Review – God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution by Christopher Hill
Few figures in the canon of English history can claim to be as controversial as Oliver Cromwell. Reviled in Ireland, revered by many, and skilfully avoided by politicians and public figures eager to avoid the controversy inevitably associated with his invocation, Cromwell’s life has been chronicled, interpreted and pored over for more than 300 years. For many, especially children, Cromwell is known as a figure of history, but often only as a caricature. His supposed Puritanism, his part in the execution (by decapitation) of King Charles I, his warts – all of these represent and to some extent define Cromwell in the public eye. He will, however, stand the test of time; too much is deeply associated with his most remarkable life for him to sink into obscurity. But the misunderstandings surrounding Cromwell’s life and legacy remain great. A young Winston Churchill, whose earliest memories were of Ireland – his family moved there after Lord Randolph, Winston’s father, got a job as secretary to his own father, the Duke of Marlborough, who was appointed Lord Lieutenant – wrote of one such story in his memoir, My Early Life.
In one of these years we paid a visit to Emo Park, the seat of Lord Portarlington, who was explained to me as a sort of uncle. Of this place I can give very clear descriptions, though I have never been there since I was four or four and a half. The central point in my memory is a tall white stone tower which we reached after a considerable drive. I was told it had been blown up by Oliver Cromwell. I understood definitely that he had blown up all sorts of things and was therefore a very great man.
Christopher Hill’s biography, which consists of a selection of crisply-written essays, manages to be both relatively brief and intellectually satisfying. Hill, one gets the impression, really did understand Cromwell – and though they would not have seen eye to eye in person, and though Hill’s judgements are often highly unfavourable towards his subject, the historian has come up with a fine volume, one which does the memory of the statesmen justice; and it even restores some of the dignity which had been denied to Cromwell, for example, in a million misrememberings and in Churchill’s youthful enthusiasms.
There is an interesting introductory note in the text on ‘lecturers’ and the 17th century mania over religion. Parishioners who did not like the theology offered by their parochial priests could sponsor someone to preach to them instead. Naturally this descended into a farce of low politics, as lecturers were accused of being parachuted into parliamentary seats to influence the result of elections and were therefore suppressed by the Crown.
Taking a lead from the turbulent times in which he lived, Cromwell’s own religious views are also worthy of extensive comment. Perhaps most fascinatingly – though it can be frustrating from the perspective of a chronicler – the fine details of Cromwell’s own religious beliefs remain largely ambiguous. While reserving particular scorn for Catholicism (a scorn which was common to men of his era and his class) Cromwell extended and even fought to maintain religious toleration among the citizenry of the Commonwealth. It was Cromwell who was petitioned by the Jews, for example, who sought their re-admission to England after many centuries of banishment. Yet the biographer and historian must weigh these factors – which could be considered somewhat mitigating – in relation to what appears now to have been Cromwell’s religious fanaticism, a fanaticism only exacerbated by his many military victories and political triumphs. Hill summarises it crisply and neatly: ‘Cromwell had indeed good reason for believing that he enjoyed the special protection of God’.
Turning to Ireland, it must be noted that, as Hill states, ‘the hatred and contempt with propertied Englishmen felt for the Irish is something we which we may deplore but should not conceal’. After all, this prejudice – unpalatable as it may seem – affected English policy towards the Irish nation in ways which cannot escape attention (the extent to which Cromwell was informed or even animated by this animus is a subject which shall be examined separately). Furthermore, it must be remembered that this prejudice was incredibly widespread: ‘Even the poet Spenser,’ Hill writes, ‘who knew Ireland well, the philosopher Bacon and the poet Milton, who believed passionately in liberty and human dignity, all shared the view that the Irish were culturally so inferior that their subordination was natural and necessary.’
This worldview – common to many, even the more liberal and forward-thinking intellectuals – found its natural home among the richer upper echelons of English society. ‘A great number of civilised Englishmen of the propertied class in the seventeenth century’, Hill declares, ‘spoke of Irishmen in tones not far removed from those which the Nazis used about Slavs, or white South Africans use[d] about the original inhabitants of their country’. The times were indeed different, but such virulent hatred often served the same purpose: ‘In each case the contempt rationalised a desire to exploit’.
Ireland was in a way the first English colony; though it was written of as part of the British main, it had its own culture – this is a given – and its own ways of doing things. The English did, it seems, behave like an imperial power with regard to Ireland – and not simply in the perceived indifference of London to the famines of the 19th century. In Cromwell’s time and before, English generals and statesmen were forced by circumstance to act the colonial power: as British imperialists later replicated across the globe, in Ireland any foreign army which wished to achieve success had to navigate a tangle of regional antagonisms and power structures, allying with a potentary here, working in concert with an existing network there – and all with the express intention of attracting and maintaining and ultimately consolidating political power in English hands. For the historical antecedents of Robert Clive’s conquest of Bengal – one might glibly declare – look no further than English manoeuvrings in County Carlow.
This places Cromwell firmly, and almost unexceptionally, within the English historical tradition, no matter the popular Irish perception of their unusually cruel treatment at his hand. While his own actions were more violent than other English in Ireland – though they were mainly carried out in the same spirit of what Parliament had either ordered or would have wanted – they were not built upon a unique and ideological hatred special to Cromwell. As Hill reminds his readers, ‘In these matters Cromwell was no better and no worse than the average Englishman of his time and class’ (although Cromwell was rather unique in having a large army at his disposal, to which the uncommonly bloody affairs of Wexford and Drogheda stand testament).
Much of the strategic urgency which made Cromwell sweep through Ireland in such a manner – and gave his rapid attempts to pacify the country impetus – came from its seemingly providing what Hill calls a ‘back door’ into England for would-be foreign invaders, not least Charles Stuart, who was by that time styling himself Charles II.
Here too the religious element of Cromwell’s personality came to prominence. He considered his Irish victories to be nothing less than ‘seals of God’s approbation’ and saw the whole campaign as a thoroughly religious experience. In letters to Parliament, which were in turn ‘read out in churches’ on government orders, Cromwell declared his successes to be a sign of holy approval directed towards ‘your great change of government, which indeed was no more yours than these victories and successes are ours’. Here Cromwell begins to warrant the mantle of holy warrior.
One of Cromwell’s most remarked upon characteristics is his apparently egalitarian style of military leadership, which saw the inclusion in companies, armies and even government of men who did not qualify as ‘gentlemen’. Much has been made of this, and no recitation of Cromwell’s merits in this regard is complete without reference to the phrase which, in Hill’s words, ‘has become famous’ as a demonstration of this seemingly modern mode of leadership. ‘I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain who knows what he fights for and loves what he knows’, Cromwell wrote, ‘than what you call a gentleman and is nothing else’. It cannot be denied that this declaration has a certain poetry to it, almost a musical character; and it cannot be denied also that in practice the nature of Cromwell’s military and later political leadership included more men of lower social origins than had previously achieved prominence under the monarchy.
It is important, however, to weigh the circumstances under which the above was written. Wars put extensive demands upon a nation; civil wars increase this pressure exponentially. The manpower required to meet this immense challenge simply had to be found, and Cromwell himself acknowledged the air of necessity which characterised his apparent egalitarianism. ‘But since it was necessary the work must go on’, he declared, ‘better plain men than none’. This pragmatism represents its own praiseworthy trait, but it must be stated that viewing his appointments in this light diminishes the extent to which Cromwell could be described as a champion of the advancement of the traditionally under-privileged.
What remains of this analysis, however, is Cromwell’s evident skill with the English language, and Hill’s book gives great insight into Cromwell as a phrase-maker. In one of his more celebrated interjections, Cromwell came out with ‘think it possible that you may be mistaken’ when addressing the Scots Presbyterians who caused him and Parliament innumerable problems. This is a fine phrase, one which could be interpreted tremendously charitably: this could denote Cromwell as a sceptic, a moderate, even a precursor to the empiricism and rationality of the Enlightenment. But this interpretation is sadly incredible, as in actuality he prefaced his noble declaration of scepticism with the more religiously inspired ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ’. (And it is further notable that Cromwell could only offer the suggestion that the religious beliefs of others may be incorrect because he was so secure, even unassailable, in his own faith. This situation breeds only one-sided sceptics.)
There is also increasing evidence to suggest that Cromwell’s fine words – rather than being moral and liberal in a particularly free and English style – were in fact subject to far more strategic political concerns than previously thought; and this is supplemented by the extent to which his pronouncements were directed by political expediency. Hill relates that ‘The fine Miltonic phrases in favour of natural liberty form an interesting contrast to Cromwell’s sharper words to Irish Catholics’.
Cromwell saw what later became known as Barebone’s’ Parliament as the apogee of the English Revolution; and that assembly does not, according to Hill, deserve its reputation as the realm of religious fanatics and their fevered ramblings. It engaged, for example, in extensive legal reform, including an extensive and ambitious process of codification. Hill paints a picture of the nature of this upheaval, ‘which was said to have shocked lawyers’: it contained ‘proposals that pickpockets and horse thieves should not be executed for the first offence; that burning should cease to be the death penalty for women; that accused persons refusing to plead should no longer be pressed to death; that genuine bankrupts should be released, while the goods of fraudulent debtors should be seized and sold’.
Hill’s narrative also contains the occasion nod to standard elements of the Marxist analysis of which he was a leading proponent. The macro-narrative of Fen drainage and economic disadvantage in Huntingdonshire provides much initial impetus for Cromwell’s political career; and though there is only a solitary reference to the dialectic in Hill’s book, its influence can be felt throughout the text. Hill draws special attention to various antitheses contained within Cromwell’s story – not least those encapsulated within his own personality. Indeed, there is also the subtle suggestion that Cromwell might have exhibited the traits of a manic depressive. It is certainly true that he was frequently governed by extreme, almost austere seriousness; but he could be immensely juvenile – even childish – on occasions which called for intense solemnity. Hill relates that ‘At the signing of the King’s death warrant Oliver and Henry Marten were inking one another’s faces like schoolboys’. But it cannot be said that this trait did not have some advantages; what Hill calls Cromwell’s ‘capacity for horseplay’ – what Richard Baxter termed his ‘familiar rustic carriage with his soldiers in sporting’ – served to deepen and strengthen the ties between Cromwell and his men.
Perhaps confirming the dictum that the Right looks for converts and the Left for traitors, Hill’s interim verdict on Cromwell’s elevation to the position of Lord Protector is not a kind one. By 1653, Hill states, Cromwell was a ‘tired disillusioned old man, still confident that he enjoyed a special relationship with God, but with few positive ideas left, on the defensive.’ And the historian’s judgement of the English experiment with republicanism is no more positively inclined; he writes with a strong, powerfully expressed sense of what might have been, conveyed through short, emphatic sentences. ‘The Revolution was over. Oliver Cromwell was the saviour of propertied society.’
There is corresponding evidence to suggest that Cromwell became more reactionary with age, due in part to his adoption of a more professional and less radical approach to the demands of government. But some of it still strikes the reader as lamentable, not least because of the writer’s mournful tone. John Milton, whose liberty-laden cadences provided a great deal moral force for the cause of revolution, lost his government position: ‘The author of Areopagitica soon slipped out of the public service’. And the author of that stirring elegy to freedom of expression would doubtless have despaired of contemporaneous developments: ‘only two newspapers survived, Mercurius Politicus and The Publick Intelligencer, each edited by Marchamont Nedham under [John] Thurloe’s supervision’.
(But let it not be forgotten that Cromwell was never the hot-blooded revolutionary at heart; his political philosophy frequently bowed to the constraints of pragmatism, for example in his suggestion that England could still remain an monarchy after the execution of Charles I. That the adoption of this position in wider circles could have granted him the throne was undoubtedly a serious factor in his advocacy.)
When considering foreign affairs, too, it is notable that Cromwell’s tenure as Protector ended any nascent hope of exporting the English Revolution to other countries. Cardinal Mazarin saw the secret assurance provided in the treaty of 1655 between the Commonwealth and France that neither side would assist or shelter the internal opponents of the other as ‘the fundamental point of the whole treaty’. ‘Whatever may have been true’ in the realm of internal affairs, Hill writes, in foreign policy the republic was ‘a conservative national government’.
Within every Marxist, I am convinced, there lies a desire to export revolution. For some the idea is transmitted through advocacy; for others it is economic pressure; for Christopher Hill, it appears to have been history – and even when chronicling the happenings of the 17th century, he was ever attuned to the part of his political being which lamented the revolution betrayed.
There is a very interesting suggestion, however, that despite an unwillingness to engender similar revolution abroad, Cromwell’s government was ‘the first in English history to have a grand strategy’. Alliances and treaties were forged; plans were drawn up for grandiose military expeditions; policy was devised not on a provincial basis but with an eye to the wider world. And all the while merchants spread English, Scottish and Irish commerce, opening up new markets and transforming the British Isles at the same time. Hill quotes Professor Abbott approvingly: England ‘began to turn definitely from its position as an island chiefly agricultural to a world power chiefly industrial and commercial’.
All of this is best summed up by Hill himself, who references in his summation an essential element of Cromwell’s own beliefs: ‘whether God or some other high authority was responsible, England was undoubtedly first on the road to the modern world’.
In death Cromwell attracted less hatred; no longer was his person the target of the satirists and the wits and the polemicists of the day. And furthermore, the vitriol was replaced by a species of universal recognition of Cromwell’s significance and place in history. Hill summarises it thusly, having compared the post-mortem assessments of two very different commentators: ‘Curiously, the adoring steward and the censorious Quaker agree on Oliver’s nobility of spirit: Thomas Carlyle would have thought they were right’.
And Cromwell’s legacy was greater and more consequential than that. Rippling through Hill’s narrative is the sense that the English Revolution was without precedent; there was nothing like it in history for the participants – this gaudy dramatis personae – to invoke, or from whom they could draw council or inspiration. The transformation of the England from a monarchy to a republic, however briefly it lasted, had an immediate and long-standing effect. When the monarchs returned – no matter how ‘merrie’ they were – they had always to look over their shoulders. The prospect of another upheaval haunted their dreams and affected their policies. The precedent set by Cromwell and his contemporaries provided much of the impetus for the Glorious Revolution of only thirty years later, where British monarchs found that though they could continue to reign, they were subject to the power of Parliament in the process. It was Cromwell’s revolution which brought into being the greatest incentive for good government ever to have been devised for the British sovereign. If good government is not forthcoming, one can be arranged – but the monarchic aspects will be decidedly decreased. And all of this – the true demonstration of Parliamentary power, the public flouting of the divine right of kings – came about more than a century before the French Revolution, and 250 years before the Russian.
For this alone – and for many reasons besides – Cromwell will continue to be remembered in England, and even celebrated. For all his reactionary tendencies, political hedging and religious prejudice, he was still the man who, in Hill’s words, ‘besought the Scottish Presbyterians to think it possible that they might be mistaken’; and this alone guarantees him a place in the annals of history – no matter the context of the remark.
Cromwell was a man of ceaseless activity; he was a ‘doer’. For him indolence and idleness were sufficiently abhorrent to justify some uncommonly irreligious language. He once described in favourable terms those who ‘have wrestled with God for a blessing’. The records of Cromwell’s earlier draft of this dispatch show that he altered the phrasing to be more active, more dynamic. Hill summarises the insights this particular quotation showcases very well indeed: ‘Passivity was intolerable even when face to face with God himself’.
The fruits of this relentless activity were many, and they were various. Hill includes a magnificent, sweeping declaration of Cromwell’s importance to British and world history:
The British Empire, the colonial wars which built it up, the slave trade based on Oliver’s conquest of Jamaica, the plunder of India resulting from his restitution and backing of the East India Company, the exploitation of Ireland; a free market, free from government interference and from government protection of the poor; Parliamentary government, the local supremacy of JPs, the Union of England and Scotland; religious toleration, the nonconformist conscience, relative freedom of the press, an attitude favourable to science; a country of landlords, capitalist famers and agricultural labourers, the only country in Europe with no peasantry: none of these would have come about in quite the same way without the English Revolution, without Oliver Cromwell.
Long after his death, the personal myth of Oliver Cromwell still retained its lustre. His corpse was exhumed and publicly ‘executed’ by vengeful and triumphant supporters of Charles II upon the Restoration, but for a long time he retained his place in the hearts of men. The poet George Crabbe described a family in his poem “The Frank Courtship” for whom ‘Cromwell was still their saint, and when they met, / They mourn’d that saints were not our rulers yet’.
They even kept a sort of icon to the man in their simple dwelling, one which captured what Crabbe saw to be his essence.
His stern, strong features, whom they all revered;
For there in lofty air was seen to stand
The bold protector of the conquered land;
Drawn in that look with which he wept and swore,
Turn’d out the members, and made fast the door,
Ridding the house of every knave and drone,
Forced, though it grieved his soul, to rule alone.
The last line in particular, which contains the most charitable reading of Cromwell’s motivations possible, has a certain poignancy to it which to some degree defies explanation.
Hill himself felt it, it seems. His final summing up contains an opinion which is far more generous than his intermediate conclusion.
I sympathize with the ageing, disillusioned old man who struggled on under the burden of the protectorate, knowing that without him worse would befall: who wanted to be painted ‘warts and all’. But it is the boisterous and confident leader of the 1640s who holds my imagination, and whose pungent, earthy truths echo down the centuries.
Cromwell was not a perfect leader; he too became old, less effective, less idealistic. But the fundamental attractiveness of his youth, and the radicalism which will be forever associated with his name and sewn into the fabric of England and the world, will outlive any popular sense of his last years. Perhaps it is wise to end with the words of Andrew Marvell, the writer of “The First Anniversary of the Government under O.C.”, who saw Cromwell as the English Revolution personified – though his phrasing contains also the echo of our latter-day reticence to identify in individuals that spark which designates them a truly titanic figure of history: ‘If these the Times, then this must be the Man’.