Cromwell and the Historians

Critics of Cromwell, both British and foreign, have long continued to “find what they were looking for” in the records of his career and character. Some have denounced him as a hypocritical tyrant; others have described him as the finest type of middle-class Englishman. Once at least, writes D.H. Pennington, he has been acclaimed as “the greatest Englishman of all time”.

Few characters in British history are better known than Oliver Cromwell; and the verdict of the ordinary man today is not far different from that of most of the writers who have chosen their evidence and pronounced their judgments over the last three centuries.

It is not true that Cromwell was universally reviled until Carlyle made a hero of him, nor that after this he was unanimously saluted as a founder of liberalism and nonconformity. The tendency of most of the many preconceptions from which the subject is approached is to end in a rather insipid mixture of approval and condemnation.

For contemporaries, of course, it was different. The opinions that got into print before the Restoration could seldom fail to be either black or white. Black won, even then. A few panegyrics (The Portraiture of a Matchless Prince; Veni, vidi, vici) appeared; Milton produced verse and prose in his support, and Marchamont Needham some first-rate journalism. But the initiative was overwhelmingly on the side of the opposition.

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