Committees and cushions

by Nick

A while ago at work I found myself stuck as one of the most junior members on a thirty-strong committee that spent hours going back and forth over the same points without reaching a conclusion. It was one of those meetings that makes you want to throw things. I’ve just come across this passage in Edmund Ludlow‘s Memoirs – later bowdlerised by John Toland from Ludlow’s original – about how Oliver Cromwell dealt with a similar moment in a similarly frustrating committee:

Cromwell contrived a conference to be held in King Street between those called the grandees of the house and army and the commonwealthsmen, in which the grandees (of whom lieutenant general Cromwell was the head) kept themselves in the clouds; and would not declare their judgments either for a monarchical, aristocratical or democratical government; maintaining that any of them might be good in themselves or for us according as Providence should direct us. The commonwealthsmen declared that monarchy was neither good in itself nor for us… Notwithstanding what was said, Cromwell professed himself unresolved, and – having learned what he could of the principles and inclinations of those present at the conference – took up a cushion and flung it at my head; and then ran down the stairs. But l overtook him with another which made him hasten down faster than he desired.

We don’t have the original version of this episode because the relevant part of Ludlow’s original text pre-bowdlerisation, A Voyce from the Watchtower, doesn’t survive. So it’s impossible to know whether this is an account of a true episode. But it’s one of those stories you really hope is true.

If you are interested in finding out more about the rewriting – and that’s what it was, a re-write to transform Ludlow’s Puritan text into a a secularised Whiggish text – of Ludlow’s original then check out Blair Worden’s Roundhead Reputations, chapters 1-4. Or alternatively, for a more technical read, have a look at Worden’s article in Historical Research.