve not read Newton (especially in Latin) and we don’t know why it was important for Quakers not to doff their hats.

But this period, 1600-1650, marks the start of modern Britain and Crabtree and Horrocks, whose short lives ran through it, would have realised all too well the turbulent times they were living through. With a little judicial historical licence, I’ve tried to illustrate some of the forces that were shaping the course of history and show how they impacted on the lives of two ordinary Lancastrians, living extraordinary lives.

Crabtree and Horrocks were great scientists in the modern sense of the word. They observed, they measured, they formed hypotheses and they tested them against reality. It was the classic scientific method first outlined by their contemporary Francis Bacon in The Advancement of Learning. But they were also deeply religious men and their discoveries challenged their bible-based beliefs in the nature of the heavens. The bible said the Earth stood still but they knew that couldn’t be true.

Similarly, they realised the Ancients, like Ptolemy, couldn’t be right. Planets didn’t go round in fixed circular crystal spheres, because the mathematics won’t allow it. They had to let go of some beliefs and forge new ones, based on what they themselves had observed.

It was a risky business. On the continent, astronomers like Giodorno Bruno had been burned at the stake; Galileo was under house arrest. But suppression only made the curious more determined. The times, said Bishop Sprat, “stirred up men’s minds, made them active, industrious and inquisitive”. They challenged educated men, and women, to push forward the frontiers of knowledge.

In astronomy, Puritan Horrocks, Anglican Crabtree, and their Catholic friends Gascoigne and Townely, put aside their religious differences in the genuine pursuit of new knowledge.

But in religious affairs, there was little toleration. The old religion of Roman Catholicism was suppressed, its loyalists often fined and persecuted. The newer established Anglican church was breaking up and sects appearing everywhere.

They questioned the source of the Church’s authority. There were Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Independents, Baptists, Anabaptists, Unitarians, Quakers and a host of lesser sects and seers all who wished to break the monopoly of the state Church. Milton argued that people should be free to question and publish anything without censorship. It led to innumerable books and pamphlets expounding every kind of religious, political and social belief.

“Why should not a pewter pot be God?” a trooper asked in Cromwell’s army. This questioning of religious beliefs soon led to the challenging of political assumptions. Who truly was the rightful source of authority, the King or Parliament? And if you chose Parliament, what was to stop you from going further and asking for wider suffrage, annual elections, the right to common land, to appoint your own preachers, equal rights for women and the ‘heresy’ of asserting that “all men are equally and alike born to like property, liberty and freedom”/

It was the start of a democratic idea of government and it had to be fought for in the Civil War. This is what may have cost Horrocks and Crabtree their lives. It is to the credit of these two humane and intelligent men that they opted for rational enquiry, religious tolerance and a hope for a better future in a more democratic, less superstitious Britain.










John McElhatton brooding as William Crabtree










Plain and pious: Sarah Jane Lee as Horrocks’s mother










Contemplating God’s purposes: Nathan Morris as Jeremiah Horrocks.








Horrocks and Jenny thinking about more than just the stars.


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