Father and son

by Nick

This post is a (late) contribution to Edward Vallance’s blog carnival on Oliver Cromwell, which marks the 350th anniversary of Cromwell’s death.

Amongst the dominant themes that have emerged in recent studies of Oliver Cromwell are one that might be called the “linguistic turn”, and another that might be called the “personal turn”.

The first has involved paying far closer attention to the language deployed by Cromwell in his letters and speeches. This has resulted in a far more nuanced understanding of his religion, as historians have realised the extent to which texts by Cromwell are imbued with scriptural references. Robert Paul pioneered this approach in the 1950s, but more recently it has been picked up again by historians like Blair Worden (looking at Cromwell’s belief in providence and his reaction to the failure of the Hispaniola expedition) and John Morrill and Philip Baker (looking at Cromwell’s attitudes to Charles I and monarchy more generally during the late 1640s).

The second theme has emerged in John Morrill’s revision of Cromwell’s early years. Morrill has re-examined Cromwell’s education, his marriage, and the ups and downs of his life before the 1640s. As a result, a picture of a humbler man during the early 1630s has emerged, not by any means destined for greatness. More recently, it has been seen particularly in the work of Patrick Little, who has looked at Cromwell’s interests in hawking and racehorses. Through a greater understanding of Cromwell’s personal life, historians have been able to apply new insights to his public life. Morrill has prompted a reassessment of Cromwell’s early career, and Little will prompt a reassessment of political culture under Cromwell in the 1650s.

Cromwell’s letters and speeches have been picked over by generations of historians. Since Thomas Carlyle collected them together in the 1840s, and particularly since W.C. Abbott produced a more modern (yet flawed) edition a hundred years later, they have been a key starting point for students of Cromwell. And yet the two approaches above have by no means been exhausted. Cromwell’s complex personality means that both are still capable of bearing fruit. What follows is an example of the layers of interpretation that can be found in even what at first seem relatively straightforward texts. As a case study it does not tell us anything new about Cromwell: but it does, I hope, give an idea of what lurks beneath the surface in many Cromwellian texts.

The text below is a letter Oliver Cromwell sent to his son Richard on 2 April 1650:

I take your Letters kindly: I like expressions when they come plainly from the heart, and are not trained nor affected.

I am persuaded it’s the Lord’s mercy to place you where you are: I wish you may own it and be thankful, fulfilling all relations to the glory of God. Seek the Lord and His face continually: — let this be the business of your life and strength, and let all things be subservient and in order to this! You cannot find nor behold the face of God but in Christ; therefore labour to know God in Christ; which the Scripture makes to be the sum of all, even Life Eternal. Because the true knowledge is not literal or speculative; ‘no,’ but inward; transforming the mind to it. It’s uniting to, and participating of, the Divine nature (Second Peter, i. 4): ‘That by these ye might be partakers of the Divine Nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.’ It’s such a knowledge as Paul speaks of (Philippians, iii. 8 — 10): ‘Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. For whom I have suffered the loss of all things; and do count them but dung that I may in Christ, and be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness which is of the Law, but that which is through the Faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by Faith; — that I may know Him, and the power of His Resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings ; being made conformable unto His Death.’ How little of this knowledge is among us ! My weak prayers shall be for you.

Take heed of an unactive vain spirit! Recreate yourself with Sir Walter Ralegh’s History: it’s a Body of History; and will add much more to your understanding than fragments of Story. — Intend to understand the Estate I have settled: it’s your concernment to know it all, and how it stands. I have heretofore suffered much by too much trusting others. I know my Brother Major will be helpful to you in all this. You will think, perhaps, I need not advise you to love your Wife! The Lord teach you how to do it; or else it will be done ill-favouredly. Though Marriage be no instituted Sacrament, yet where the undefiled bed is, and love, this union aptly resembles that of Christ and His Church. If you can truly love your Wife, what ‘love’ doth Christ bear to His Church and every poor soul therein, — who “gave Himself” for it and to it! — Commend me to your Wife; tell her I entirely love her, and rejoice in the goodness of the Lord to her. I wish her everyway fruitful. I thankher for her loving Letter.

I have presented my love to my Sister and Cousin Ann, &c. in my Letter to my Brother Major. I would not have him alter his affairs because of my debt. My purse is as his: my present thoughts are but to lodge such a sum for my two little Girls; — it’s in his hand.

At first glance this is a fairly straightforward letter from father to son. It is of value in understanding Oliver’s relationship with Richard – a mixture of affection and hints of concern that Richard face up to his responsibilities, such as getting a grip of his new estate. Oliver was concerned at what he perceived to be idleness on the part of his son, and in other letters complained that “my son is idle” and “in the dangerous time of his age”. Parts of the letter are often quoted in analysis of the relationship between father and son.

The letter is also intriguing for its insight into puritan courtship and kinship networks. “Brother Major”, referred to at the end of the letter, is Richard Maijor, Richard’s father-in-law. Richard had married his daughter, Dorothy, on 1 May 1649 at Hursley in Hampshire. Cromwell clearly professed a warm relationship with his daughter-in-law, writing to her as well as to Richard. And in Richard Maijor he found a solidly parliamentarian and puritan member of the gentry, who had served as sheriff of Hampshire in 1640 and became a commissioner for sequestration in March 1643.

However, there is more to this letter. One additional context is providential. Cromwell’s second sentence about Richard’s newly married state – and his use of the word “mercy” betray his strongly providential understanding of how God interacted with the world. As for Calvin, so for Cromwell: not a sparrow fell from its perch without God’s intervention. This is bolstered by his recommendation of Ralegh’s History, a work which demonstrated the role of God’s providence in the progress of history. And yet providence was only one side to how Cromwell approached the world. Blair Worden has argued that there were two Cromwells: “beside the Cromwell whose God exalts every valley and makes every mountain low, there is the Cromwell who knows that… God’s servants are obliged to consider the probability of the ways and means to accomplish”. Or putting it more succinctly:

As well as trust in God the saint must keep his powder dry.

The end of the letter reveals the more pragmatic Cromwell. It was not just God’s mercy that had brought Richard to marrying Dorothy. Cromwell had been in protracted negotiations with RIchard Maijor since the spring of 1648. For all his protestations at the end of the letter that he would “not have him alter his affairs because of my debt”, Cromwell sought to drive a hard bargain, with Major insisting that Cromwell gave Richard and Dorothy a £400 estate, while Cromwell sought to give them a parliamentary grant of land. The two year marriage negotiations nearly fell down at points over the marital finances. What the letter shows are some of the tensions not just within puritan providentialism, but within Cromwell.

Also interesting is Cromwell’s choice of texts. Apart from his famous letter to Mrs St John during the 1630s, texts that survive from the earlier part of his life quote the Bible only sparingly. In 1648, by contrast, letters suddenly turn into sustained meditations on the Old Testament, particularly the Book of Psalms and Isaiah. However, Cromwell’s texts of choice in this letter are both from the New Testament. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians is notable for its material on Paul’s opponents – both true believers in Rome, and Gentiles in Phillipi. This is not a million miles away from Cromwell’s position in 1650, with “malignant” enemies in Ireland and former true believers in Westminster and Scotland. The second epistle of Peter covers related themes, warning against the coming heretics. Why were these parts of the New Testament weighing on Cromwell’s mind in the spring of 1650?  Such loose ends are intriguing. There is certainly scope for a more sustained analysis of Cromwell’s deployment of biblical language during the 1650s.

There is also the cryptic reference to having “suffered much by too much trusting others”. What does this refer to? It could perhaps be a reference to the shattered Independent alliance that had finally fractured in the late 1640s. During 1649, Cromwell made active attempts to court “royal Independents” like Oliver St John and Nathaniel Fiennes into rejoining his cause, but it is clear that their decision to part ways with him over the fate of Charles I affected him deeply. These were men with whom Cromwell was closely connected, both through kin and through faith. Analysis of Cromwell’s preoccupations during the early 1650s may well yield further insight into his attempts to rebuild this alliance.

In short, Cromwell’s letters and speeches will still yield new insights into his life. Blair Worden, in particular, has done much to reassess Cromwellian texts through these techniques. Hopefully Worden’s forthcoming biography of Cromwell will do much more to re-evaluate Cromwell’s life.