Book review – The Rainborowes

Claire Jowitt on a biography of one 17th-century family, and its role in religion and war in England and the US

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Reviewed by: Claire Jowitt
Author: Adrian Tinniswood
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Price (RRP): £25

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“They changed the world,” reads the flyleaf of Adrian Tinniswood’s new biography of the lives of the Rainborowes, a family that rose to prominence in the 17th century, perhaps the most turbulent period of English history. At the beginning of the century they were a solid and unexceptional, but rising, English merchant-mariner family. But this quickly changed. The family included some of the most extraordinary maritime and military leaders of the century, as well as some unusually adventurous and determined women, who crossed and recrossed the Atlantic in search of better lives.

The standout characters are William Rainsborowe senior, who in 1637 rescued the English navy from a generation of humiliating defeats at sea by leading a headline-grabbing raid on the pirate base of Sallee in Morocco to rescue Christian captives, and became a trusted naval advisor to Charles I. His son, Colonel Thomas Rainsborowe, was an army commander and rival to Oliver Cromwell who famously spoke at the Putney debates in 1647 in favour of universal male suffrage. William Rainsborowe’s other children included a younger son, William junior, another important army and navy leader who became a member of that most notorious sect of the civil war period, the radical ‘ranters’. He also had two daughters, Margery and Judith, who married into a prominent New England family and were at the heart of settlers’ attempts to build an earthly paradise in a New Canaan. As much as it is a study of individuals, The Rainborowes is also the history of the ways that connections, friendships and alliances, and patterns of belief, waxed and waned among 17th-century merchant-adventurer classes.

What is so impressive about Tinniswood’s book is his ability to weave together micro and macro-histories. It is both the meticulously documented story of the significance and connections of an individual family, and a persuasive account of the key issues that shaped both English and New English political and religious landscapes and English attitudes to the Barbary States. Indeed, The Rainborowes criss-crosses the Atlantic as frequently as the ships of the Great Migration.

Tinniswood writes in a fluent, engaging style, and has an impressive ability to recount a telling detail that simultaneously provides a larger historical perspective. The Rainborowes will appeal to a broad range of readers, both specialist and popular, who will discover, in this charismatic, unruly, brave and adventurous clan, a compelling microcosm of the ways in which the world was turned upside down.

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Claire Jowitt, University of Southampton