Two hundred years before Hardy disguised it as Casterbridge, Dorchester was a typical English county town, of middling size and unremarkable achievements. But on 6 August 1613 much of it was destroyed in a great conflagration, which its inhabitants regarded as a 'fire from heaven', the catalyst for the events described in this book. Over the next twenty years, a time of increasing political and religious turmoil all over Europe, Dorchester became the most religiously radical town in the kingdom. The tolerant, paternalist Elizabethan town oligarchy was quickly replaced by a group of men who had a vision of a godly community in which power was to be exercised according to religious commitment rather than wealth or rank. One of this book's most remarkable achievements is the re-creation, with an intimacy unique for an English community so distant from our own, of the lives of those who do not make it into history books.
We glimpse the ordinary men and women of the town drinking and swearing, fornicating and repenting, triumphing over their neighbours or languishing in prison, striving to live up to the new ideals of their community or rejecting them with bitter anger and mocking laughter. In it subtle exploration of human motives and aspirations, in its brilliant and detailed reconstruction, this book shows how much of the past we can recover when in the hands of a master historian.
David Underdown is Professor of History at Yale University. He was born at Wells, Somerset, and educated at Wells Blue Coat School and Exeter College, Oxford. He is the author of Revel, Riot and Rebellion (1985) and other books and articles on seventeenth-century English history.