Sir Edward Dering: The Squire Who Changed Sides

William M. Lamont profiles the Kentish Squire who introduced the “Root and Branch” Bill in 1641, only to later change his mind and fight for King Charles and the Established Church.

Like many men who were pathologically timid, Sir Edward Dering cared far too much about being consistent. He could not fall back, as so many of his colleagues were to do during the Civil War, on the discovery of a “new light” to justify a change of position. When he came at the beginning of 1642 to write an apology for his actions in the preceding year he had, therefore, precious little room for manoeuvre.

How was he to reconcile his actions in May and June of 1641? In May the darling of the radicals had introduced the first reading of the Root and Branch Bill to destroy episcopacy; a month later he had introduced a compromise proposal for a “reduced episcopacy”.

Dering took the only course open to him: he claimed that it was not he, but his opponents, who had changed. Of them he said, with an ingenuous air that almost disarms the critic:

“Whilst they are floating, I stand steady, wondering to what coast they are bound.”

What devastating lack of insight into his own nature he betrays by these words! The rock-like Dering was later to fight for the Royalists, be imprisoned, escape and take up arms for the King, resign his commission in 1643, and before his death in 1644 accept the pardon of Parliament. These developments lay mercifully in the future when he came to write his apology. Nevertheless, how could he with a straight face argue that his attitude towards Bishops was consistent in 1641?

Dering claimed that he had supported “root and branch” initially only because the motive of its advocates was obscure to him: when their motive became apparent, he dissociated himself from them. But he claimed more: he claimed that their motive was obscure to themselves at first. At the end of 1640 and the beginning of 1641 they, like himself, saw no further than the destruction of Laud and the policies associated with him.

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