Of all the events in the history of British Isles from the Conquest to the present day perhaps none is quite so important to understand as the Reformation and, with that, to understand one of its main and more immediate offspring and consequences, the English civil wars. Their legacy is everywhere, as was outlined in one of the best history books of the last 20 years, Blair Worden’s Roundhead Reputations. Some of the fundamental divisions in our society, not necessarily between Labour and Conservatives, but of attitude and broader questions of ideology, can be traced back to them.
Our forebears, even 250 years after the events, had a better understanding of these things than we do. When, in the late 1890s, it was decided to put up a statue to Oliver Cromwell outside parliament, there were such fierce objections to the state paying for it that Lord Rosebery — who as prime minister had been one of the progenitors of the idea, but who was by this stage no longer in office — paid for it out of his own considerably well-lined pockets. It was strangely appropriate that he did, because the Primrose family coffers had been boosted by his marriage to a Rothschild; and it was one of the Lord Protector’s more enlightened policies, in 1656, to re-admit the Jews to England, whence they had been expelled more than 300 years earlier.
The concerns about Cromwell rumbled on well into the twentieth century. When Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, suggested to King George V that one of the new Dreadnoughts be named after the Lord Protector, the King roundly objected, reminding Churchill that there had been an unhappy sequence of events involving Cromwell and his distant predecessor, Charles Stuart.
And later in the century, as one phase of the conflict between England and Ireland followed another, the sins of Cromwell and his army in rooting out the supporters (both Catholic and Protestant) of the Stuarts in Ireland were used regularly as a stick with which to beat the English, albeit well over 300 years later, and as further proof that the Irish have perhaps the longest memories in the world.
Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate, by Paul Lay, concentrates on the period of less than five years between Cromwell assuming control of England as Lord Protector in 1653 and his death — supposedly from gout and “various distempers” (which may have included Fenland malaria, contracted long before in Cromwell’s earlier life as a Huntingdonshire farmer) — on 3 September 1658, the anniversary of his famous victories at Dunbar and Worcester. Cromwell was 59 — far from a bad age for those days — and as Lay also points out, his health had been broken by the hard physical campaigning of the civil wars, and by the illnesses, including dysentery, that he had contracted during them.
This frailty of health, which Lay is right to emphasise, does not usually come through in the his- tories of the Lord Protector. His partisans like to depict him as a stout, sturdy, indefatigable figure whose natural leadership abilities caused his emergence from among numerous Roundhead generals as the saviour of the nation after the incapability of the Rump parliament; to his opponents the cult of physical power is just as important, for it allows them to emphasise is supposed tyranny and cruelty. What Lay gives us is a warts-and-all picture of a man with the weaknesses of any other, and who struggled heroically to stabilise, and to attempt to unite, a country shattered by a decade of civil wars.
More than that, of course, Cromwell had to unite a country that had gone against an ancient precept, that of hereditary monarchical rule. He was one of the more prominent men who signed Charles Stuart’s death warrant, but it was far from clear at the time, in the winter of 1648-49, that Cromwell would be the man who ended up as the next English head of state. The new form of rule was meant to be parliamentary; but when Cromwell and others close to him in the Commonwealth forces discerned just what a shambles this was, a new form of administration had to be found: and that was the Protectorate.
Cromwell had, like Tory prime ministers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, “emerged” as the natural leader of the country for reasons that Lay sets out very early in his account of his rule: he was “an amateur soldier from the lesser gentry, who, having lived in obscurity for the first two- thirds of his life, was late to a calling born of necessity.” Lay goes on: “He had conquered all before him in a series of victories that were spearheaded by his bold command of cavalry and an abiding faith in divine providence.” According to the man who became Lord Protector, all his success was down to “the Lord’s goodness”.
Cromwell had the moral authority to tell the Rump it could not continue. at authority, though perhaps it was not realised by his contemporaries at the time, consisted as much in his relative moderation as in martial achievements and his leadership qualities. Cromwell was culturally a puritan but not a fanatic. When he came to power he had to manage a coalition of supporters from what our own times would call the left and the right of the political spectrum, who were united only by their abomination of a King who chose to try to rule without parliament, and whose conception of divine right was anachronistic even then.
In his delegation as Lord Protector he was not always wise; the rule of the Major-Generals in the middle of the Protectorate allowed some of the most serious fanatics in the Kingdom to exercise power; sometimes Cromwell would call time on their activities, but on other occasions their fanaticism was allowed to run its full course. Lay’s account of the trial and punishment of the self-advertising Quaker James Nayler — who called himself the “Prince of Peace” and of whom Lay says “humility was not prominent in his make-up” — reminds us of the savagery of the period, and how Cromwell’s belief in freedom of conscience was not shared by many who acted in his name, nor enforced by him.
When, in the summer of 1653, Cromwell dismissed the Rump, telling them (in one of his nest jokes) that “ye have no more religion than my horse” and, anticipating modern times, that they were “sordid prostitutes”, he considered Providence had given him that power; Lay says he might just as easily have said “convenience”. Certainly England had to be governed, and in the vacuum that exist- ed after the end of the monarchy and, now, after the end of the Rump, a Protector was perhaps the easiest way to do it.
Bizarrely, at a time when restoring order and stability at home ought to have been the prime concern for England’s new rulers, the regime decided to assert itself by trying to plant the flag in the Caribbean, and at the expense of the traditional, Catholic, Spanish enemy. “The Western Design”, as it was called, ended up acquiring Jamaica by accident, but was otherwise a disaster: Providence was not enough when it came to inadequate supplies of food and water, and dealing with a foreign power with more experience of building a tropical empire.
But in the last couple of years of Cromwell’s life the obsession, naturally, became what would replace him. Sensibly, he turned down the Crown; but his health was so weak that it was clear the succession question could not be deferred. His son Richard — whom Carlyle once described as a “noodle” — was designated his successor. But the Lord Protector’s death was the sign for the English governing elite to start to consider the logic of the Stuart restoration; and just over 19 months after Cromwell died, Charles II was on his father’s throne. The experiment in non-monarchical rule was over.
Great questions remain, which seem beyond the scope of Lay’s book to answer. By the standards of the time, was the regicide that was essential to the conception of the Protectorate justified? Many thought not; but Charles Stuart’s behaviour throughout his reign, and his determination even when worsted in the First Civil War to turn the tables on his opponents made it hard to keep him alive. As it was, after his death there was a non-stop succession of conspiracies to bring the Protector down and put Charles II back in power.
Was Cromwell a good leader? He had his faults, and Lay denominates them; but the mess in which England found itself was of Charles I’s making, and whoever had to clear it up had an unenviable job. Cromwell, thanks to his natural authority, and whatever the shortcomings in his natural ability, was undoubtedly the right choice at the time.
And, as would be seen within 30 years of the Stuarts returning to the throne, they were just in- capable of behaving themselves. Perhaps the finest legacy of the regicides and the Protectorate was that the Glorious Revolution proceeded without a King being decapitated (even though James II and VII probably asked for it far more than his errant father had), and — the minor irritations of 1715 and 1745 notwithstanding — at last settled the question of the English Reformation that had started in 1534.
The growth of British power and prosperity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was in great measure built on those secure foundations. Cromwell’s part in leading the great change of culture was absolutely fundamental to that.
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