‘Come, come, I will put an end to your prating.’ Then, walking up and down the House of Commons like a madman, and kicking the ground with his feet, he cries out, ‘You are no Parliament, I say you are no Parliament, I will put an end to your sitting. Call them in, call them in.’ The Serjeant opens the doors and two files of musketeers tramp into the House. While they are taking up their positions, the Lord General is still stumping up and down, abusing MPs who catch his eye. ‘You, sir, are a drunkard, and some of you are whoremasters’ (he’s looking at Henry Marten and Sir Peter Wentworth). Then he points to the Speaker up in his chair: ‘Fetch him down.’ When the Speaker doesn’t budge, he shouts, ‘Put him out,’ and a couple of members, rather unwillingly, drag him down, and he is marched out without the mace through a line of two hundred soldiers. Then Cromwell says, ‘Take away that bauble’ – or is it, ‘What shall we do with this bauble?’ At all events, the soldiers carry off the mace and dump it in Cromwell’s quarters in the Cockpit, where he gives one of those fake-rueful debriefings great men give after something hasn’t gone entirely to plan: ‘When I went there, I did not think to have done this. But perceiving the spirit of God so strong upon me, I would not consult flesh and blood.’
The Dissolution of the Rump Parliament – the purged remnant of the Long Parliament that sat from November 1640 to 1648 – on 20 April 1653 effectively ended the republican Commonwealth established after Charles I’s execution in 1649. It remains one of the most memorable and terrifying scenes in English history. Eight months later, Cromwell became Lord Protector. Under the Instrument of Government, devised mostly by John Lambert, his mercurial but talented associate, he ruled until his death in September 1658, assisted by a Council of State, in theory chosen by Parliament but in practice chosen by Cromwell himself from among his friends and relations and army comrades. This ingenious document, really Britain’s only ever written constitution (the Humble Petition and Advice of 1657 attempted to modify but not to cripple the Protector’s powers), purported to divide supreme power between the Protector and ‘the people assembled in Parliament’, but in reality there was an unmistakable bias against ‘overmighty’ Parliaments, such as the Rump which had just been sent packing. The Protector had the power to veto most important legislation, and to dissolve Parliament after a mere five months, and he had the army. Historians still like to debate whether the Protectorate really was a military dictatorship, but it certainly quacked like a duck. Above all, it had Cromwell himself. The rough words of command on that April day, the coarse personal abuse, the utter disrespect of custom and ceremony – this is Cromwell. It always was. The capacity for abrupt violence, the words and actions in unnerving sync, this was his shtick, his forte, his USP. And he stayed the same, right to the end.
In his highly enjoyable new history of the Protectorate, which collapsed nine months after Cromwell’s death, Paul Lay is bracing and undeceived in his judgments. He is the editor of History Today, and he writes in the best tradition of that magazine, accessible but sound in detail, with an alert eye for the significant details academic historians sometimes slide over. By holding up for our inspection this bleeding hunk of five years from the history of the Civil Wars, he gives us a heightened sense of the oddity of the whole thing, of how far all three kingdoms – England, Scotland and Ireland – had come in a mere decade and a half and yet how far from settlement they still were, and above all of the sheer strangeness of the Protector himself.
Cromwell’s last dissolution was as abrupt as his first. On 4 February 1658, seven months before his death, he arrived unannounced at Westminster Hall in a hackney carriage – the Thames was icebound – and told his startled son-in-law, Charles Fleetwood, that he intended to dissolve Parliament. Think hard about it first, Fleetwood pleaded, for it is a decision of great consequence. ‘You are a milksop,’ Cromwell replied, no more willing to consult flesh and blood on this occasion than he had been five years earlier, ‘by the living God I will dissolve the House.’ Nor had he developed any greater respect for the law while in power. In November 1654, when George Cony, a former friend of his, refused to pay customs duty on some imported silk on the grounds that the duty had not been imposed by Parliament, Cromwell threw him in jail. When Cony’s lawyer, the eminent Sir John Maynard, pleaded habeas corpus and the judges in the case invoked the provisions of Magna Carta against imprisonment without trial, Cromwell committed Maynard to the Tower and summoned the judges to tell them that ‘their Magna Farta should not control his actions which were for the safety of the Commonwealth. Who made them judges? What authority had they to sit there but what he gave them?’ This story, told in Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion (1702-4) is somewhat abridged by Lay, as it is in most biographies of Cromwell, but it rings true to me (I gave a fuller version when writing about Magna Carta in the LRB of 23 April 2015). Historians are equally prone to dismiss as royalist propaganda the report by Roger Coke, grandson of the author of the Petition of Right of 1628 (which affirmed constitutional protections against an overweening monarchy), that Cromwell once called it ‘the Petition of Shite’. I can believe that one, too.
When Oliver first elbowed his way into both the Short Parliament (which sat for three weeks in 1640) and the Long, he was turning forty, a plain man in a plain cloth suit with a speck or two of blood on his collarband, ‘his countenance swollen and reddish, his voice sharp and untunable’. He was noticed at first only for the violence of his speech, and was reproved by the House for his language; several of his hotter rants against the bishops were excised from the record. But these must have been the qualities that drew a remarkable prophecy from John Hampden, who happened also to be his first cousin: ‘That slovenly fellow which you see before us; I say that sloven, if we should come to have a breach with the King (which God forbid), in such case will be one of the greatest men in England.’
Cromwell started the First Civil War even before Charles I raised his droopy standard at Nottingham on 22 August 1642, by seizing most of the silver plate the Cambridge colleges were sending off to the king. Unlike the other leading Parliamentarians, Essex and Fairfax and Montagu, from first to last Cromwell was all for absolute victory. As a cavalry commander, he immediately cut a dash. Both at Marston Moor in 1644 and then at Naseby in 1645, he rolled up the enemy flank in a brilliantly controlled style – anticipating the young Napoleon, all the more remarkably since Cromwell had never been to a military academy or, as far as we know, read a book on strategy (or any book much except the Bible). His insistence on speed was also Napoleonic: ‘Hasten your horses, you must act lively’; compare the emperor’s instructions to Masséna: ‘Activité, activité, vitesse!’ Similar, too, was Cromwell’s disregard for casualties. Milder historians may argue that the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford during his conquest of Ireland in 1649 were ‘typical casualties of 17th-century warfare’. But even they find it hard to stomach Cromwell’s pious crowing over the Irish, his determination to see his victories as ‘a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood’ (in fact many of his victims at Drogheda were Englishmen who had fought with the Marquess of Ormond’s royalist army). The transplantation of the Catholics to Connaught after the war prefigured the worst ethnic cleansings of later times, while Cromwell’s ominous description of Ireland as ‘a clean paper’ on which a better design could be made prefigured Chairman Mao and Pol Pot. One way or another, some 84,000 people are estimated to have died in the Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651; if we include those who perished from war-related diseases, the whole conflict may have carried off a greater proportion of the population of Britain and Ireland than died in the First World War.
And when the fighting was finally over, one cannot escape the conviction that it was primarily Cromwell’s angry will that carried on the civil unsettlement through the Commonwealth and into the Protectorate, grimly seeking one resolution after another and every time frustrating the outcome himself. Where did it all come from? Historians and biographers talk of his ‘obscure’, even ‘humble’ beginnings, of early years lost in the Fenland fogs. Really? The clue is surely in the name.
Oliver’s great-great-grandfather, Morgan Williams from Glamorgan, who became an innkeeper in Putney, lucked out when he married Katherine Cromwell, the elder sister of the Thomas Cromwell who went on to become Henry VIII’s great minister. Morgan’s son Richard entered his uncle’s service and changed his name to Cromwell in 1529. (Occasionally Oliver referred to himself as ‘Cromwell alias Williams’ – even on his funeral effigy he is described as ‘Of the name Williams, of Glamorgan, and by King Henry VIII changed into Cromwell’). Before Thomas Cromwell’s fall from grace, Richard Cromwell acquired great estates on the site of a dissolved abbey and a dissolved convent outside Huntingdon. This background gave Oliver something in common with other leading Parliamentarians, notably Robert and Henry Rich, the earls of Warwick and Holland, descendants of the iniquitous Sir Richard Rich. They were all of them ardent Puritans, but they were also hard-faced men whose forefathers had done well out of the dissolution of the monasteries. The firebrand John Lambert, too, had inherited estates on the former site of Bolton Priory. For all the bright light cast by the Levellers, the Puritan leaders being who they were, this was never a revolution likely to end in a substantial redistribution of property. As the historian John Morrill hazards, ‘it may indeed be that some of the obsessive anti-popery of the English landed groups in the 1620s and 1630s derived from a residual fear that their titles to land might become insecure if a popish or popishly inclined king sought to unmake the Reformation.’ How they would have welcomed a clause like the one in Napoleon’s Coronation Oath promising ‘to respect the irreversibility of the sale of national property’. The circle was finally completed in 1657 when Cromwell’s daughter Frances married Robert Rich with lavish ceremony in Whitehall. The party lasted until five in the morning – 48 violins, 50 trumpets, £2000 worth of gold plate and ‘mixt dancing, a thing formerly accounted profane’.
The major difference between the young Oliver Cromwell and the Riches was that his father had fallen into debt, and he had a widowed mother and seven unmarried sisters to support on a decidedly meagre inheritance. He did not take this déclassement on the chin. The glimpses we catch of him in his twenties are of a young man in a constant rage, pursuing hopeless property feuds against city livery companies and against the Montagus, who had displaced the Cromwells from the great house that Oliver’s grandfather had built at Hinchingbrooke.
Remarkably, we have two doctor’s reports on Cromwell when he was around the age of thirty. His family physician, Dr Simcott, reported that he would sometimes lie in his bed ‘all melancholy’ and would send for Simcott at midnight to share his hallucinations with him, including the fancy that one day ‘he should be the greatest man in the kingdom’. Oliver also consulted the most fashionable doctor in London, the Huguenot émigré Sir Theodore de Mayerne, who found him to be ‘extremely melancholy’. Mayerne had been court physician to Cardinal Richelieu and was now the same to Charles I. Engaging Harley Street’s finest does not seem to be the action of a plain russet-coated captain. More alarming were the fits of convulsive, often causeless laughter to which Cromwell was subject, most memorably after his famous victory at Dunbar in 1650, at which he butchered probably twice as many Scots as Cumberland was to kill at Culloden. According to John Aubrey, when he saw the Scottish lines break, ‘Oliver was carried on as with a divine impulse. He did laugh so excessively as if he had been drunk, and his eyes sparkled with spirits … The same fit of laughter seized him just before the Battle of Naseby.’
In his rumbustious biography God’s Englishman, Christopher Hill diagnoses Cromwell as a manic depressive. When evaluating his performance in government, Hill, as a Marxist, was more plainspoken than some liberal historians, who tend to be mealy-mouthed and cower in the shadow of Thomas Carlyle and the Great Man get-out, or sigh, as Austin Woolrych does of the Cony case, that ‘one cannot make revolutions without breaking a few constitutional eggs.’ Hill freely acknowledges that in all Cromwell’s disputes with his Parliaments, there ‘was one fundamental problem: the problem of the electorate’. After 1647, the revolution had steamed far beyond what the average MP or voter could approve. Hill draws the parallels others shrink from:
This was a real problem, a problem which recurred in later revolutions. Rousseau thought that men might have to be forced to be free; the Jacobin dictatorship, and the Bolshevik dictatorship of the proletariat, justified themselves as covering the period in which the sovereign people were being educated up to their new responsibilities.
I’m not sure how much irony there is in this, certainly less than in Brecht’s celebrated wisecrack, ‘would it not be simpler if the government dissolved the people and elected another?’
Cromwell and his officers purged or dissolved Parliaments half a dozen times – in 1648, 1653 (in effect, twice in that year), 1654, 1655, 1656 and 1658 – in order to avoid a hostile outcome. In rejecting the verdict of the voters, not only the survival of the revolution was at stake. There was a more personal anxiety, expressed by Lambert with his usual blunt candour when justifying the 1656 purge of unbiddable MPs: ‘If a Parliament should be chosen according to the general spirit and temper of the nation, and if there should not be a check on such election, there may creep into this house men who may come to sit as our judges for all we have done in this Parliament, or at any other time or place.’ As indeed there did after the Restoration, when one or two of Lambert’s comrades were hung, drawn and quartered, and he himself was banged up for the last twenty years of his life in island fortresses where he went mad.
This undemocratic record is not unique in history. To forestall royalist majorities, Napoleon broke up three National Assemblies: in the coups of Vendémiaire, Fructidor and Brumaire. Lenin had to use force repeatedly, first to smash the Constituent Assembly, then to prevent it from reassembling elsewhere. But there is something uniquely repellent about Cromwell’s claim in each case that he was merely fulfilling God’s design, or that he had no foreknowledge of what the army was up to.
Lay quotes Blair Worden’s remark that Cromwell was ‘practised at not knowing’. Did he really have no hand in engineering the proposal to upgrade him to king? This was formally made with the Humble Petition of 1657. We have the evidence of Cromwell’s walk in St James’s Park with Bulstrode Whitelocke in November 1652, during which he raised, in an apparently offhand way, the question ‘what if a man should take it upon him to be king?’ Whitelocke replied tartly that, if a king were needed, Charles II would be a better choice. Cromwell was miffed, according to Whitelocke, and they were never such friends again.
It seems clear that the prime reason Cromwell rejected the title of king as ‘a mere feather in the cap’ was that the throng of officers piling into London might have chucked him out if he had accepted. In any case, as contemporaries were not slow to point out, and as Lay shows in luscious detail, he was already ‘king in all but name’. He had Hampton Court as a weekend retreat, with much of Charles I’s matchless art collection either still on site or repurchased for the Protector’s glory – the Raphael cartoons, the Mantegna Triumphs of Caesar, even the scarcely puritanical Artemisia Gentileschi of Bathsheba washing herself, not to mention gallons of French wine duty-free, and the finest musicians to play for his pleasure.
It is, I suppose, possible to sympathise with the view of historians such as Woolrych and Barry Coward that the Protectorate really didn’t do too badly:
Taken as a body, the Cromwellian ordinances give little support to the stereotype of puritan repression, and convey an impression of sensible, unbiased effort to apply practical correctives to perceived ills … During Cromwell’s rule as Protector, especially after 1655, things had been getting broadly better.
The postal service was improved, the tax system reformed a little, London’s hackney carriages were regulated, if only to stop their drivers feuding with the watermen. Energetic efforts were made to protect Britain’s fishing waters against the Dutch. After nine years of civil war, there was stability at last.
The trouble is that you could say similar things about the 1630s, when Charles I ruled without Parliament in what was once called ‘the Eleven Years Tyranny’. Charles showed an almost Thatcheresque diligence in inventing a postal service, introducing building regulations and measures against smoke pollution, improving the system of poor relief and, yes, defending British fishermen against the encroaching Dutch. The regime was particularly active in protecting consumers against fraudulent monopolies and patents, one highlight being the public testing of new and old brands of soap by two laundresses. What might have been the highlight of his era of modernisation was the anti-plague programme proposed by Theodore de Mayerne in March 1631: an Office of Health with a permanent income stream, big new plague hospitals to be called Charles Godshouses, fierce quarantine restrictions, including the closure of all taverns and theatres, a ban on outdoor sports, plus fumigation of everything. All of which sounds familiar. In 1631, alas, nothing happened, because there was no Parliament to raise the money to pay for it. Otherwise Britain might have had a NHS nearly four hundred years ahead of time.
In his gorgeously contrarian The Personal Rule of Charles I, Kevin Sharpe argued that, royalist bias notwithstanding, Clarendon had a point when he claimed of the 1630s that ‘the like peace and universal tranquillity for ten years was never enjoyed by any nation.’ Young men preferred to spend their time in the alehouse or dancing round the maypole rather than training for the militia, so that Charles found it uphill work to raise any sort of army for his lunatic war against the Scots in 1639, let alone any money to pay for it. And when the First Civil War broke out in 1642 – that ‘war without an enemy’ – most men were reluctant to join it. In many counties, the active neutrals who wanted to keep the conflict out of their patch far outnumbered the locally stationed troops. In Wiltshire, for example, the so-called ‘Clubmen’ (cudgels were all most of them had to fight with) claimed twenty thousand followers.
What a transformation, though, we see when we turn to the Protectorate. In the 1630s, England had been the only major European nation without a standing army. Now it had 50,000-70,000 men under arms, depending on whether or not it was fighting the Scots and the Irish at the same time. They were not perhaps all up to the standards of Cromwell’s Ironsides, but they were trained and armed, and for the first time had uniforms. A country that had been deliciously low-taxed in the absence of Parliament and whose navy had staggered by on the increasingly contested ship money levy, now had steepling taxes and a navy to excite dreams of global domination.
Histories of the Protectorate tend to spare only a page or two for Cromwell’s Western Design. Yet it was an extraordinary project, and I think Lay is right to make it the spearhead of his book. Having secured peace with the Dutch in 1654, Cromwell decided not merely to capture the large Caribbean island of Hispaniola but to seize the whole of Spain’s trade with the Americas. His words at a ministers’ meeting on 20 July 1654 are breathtaking in their brutish arrogance and naivety. Over Lambert’s objections that any such expedition would be a remote and improbable distraction, he insisted that Spain was England’s natural enemy and it was their duty to make war on popish idolators:
We consider this attempt because we think God has not brought us hither where we are but to consider the work that we may do in the world as well as at home … Now Providence seemed to lead us thither, having 160 ships swimming … this design would cost little more than laying by the ships, and that with hope of greater profit.
The expedition was a disaster: ill-planned, poorly led and riddled with misfortune and plague. For months, the Protector’s propaganda sheets pumped out tales of a great triumph in the West Indies. The ship that finally brought news of the grim toll was kept offshore in quarantine, not for fear of disease but rather to stop the news getting out. (This was by no means a unique early example of fake news. Elizabeth I squashed the news of the dismal failure of Drake’s expedition to Coruna in 1589, the so-called Counter-Armada, so successfully that not a word of it leaked into English history books for three hundred years.) Cromwell was so shattered by this debacle that he made one of his retreats into self-communion. Why had Providence abandoned him in this great endeavour? Typically, the answer he came up with was not that the expedition was a grandiose non-starter, and appallingly managed – all the objections Lambert had made in council. No, God had withdrawn his favour because Oliver and his fellow Saints had failed to carry out the moral transformation of their own people.
Hence the major-generals, whom Cromwell sent out into the provinces in 1655 to eradicate fornication, alehouses and horse-racing, and, by their levying of the Decimation Tax, paid only by royalists, to support his newly militarised state in its ambitions. Lay gives a vivid description of the nitpicking excursions of these jumped-up Bugginses. The only good thing to be said about the so-called rule of the major-generals is that it might have been set up to fail, little thought having been given to how exactly these thinly spread gauleiters were to plug in to the existing local networks of JPs and sheriffs. You get the impression that the major-generals were disliked but not really feared, rather like Giles’s pinstriped Men from the Ministry in his cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s.
In 1657, this weird initiative was abandoned as abruptly as it had been rushed into. It cannot be said to strengthen the comforting notion that Cromwell was in some sense a pioneer of religious toleration because he wanted to widen the bounds of acceptable Protestantism. True, he spoke warmly against the intolerance of other sects, famously rebuking the Scots Kirk for their rabid certainty, ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.’ And he undeniably yearned to bring as many people as possible into some sort of national church – but only on his own terms. His actual legislation continued to outlaw papists and Anglicans on the one hand and Quakers and sectaries on the other. He did now and then engage in dialogue with biddable bishops, as well as quiescent Quakers such as George Fox, and we are told that, as the Protectorate went on, the use of the old prayer book was quietly tolerated in some parishes. Anthony Fletcher has pointed out that John Evelyn went to Anglican services when he was in London throughout the Protectorate. But as late as Christmas Day 1657, Evelyn was receiving the Sacrament at Exeter House Chapel when soldiers burst in, broke up the service and arrested and imprisoned the congregation, accusing them of being papists and Spanish fellow-travellers.
Even Cromwell’s much praised insistence on readmitting the Jews to England in 1656 was scarcely an unqualified blow for toleration, since his prime motive was to convert them to Christianity, because only thus could Christ’s kingdom on earth be realised. There was also the usefulness of Jewish capital for a regime that was always short of cash. Lay tells us that, after Cromwell’s death, his son (and designated successor) Richard reported to Parliament that the army was owed almost £900,000 in arrears, the state had debts of £2.5 million, and the annual revenue shortfall was approaching £350,000.
The ferocity of Cromwell’s bans on prelacy and popery boomeranged at the Restoration, when the Anglicans secured a thumping return to enforced supremacy. Far from being a way station on the road to pluralism, in retrospect the Cromwell era looks more like an object lesson in how to entrench religious division. More interesting and less often discussed is the way his hyperbolic belief in Providence seems to have mutated into the conviction that a state might have its own ‘manifest destiny’ – a phrase that didn’t become current in the US until the 19th century but was clearly of Puritan origin. A state that basked in the special protection of Providence was entitled to unlimited freedom of action in realising that destiny. Many influences went into the making of modern nationalism, but Cromwell’s is surely one of them.
How quickly it all melted away, though. Older history books blamed Tumbledown Dick for not being a patch on his father. But Lay, like most modern historians, portrays Richard Cromwell as a decent and eloquent man, not lacking in forcefulness, who was dealt an unplayable hand. The army was still in control, and, one way or another, there could be no peace until it was reduced and returned to barracks. The only force that could accomplish this was another army, which is the reason it was providential – for once the word seems appropriate – that George Monck was ready and waiting in Scotland with an army he had thoroughly purged until it was fit for the purpose he had kept hidden for months, which was to bring back the king. Ironically, in the end the weapons that had kept the Republic in being for 11 years were turned against it to dissolve – again the word seems appropriate – the whole enterprise, almost as though it had never been. By taking the Protectorate on its own, Lay shows us what a distinctive period it was, full of frenetic excursions and alarms but for most people not unendurable, shallow-rooted in the good sense, so that when it was blown away relatively little damage was done, except to that minority of zealots who had given their lives to and, in some cases, given them up for, the Good Old Cause.
Lay treats each volcanic caprice of the Protector’s with the amused scepticism it deserves, not struggling overmuch to discern some consistent purpose behind it. He seems unmoved by, though not ignorant of, the huge Historikerstreit bedevilling his subject, the longest running of any excepting that on the causes of the First World War. He merely refers us to John Adamson’s superb dissection of the historiography, in the introduction to his collection The English Civil War (2008). First came the Whiggish mid to late Victorian view, set in marble by the unequalled labours of S.R. Gardiner, that it was all broadly a good thing in the end, leading to parliamentary democracy and universal suffrage – which is the reason there is a statue of the Protector (Hamo Thornycroft, 1899) outside the Houses of Parliament whose proceedings he had so frequently broken up. There followed the Oxford battles of the 1950s and 1960s, in which the Marxists and the Whigs were oddly fighting on the same turf, debating the proposition that the conflict somehow erupted out of changes in property ownership, though Tawney, Hill and Stone could not agree with Trevor-Roper and Hexter whether it was because the gentry were rising or falling. Later scholars shut down this avenue when they discovered that the gentry (and the nobility) had in fact fought in large numbers on both sides. Then we had the unchallengeable insight of Conrad Russell that this was a war of three kingdoms. And finally the ‘revisionists’ of the last twenty or thirty years, who if they can be lumped together at all, do at least accept the possibility that these were, among other things, England’s wars of religion, the last explosive burnout of the Reformation. Cromwell T. and Cromwell O. are perhaps linked by more than kinship. Without the mutual intolerance of Charles I and the Kirk, no Anglo-Scottish war. Without the contempt of the Protestants for the Catholics, no Drogheda, no ethnic cleansing. Without the ineradicable froideur between Puritans and Anglicans, no Instrument of Government to freeze out those who practised ‘popery’ or ‘prelacy’, and then no Clarendon Code after the Restoration to re-enforce Anglican Supremacy (rather against the wishes of Clarendon himself). This is more or less what contemporaries thought they were fighting about.
Ultimately, the question is whether there is anything we have now, which we would not have had without Cromwell. Parliamentary government? In a jerky but not ineffective way, the rights of Parliament to deny supply were long established – as even Charles Stuart was aware. Universal suffrage? One third of adult males were entitled to vote for the Long Parliament in 1640 (because inflation had so increased the number of forty-shilling freeholders). Human rights? Magna Carta and habeas corpus and the Petition of Right were already in place – not a bad foundation. Yes, the later incremental advances such as the Glorious Revolution and the Great Reform Acts of the 19th century were crucial. But could we not have had those advances without all the slaughter?
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