The Significance of the English Civil Wars in The Crying of Lot 49


William Frederick Yeames, And when did you last see your father?, 1878

by Albert Rolls

The brief allusion to the English civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century in Thomas Pynchon’s  The Crying of Lot 49 is not, on the surface, surprising, given that Emory Bortz—the source of the allusion and one of Oedipa’s main sources of information in her attempt to reconstruct the history of the Tristero—holds “a mirror-image theory, by which any period of instability for Thurn and Taxis [always the result of political instability in Europe] must have its reflection in Tristero’s shadow-state.”[i] The allusion is, nonetheless, odd in that it bears no straightforward significance to the passage in which it appears but rather illustrates the complexity of Pynchon’s use of history in the novel, despite his research for it not always being as rigorous as scholars have come to expect Pynchon’s research to be.[ii]

Oedipa and Bortz are discussing Diocletian Blobb’s encounter with the Tristero in Italy, and she asks, “But why spare an insufferable ass like Diocletian Blobb?” The response is cryptic, though it may not immediately seem so. “You can spot a mouth like that a mile off,” Bortz said “Even in the cold, even with your blood-lust up. If I wanted word to get to England, to sort of pave the way, I should think he’d be perfect. Trystero enjoyed counter-revolution in those days. Look at England, the king about to lose his head.” The king’s losing his head is, of course, a reference to Charles I’s execution in 1649, so the reader will be tempted to conclude that Bortz thinks the Tristero sees an opportunity to “set up shop in England” during the political instability of the 1640s. Blobb, after all, is told by the leader of the Tristero brigands, “Tell your king and Parliament what we have done,” which in the right context may suggest the kind of opposition between the Parliament and the king that took place during the civil wars.

Such a reading comes across as gracefully straightforward, but to promote it is not to favour elegant simplicity but indifferent laziness. For such a solution to prove correct, Blobb would need to be in Italy in the 1640s, the decade in which parliamentary forces opposed the Royalist forces; before that decade, after all, such a situation had never arisen in England, although there had been civil wars involving different claimants to the crown as well as times when the parliament and the monarch did not see eye to eye. Blobb’s tour of Italy, however, could not have taken place in the 1640s. Indeed, it must have taken place during the reign of James I—that is, in the Jacobean period—between 1603 and 1625, an internally peaceful time in England’s history in which no one anticipated the events of the last years of Charles I’s reign. How do we know who was king when Blobb was in Italy?  Oedipa has been led to Blobb’s encounter with the Tristero by way of her research into Richard Wharfinger, a Jacobean playwright who cribbed from An Account of the Singular Peregrinations of Dr. Diocletian Blobb among the Italians, the book in which Blobb wrote about his encounter with the Tristero, to develop a scene in the play The Courier’s Tragedy.

Andrew Carrick Gow, Cromwell at Dunbar, 1886

The question then is not, did the Tristero get, or consider getting, involved in the English civil wars of the 1640s?[iii] The question is, what was going on during the Jacobean period that Bortz can simultaneously associate with the civil wars and counterrevolution? “But wait,” to cite the Thomas Pynchon Simpsons’ character, “there’s more!” Later in the novel, discussing the printing of the line “Who’s once been set his tryst with Trystero”—which was spoken during the performance Oedipa attended at the Tank—in the undated Folio edition that appeared “around the middle of the 17th century,” Bortz conjectures, “there must have been some crisis inside Tristero grave enough to keep them from retaliating [for the unauthorized printing of ‘the dread name’ Trystero]. Perhaps the same that kept them from taking the life of Dr Blobb.” That Bortz references Blobb’s encounter with the Tristero in the context of a discussion of the publication of an edition of the play for which the Peregrinations served as a source raises another question: What extended “crisis” could place Tristero in a position of strength, one that would allow Bortz to think it was capable of expanding into England, in the period prior to Wharfinger’s writing The Courier’s Tragedy, and in a position of weakness, one that would leave it incapable of going after a printer or Wharfinger’s editor, after Wharfinger’s death? (The appearance of a folio edition was a posthumous event in the period unless one was Ben Jonson, whom contemporaries thought ridiculous when he saw a folio edition of his plays into print.)

The crisis that weakens the Tristero “around the middle of the 17th century” involves the last years of the Thirty Years’ War, when one among the Tristero, “his name is something gutsy like Konrad,” would have been, Bortz conjectures, “hip enough to foresee [. . .] the Peace of Westphalia, the breakup of the Empire, the coming descent into particularism.” The thing for us to do here is not read “Bortz’s costume dram[a]” as an accurate description of what happened but as a conjectural explanation that accounts for what the evidence shows the Tristero were doing or not doing as the case may be. The final years of the Thirty Years’ War seems to have been a period of inaction for the Tristero—which is what Bortz imagines the stalemate that follows the debate among what he labels Tristero’s militants, conservatives, and visionaries leads to—hence its not retaliating for the printing of that “dread name.” Associating this crisis with Blobb’s survival and thereby Tristero’s possible expansion into England suggests that the real crisis Bortz has in mind is not an internal one for a particular group but the European crisis that is the Thirty Years’ War, placing Blobb’s Italian tour sometime between 1618 and 1625, that is, either in 1621 or 1624, the only two years that Parliament was in session during those years. That context will allow us to understand what Bortz is referring to when he mentions “counterrevolution” and what the association between events in England during the Jacobean period and the execution of Charles I is.

The Tristero, we need to remember, is counterrevolutionary in its origin. Its founder, Hernando Joaquin de Tristero y Calavera, was a Catholic from Spain who claimed to be the legitimate Grand Master of Thurn and Taxis after Calvinists—“who felt the Estates-General, controlled by the privileged classes, no longer represented the skilled workers, had lost touch with the people”—took control of the Low Countries and appointed one of their own as Grand Master. For the Tristero, the counterrevolution is synonymous with the counterreformation, and the beginnings of the Thirty Years’ War seemed to favour it on a continent-wide scale. The conflict began when Archduke Ferdinand of Inner Austria, who soon became the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, moved to reimpose Catholicism on Protestant areas of Bohemia and later throughout the Holy Roman Empire, despite treaties having been signed that guaranteed the religious freedom of existing Protestant states. During the first approximately ten years of the conflict, the Catholics gained ground.[iv]

Charles Landseer, The Plundering of Basing House, c. 1836

The war did not reach England’s shores in those years, or afterward for that matter, did play a part in Jacobean politics, partially because of what, to simplify, could be described as James I’s divided allegiances, which raised the possibility of counterrevolution coming to England.  That possibility was tied to the “Spanish Match,” as the prospective marriage between the heir apparent, prince Charles, and the Infanta Maria Anna of Spain was called. Negotiations for the match began in 1614, and their success could have served the cause of Catholicism in England, which was what the English feared and the Spanish hoped. James I’s response to the beginning of the Thirty Years War furthered the notion that such was the case, for James, it became apparent, was willing to accommodate England’s foreign policy to the interests of the Spanish, who supported Ferdinand in his bid to impose Catholicism on Protestant states of the Holy Roman Empire. James, for example, failed to aid his son-in-law, Frederick V, Elector of the Palatinate, in his campaign against Ferdinand. Frederick was defeated in 1620, and imperial forces, who were supported by Spanish troops, invaded the Palatinate and later forced Frederick into exile.

In response to the precarity of Frederick and his daughter’s position, James summoned Parliament at the end of 1620 to secure its financial support to raise an army, as British monarchs were unable to raise taxes on their own, but he hoped to avoid the necessity of using force, much to the frustration of those in Parliament: one member went so far as to observe “that the ‘king of Spain aimeth at war, our King at peace.’”[v] James’s objective was simply to demonstrate to the Catholic powers on the continent, particularly Spain, that he had the means to defend the Palatinate. He thought that the threat of English intervention could be used to negotiate a peace that would allow Frederick to keep possession of his territory. Parliament, which met early in 1621, after a seven-year hiatus, was supportive of English intervention, but it was also concerned with the Spanish Match and how Charles’s marriage to the Spanish princess could lead to Catholics’ regaining a legitimate footing in England. Parliament did not address that issue in its opening session; it mostly sought to placate James so that he would not dissolve the body in frustration, as he had done in 1614.

Some of the actions the Parliament took, however, illustrated its desire to assert its traditional power and counter James’s inclination to arrogate sole political authority to the monarch. It impeached Sir Giles Mompesson for abusing monopolies and Sir Francis Bacon for bribery, reviving the medieval practice of independently punishing royal officers in Parliament. These impeachments tie the 1621 Parliament to events that led to Charles I’s meeting his fate:  historians have traditionally argued that they laid the groundwork for the civil wars, for the long dormant parliamentary manoeuvre would be used to exhibit the Parliament’s power against the Earl of Strafford in 1640 and against Archbishop Laud in 1643.[vi] The second parliamentary session at the end of the 1621, which convened after James explicitly recalled Parliament from its recess to raise money while the situation in the Palatinate deteriorated further, proved more contentious. The Commons turned to the Spanish Match and demanded that Charles be married to a Protestant princess in an attempt to prevent the possibility of the counterreformation finding a seat of support at the centre of English power. James, regarding the demand as an affront to his royal prerogative, dissolved Parliament, putting an end to the proceedings.

The reference to counter-revolution and the king’s losing his head in Lot 49, along with the mentioning of Blobb’s survival during the discussion of the publication of a folio edition of Wharfinger’s plays, does more work than allow us to place Blobb in Italy in 1621.[vii] It suggests a history of the Tristero in the first half of the seventeenth century, a history that can be pieced together by gathering clues from the novel about the Tristero’s character in the period and determining how such an organization would insert itself into the events of the age. Such references—and there are similarly allusive ones throughout the novel—ask readers to further elaborate on the story of the Tristero that Oedipa pieces together and build an historical narrative themselves. That we might be obliged to engage the novel in that way gives significance to an observation Richard Poirier made in his review of Lot 49: “Pynchon’s second novel,” he began, “reads like an episode withheld from his first, the much-acclaimed V.[viii] The statement has always struck me as off; it is, after all, hard to imagine how Oedipa’s story would fit into any of V.’s narrative strands.  If we take the statement metaphorically, however, it makes more sense. Lot 49 is like an episode from a V.-like novel that readers/researchers are given the material to build themselves: it is an embryonic encyclopaedic novel.

About the Author

Albert Rolls is an adjunct. His Thomas Pynchon: The Demon in the Text was published in 2019, and he is presently working on a study of the representation of revolution, or resistance, in Pynchon’s early novels.


[i] Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49. New York Penguin Press, 2012 (Kindle).

[ii] See Albert Rolls, “A Source for Pynchon’s Account of the Revolt in the Low Countries.” Berfrois (March 25, 2020,, for an illustration of the superficiality of some of Pynchon’s research for the novel.

[iii] Tristero, in fact, would have likely not involved itself in the English civil wars. Given that the Tristero was originally an element of the Spanish side of the conflict in the Low Countries in the 1570s and 80s, it would be unlikely to feel inclined to defend the position of the English aristocracy, who sided with William of Orange in the Low Countries, despite Elizabeth I’s not officially doing so. Indeed, Philip Sydney, as English majors the world over know, lost his life fighting in the Low Countries. To aid the Parliamentarians, however, wound be to encourage the particularism that will undermine the position the Tristero seek to assume.

[iv] My discussion of the Thirty Years’ War primarily draws on S. H. Steinberg’s The ‘Thirty Years War’ and the Conflict for European Hegemony 1600–1660. (London: Edward Arnold, 1966).

[v] Quoted in Glyn Redworth’s The Prince and the Infanta: The Cultural Politics of the Spanish Match (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 31

[vi] On the relationship between the 1621 Parliament and the outbreak of Civil War in 1642, I am following Glyn Redworth’s The Prince and the Infanta and Robert Zaller’s “Impeachment” in the Historical Dictionary of Stuart England, 1603–1689 edited by Ronald H. Fritze and William B. Robison (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996: 241–43).  Redworth, however, notes that “revisionists” have sought to debunk the idea that there is a connection between that Parliament and events in the 1640s. Calling Conrad Russell the most influential among such revisionists, Redworth cites Russell’s “The Foreign Policy Debate in the House of Commons in 1621” (Historical Journal 20 [1977], 289–309) (32), which, of course, was written long after Lot 49. My assumption is that Pynchon’s research or what Pynchon picked up in a class, if his understanding of the significance of what happened in 1621 was based on course work at Cornell, would have presented the traditional view as part of the historical record and that he would have expected readers who caught the allusion in the 1960s to share that view. That revisionists can argue that the seeds of the civil war were not planted until the 1630s demonstrates, by the way, that historians see no evidence that anyone in the 1620s foresaw the coming conflict between Royalists and Parliamentarians in the 1640s.

[vii] The next and last Parliament of James’s reign in 1624, known as the “Happy Parliament,” lacked the conflict of the 1621 Parliament. The possibility of the counterreformation gaining ground in England was less likely: negotiations for the Spanish Match had broken down over Spain’s religious demands and a war with Spain over the Palatinate seemed likely. See Simon Adams and Geoffrey Parker’s “Europe and the Palatine War” in The Thirty Years War 2nd ed. Ed. By Geoffrey Parker (New York: Routledge, 1997, 55-63).

[viii] Richard Poirier, “Embattled Underground,” The New York Times (May 1, 1966),

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