As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve been spending a little time with the English Civil Wars to teach myself some social network analysis. While I was researching something else entirely I came across such an example of the term Ranter being used in a sorry tale of sex and vicarages in the late 1640’s.
Towards the end of the civil wars, an itinerant preacher called Thomas Webb (or Webbe) appeared in Langley Burrell in the depths of rural England. Langley Burrell was without a priest, as the previous incumbent had been purged by Parliament.
Webb took to the community and the community took to him such that they invited him to become their pastor. What the community did not know was that Webb had previously been on trial for heresy and for advancing the idea that there should be no ecclesiatical or governmental authority between a person and their god. How radical he was we don’t know. During the civil wars there was an outbreak of radical sects all usually lumped together as Ranters. They encompassed everything from groups who believed people should worship naked to people who simply believed they should be free to form their own church – not unlike the house church movement today.
Shortly after Thomas Webb became the pastor of Langley Burrell, his wife died. Thomas then went on to have an affair with Mary White, the wife of Henry White, the lord of the manor in whose gift the living of the parish was. We don’t know what the relative ages of all three were as the parish records have disappeared, but we do know that Webb was in his mid twenties when all this happened.
So far so normal. Probably this was not the first time nor the last time such a thing had happened, especially in an age where men of property quite often had wives significantly younger than themselves. Certainly none of the sources we have suggest that Henry White attempted to remove Thomas Webb – something he could have done quite easily by bringing charges of immoral behaviour against him. In fact he seems to have acquieseced in the matter allowing Webb to move into his house.
Thomas also married again, this time to a local girl, and when his wife reproached him for his affair with Mary White he encouraged other men of the parish to seduce his wife – essentially putting her in a position where she could not bring a charge of adultery (a capital charge at the time) without having to admit her own misdemeanours.
Thomas is also said to have engaged in a homosexual affair with one John Organ, who is described as a man-wife, suggesting perhaps that the relationship was more than just casual. Thomas Webb later encouraged John Organ to go off and become an itinerant preacher – which is not as strange as it seems in the context of the time – it was one of the few vaguely respectable options open in the late 1640’s to people of unconventional views and no ready skills.
The story of Thomas Webb and Mary White would ordinarilly have simply remained a sorry tale of sexual misbehaviour in a small isolated community.
We only know of the story because Webb was brought court again for his radical views but never prosecuted – instead his own parishoners appear to have had enough of him and drove him out, only for him to reappear four or five years later in London to be charged with adultery, and the court case made reference to his time at Langley Burrell and his radical views.
Edward Stokes, one of the investigating magistrates wrote a polemic denouncing Webb and his radical views. By this time in the early 1650’s the radical phase of the Civil Wars was over and there was a determined effort by the new Puritan government to establish a ‘new normal’ which included the purging of more radical groups.
But there is another question – did the Ranters exist as a defined sect, or were they a made up catch all used to blacken people of unconventional views or inclinations.
One problem is that one of our major sources about the Ranters was a polemical work by Thomas Edwards, written in part to decry some of the extreme activities of pro-Leveller factions in the Army. It is truly a work tabloid sensationalism and like tabloid journalism there may be a germ of truth in the story, but much is either made up or exaggerated
Certainly Thomas Webbe appears to have had some connection with Abiezer Coppe, another known extreme preacher who also advocated free love or at least open and equal relationships between men and women.
Undoubtedly Webbe was a charismatic individual who exploited his role for his own gratification. He may, like Coppe, have had radical ideas about how society works, he may have been more than a little mad. He may well also have held pro-Leveller beliefs.
Coppe and Webbe were real people. They almost certainly had shockingly radical beliefs for their time. However we cannot say if they ware part of a wider movement or simply individuals who were used to blacken by implication other less colourful radicals