John Morrill reviews Andrew Barclay's account of Cromwell's election as MP for Cambridge in 1640.
The Making of a Politician
Pickering and Chatto 288pp £60
ISBN 978 184893018 6
It has always been impossible to work out how Oliver Cromwell, a man who was a failed business-man in Huntingdon and a former mere yeoman-farmer in St Ives who then managed properties in Ely, came to be elected as MP for Cambridge in 1640, a city that had always elected men with strong connections to the royal court or who were among its elite aldermen. Andrew Barclay has now solved the riddle in a work of exhilarating virtuosity, going where no man has gone before, into archives as dusty and neglected as archives can be, telling a compelling story of parish-pump intrigues. The kernel of this story is to be found in the bilious and embittered life of Cromwell published in 1663 by one James Heath under the title Flagellum. If the Daily Sport had existed in the 1660s Heath would have been its editor. But amazingly within Flagellum, and more importantly within its third edition, there is an account of the Cambridge elections of 1640 which can be checked and largely verified. It takes Barclay into exploring how Charles I got freshwater fish for his table, into the high and low politics of fenland drainage, into small-time corruption in Ely charities, into the suspect world of underground conventiclers in which Cromwell was probably implicated, into his edgy and surprisingly complicated relations with Matthew Wren, the arch-Laudian authoritarian Bishop of Ely, and into the arcane and murky workings of Cambridge Corporation. In the process, we see a vice-chancellor humiliated, a Bishop of Lincoln bamboozled, a Lord Keeper sleighted and all kinds of colourful characters turning out to be related to the man destined to be (one of) Britain’s greatest and most controversial generals and a rare non-royal head of state.
Barclay’s account ‘challenges and overturns’ my own earlier work with its highly tentative suggestions as to why Cromwell was elected for Cambridge. Excellent! Barclay has burrowed deep into archives in Cambridge, Ely and parts of the National Archives (such as ‘Petty Bag’) which few have dared to enter. Many of his sources can be described as terra incognita. Even more remarkably there are citations of manuscripts in no less than 45 depositories. This is an unintended rebuke to much current academic laziness, the world of quick-fix scholarship, in which books and articles are compiled through word-searches in Early English Books Online and British History Online.
How wonderful to read a book that glories in the search and the chase, over hill and dale, that reveals just how much we can find out about the past if we really work at it. Combined with the astonishing richness of Barclay’s research is the outstanding source criticism, the sifting of the evidence through the finest of sieves. The result is a book with a dense texture that takes us on some very long detours, all worth the effort. Cromwell can disappear for pages at a time, as when the continuing saga of feuding within Cambridge Corporation after the 1640 elections tells us much more about the role of his fellow MP John Lowry than about Oliver. In fact, although the book’s title focuses on Cromwell, its contents are really more about provincial neuroses in the run up to civil war.
This is as important a set of local studies on communities under stress, fabric tearing so as to make civil war possible, as we have had for 20 years. It is a book for the aficionado, for those with an established passion for the war of words, the struggle for hearts and minds, the defining watershed of British history. For those who are that way inclined, this is a must read.
John Morrill is Professor of British and Irish History, Selwyn College, Cambridge.