Two new books on the turbulence of the 17th century
Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution
Edited by John Morrill (Longman, 1990, 300 pp.)
The English Civil War
by Maurice Ashley (Alan Sutton, 1990, first published 1974, 202 pp.)
Dr John Morrill has lately assumed the presidency of the Cromwell Association, a heterogeneous lot united only in their intense interest in 'our chief of men' and his times. So this might be taken as a sort of celebratory offering, and quite appropriate. The editor himself provides 'the making of Oliver Cromwell' down to 1642, recreating brilliantly, a country gentleman, to be sure, but one in straiter circumstances than is usually allowed, anxious mingling personal fears with society's, slipping around 1630 into 'a dark night of the soul', to emerge with a powerful sense that he at least could be one of God's Englishmen. The strength of that conviction would carry him through all the vicissitudes, including bouts of craziness of health – I fancy he may have been manic-depressive – of the last third of his life in field and council chamber during the English Revolution of the title.
A survey by J.S.A. Adamson of Cromwell's relations with the Long Parliament goes back to the initial formulation of an attitude to parliamentary institutions in the assembly of 1628-9 and forward to the ejection of the Rump in 1653, when 'by experience' as much as by instinct he saw that 'the liberties' of God's people could not be guaranteed by 'a bare representative'.
Dr Adamson's passing equation of the Protectorate with 'the Personal Rule' of Charles I seems strained. His Majesty and His Highness really had clean different views of parliament. The parliamentary history of the Protectorate is, in fact, inadequately treated throughout this volume, even in 'The Lord Protector' by Derek Hirst, whose assignment was far too big for a single chapter. Foreign policy, for example, which might have been thought worth a chapter to itself is given – in the editor's own words – 'short shrift' in a couple of pages.
Austin Woolrych's mature examination of the moulding of the Lord General concludes, surely correctly, that he was not, nor wanted to be, a military dictator, though 'inevitably his military skills and reputation affected his conduct as a politician', calling for 'a degree of partnership with the army' in which he had served and which served him, though never slavishly, through three kingdoms. So the inclusion of a chapter (by David Stevenson) on Scotland and Ireland is welcome. (Wales gets a look-in later with 'The Godly Nation'). Oliver is seen, understandably, given seventeenth-century English chauvinism and incipient colonial aspirations, as wanting, like Charles I and Strafford, to turn these countries into loyal little Englands. But it is notable that after his conquests there his direct interest in them seems (in a suitably imprecise term of his own) 'somewhat' limited.
There is some overlap of topics, if not of views, between 'Cromwell's Religion' (J.C. Davis) and 'The Godly Nation' (Anthony Fletcher). The latter must have lain somewhere near the heart of the former. Both writers draw illumination from Blair Worden's famous trinity of articles on Cromwell, Providence and toleration, and stand on tip-toe in anticipation of his impending major biography. Both see Cromwell's concern for religious liberty as genuine enough. Certainly the 1650s under his lead took, however tentatively, a step towards a religious pluralism which would become one of the few ascertainable permanent consequences of the Interregnum. Dr Davis's chapter underlines the difficulty of establishing Cromwell's theology, a task as hard – and perhaps in the end as unprofitable – as seeking to pin down his political philosophy. Johann Sommervile tackles that skilfully but in the event provides not much more than a handsome frame of reference within which it might, or might not be contained.
This collection concludes with the editor's own survey of what contemporaries thought – or at least said and wrote – about Cromwell. It shows that he was as much a puzzle to them as he remains, happily, to us. The portrait that emerges from the lucubrations of these skilled historians is an impressionistic one, and neither profile nor full-face, but we can discern something of the human being, with pimples, warts and all, struggling to come out of the type, the Lord General, the Lord Protector or whatever.
Maurice Ashley, a former President of the Cromwell Association, has produced several biographies of Cromwell The best, still stimulating, appeared in the 1930s, The Conservative Dictator, reflecting that decade's fascination for dictatorship. The English Civil War is a revised version of a popular work published in 1974. Copiously but imaginatively illustrated, it is chiefly a military account but it takes the politics in tow. Dr Ashley is well aware of the various revisionisms that perplex interpretation of this period, but wisely has not overloaded his concise text with them. The upshot is a physically attractive volume providing an intelligent introduction to what was not the English civil war at all, nor even perhaps the English Revolution, but the general crisis of the British Isles.