Sir William Perry painted by Isaac Fuller, c. 1650

Pulsating panorama of a complex decade

A new history of the Interregnum rescues this forgotten period of history from oblivion


This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Something very exciting is happening in the world of Civil War and Cromwellian studies. At long last the mid-seventeenth century is getting a measure of the public attention it deserves. Recently, readers have enjoyed Paul Lay’s Providence Lost (2020) and Ronald Hutton’s The Making of Oliver Cromwell (2021) while blockbuster novelists including Robert Harris and Philippa Gregory are moving into this fertile period. 

Historians have long appreciated the unique fascination of this “Age of Conscience”, where centuries-old norms were overturned overnight, ordinary people were forced to make extraordinary choices each day, and the whole thing was captured by the first newspapers. However, the complicated Civil Wars of the 1640s, and the 11 years of constitutional experiments that followed, have struggled to capture the attention of a wider public living happily on a diet of Hitler and the Tudors and content with Britain’s neat national story of kings and queens stretching along the schoolchild’s wooden ruler.

This structure achieves a broad perspective and rare realism

The 1650s do not fit easily into this story. They were an “Interregnum”, squeezed between the reigns of the two Charles’s. A lesson to be skipped over quickly. An anomaly, an aberration, a decidedly un-English revolution. If they are ever attempted, especially in film or fiction, it is at an angle, through a lens darkly: their bright, fierce modernity buried in tales of superstition, witchcraft and repression, thrusting this uncomfortable decade further back into the mists of time where it will not trouble us (witness, for example, the BBC’s new sitcom The Witchfinder). 

The Restless Republic, Anna Keay (William Collins, £25)

This evasion is not for the historian Anna Keay. Faced with these collective shortcomings (“This book was born of ignorance,” she explains in opening), she explores this most dynamic of decades, looking it squarely in the face. With her, we roam around the period, the broad chronological narrative softened through a selection of nine interwoven biographies ranging from the irrepressible newspaperman Marchamont Nedham, to the indomitable royalist Countess of Derby, from the brilliant scientist William Petty to the dreaming Digger Gerrard Winstanley.

This structure achieves a broad perspective and rare realism, giving the reader the sense of dipping and diving through the restless waves of the republic and taking them to all corners of the new Britain forged in the fire of three Civil Wars. As expected, we travel from the trial and execution of Charles I to the Restoration of his son, but Keay’s achievement is to make the shape-shifting years of the kingless Commonwealth and Protectorate that lie between more thrilling than either royal bookend, demonstrating how far from inevitable the return of the Stuarts was. There is no “high road to Restoration” here, but rather a snaking maze of paths striking off in new directions and looping back: an uncharted landscape for Keay’s characters to navigate where every choice counted.

The result is a panoramic and pulsating drama every bit as restless as the republic it captures so well. Indeed the “Restless” adjective of the title perfectly conjures the progressive spirit of Britain without a crown: unstable and dangerous, yes, but as a result, experimental and unafraid. As Keay puts it: “The 1650s was a time of extraordinarily ambitious political, social, economic and intellectual innovation, and it was not a foregone conclusion that the British republic would fail.” 

This portrait will be, for many, a revelation. Far from the dour, militaristic regimes of popular imagination, life under the Commonwealth and Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate emerges as innovative and exciting: the effect of the hitherto unimaginable act of abolishing the monarchy and House of Lords after years of transformative conflict being to unleash an energetic spirit of ambitious experimentation and industry.

We feel this bold energy in the meetings of the Oxford Experimental Philosophy Club (which would become the Royal Society in 1660) and its young member William Petty managing to survey the whole of Ireland in record time despite having no cartographical experience; in failed cloth trader Gerrard Winstanley’s determination to dig the new Jerusalem that had come to him on an autumn ramble; in Marchamont Nedham escaping Newgate prison and picking his way through several dangerous changes of side, pen in hand, always managing to land cat-like on his feet through sheer commercial nous and audacity.

The government encouraged this spirit, embracing the talent available to it regardless of background. Nedham created his own job as its chief publicist, and bustled around the offices and pubs of Whitehall with a gang of intellectual civil servants that included the poets John Milton and Andrew Marvell.

Oliver Cromwell is shown in the full complexity which fascinated contemporaries and historians alike

These people leap fully human from the page, not only through Keay’s way with words but their own. As we picture Samuel Pepys (another civil servant working under Cromwell) in modern three dimensions thanks to his diaries, so his contemporaries deserve the same recognition. Here we witness all humanity: strong commitment and fluid allegiance, astonishing bravery and anguished self-doubt, brutal violence and gentle love. 

The wars produced deeply felt personal grievances, as when Lady Derby, restored to her ancestral home on the Isle of Man, pursued the minor official who had betrayed her years earlier to his execution. But what is more striking is the strong current of forgiveness and future-proofing civility from all sides: the Parliamentarians were “remarkably unvindictive” in government, as was Charles II on his return. 

Oliver Cromwell is shown in the full complexity which fascinated contemporaries and historians alike: at once the brutal conqueror of a rebellious Ireland, and the loving husband and father crying over his children in raw grief or joyful pride. With such tragically high infant mortality, most parents of the time had to forge a love and faith that could overcome death, although for Cromwell, the loss of a fourth child — his beloved daughter Betty — proved too much to survive: he died less than a month later.

The energy and humanity of the people in Keay’s restless republic emerge from the realisation that comes from immersing oneself in the day to day existence of people from the past: that individual lives continue beneath the headline religious and political changes so beloved of historians. 

As Keay points out, “very few people tuck very neatly into one historical ‘age’ or another” — one only has to trace the successful early careers of Restoration figures such as Pepys and Christopher Wren back into the 1650s to appreciate this. What may be a casual observation about other periods of history is of tremendous importance in understanding the Interregnum, which was consigned to official oblivion the moment the restored Charles II post-dated the start of his reign to his father’s death. It languishes in oblivion no longer.

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