Commonwealth to Protectorate

AN352773001

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Patrick Little (ed.), The Cromwellian Protectorate (Boydell, 2007). 218pp.

David L. Smith and Patrick Little, Parliaments and Politics During the Cromwellian Protectorate (Cambridge University Press, 2007). 352pp.

The engraving above is from a Dutch satirical print, and shows Oliver Cromwell in armour, wearing a crown and ermine cloak and holding the sword of justice and orb of sovereignty. Behind is a depiction of the execution of Charles . The print encapsulates one of the key tensions behind the English Commonwealth: a revolutionary event in British history was succeeded by successive attempts to restore stability and, in many spheres, traditional political and cultural forms.

Negotiating and explaining these tensions is one of the key tasks for any historian of the 1650s. But untl recently, the Commonwealth and the Protectorate have attracted less scholarly attention than the early and later Stuart periods. The 1640s in particular have had significant attention from revisionists and post-revisionists alike. By contrast, the 1650s have been reassessed in less detail.

In recent years this has started to change. There has been a significant cultural turn in the historiography of the 1650s. Laura Lunger Knoppers and Sean Kelsey have studied the iconography both of the Commonwealth and its critics. Roy Sherwood has examined the monarchical trappings of the Protectoral regime. Jason Peacey and Blair Worden have extended analysis of mid-seventeenth century print culture into the 1650s. There has also been a move towards more local studies. For example, Christopher Durston has reconstructed the impact of the major-generals in the localities and analysed why their attempt at godly rule failed. Now two additional studies, one edited by Patrick Little on various aspects of the Protectorate, and one by Little and David Smith on the parliaments of the Protectorate, have been added to this body of work.

At first glance Smith and Little’s work on the Protectorate parliaments looks like a move away from these historigraphical trends, choosing a very traditional parliamentary and constitutional topic for study. However, the authors bring a decidely revisionist twist to their analysis, looking at a familiar subject from new angles.  One such twist is a re-examination of the core constitutional documents of the Protectorate. There were six different constitutional documents produced between 1653 and 1657: not just the Instrument of Government and the Humble Petition and Advice, but also the failed parliamentary constitution; the failed monarchical Remonstrance; the Protectoral constitution; and the Additional Petition and Advice. Smith and Little analyse the twists and turns of these texts in detail, drawing out the implications of each document for parliamentary politics.

Smith and Little also examine the factions of the various Parliaments. For example, they analyse the loose “court” group associated with Cromwel during 1654-55, which included Sir Charles Wolseley, Walter Strickland, John Lambert, John Disbrowe, Broghill, Henry Cromwell, John Claypole, Edward Montagu. This mixture of civilians and soldiers makes it misleading to think in terms of broad divisions between soldiers and statesmen. The book concludes by agreeing, to an extent, with Hugh Trevor-Roper’s argument that Cromwell’s problems with his parliaments were of his own making. However, they look not to his disposition as a “natural back-bencher” and instead to Cromwell’s desire to see England converted to godly rule, with no fixed vision for the political form that might take. In joining this with a desire for parliaments that supported his vision, they argue Cromwell was setting himself an impossible task.

The book concludes with an intriguing hypothesis about Cromwell’s successor as Protector, his son Richard. He has often been seen as an ineffective ruler – the nickname “Tumbledown Dick” says it all. The woodcut below, with Richard as the “meek knight” in the middle, sums up his traditional reputation. (AN352990001, © The Trustees of the British Museum).

But Smith and Little argue instead that Richard tried to entrench the rise in power of the Presbyterian faction during the 1650s, spotting which way the tide had been turning during Oliver’s last years. They suggest that Richard’s failure as Protector was actually prompted by the army’s fears that he and his parliament were too strong.

A re-evaluation of Richard’s time as Protector is also one of themes addressed by the contributors to Patrick Little’s edited collection on the Protectorate. Jason Peacey re-examines the Humble Petition and Advice, pointing out that its intention as a monarchical constitution for a system of rule that never materialised left Richard at a profound disadvantage when he inherited the Protectorship. This revisionist focus on central government during the Protectorate is shared by a number of essays in this volume. Blair Worden, for example, looks at Cromwell’s Council of State and reassesses its importance, arguing that it mattered politically only because the army generals were represented on it. Lloyd Bowen and Patrick Little begin a process of bringing out the British context of the English Protectorate, with Little looking at the Irish and Scottish councils and Bowen examining the impact of the Protectorate in Wales.

Perhaps the highlight is a brilliant essay by Paul Hunneyball on Cromwellian architectural style. This extends Sean Kelsey’s findings about the extent to which the Commonwealth drew on and recycled monarchical ritual and iconography. Many state buildings saw significant repairs and improvements.

For example, in 1656 a fountain of Diana designed by Inigo Jones and executed by Hubert Le Sueur was brought from Somerset House to the garden at Hampton Court. The statue of Diana on the top was surrounded by Venus, Cleopatra, Adonis and Apoollo, with sea monsters, boys on dolphins and scallops around it. The statue, depicted to the left, was moved to Bushy Park in 1690.

As Hunneyball argues, the effect of this was to restore the architectural tastes of Charles I in the 1630s. Similar efforts were made to restore Whitehall to its former state. The Banqueting House was requipped with lavish tapestries, with Cromwell personally overriding objections by the Council of State to the high expenditure.

A number of themes emerge from these two books. One is the return to constitutional documents as a focus for study, and the impact that these had on high politics. Another is a more negative depiction of Cromwell’s period as Protector. Smith and Little argue for more emphasis on his failings to manage his parliaments, whilst Worden analyses a number of “senior moments” during his final years. Richard Cromwell, by contrast, emerges as a more sympathetic figure. It will be interesting to see whether these themes are developed in further works on the Protectorate in the coming years.

2 Comments to “Commonwealth to Protectorate”

  1. This is an interesting, not to say intriguing review. I just wonder, however, if the term ‘revisionist’ is quite appropriate in this context. Ever since Ted Rabb first used it in c.1980, it has been attached with increasing frequency to new views on old subjects. Would it not be better to deploy wording like ‘radically new’ or ‘original’?

  2. On reflection I think you are right – “original” is probably a better term. Something for me to watch in my use of language, I think!

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