As with so much of our history, the records of the English Civil Wars are usually dominated by those with power and agency – whether it’s the monarchs and politicians who ruled us or the privileged rich who could afford education and materials, it’s often the case that the voice of the common man or woman is lost to us.
During the tumultuous 1640s and 1650s, thanks to greater freedom of speech and increased political engagement there came a blossoming of different voices; a huge rise in literacy (helped, in part, by the translation of the Bible into English in the 16th Century) and access to printing presses meant that those normally silenced by the aristocracy and church’s dominance of the printed word could disseminate their thoughts in a way hitherto impossible.
In these remarkable times, ordinary people also desired to record something of themselves for posterity.
Nehemiah Wallington was one of those ordinary people and his diary, written during the English Civil War, is now available online for free. You can find the full manuscript, cover to cover and fully searchable, here.
A London wood-turner and puritan, Wallington (1598–1658) is an example of the increasingly literate and politically-aware common man of the early and mid 17th Century – he compiled fifty notebooks between 1618 and 1654 that give us an incredible insight into both London at the time and his own life.
The surviving notebooks covers a huge range of subjects from Wallington’s everyday life- from accounts of incidents in his domestic, working, and religious life, sustained meditations on spiritual matters, and reports on national events. Particularly illuminating are Wallington’s reflections on his own mental wellbeing, at times suicidal, at others ecstatic. From letters on religious matters to expressions of anxiety over the illnesses and mishaps of his wife and children, from vexed thoughts about money matters to chronicling the tumult of civil war London, this collection provides a window into everyday life in seventeenth-century England.
He may have been just a wood-turner from London, but his invaluable and painstaking writings should take their place alongside Pepys and Evelyn as one of the authentic voices commenting on early modern England.