Commonwealth ritual

by Nick

I’ve been reading about ritual – in particular Edward Muir’s excellent Ritual in Early Modern Europe – and thought I would put Muir’s arguments through their paces with a Commonwealth case study. I’ve picked out one involving Oliver Cromwell.

Did you know Cromwell had an honorary degree from Oxford? Neither did I until I read Sean Kelsey’s Inventing a Republic a while ago. It was conferred on him a few months after the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the English Commonwealth. After quelling the Leveller mutiny at Burford in May 1649, it seems Fairfax, Cromwell and others of the Rump’s military commanders went to Oxford. It’s not clear whether they went of their own initiative, or whether they were invited by the University. Writing about the incident later, the antiquary Anthony Wood thought that it had been the commanders’ decision, but it’s hard to tell whether this is just Wood adding his own gloss.

The day after they arrived, the vice-chancellor and Masters of Colleges put on gowns as the visitors were welcomed by John Rous, Master of All Souls, who gave a speech – Wood describes it rather sarcastically as “bad enough, yet good for soldiers”. Cromwell then replied with a speech, according to Wood, saying that:

They knew no Commonwealth could flourish without learning, and that they, whatsoever the world said to the contrary, meant to encourage it.

On the next day they had dinner at Magdalen College, and a game of bowls, before going to Convocation where Jerome Sankey, a university proctor, conferred on Cromwell and Fairfax doctorates in civil law – each was given the degree’s scarlet robe and cap. For this, a rail was set up and undergraduates were allowed in to watch, which had not previously been allowed at Convocation.

Kelsey interprets this ritual as being about naked power – the conferring of the honorary degrees happened on the same day as the Rump Parliament declared England a free state. For the Rump’s military commanders, the ceremonies constructed them into scholars as well as or as opposed to soldiers. Kelsey bolsters this by arguing that that a year previously in 1647, the then Long Parliament had been packed with compliant divines such as Jerome Sankey and John Palmer. This is clearly an interpretation that carries much weight. It’s sometimes forgotten quite how fragile the Rump was in 1649 after the regicide, as it faced Leveller mutinies at home and the continued threat of royalist and Irish armies across the Irish Sea. Understandably, there was a concerted attempt to legitimise the regime through as many means – material and symbolic – as possible. Fairfax and Cromwell’s induction as honorary doctors marked a symbolic end to their fight against fellow countrymen, taking them from a world of conflict and anarchy to a new regime focused on civic culture. And where more appropriate to send out this new message of unity than Oxford, the seat of Charles I’s court for much of the civil wars?

But it’s possible to put another gloss on this incident. As Muir says:

Rituals are inherently ambiguous in their function and meaning. They speak with many voices.

While it’s true that the leading figures from the university were all sympathetic to the Parliamentary cause, they had been appointed in 1647 before the split of the Parliamentary party between between so-called (political) Independents and Presbyterians. Both Pride’s Purge and then the regicide had sent shock waves throughout the political nation, turning the established order upside down. England in May 1649 was still a country of instability, for which the Rump’s only real remedy so far had been the further use of force – for example, the execution of Church, Perkins and Thompson at Burford. By conferring doctorates in civil law on Fairfax and Cromwell, one could argue that the University was making its own point – that the regime from now on should be based on the rule of law. Through the ritual, Fairfax and Cromwell were taken from one world of war, through a liminal moment where they shared food, played games and in doing so were turned from strangers into guests, into another rather different symbolic world. In this world they are dressed in Oxford’s academic garb rather than buff coats, and are witnessed by the high and the low of the university, both proctors and undergraduates. In doing so, their military aspects are neutralised.

And there is a third, perhaps more cynical reading too. In return for granting the doctorates, the University was able to write to the Rump requesting an endowment for three lectureships in scripture. They also made nominations to the posts, and while these were men of the sympathies Parliament could be expected to endorse, it does perhaps indicate that Oxford could get something tangible out of the ceremony just as Fairfax and Cromwell could.

In the Convocation, then, we see some of the tensions of post-regicidal England played out in miniature – a fledgling regime seeking symbolic affirmation and construction of its power; a seat of learning that had been at the centre of war seeking to construct a new, less topsy-turvy social order; and men already seeking to reap the benefits the new regime had to offer.