Skip to main content Accessibility help




The article explores ‘commonwealth’ both as a term and a conceptual field across the early modern period, with a particular focus on the Anglophone world. The shifts of usage of ‘commonwealth’ are explored, from a term used to describe the polity, to one used to describe a particular, republican form of polity, through to its eclipse in the eighteenth century by other terms such as ‘nation’ and ‘state’. But the article also investigates the variety of usages during any one time, especially at moments of crisis, and the network of related terms that constituted ‘commonwealth’. That investigation requires, it is argued, not just a textual approach but one that embraces social custom and practice, as well as the study of literary and visual forms through which the keyword ‘commonwealth’ was constructed. The article emphasizes the importance of social context to language; the forms, metaphors and images used to describe and depict the polity; and to show how linguistic change could occur through the transmutation of elements of the conceptual field that endowed the keyword with its meaning.


Corresponding author

Mark Knights, Department of History, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4


Hide All

1 Smith, Sir Thomas, De republica anglorum: the maner of gouernement or policie of the realme of England (London, 1583), p. 10.

2 For a useful overview of ‘commonwealth’ see Jones, Whitney, The tree of commonwealth, 1450–1793 (Madison, NJ, and London, 2000). American state commonwealths include Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky. In the British imperial context, the term appears to derive from Jan Smuts, who suggested it in 1917, and it was used in the 1931 Statute of Westminster to create ‘The British Commonwealth of Nations’. ‘The Commonwealth’ nevertheless became more common after 1949, when India's desire for a republican form of government required a term sufficiently flexible to cover different political structures whilst denoting a desire to further the common good, arguably representing a return to its early modern usage.

3 For a fuller explanation of the methodology see Knights, Mark et al. , ‘Towards a social and cultural history of keywords and concepts’, History of Political Thought, 31 (2010), pp. 427–48.

4 Collinson, Patrick, ‘De republica anglorum: or, history with the politics put back’, in Collinson, Elizabethan essays (London, 1994), pp. 129; Griffiths, Paul, Fox, Adam, and Hindle, Steve, eds., The experience of authority in early modern England (Basingstoke, 1996), especially the chapter by Keith Wrightson, ‘The politics of the parish in early modern England’; Braddick, Mike, State formation in early modern England, ca. 1550–1700 (Cambridge, 2000); Hindle, Steve, The state and social change in early modern England, c. 1550–1640 (Basingstoke, 2000); Mark Goldie, ‘The unacknowledged republic: office-holding in early modern England, c. 1640–1740’, in Harris, Tim, ed., The politics of the excluded, c. 1500–1850 (Basingstoke, 2001), pp. 153–94; Kent, Joan, ‘The centre and the localities: state formation and parish government in England, c. 1640–1740’, The Historical Journal, 38 (1995), pp. 363404.

5 This section draws on the ideas of John Watts. See 'Public or plebs: the changing meaning of “the Commons”, 1381–1549’, in Pryce, Huw and Watts, John, eds., Power and identity in the middle ages: essays in memory of Rees Davies (Oxford, 2007), pp. 242–60; ‘The pressure of the public on later medieval politics’, in Clark, Linda and Carpenter, Christine, eds., Political culture in late medieval Britain (Woodbridge, 2004), pp. 159–80; The making of polities: Europe, 1300–1500 (Cambridge, 2009), esp. pp. 385–6.

6 Rollison, David, ‘Conceit and capacities of the vulgar sort: the social history of language as a language of politics’, Cultural and Social History – The Journal of the Social History Society, 2 (2005), pp. 141–63; Rollison, David, ‘The specter of the commonalty: class struggle and the commonweal in England before the Atlantic world’, William and Mary Quarterly, 63 (2006), pp. 221–52.

7 See David Starkey, ‘Which age of reform?’, in Christopher Coleman and David Starkey, eds., Revolution reassessed: revisions in the history of Tudor government and administration (Oxford, 1986), pp. 13–27; John Watts, ‘Polemic and politics in the 1450s’, in M. L. Kekewich et al., eds., The politics of fifteenth-century England: John Vale's book (Stroud, 1995), ch. 2; H. Kurath and S. M. Kuhn, eds., Middle English dictionary, ii, Part 1 (Ann Arbor, MI, 1959), p. 446.

8 For the academic debate and conceptual background, see Kempshall, M. S., The common good (Oxford, 1999). Examples of ‘common good’ terminology are easily found in the searchable Given-Wilson, C. et al. , eds., Parliament rolls of medieval England, CD-ROM, Scholarly Digital Editions (Leicester, 2005). A recent analytical discussion is Fletcher, Christopher, ‘De la communauté du royaume au common weal: les requêtes anglaises et leurs stratégies au XIVe siècle’, Revue française d'histoire des idées politiques, 32 (2010), pp. 135–49.

9 Marx, W., ed., An English chronicle, 1377–1461 (Woodbridge, 2003), p. 72.

10 For an excellent overview, see Reynolds, Susan, Kingdoms and communities in Western Europe, c. 900 – c. 1300 (2nd edn, Oxford, 1997).

11 Wakelin, Daniel, Humanism, reading and English literature, 1430–1530 (Oxford, 2007), pp. 144, 146–7 and passim; David Rundle, ‘Humanism before the Tudors: on nobility and the reception of the studia humanitatis in fifteenth-century England’, in Jonathan Woolfson, ed., Reassessing Tudor humanism (London, 2002), pp. 22–42; William Worcester, The boke of noblesse, ed. J. G. Nichols (London, 1860), p. 1 and passim.

12 ‘Est igitur, inquit Africanus, res publica res populi, populus … [meaning] coetus multitudinis iuris consensu et utilitatis communione sociatus’: De re publica, I.39. For the translation, see Zetzel, James E. G., ed., Cicero: on the commonwealth and the laws (Cambridge, 1999). Note that ‘iuris consensu’ may mean agreement on justice, or even what is right, rather than simply on law.

13 Cicero: on the commonwealth, ed. Zetzel, pp. xxxvii–xxxviii.

14 Giancarlo, Matthew, Parliament and literature in late medieval England (Cambridge, 2007), p. 79n. 40, cites a notably early example (Bishop Brinton, 1376).

15 So was its Aristotelian counterpart politeia, typically rendered as ‘politia’ (Latin) or ‘policie/police’ (English): see, for example,Plummer, C. E., ed., The governance of England, by Sir John Fortescue (Oxford, 1885), p. 112. It seems likely, however, that uses of this term were encouraged and informed by the vogue for Cicero: Fortescue's pamphlet contains an often-overlooked chapter praising the republican elements in the Roman polity (though preferring the term ‘politikly’ to describe this manner of rule, rather than using res publica or any anglicized version: ibid., p. 347).

16 Chrimes, S. B., English constitutional ideas in the fifteenth century (Cambridge, 1936), p. 180 (1483); Given-Wilson, et al. , eds., Parliament rolls, v, p. 280 (1455); Boke of noblesse, pp. 56–9.

17 Starkey: ‘the prosperouse and most perfayt state of a multytud assemblyd togyddur in any cuntrey, cyty or towne governyd vertusely in cyvyle lyfe accordyng to the nature and dygnyte of man’ (Mayer, Thomas F., ed., Thomas Starkey: a dialogue between Pole and Lupset (London, 1989), p. 38). Morison: ‘a certain number of cities, towns, shires, that all agree upon one law and one head, united and knit together by the observation of the laws’ (Berkowitz, D. S., Humanist scholarship and public order: two tracts against the pilgrimage of Grace by Sir Richard Morison (Washington, DC, 1984), p. 117.

18 Sharpe, Kevin, Remapping early modern England: the culture of seventeenth century politics (Cambridge, 2000), ch. 2, ‘A commonwealth of meanings’.

19 Elyot, Sir Thomas, The boke named the governor (1531), ‘The firste boke’, ‘The significacion of a publicke weal and why it is called in Latin Respublica.’ Cf.Filmer, Sir Robert, Observations concerning the original of government (1652), in Sommerville, Johann P., ed., Patriarcha and Other Writings (Cambridge, 1991). Commenting on Hobbes's Leviathan Filmer wrote: ‘I wish the title of the book had not been of a commonwealth, but of a weal public, or commonweal, which is the true word carefully observed by our translator of Bodin De Republica into English. Many ignorant men are apt by the name of commonwealth to understand a popular government, wherein wealth and all things shall be common, tending to the levelling community in the state of pure nature’ (p. 186).

20 The following paragraphs draw on Wood, Andy, The 1549 rebellions and the making of early modern England (Cambridge, 2007).

21 Cowper, J. M., ed., The select works of Robert Crowley (Ann Arbor, MI, 1872), p. 132.

22 Ibid., pp. 161–2. Cf. Thomas More, in Raphe Robynson's translation of Utopia, who similarly discerned a ‘certein conspiracy of riche men procuringe theire owne commodities under the name and title of the commen wealth’ (A fruteful, and pleasaunt worke of the beste state of a publyque weale (London, 1551), second book, sig. Si).

23 The National Archives (TNA), SP10/8/56.

24 TNA, SP1/115, fo. 252v, SP1/109, fo. 222r.

25 Hugh Latimer, ‘Certain sermons [on the Lord's Prayer]’ [1552], in Latimer, Sermons by Hugh Latimer, ed. George Elwes Corrie (Cambridge, 1844), p. 406.

26 Wood, 1549 Rebellions, p. 144.

27 Clark, Peter, English provincial society from the Reformation to the Revolution (London, 1977), p. 79.

28 TNA, STAC3/5/11.

29 TNA, DL1/27/T8.

30 TNA, SP1/119, fo. 35r, SP1/121, fos. 22r, 174v. For a revealing assessment of the meaning of Commonwealth in 1536, see M. L. Bush, ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace and the pilgrim tradition of holy war’, in Morris, C. and Roberts, P., eds., Pilgrimage: the English experience from Becket to Bunyan (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 189–90; and Bush, M. L., ‘Up for the commonweal: the significance of tax grievances in the English rebellions of 1536’, English Historical Review, 106 (1991), pp. 299318.

31 Kerridge, Eric, Agrarian problems in the sixteenth century and after (Abingdon, 1969), p. 96.

32 Rollison, ‘Specter’; Rollison, ‘Conceits and capacities’. Rollison suggests such language was remembered from generation to generation.

33 Wood, 1549 rebellions, p. 146.

34 Withington, Phil, The politics of commonwealth: citizens and freemen in early modern England (Cambridge, 2005).

35 Withington, Politics, pp. 72–3, citing TNA E134/39 and 440 Elizabeth/Mich. 37.

36 ‘‘For This is True or Els I do Lye': Thomas Smith, William Bullein and the mid-Tudor dialogue', in Pincombe, Mike and Shrank, Cathy, eds., The Oxford handbook of Tudor literature, 1485–1603 (Oxford, 2009), pp. 455–71.

37 Mahlberg, Gaby, Henry Neville and English republican culture in the seventeenth century (Manchester, 2009); Rachel Weil, ‘Sometimes a sceptre is only a sceptre: pornography and politics in Restoration England’, in Lynn Hunt, ed., The invention of pornography and the origins of modernity, 1500–1800 (New York, NY, 1993); Mowry, Melissa, The bawdy politic in Stuart England, 1660–1714: political pornography and prostitution (Basingstoke, 2004).

38 Richards, Jennifer, Rhetoric and courtliness in early modern England (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 101–6.

39 ‘Common, v.’, Oxford English dictionary.

40 See Shrank, Cathy, ‘Trollers and dreamers: defining the citizen-subject in sixteenth-century cheap print’, Yearbook of English Studies, 38, (July 2008), pp. 102–17.

41 Knights, Mark, Representation and misrepresentation in later Stuart Britain: partisanship and political culture (Oxford, 2005).

42 Edmund Dudley, The tree of commonwealth, ed. D. M. Brodie (Cambridge, 1948), pp. 31–2.

43 See Smith, De republica anglorum (1583), sig. C1r: the tyrants of old ‘were not shepheardes as they outght to be, but rather robbers and deuouerers of the people’.

44 Mayer, ed., Starkey: a dialogue, p. 39.

45 William Shakespeare, The Tempest [1611], ed. Stephen Orgel (Oxford, 1987), 1.1.17–18.

46 Mayer, , ed., Starkey: a dialogue, p. 39; Thomas Smith, De republica anglorum, ed. Mary Dewar (Cambridge, 1982), p. 52.

47 Mayer, , ed., Starkey: a dialogue, pp. 51–5.

48 Ibid, p. 33.

49 Cheke's, JohnThe hurt of sedition howe greevous it is to a communewelth (London, 1549), sig. B4v.

50 Though the verse refers to a cedar, the foliage is unmistakably that of an oak tree, and certainly bears no similarity to that of the cedar: word and image do not tell identical stories.

51 Withington, Politics, p. 76.

52 Parker, Henry, Observations upon some of his majesties late answers (1642), p. 30. For a discussion see Withington, Politics, p. 77.

53 The term ‘free state’ sought to equate the form of government with a positive ideal of freedom but also consent (see, for example, Cotton, John, Catechisme (1644), p. 140, which was attacked by Baillie, Robert, A dissuasive from the errours of the time (1645), p. 151). For a vigorous royalist attack on ‘free state’ see also Bayly, Thomas, The royal charter granted unto kings by God himself (1649), especially ch. 14, a work which on its title page also invokes the tree metaphor discussed earlier, by citing Job 14.7 ‘There is hopes of a Tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again.’

54 From: ‘House of Commons journal volume 6: 19 April 1650', Journal of the House of Commons, vi:1648–1651 (1802), pp. 400–1. URL:, accessed 28 June 2010.

55 For the context see Quentin Skinner, ‘Conquest and consent: Thomas Hobbes and the Engagement Controversy’, in Aylmer, Gerald, ed., The interregnum: the quest for a settlement, 1646–1660 (London, 1972), pp. 7998; Wallace, J. M., ‘The Engagement Controversy 1649–1652: an annotated list of pamphlets’, Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 68 (1964), pp. 384405; Vallence, Edward, ‘Oaths, casuistry and equivocation: Anglican responses to the Engagement Controversy’, Historical Journal, 44 (2001), pp. 5977.

56 The Works of Robert Sanderson, v (Cambridge, MA., 1854), ‘The case of the engagement’, p. 28. Sanderson's work had remained in manuscript until its nineteenth-century publication.

57 Lilburne, John, The Engagement vindicated (London, 1650), pp. 23.

58 For the French term see Éric Gojosso, Le concept de république en France (XVie–XVIIIe siècle) (Aix-en-Provence, 1998). For Bodin's usage see Howell Lloyd, The state, France and the sixteenth century (London, 1983), pp. 156–62; Skinner, Quentin, ‘From the state of princes to the person of the state’, in Visions of politics, II (2002), pp. 400–1. Interestingly, in the wake of the French wars of religion, Turquet de Mayerne attempted to establish a mixture of monarchy and république. Mayerne's thought is explored in Greengrass, Mark, ‘The Calvinist and the Chancellor: the mental world of Louis Turquet de Mayerne’ in Francia. Forschungen zur westeuropäischen Geschichte 34/1 (2007), pp. 123.

59 The commonwealth tradition and its reworking is followed by Worden, Blair, ed., The voyce from the watch-Tower. Part, 5 1660–1662 (London, 1978), introduction; Worden, Blair, Roundhead reputations: the English civil wars and the passions of posterity (London, 2001); Champion, Justin, Republican learning: John Toland and the crisis of Christian culture, 1696–1722 (Manchester, 2003); Scott, Jonathan, Commonwealth principles: republican writing of the English Revolution (Cambridge, 2004); Robbins, Caroline, The eighteenth-century commonwealthman: studies in the transmission, development and circumstance of English liberal thought from the restoration of Charles II until the war with the thirteen colonies (Cambridge, MA, 1959); Fink, Zera, The classical republicans (Evanston, IL, 1945). See also Godwin, William, History of the Commonwealth of England (London, 1824).

60 Pincus, Steve, Protestantism and patriotism: ideologies and the making of English foreign policy, 1650–1668 (Cambridge, 1996). For the debate within the Dutch republic about commonwealth principles see Michel Reinders, ‘Printed pandemomium: the power of the public and the market for popular political publications in the early modern Dutch Republic’ (Ph.D. thesis, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, 2008).

61 Crackfart & Tony; or, knave and fool: in a dialogue over a dish of coffee, concerning matters of religion and government (1680), pp. 32, 34. As a result, ‘state’ was increasingly used to describe the polity. For example, The Whig-Intelligencer (1684), broadside, talks about the Whigs wanting to ‘reduce the State to a Commonwealth again’.

62 A satyr against common-wealths (1684).

63 Behn, Aphra, Sir Patient Fancy (1678); Behn, Aphra, The Roundheads (1682); Dryden, John, A prologue written by Mr Dryden (1682), single sheet.

64 The British Museum Satires 1127.

65 See also The committee (1680), the text of which is ascribed to Roger L'Estrange.

66 To the kings most sacred majesty: the most faithful and unfeigned thanks and resolves of … the city of Norwich (1681).

67 Oldmixon, John, History of addresses (London, 1711), ii, pp. 156–9, i, p. 206; London Gazette # 5129.

68 For the notion of the public see Knights, Representation and misrepresentation, passim. For the rise of the language of interest see Gunn, J. A. W., Politics and the public interest in the seventeenth century (London, 1969).

69 Quentin Skinner, ‘The principles and practice of opposition: the case of Bolingbroke versus Walpole', in Neil McKendrick, ed., Historical perspectives: studies in English thought and society in honour of J.H. Plumb (London, 1974), pp. 93–128.

70 Quentin Skinner, in Hobbes: the Amsterdam debate, ed. Hans Blom (Hildesheim, 2001), p. 26, identifies the importance of Hobbes: ‘Hobbes's is a theory of the state, and it is extremely hard to think of a work of political philosophy written in the English language before Leviathan which announces itself as a theory of the state.’ He then quotes the passage from the introduction to Leviathan which makes commonwealth and state synonymous translations of civitas. ‘Now, there is our term state, but it is not a term used in this sense in any earlier major work of political philosophy in the English language.’ At greater length, see Skinner, Quentin, ‘From the state of princes to the person of the state’, in his Visions of politics, ii : Renaissance virtues (Cambridge, 2002), ch. 14.

71 A true and sincere declaration of the purpose and ends of the plantation begun in Virginia (1610); Cotton, John, A discourse about civil government in a new plantation whose design is religion (1663); Fitzmaurice, Andrew, Humanism in America (Cambridge, 2003); Christopher, Tomlins, ‘The legal cartography of colonization, the legal polyphony of settlement: English intrusions in the American mainland in the seventeenth century,’ Law and Social Inquiry, 26 (2001), pp. 315–72.

72 Morgan, Edmund, American slavery: American freedom: the ordeal of colonial Virginia (New York, NY, 1975); Foster, Stephen, The long argument (Chapel Hill, NC, 1991); and Winship, Michael, ‘Godly republicanism and the origins of the Massachusetts polity,’ William and Mary Quarterly, 63 (2006), pp. 427–63; Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, Providence Island, 1630–1641: the other puritan colony (Cambridge, 1993).

73 The claims of the people essayed (1701), pp. 33–4.

74 Pincus, Steve, ‘Neither Machiavellian moment nor possessive individualism: commercial society and the defenders of the English commonwealth’, American Historical Review, 103 (1998), pp. 705–36.

75 Mandeville, Bernard de, Fable of the bees (1714), developing ideas put forward in The grumbling hive (1705).

76 Cartwright, John, The commonwealth in danger (London, 1795), pp. 97–8. The term ‘democracy’ would not, however, have been used in the seventeenth century to describe the popular element of mixed government.

77 Paine, Thomas, Rights of man, Part ii (London, 1792), p. 230.

78 Pigott, C., Political dictionary (London, 1795), p. 116.

79 Federalist, no. 9, 21 Nov. 1787.

80 Ibid., no. 14, 30 Nov. 1787.

81 See Slack, Paul, From reformation to improvement (Oxford, 1999), which includes a chapter on ‘Commonwealth’; Joanna Innes, ‘Reform in English public life: the fortunes of a word’, in Burns, Arthur and Innes, Joanna, eds., Rethinking the Age of Reform: Britain, 1780–1850 (Cambridge, 2003); Farr, James, ‘Locke, natural law and new world slavery’, Political Theory 36 (2008), pp. 495522; Brewer, Holly, ‘Slavery, sovereignty and “inheritable blood”: the struggle over Locke's Virginia Plan of 1698 in the wake of the Glorious Revolution’, American Historical Review (forthcoming).

* This article is the product of a group of researchers who met regularly, with the aid of a British Academy research grant, for discussions facilitated by a virtual research environment (VRE). Further details about the VRE are at The article was drafted by Glenn Burgess and Mark Knights, summarizing discussions involving Mike Braddick, Trevor Burnard, Justin Champion, Mark Greengrass, Steve Hindle, Simon Hodson, Ann Hughes, Howell Lloyd, Simon Middleton, Mark Philp, Charles Prior, Joad Raymond, Jennifer Richards, Cathy Shrank, John Walter, John Watts, and Phil Withington, many of whom also contributed to the draft. The group would like to thank a number of other speakers who contributed to discussions: Jackie Eales, Michael Hunter, Malcolm Jones, Anne McLaren, Mary Morrissey, and Michael Winship. The authors would also like to thank the anonymous readers for the journal and Clare Jackson, all of whom provided useful comments.




Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed