Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: oliver cromwell

Coin flipping

Adventures in the British Museum archive, part 96. Here are some interesting blueprints for coinage during the Protectorate and the Restoration. They are both by Thomas Simon, who had been appointed chief engraver at the Royal Mint in 1649 under the mastership of Aaron Guerdon. First is a proposed design for coins in 1656:

Protectorate coinage

AN327426001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Protectorate Council’s papers record the decision thus:

Approval of the stamp and superscriptions prepared by Thos. Simons for the gold and silver pieces, according to his new invention, as also the motto of Oliva. D. G. R. Pub. Ang. Sco. et Hib. Protec. on one side, and Pax quæritur bello, on the other side—and the 2 inscriptions for the edge, viz., Has nisi periturus mihi adimat nemo, and Protector literis, literœ nummis Corona et salus.

Here is an example of how the coins actually turned out:

Oliver coin

After the restoration of Charles II, Simon squared regime change with his conscience. Although h seems to have lost his position as chief engraver, he carried on working at the mint, producing designs for the monarchy. Here is a warrant from Charles II for the production of an angel, with a strikingly different choice of iconography:

Restoration coinage

AN327431001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

In 1662, Simon lost a contest with Dutch engravers, the Roettier brothers, to design the first milled coinage. To try to restore his reputation, he submitted a design known as the Petition Crown to Charles II, with the following legend around the edge:


Here is Simon’s design for the piece:

Charles II crown

AN327430001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

And here is how it turned out:

Pattern crown

Van Dyck and Britain

I finally got round to visiting Tate Britain for its Van Dyck and Britain exhibition on Friday. It’s a very well put together collection. The exhibition starts with a look at English portraiture before Van Dyck’s arrival in London, leading through into portraits of Charles I and his family and of Charles’s court. As well as the familiar portraits – Charles on horseback, Henrietta Maria in all her finery,  the young Charles II in armour – it has some less well-known works like this amazing portrait of Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle:


It then moves from the public to the private to focus on Van Dyck’s personal life. The highlight here is undoubtedly the famous double portrait of  Van Dyck and his friend Endymion Porter:


For me one of the best parts of the exhbition was the section on the impact of Van Dyck. I was really pleased that the Tate had got hold of engravings by Pierre Lombart inspired by Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I on horseback. Here is the first, showing Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector and produced at some point after 1655:


AN150548001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

It is a straight lift from Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I on horseback with M. de St Antoine:


Alongside the Cromwell engraving, the Tate had a subsequent impression of the plate, this time with Cromwell’s head scratched out and Charles I’s head put in:


AN150545001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

But I thought the Tate missed a trick by not showing the intermediate plate, which has become known as the Headless Horseman:


AN150541001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

There was also a wonderful portrait by John Singer Sergeant of the Earl of Dalhousie, which owes a debt to Van Dyck’s portrait of Lord John Stuart and his brother Lord Bernard:


Talking to a few other visitors, it seems that most people there on Friday afternoon were struck by how well Van Dyck captured the fashions of the 1630s: the flowing hair, the sumptuous fabrics. But walking out of the Tate, I realised that what had inspired me most wasn’t the emblems and accessories in the portraits – flawlessly executed as they are – but the simpler portraits, where the sitter’s expression is what conveys their power. The picture I kept coming back to, above all others, was Van Dyck’s portrait of the earl of Strafford with Sir Philip Mainwaring.


As a painting this is sparsely detailed compared to many of the martially- or mythologically-inspired grand portraits of Charles’s court.  But Van Dyck has captured Strafford’s mix of charisma and utter ruthlessness perfectly. Walking out onto Millbank it was Strafford’s steely gaze that I took away with me.

Killing Noe Murder

news9a_0I’ve been reading Edward Sexby’s Killing Noe Murder for class this week, and it got me thinking about the mechanics of actually publishing controversial pamphlets.

Sexby was born around 1616 and served under Oliver Cromwell in his Ironsides during the early 1640s. By the time the New Model was formed in 1645, he was serving under Fairfax and went on to play an important role in the radicalisation of the army during the later 1640s. He famously set out his political views on the first day of the Putney debates:

The cause of our misery is upon two things. We sought to satisfy all men, and it was well; but in going about to do it we have dissatisfied all men. We have laboured to please a king and I think, except we go about to cut all our throats, we shall not please him; and we have gone to support an house which will prove rotten studs — I mean the Parliament, which consists of a company of rotten members.

After Putney, Pride’s Purge and the regicide, Sexby became an important figure for the Commonwealth and went to Bordeaux to try to influence his fellow Protestant Frondeurs and support them in their struggle. By 1655, though, like many fellow supporters of the Good Old Cause, he had fallen out of love with Cromwell and the Protectorate. He was involved in the plot by Miles Sindercombe to assassinate Cromwell in early 1657.

After the plot failed, Sexby – who was at this point in the Netherlands – wrote a pamphlet called Killing Noe Murder, giving biblical and classical humanist justifications for why Cromwell was a tyrant and could lawfully be killed. Although there is some debate about the extent of involvement, it seems likely that Sexby took the lead in writing it but perhaps in consultation with Silius Titus, the Presbyterian representative of the royalists Sexby had allied himself with against Cromwell. He introduced the pamphlet with this sardonic preface:

May it please your Highness,
How I have spent some hours of the leisure your Highness has been pleased to give me, this following paper will give your Highness an account. How you will please to interpret it I cannot tell; but I can with confidence say my intention in it is to procure your Highness that justice nobody yet does you, and to let the people see the longer they defer it, the greater injury they do both themselves and you. To your Highness justly belongs the honour of dying for the people; and it cannot choose but be unspeakable consolation to you in the last moments of your life to consider with how much benefit to the world you are like to leave it. ‘Tis then only, my Lord, the titles you now usurp will be truly yours. You will then be indeed the deliverer of your country, and free it from a bondage little inferior to that from which Moses delivered his. You will then be that true reformer which you would be thought. Religion shall be then restored, liberty asserted, and parliaments have those privileges
they have fought for.

The pamphlet seems to have arrived in London by 18 May. The Publick Intelligencer reported on that day that “divers abominable desperate pamphlets” had been scattered about the streets, including at Charing Cross and other places in the City.

The former Leveller John Sturgeon (formerly a member of Cromwell’s life guard, but since the mid-1650s an opponent of the Protectorate) was arrested on 25 May with two bundles of copies on him – about 300 in all. Two days later a search was made of St Catherine’s Dock and seven parcels with 200 copies – 1,400 in all – were found in the house of Samuel Rogers, a waterman. A bundle of 140 found near steps of a house. So perhaps 2,000 were taken out of circulation.

Many more did get circulated, though. John Thurloe wrote to Henry Cromwell on 26 May enclosing a copy:

There is lately a very vile booke dispersed abroad, called Killinge noe murder. The scope is, to stirre up men to assassinate his highnes. I have made search after it, but could not finde out the spring-head thereof. The last night there was one Sturgeon, formerly one of his highness’s life-guard, a great leveller, taken in the street, with two bundles of them under his arme. The same fellow had a hand in Syndercombe’s buissines, and fledd for it into Holland, and is now come over with these bookes. I have sent your lordship one of them, though the principles of them are soe abominable, that I am almost ashamed to venture the sendinge it to your lordship.

Thurloe’s assistant Samuel Morland wrote to John Pell at the start of June that:

There has been the most dangerous pamphlet lately thrown about the streets that ever has been printed in these times. I have sent you the preface, which is more light, but, believe me, the body of it is more solid; I mean as to showing the author’s learning, though the greatest rancour, malice, and wickedness that ever man could show – nay, I think the devil himself could not have shown more.

People paid up to 5 shillings to get hold of copies. A copy even got thrown into Cromwell’s coach.

So how did Sexby and his accomplices achieve this? The first step was maximise the numbers who could have read Killing Noe Murder had. The pamphlet is 16 pages of quarto, and hence made up of two sheets of paper. Each set of 8 pages would have been printed as follows: the numbers represent page numbers in the final book.


It was printed on cheap paper – possibly ‘pot paper’, which in the 1620s had sold for between 3s. 4d. and 4s.6d. a ream. A ream contained 500 sheets, so one ream would have supplied 250 copies of the book. The 2,000 copies confiscated by the authorities would hence have cost at least £1 for Sexby and his accomplices to commission. Of course this does not include printer’s costs: by way of comparison, in 1655 Sturgeon had paid the radical printer Richard Moone 40 shillings for 1,000 copies of A Short Discovery of his Highness the Lord Protector’s Intentions. This was 8 pages long so a work double the size might have cost 80 shillings, or £4, for 1,000 copies. Assuming on top of the 2,000 confiscated copies that perhaps another 1,000 or 2,000 copies did survive and go into circulation, the whole enterprise might have cost Sexby £12 to £16.

Parcels of the pamphlet would then have been shipped across to London. Thurloe ordered a search of Dutch boats but had no luck in finding which skipper had shipped them over. It seems likely that John Sturgeon was Sexby’s London agent when it came to receiving and distributing copies. He had fled to the Netherlands after being involved in Miles Sindercombe’s failed plot to kill Cromwell earlier in 1657, so probably accompanied the pamphlets over to England from Amsterdam.

When it came to scattering copies about London’s streets, it’s impossible to know exactly how Sturgeon achieved this. However, it seems likely that he drew on radical political and religious communities within London. Sturgeon was a member of the Baptist church of Edmund Chillenden, which met at St Paul’s. In the 1630s, Chillenden had been involved with John Lilburne in distributing subversive puritan literature, and had subsequently been involved in army politics with Sexby. It seems plausible that his church was the centre for a number of London-based Levellers and Baptists whom Sturgeon may have mobilised to help. Someone else arrested along with Sturgeon was Edward Wroughton, a haberdasher who was a member of Thomas Venner’s Fifth Monarchist congregation at Coleman Street. Members of this church were mostly young men and apprentices, who would be likely candidates for dispersing the pamphlet during the middle of the night.  So it’s possible too that a network of congregations played a part in helping Sexby.

Killing Noe Murder had an impact out of proportion to its size and the number of copies distributed. It became a major talking point and the Protectorate took significant steps to take it out of circulation and arrest its conspirators. Sadly for Sexby, he was arrested after returning to London in June 1657 to foment further assassination attempts. While being held in the Tower of London he confessed authorship of Killing Noe Murder. He died there in January 1658.

My illustration is of course of the Master DI Sam Tyler John Simms as Sexby in The Devil’s Whore. For more on Sexby and Killing Noe Murder:

Oliver Cromwell: New Perspectives


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.

Images of regicide

With the 360th anniversary of the execution of Charles I coming up on Friday, I thought I would have a look at what the internet has to offer on images of the regicide.

While Charles’s reputation has been the subject of immense debate, pictures of his execution have tended to be remarkably consistent over the years. Immediate reactions to the regicide – mostly printed abroad, for obvious reasons – tended (like the frontispiece of the Eikon Basilike) to emphasise Charles as martyr. Here, for instance, is an etching from a Dutch broadside of 1649, Historiaels verhael… Carolvs Stvarts, Coningh van Engelandt, Schotlandt, en Yerlandt.


AN257700001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

It’s fairly gruesome: you can see Charles’s body spurting blood from its severed neck. From left to right you can see Thomas Juxon, Colonel Francis Hacker, Colonel Matthew Tomlinson and the executioner. But in the apotheosis scene above, you can also see Charles’s spirit ascending to heaven.

Very similar, but without the apotheosis, is this German engraving from 1649, Endhauptung der Konigs in Engelandt.


AN151032001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

This kind of image persisted and was reinforced after the Restoration. Below is A lively Representation of the manner how his late Majesty was beheaded uppon the Scaffold, which probably dates from around the execution of various regicides in the early 1660s. At the top of the etching, Charles waits in dignity for his fate, while below one of the regicides is hanged, drawn and quartered.


AN260225001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

For much of the eighteenth century this kind of representation of Charles’s execution persisted. While Whigs and Tories battled over the history of the civil wars and rewrote and redeployed the key events and figures of the period to suit their ideologies, for the most part Jacobites seem to have resurrected the martyr cult while most orthodox Whigs remained horrified by the actual execution. But the more radical were still happy to celebrate the anniversary of the regicide: The True Effigies of the Members of the Calves Head Club from 1735 shows a mob gathering around a bonfire outside the Golden Eagle tavern in Suffolk Street, near Charing Cross, to celebrate.


By the end of the eighteenth century, though – fuelled in part by events in France – depictions of the regicide were becoming more unstable. Here is a print by James Gillray from 1790, Smelling out a rat; or the atheistical-revolutionist disturbed in his midnight “calculations”.


The figure at the desk is Richard Price, a radical dissenter. He sits below a portrait of the execution of Charles, writing an essay called “On the Benefits of Anarchy Regicide Atheism”.  Smelling him out is a caricature of Edmund Burke carrying a crown in one hand and a cross in the other. On one level the meaning is straightforward: the painting of Charles is labelled “Death of Charles I, or the Glory of Great Britain”. But Burke doesn’t exactly come out of the print wonderfully, either.

Still, even in the Victorian era Charles’s execution was often seen even by those who sympathised with Cromwell as an understandable but regrettable step. Great efforts were made to explain the actions of Cromwell and other regicides as a temporary blip in constitional propriety, prompted more by the evil of royalist enemies than by a failure of character by Cromwell. Radical and nonconformist images of the civil wars seem to have focused on more positive rehabilitations of Cromwell than on debunking the idea of Charles as a martyr king. I haven’t seen any images from the nineteenth century that go down this route. What I have found is some wonderful images of martyrdom:


Illustration from Charlotte M. Yonge Young Folks’ History of England (Boston: D. Lothrop & Co., 1879)


Painting by Ernest Crofts of Charles being led to his execution.

Closer to the present, no account of images of the regicide would be complete without the moving – pun intended – images of the execution in Ken Hughes’s 1970 film Cromwell. If you studied this period at school in England during the 1980s, then probably the mere mention of the phrase “a ciiii-vil war?” will be enough to transport you back to Proustian memories of the film, but if you haven’t seen it here is a clip I found on Youtube of the climactic scene. Alec Guinness as Charles goes resignedly to his fate, while Richard Harris as Cromwell looks moody. But if nothing else it shows the persistence of images of Charles as martyr.