Oliver Cromwell: New Perspectives

by Nick


Patrick Little (ed.), Oliver Cromwell: New Perspectives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 256pp.

Something of a consensus has emerged amongst biographers of Oliver Cromwell in the last twenty years. They have seen Cromwell’s faith as crucial to understanding the man. Historians have emphasised the importance of a Bible-centric puritanism in his life: not just in prompting key decisions such as the rejection of the crown in 1657, but more widely in terms of Cromwell’s wish to heal and settle the nation in the 1650s. Historians have also taken Cromwell’s own words seriously. A great many of his letters and speeches survive, and have been pored over by those anxious to understand his motivations. The footnotes of most recent biographies are peppered with references to Wilbur Abbott’s collected edition of Cromwell’s writings and speeches. By contrast, retrospective accounts by contemporaries have tended to be marginalised. The extent of Cromwell’s power has also been downplayed. Even as Protector, it is argued, he was hemmed in by constitutions and the Council of State.

The Cromwell that emerges from this consensus remains as mercurial and hard to understand as any previous generation’s Cromwell: but he is a figure of faith, drive and integrity, by no means predestined to rise to the top but blessed with sufficient personal qualities to do so. Much of this picture of Cromwell reflects the impact of revisionism. The determination to take contemporary belief seriously; the return to manuscript sources; the emphasis on contingency and the rejection of an inevitable rise to greatness; all of these are hallmarks of a move away from Whiggish perceptions of Cromwell. Timing-wise, it was the late 1980s that saw the working out of many of these trends. A key staging post in this transformation was Blair Worden’s essay on ‘Oliver Cromwell and the sin of Achan’ from 1985. Another was John Morrill’s collected edition of essays on Cromwell in 1990. A third was Peter Gaunt’s essay on the Protectorate Council from 1989.

Two decades on, Patrick Little’s collected volume of essays on Cromwell marks a shift in this consensus. It is not an explicitly post-revisionist collection, but in many cases the case studies it gives are thick, multi-faceted descriptions that have at least something in common with more avowedly post-revisionist studies of the mid-seventeenth century. The volume starts with Simon Healy’s reassessment of Cromwell’s personal and spiritual life during the 1630s. In 1990, in an article called ‘The Making of Oliver Cromwell’, John Morrill carried out a fundamental reassesment of this period: what emerged was a picture of Cromwell down on his luck after the humiliating loss of a political dispute in Huntingdon, rescued only by an inheritance from his uncle, Sir Thomas Steward. Healy pointedly engages with Morrill’s assessment by titling his essay ‘1636: The Unmaking of Oliver Cromwell?’ He re-examines Cromwell’s financial connections to his uncle, concluding that it was the prospect of an inheritance that partly helped persuade Cromwell to sell his interests in Huntingdon. It seems that the wait for this inheritance was too long: in 1635 Steward was the subject of an inquiry by the court of wards into his mental health. A number of hostile contemporary accounts blame Cromwell for prompting the inquiry. These have never been taken seriously until now, but as Healy shows Cromwell had a significant amount to gain if Steward was deemed not to be in a fit state of mind. Steward still left a settlement for Cromwell on his death in 1636, but it was tied up with conditions and debts that took two years to sort out.

Healy argues that these events are of critical significance for understanding Cromwell’s famous letter to Mrs St John of 1638. This letter is suffused in biblical quotations and is conventionally seen as important evidence for Cromwell’s spiritual conversion into a godly member of the saints. But as Healy points out, there is potentially more to it. The timing of the letter was two weeks before the final settling of Steward’s estates, and given the likelihood that such letters were passed around networks of friends and family, the letter may have been a public apology for his conduct in 1635. Healy does not go so far as to say that it was a cynical apology: he argues that Cromwell’s conversion was still genuine. However, he argues that a conversion can still be genuine while also serving other ends. As he puts it, it “involved a great deal of what a post-modernist might politely term self-fashioning”.

Cromwell’s self-fashioning is a theme that is picked up by other contributors. S.L. Sadler looks at Cromwell’s early military career in East Anglia, looking at the evidence provided by a manuscript in Huntingdon Record Office written by an opponent of Cromwell’s – in all likelihood, William Dodson. Sadler examines Cromwell’s record at the siege of Crowland in 1643 and concludes that his role in it was less important than has been assumed, and that without Dodson’s initial spade work he would not have been successful. Sadler links this to Cromwell’s early accounts to Parliament of his successes – for example the successful retreat at Gainsborough – and concludes that even at this early stage, he was skilled in manipulating public opinion to maximise his position. Sadler’s concept of ‘propaganda’ would benefit from further development and engagement with the work of historians of early modern print – for example, seizing royalist pamphlets in Cambridge in 1643 does not automatically make him a skilled propagandist, and it would be interesting to explore Cromwell’s role in and reaction to the Long Parliament’s early brushes with pamphlets and newsbooks during 1641 to see what his attitudes to print might have been. But Sadler’s main point – that even at this early stage of the civil wars, Cromwell was skilful at presenting himself in the best light – is of major importance for understanding why he rose to prominence so quickly.

Andrew Barclay looks at self-fashioning at a different stage of Cromwell’s career: during the Protectorate. From 1654 until his death, Cromwell lived in the same rooms at Whitehall as Charles I had done. Cromwell’s close friends and family filled the gap left by Charles I’s courtiers. His son-in-law John Claypole was made master of horse; his cousin once removed, John Barrington, was made a gentleman of the bedchamber. Reconstructing Cromwell’s court is difficult due to the paucity of sources, but as Barclay argues, by 1658 “those around Cromwell had started to act like courtiers. They had come to believe in both the concept and the reality of a Cromwellian court”.

A second theme that emerges is of Cromwell being in more control of events than historians have given him credit for. Stephen K. Roberts examines Cromwell’s activity in the Long Parliament between November 1640 to August 1642. In this period he has often been seen as a lowly backbencher on the fringes of the godly group led by Warwick, Bedford, Pym and Holles. But Roberts argues that during this period Cromwell quickly established himself as a trusted and effective parliamentarian, pursuing issues doggedly, acting as teller on committees and playing an important role in liaison between the Lords and the Commons. Speeches that have often been seen as gaffes are reconstructed by Roberts as deliberate attempts to provoke opposition or action. Some of this interpretation, it is true, depends simply on emphasis, but the energy and drive that emerges from Roberts’ account rings true.

Likewise, Patrick Little re-examines one of the most contested issues of Cromwell’s life – his decision over whether to accept the offer of the crown in 1657. Little looks at the often forgotten attempt on Cromwell’s life by Miles Sindercombe, a disaffected former soldier. He argues that John Thurloe, and by extension Cromwell, used Sindercombe’s plot as a means of underlining the need for stability and hence the virtues of accepting a new constitution. This is not to reject Blair Worden’s interpretation of Cromwell wrestling with his conscience and eventually concluding that he did not want to commit the sin of Achan, and allow his greed to risk the fall of the new Israel. Instead, Little modifies Worden’s interpretation and argues that it was not so much the failure of the Hispaniola expedition, but Cromwell’s guilt over being tempted by the crown, that led him to conclude that he would “not build Jericho again”.

A third theme is to re-examine Cromwell’s life and career from ‘unusual’ perspectives. That most of these are in fact not at all unusual reflects the perspectives that previous historians have focused on – Cromwell himself , and his actions at the political centre. Lloyd Bowen looks at Cromwell from a Welsh viewpoint. After 1648 Cromwell received significant lands in Monmouthshire and Glamorgan, and had strong links with godly communities in Wales from early in the 1640s onwards. Bowen reconstructs a godly network centred on William Wroth and Walter Cradock, tied together by Sir Robert Harley of Brampton Bryan in Herefordshire. Kirsteen M. MacKenzie looks at Cromwell from a Scottish perspective, tracing his transformation from ally and God’s instrument to enemy and harbinger of the millennium. Philip Baker uses Cromwell’s stormy relationship with John Lilburne to examine his radicalism. Cromwell is often seen as the breaker of the Levellers, not least because of his conflict with them at Putney over the extension of the franchise. Baker, by contrast, traces the consistency of ideas between Cromwell, Lilburne and other Levellers well into the 1640s, and argues that it was only when army discipline was threatened that Cromwell turned against them. This is a very different portrait of Cromwell to the political conservative we are used to. Finally, Jason Peacey looks at Cromwell from the perspective of his son and successor, Richard. Richard Cromwell has not been treated kindly by historians, who have followed the lead of contemporaries who saw him as ‘Tumbledown Dick’. But as Peacey shows, Richard’s education at Felsted School was not at all unusual for the third son of a minor member of the gentry. After the death of his elder brothers Robert and Oliver, there was still no reason to “groom him for greatness”, but he was made a member of Lincoln’s Inn, married the daughter of a respectable Hampshire gentry family, and generally went down the path that many county squires would have done. As the 1650s progressed, though, much bigger steps were made by Cromwell and Thurloe to equip him for government. Peacey argues that if we avoid seeing Richard’s protectorship as inevitable, his education and previous career make much more sense.

The Cromwell that emerges from this book is both more powerful and more reckless than previous historians have portrayed him. Cromwell’s willingness to take significant risks emerges early on his life: some did not pay off, but as the contributors to this volume argue, many did. They are also less willing to take Cromwell’s word for it. Careful readings of hostile sources reveals grey areas over many of his actions. As they argue, his actions should not be read completely cynically, but but a more nuanced reading of Cromwell’s beliefs shows many cases where his beliefs justified his actions rather too handily. This collection does not pretend to give a completely new or integrated account of Cromwell’s career: but it does an extremely good job of suggesting some likely areas for reassessment, and suggests that we still have much further to go to understand Cromwell’s complex personality.