What did you Puritans ever do for us, Oliver?

Well, there's sexual liberation, personal hygiene, press freedom... On the eve of a new drama about Cromwell and the English Revolution, its writer Peter Flannery tells Lucy Powell we've got the Roundheads all wrong

What did the Puritans ever do for us? They banned Christmas, closed the theatres, and made "tippling" illegal. So, if I ask you to picture a Puritan, the image, inevitably, is not appealing. Perhaps it's Malvolio, the miserable, hypocritical steward of Olivia's house in Twelfth Night, and the butt of much of the play's comedy. Or an evil Vincent Price in the 1968 film Witchfinder General. Or even Edmund's aunt in Blackadder, the hessian cloth-wearing firebrand whom he makes the mistake of offering a chair. "Chairs," she scolds, "are the invention of Beelzebub! At home, we sit on spikes." She then eats her dinner (a raw turnip) with forks impaled in her thighs.

Strictly speaking, a Puritan was a Protestant who wanted to purify Christianity of perceived misinterpretations of the Bible, in particular those practised by Roman Catholics. But, as a new four-part series on Channel 4 is set to illustrate, the Puritans of revolutionary 17th-century England (see sidebar overleaf) were not entirely the black-clad killjoys history remembers. The Devil's Whore, or A True Account of The Life and Times of Angelica Fanshawe tells the fictional tale of a young aristocrat from the doomed court of Charles I, whose fortunes are rewritten by the revolution that shook England in the 1640s and 1650s.

That the drama intends to confound preconceptions about the Puritans is apparent from the cast list. The Wire's Dominic West plays Oliver Cromwell, investing the famously warty general, and later Lord Protector, with a tempered, clear-sighted cunning and a winning Norfolk accent. John Simm plays Edward Sexby, the Puritan officer who eventually tried to assassinate Cromwell, while Michael Fassbender (currently playing IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's Hunger) is another tempestuous Parliamentarian soldier who clashed with his leader. And as Angelica, Andrea Riseborough's tumultuous ride through the revolution sees her tumble from the protection of her title to the life of an outlaw, and a series of entanglements with some of history's most recalcitrant radicals.

Filmed entirely on location in South Africa, The Devil's Whore cost £7m, and was 14 years in the making, with a script co-created by Martine Brant and the writer Peter Flannery, of Our Friends in the North fame. Here, Flannery explains why the Puritan revolution merits such a vastly ambitious overhaul, the legacy it left us, and why those plain-clothed, no-nonsense men are sexier than you might think...

Female sexuality

Burgeoning female sexuality underscores every episode of The Devil's Whore, exploding perhaps the most tenacious puritanical myth. "They were very far from prudish," Flannery says. "The Puritans write about the female orgasm all over the place. They believed that sex was meant to be enjoyed, and they believed the female orgasm aided pregnancy. They were all in favour."

Radicalism

Though they did eventually execute King Charles I, the Roundheads did not set out to abolish the monarchy, but to devolve more power to Parliament. "The Puritans paved the way for all the revolutions that followed," says Flannery. "The French, the American, the Russian – they're all the same ideas. They were implacably opposed to Catholicism, and regarded Charles, rightly or wrongly, as a crypto-Catholic. All the other democratising ideas were secondary to this fear that a king could have the power to reintroduce Catholicism into England. If you'd asked them a year, perhaps even a week before the trial whether they would execute Charles [in 1649], they'd have thought it extremely unlikely.

"But I've no idea why we're not more proud of these men. They raised a legacy of ideas that we're still battling out today: representation; distribution of wealth; equality. One of the key stories of The Devil's Whore is that, before he was assassinated, Thomas Rainsborough was on his way to organising a coup within Cromwell's army. Had he succeeded, the Levellers would have become the de-facto government and we'd have had a kind of early Soviet system." The Levellers, before they were a folk-rock band, were a group of militant proto-socialists intent on "levelling the land" of class and moneyed inequality.

"All these crazy ideas eventually came to pass: proposals to decimalise the currency, universal literacy, banning Latin from the law courts. The constitutional monarchy arrived in 1688, but would not have been possible without the revolution. What you see in our story, though, is how incredibly benign Cromwell's Protectorate turned out to be. He was a very reluctant radical. As Angelica says when they offer him the crown, 'Was so much blood spilt for so little?'"

Women's liberation

The Puritanical conviction that beauty was God-given, not man-made, meant women could also loosen the punishing pinch of fashionable, tight-wasted bodices, ditch the cumbersome hoops and bustles in their skirts, and forgo the established practice of dropping arsenic into their eyes, to make them wide and wet, and dousing their faces with acid, to keep them white and wrinkle-free. ' "Nobody advocated women's suffrage," says Flannery. "They'd have thought that totally crazy. But the period did see a radical shift in the idea of what a woman's place was, and that is at the heart of our story, with Angelica's journey of self-discovery. This was a time when women were allowed to preach, to write pamphlets, even to take up arms."

Fashion

"How the Cavaliers persuaded history they were all dashing and handsome while the Roundheads had pudding-basin haircuts and were fat, I don't know. In every portrait of Cromwell, he may have Rice Krispies all over his face [when Cromwell commissioned his first state portrait, he demanded the likeness be 'warts and all'], but he's also got long hair. I agree with Dominic West: their get-up is quite sexy. And my God, they're a bunch of handsome devils on screen."

Press freedom

In 1641, Parliament abolished the royal censor, until Charles II reinstated it in 1660. "A host of radical pamphlets and chapbooks arrived in the interim. People got used to expressing themselves; so many ideas were disseminated, and though many were squashed [with the Restoration], these ideas returned: in Chartism, or votes for women. [Leveller figurehead] John Lilburne's pamphlets are amazing. But some of the others' ideas are totally out there, blasphemous, free-love stuff." The Ranters, an infamous sect who thought sin a concept cooked up by priests, and who practised polyamory and communal living, make a riotous appearance in The Devil's Whore. "They sound like [the radical American activist] Abbie Hoffman in 1965. The Ranter Abeizer Coppe ends one of his tracts: 'And I love you all.'"

Personal hygiene

Extreme Protestants came up with the notion that washing might not be a bad idea. Unlike most 17th-century folk, Puritans would have a scrub down once a week to wash away their metaphoric sins along with the dung. "Rather than dusting themselves with perfumed powder every so often," adds Flannery.

Religious tolerance

"Many of them were libertarians. Cromwell says, 'Walk peaceably with God and you can live in this land.'" In 1655 Jews were allowed legally to return to England for the first time since their expulsion in 1290, and Christian sects proliferated. But for Catholics, and particularly the Irish, Cromwell's rule was one of wholesale oppression. Between 1649 and 1651, he led a military campaign in Ireland that ravaged the population, re-conquered the country from Catholic Confederates, and quashed armed resistance to English rule. "For Crom-well, Catholics owed their allegiance to Rome, not their country. It was a superstition rather than a religion as far as he was concerned."

First names

Puritans chose children's names that conveyed meanings reflective of their most cherished beliefs. Temperance and Sobriety, for instance, were favourite girls' names. One Norfolk preacher called his daughter Silence. Prudence was popular until the 19th century, and Felicity and Constance still survive. Angelica, the name Flannery ascribes to the heroine of his drama, would instantly have invoked a Latinate, Catholic heritage, and proved as dangerous to an interregnum citizen as Oliver would have for a Restoration courtier.

'The Devil's Whore' is on Channel 4 at 9pm for four weeks from Wednesday

The English Revolution: A very brief history

The English Civil Wars pitted supporters of King Charles I, assumed to be a Catholic, against those who supported the increasingly Puritan-led Parliament, which Charles had peremptorily dissolved for an unprecedented 11 years.

Between 1642 and 1651, the Cavaliers (the force backing the king) and Roundheads (those supporting Parliament) fought a series of battles, including, famously, the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, which the king's men won, and Naseby, in 1645, which was a decisive victory for the Roundheads.

Oliver Cromwell did nothing of any note for the first 40 years of his life, farming in the Fens. He then became a devout Puritan, Parliamentarian, and successful general of the New Model Army, which he turned into one of the most formidable fighting forces the world had seen. It has been estimated that proportionally more British men, women and children died in the Civil War than in either the First or Second World Wars.

Charles I was arrested, tried and executed for crimes against his people in 1649. His son, Charles II, fled to France disguised as a peasant, having famously hidden in an oak tree after the final rout of the wars, the Battle of Worcester, in 1651.

After the execution of the king, Cromwell had a decisive influence over the formation of the Commonwealth of England. In 1653 he accepted the title of Lord Protector, and ruled England, Scotland and Ireland as "King in all but name" until his death (from malaria) in 1658. According to Peter Flannery, "Had Cromwell lived we'd have had a British Empire long before we did. He'd have invaded the Netherlands, and possibly France and Spain as well."

Cromwell's son Richard inherited the title of Lord Protector, but failed to garner respect from any quarter and, after 18 months in which he was familiarly known as "Queen Dick", resigned.

In 1660, Charles II was invited by Parliament to take up the English crown. Charles's reign ushered in a period of licentiousness and general Puritan-bashing, both actually and artistically in the so-called Restoration Comedies. The image of mealy-mouthed, hypocritical Puritans that the pro-monarchical, Restoration writers promoted is the one that we have inherited today. LP

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