Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: review

Review of “A Dodo at Oxford”

Philip Atkins and Michael Johnson (eds.), A Dodo at Oxford. The unreliable account of a student and his pet dodo (Oxgarth Press, 2010). 160 pp. ISBN 978 0 9534438 2 6.

In the spring of 2008, a remarkable book turned up in the Oxfam bookshop in St Giles, Oxford. The small printed octavo volume was at first sight unassuming: its covers and some of its pages were missing, and a number of the remaining pages had been defaced or damaged. Beneath the non-existent covers, however, was the first volume of A Bird Considered, printed in 1695: a previously unknown work that is an account by an Oxford student of his experiences keeping a dodo as a pet.

Or is it? The authors admit that no library catalogues have previously recorded the existence of A Bird Considered. Although they date its events with some confidence to 1683, various details in the narrative are inconsistent. The book’s imprint clams it is a product of Oxford University Press, but the Press’s archives have no trace of it. Even the author’s identity is anonymous, and the editors have not been able to identify a suitable candidate.

Once you’ve read a few pages, though, the question of whether or not the narrative is true quickly loses importance. Instead you will be falling for the charm and warmth with which the unknown student tells his story. Unspecified circumstances – unclear due to the loss of some of the book’s pages – result in him being bequeathed a captive dodo by a dying Dutchman. Inspired by the burgeoning scientific movement going on around him in Oxford, and assisted by his friends Mr Flay and Mr Sawyer, the student resolves to study the dodo’s habits.Each month he carefully records its weight, height, and diet: ‘a frog, cobnuts, apples (many), crab apple, bread (any)’. He reproduces sketches of the dodo’s features, and tries to record the dodo’s call in musical notation. He conducts controlled experiments to test the dodo’s memory and its cognitive powers.

Quickly, however, the author’s affection for the dodo grows, and so does the reader’s. Although it ‘makes a prodigeous mess about my Room’, and has a ‘payneful crye’, the student is won over by the dodo’s attachment to him: ‘he runs always to me as I am the one to feed him (and he is ever hungry)’. After the dodo is briefly stolen then retrieved after the student gives chase, it ‘was a sorry sight indeed, all a-quiver when we got him out of the sack’. Thankfully it recovers after the administration of French brandy. Sawyer then starts to keep a diary ‘supposedly written by the Bird himself; for example: Ate an Apple. Counted to one hundred. Courted a pigeon &c’. By the end of the book, the dodo’s intelligence and the bond he has developed with his master – and his master with him – are in no doubt.

Meanwhile the book also reveals incidental details about the social history of Oxford in the 1680s. The author struggles to pay his rent and clashes with his landlord (placated by the offer of the dodo’s dung for his vegetable garden). He nurses an artist friend, Mr Tompkyns, and goes to see the apothecary and a wisewoman. He goes on an unsuccessful trip to visit Elias Ashmole, and attends the visit to Oxford by the Duke of York (the future James II). He also records impressions of other Oxford figures. Particularly intriguing are a series of dreams related by Flay, which bear comparisons with the wilder prophecies and revelations that were commonplace thirty years beforehand. A close study will reveal certain parallels with other periods, too.

Interleaved with the text, which is reproduced in facsimile at 100% scale, are a series of editorial annotations. Some of these deal with the provenance and reliability of the text, but most provide glosses and context on the book’s events. Collectively these form a wonderful kind of late-seventeenth century miscellany, covering not just contemporary Oxford but a wide range of other subjects. If you didn’t know about Charles II’s ostriches, early shorthand, or Dwarf Gibson then you will after reading this book. Like all the best footnotes, many of the annotations are improved through their quiet but dry wit, particularly the comments on the book’s proofs that have unaccountably crept into the finished version.

And beyond the text and its footnotes, A Dodo at Oxford is also a modest yet sophisticated meditation about the nature of the seventeenth-century book. This is not a straightforward facsimile of a uniform text. Printed annotations mingle with scribbled notes and graffiti in the margins. Authorial voices are inconsistent: the editors’ commentary has to compete with ephemera left in the book by previous owners, a child’s crayon drawings, and a marginal game of noughts and crosses. Newspaper cuttings, fragments from other texts, pictures, printed ephemera, and even a squashed spider are pressed into the pages in the manner of a commonplace book. All this combines to create a confusing and disorientating experience, which gestures at the fact that our own concept of “the book” was not necessarily the same as that held by early modern readers.

There are also a series of detailed appendices for readers who want an explanation of the differences between twenty-first century and seventeenth century books. These explain bibliographical issues such as ligatures, page signatures, kerning, and the long S. They also tell the story of the typefaces and printer’s ornaments used in the book: a wonderful reproduction of the Fell Types commissioned by John Fell for the Oxford University Press. Reproductions of contemporary maps of Oxford are also provided to further orientate the reader.

All of which makes A Dodo at Oxford a real treat. Newcomers to seventeenth-century England will be sucked in by the picaresque charm of the student and dodo’s adventures. Those familiar with the period will enjoy reading a new, hitherto unknown voice’s account of the scientific revolution. Those who know their book history will enjoy the book’s meta-commentary on early modern books and printing. As for whether A Bird Considered is genuine, you will have to make up your own mind. But the sceptics may want to look at video footage of the actual volume:

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.

New entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Shardlake, Matthew (b. c. 1500), lawyer, was the son of a yeoman farmer from Lichfield. Early in his childhood he developed severe kyphosis, a disability that would go on to have a significant impact on his adult life. In 1518 he moved to London to attend Lincoln’s Inn, going on to practice as a lawyer. In the late 1520s he was introduced to Thomas Cromwell, at the time a lawyer associated with Cardinal Wolsey. In 1533 Shardlake was able to use these connections to find a post under Cromwell for Mark Poer, son of his father’s steward William Poer.

In the winter of 1537 Shardlake was sent by Cromwell to investigate allegations of corruption at the Benedictine monastery of St Donatus the Ascendant of Scarnsea. The visit became a criminal investigation after another of Cromwell’s officials was found dead. While at Scarnsea, Shardlake was introduced to Guy Elakbar (known by his monastic name of Guy of Malton), a Spanish Muslim and apothecary who had fled Spain after the reconquista. Shardlake appears to have maintained an association with Malton after this meeting. Meanwhile Shardlake’s links with Poer seem to have ended after Scarnsea. After 1537 Poer disappears from the historical record, although correspondence recently unearthed suggests he may have eloped to France. In 1538 the monastery at Scarnsea was razed to the ground by Giovanni Portinari, Cromwell’s engineer.

The Scarnsea incident appears to have established Shardlake’s reputation as a fixer, particularly where crimes were involved. In 1540 Shardlake was asked by Cromwell to recover what was rumoured to be a recipe for ‘Greek fire’, the liquid weapon used by the Byzantine army. At the same time he was also involved in defending a young girl against a false charge of murder. It was during this time that Shardlake also met Jack Barak, a servant of Cromwell’s with whom he would go on to have a long association.

In 1541 Shardlake rose to prominence due to his involvement in the Progress by Henry VIII to York. By this time Sharlake had become associated with Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, who sent Shardlake to York to handle petitions to the king from the citizens of York. However, there are suggestions that while there, Shardlake was also involved in trying to bring an important prisoner, Sir Edward Broderick, safely to London for questioning. In 1543 Shardlake again acted on Cranmer’s behalf in investigating a series of murders that included the brutal killing of Shardlake’s friend Roger Elliard.

Throughout what is known of his career, Shardlake continued to practice law. No evidence survives of him having been married. He maintained a substantial London household and appears to have been close to his servants. He was also a horse enthusiast, holding particular affection for his first horse called Chancery.

Other events in Shardlake’s life and the date of his death remain unknown, although it is to be hoped that ongoing research by his biographer, C.J. Sansom, will uncover more details.

Sources C.J. Sansom, Dissolution (Basingstoke and Oxford, 2003); Dark Fire (Basingstoke and Oxford, 2004); Sovereign (Basingstoke and Oxford, 2006); Revelation (Basingstoke and Oxford, 2008).

(All of which is a roundabout way of saying how much I’ve been enjoying working my way through the Shardlake series recently. I hope I haven’t given away any of the plots).

Commonwealth to Protectorate


© The Trustees of the British Museum

Patrick Little (ed.), The Cromwellian Protectorate (Boydell, 2007). 218pp.

David L. Smith and Patrick Little, Parliaments and Politics During the Cromwellian Protectorate (Cambridge University Press, 2007). 352pp.

The engraving above is from a Dutch satirical print, and shows Oliver Cromwell in armour, wearing a crown and ermine cloak and holding the sword of justice and orb of sovereignty. Behind is a depiction of the execution of Charles . The print encapsulates one of the key tensions behind the English Commonwealth: a revolutionary event in British history was succeeded by successive attempts to restore stability and, in many spheres, traditional political and cultural forms.

Negotiating and explaining these tensions is one of the key tasks for any historian of the 1650s. But untl recently, the Commonwealth and the Protectorate have attracted less scholarly attention than the early and later Stuart periods. The 1640s in particular have had significant attention from revisionists and post-revisionists alike. By contrast, the 1650s have been reassessed in less detail.

In recent years this has started to change. There has been a significant cultural turn in the historiography of the 1650s. Laura Lunger Knoppers and Sean Kelsey have studied the iconography both of the Commonwealth and its critics. Roy Sherwood has examined the monarchical trappings of the Protectoral regime. Jason Peacey and Blair Worden have extended analysis of mid-seventeenth century print culture into the 1650s. There has also been a move towards more local studies. For example, Christopher Durston has reconstructed the impact of the major-generals in the localities and analysed why their attempt at godly rule failed. Now two additional studies, one edited by Patrick Little on various aspects of the Protectorate, and one by Little and David Smith on the parliaments of the Protectorate, have been added to this body of work.

At first glance Smith and Little’s work on the Protectorate parliaments looks like a move away from these historigraphical trends, choosing a very traditional parliamentary and constitutional topic for study. However, the authors bring a decidely revisionist twist to their analysis, looking at a familiar subject from new angles.  One such twist is a re-examination of the core constitutional documents of the Protectorate. There were six different constitutional documents produced between 1653 and 1657: not just the Instrument of Government and the Humble Petition and Advice, but also the failed parliamentary constitution; the failed monarchical Remonstrance; the Protectoral constitution; and the Additional Petition and Advice. Smith and Little analyse the twists and turns of these texts in detail, drawing out the implications of each document for parliamentary politics.

Smith and Little also examine the factions of the various Parliaments. For example, they analyse the loose “court” group associated with Cromwel during 1654-55, which included Sir Charles Wolseley, Walter Strickland, John Lambert, John Disbrowe, Broghill, Henry Cromwell, John Claypole, Edward Montagu. This mixture of civilians and soldiers makes it misleading to think in terms of broad divisions between soldiers and statesmen. The book concludes by agreeing, to an extent, with Hugh Trevor-Roper’s argument that Cromwell’s problems with his parliaments were of his own making. However, they look not to his disposition as a “natural back-bencher” and instead to Cromwell’s desire to see England converted to godly rule, with no fixed vision for the political form that might take. In joining this with a desire for parliaments that supported his vision, they argue Cromwell was setting himself an impossible task.

The book concludes with an intriguing hypothesis about Cromwell’s successor as Protector, his son Richard. He has often been seen as an ineffective ruler – the nickname “Tumbledown Dick” says it all. The woodcut below, with Richard as the “meek knight” in the middle, sums up his traditional reputation. (AN352990001, © The Trustees of the British Museum).

But Smith and Little argue instead that Richard tried to entrench the rise in power of the Presbyterian faction during the 1650s, spotting which way the tide had been turning during Oliver’s last years. They suggest that Richard’s failure as Protector was actually prompted by the army’s fears that he and his parliament were too strong.

A re-evaluation of Richard’s time as Protector is also one of themes addressed by the contributors to Patrick Little’s edited collection on the Protectorate. Jason Peacey re-examines the Humble Petition and Advice, pointing out that its intention as a monarchical constitution for a system of rule that never materialised left Richard at a profound disadvantage when he inherited the Protectorship. This revisionist focus on central government during the Protectorate is shared by a number of essays in this volume. Blair Worden, for example, looks at Cromwell’s Council of State and reassesses its importance, arguing that it mattered politically only because the army generals were represented on it. Lloyd Bowen and Patrick Little begin a process of bringing out the British context of the English Protectorate, with Little looking at the Irish and Scottish councils and Bowen examining the impact of the Protectorate in Wales.

Perhaps the highlight is a brilliant essay by Paul Hunneyball on Cromwellian architectural style. This extends Sean Kelsey’s findings about the extent to which the Commonwealth drew on and recycled monarchical ritual and iconography. Many state buildings saw significant repairs and improvements.

For example, in 1656 a fountain of Diana designed by Inigo Jones and executed by Hubert Le Sueur was brought from Somerset House to the garden at Hampton Court. The statue of Diana on the top was surrounded by Venus, Cleopatra, Adonis and Apoollo, with sea monsters, boys on dolphins and scallops around it. The statue, depicted to the left, was moved to Bushy Park in 1690.

As Hunneyball argues, the effect of this was to restore the architectural tastes of Charles I in the 1630s. Similar efforts were made to restore Whitehall to its former state. The Banqueting House was requipped with lavish tapestries, with Cromwell personally overriding objections by the Council of State to the high expenditure.

A number of themes emerge from these two books. One is the return to constitutional documents as a focus for study, and the impact that these had on high politics. Another is a more negative depiction of Cromwell’s period as Protector. Smith and Little argue for more emphasis on his failings to manage his parliaments, whilst Worden analyses a number of “senior moments” during his final years. Richard Cromwell, by contrast, emerges as a more sympathetic figure. It will be interesting to see whether these themes are developed in further works on the Protectorate in the coming years.

Going Dutch

There was a devastating review by Peter Conrad of Lisa Jardine’s new book on the influence of Holland on early modern English culture in the Observer this weekend . Noel Malcolm in the Telegraph had a slightly softer critique.

However, others seem to have liked Going Dutch better. Peter Ackroyd in the Times and Keith Thomas in the Guardian are both worth a read.

Update – John Adamson has also given Jardine a glowing review in the Literary Review .