Cromwelliana

by Nick

Oliver Cromwell probably hasn’t been on the front page of a newspaper since the 1660s, but he was today after the Sun plumped for a Cromwellian quote in its coverage of the MPs’ expenses row. Under the headline “IN THE NAME OF GOD, GO”, the Sun drew this comparison between the current situation and Cromwell’s expulsion of the Rump Parliament in 1653:

Parliament’s reputation is at its lowest ebb since Cromwell’s intervention in 1653. Cromwell — who had King Charles I beheaded in 1649 after the Civil War — was furious at MPs’ refusal to listen to people’s wishes, and had them kicked out of the Commons at gunpoint.

He declared: “You are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money. In the name of God, go.”

The Sun isn’t the first to make the comparison. Simon Heffer in the Telegraph seems to have started it, in an op-ed piece which the Sun seems to have drawn on pretty much verbatim:

What is now needed is the Cromwellian touch, for I do not believe Parliament’s standing has been lower since Oliver dismissed the Rump in April 1653. Mr Cameron should sack from his front bench all those exposed in unacceptable use of taxpayers’ money. Central Office should ask chairmen of constituency parties whose MPs have behaved disgracefully to consider whether the chances of the seat being held at the next election would be helped by the selection of a new, financially untainted candidate. To take this swift action now would secure Mr Cameron’s moral advantage; it would greatly damage the Prime Minister and the Labour Party; it would put pressure on Mr Brown to do precisely the same.

However, we all know what Mr Brown should do, and again Cromwell provides us with our lead. Remember the words he uttered to the Rump, in his anger at its failure to consolidate the new England after the second civil war: “It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt for all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage… Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your god; which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes?… Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; ye were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, and are yourselves gone… In the name of God, go!”

Which is all very well, except Cromwell may not ever have said these particular words. There are three members of the Rump whose accounts of the dissolution have survived: Algernon Sidney and Bulstrode Whitelocke (who were there when it happened) and Edmund Ludlow, who seems to have drawn on the account of Thomas Harrison, another member. Here is Sidney’s account, as recorded at the time by his father the Earl of Leicester:

After a while he rose up putt off his hat and spake at the first and for a good while he spake to the commendation of the Parlement for theyr paines and care of the publick good but afterwards he changed his style told them of theyr injustice delays of justice self interest andother faults then he sayd ‘Perhaps you thinke this is not Parlementary language I confesse it is not neither are you to expect any such from me’… Then the Generall went to the where the mace lay which used to be before the Speaker and sayd ‘Take these baubles’ so the soldiers tooke away the mace and all the House went out. R.W. Blencowe, Sydney Papers (1825), pp. 139-141.

Here is Whitelocke’s account, written retrospectively:

Entering the House [Cromwell] in a furious manner bid the Speaker leave his Chair, told the House, that they had sat longe nough, unless they had done more good: that some of them were Whore-masters, loking then towards Henry Marten and Sir Peter Wentworth. That others of them were Drunkards, and some corrupt and unjust Men and scandalous to the Profession of the Gospel, and that it was not fit they should sit as a Parliament any longer, and desired them to go away… Whitelocke, Memorials, p. 554.

And here is Ludlow’s account, written retrospectively and quite probably edited by John Toland, who rewrote Ludlow’s memoirs for publication:

Suddenly standing up, [Cromwell] made a speech, wherein he loaded the Parliament with the vilest reporaches, charing them not to have a heart to do anything for the publick good, to have espoused the corrupt interest of Presbytery and the lawyers, who were the supporters of tyranny and oppression, accusing them of an intention to perpetuate themselves in power… He said, ‘Come, come, I will put and end to your prating'; then walking up and down the House like a mad-man, and kicking the ground with his feet, he cried 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': whereupon the serjeant attending the Parliament opened the doors, and Lieutenant-Colonel Worsley with two files of musqueteers entered the House’. Edmund Ludlow (ed. C. Firth), Memoirs, vol. 1, pp. 351-5.

Even these three accounts have various levels of retrospectivity, and at best may be made from notes, at worst from memory or hearsay. But they have enough elements in common to suggest something of the tone of what was said. So where does the speech that Heffer quotes fit in? The earliest record I can find of it is in Thomas Mortimer’s The British Plutarch (1816), which gives this source for it:

The following piece said to have been found lately among some papers which formerly belonged to Oliver Cromwell is supposed to be a copy of the very words addressed by him to the members of the Long Parliament when he turned them out of the House. It was communicated to the Annual Register for 1767 by a person who signed his name T Ireton and said the paper was marked with the following words Spoken by Oliver Cromwell when he put an end to the Long Parliament.

I’ve had a look through the Annual Register on ECCO but can’t trace the original source. It’s true that various letters and other Cromwelliana were turning up during the eighteenth century and onwards into the nineteenth, but a few things make the speech seem too good to be true. The fact that it purports to be a direct transcript, when it’s unlikely anyone would have been recording it verbatim, is one. The reference to T Ireton is another – perhaps an attempt to suggest authenticity by implying a descendant of Henry Ireton had got hold of the speech, but of course Ireton had died in 1651. So without wanting to be a spoilsport, the version of the speech being quoted in the press may not be what it purports to be.