Cromwell at Worcester

Keith Feiling suggests that the Battle of Worcester holds central importance, not only in the unique character of the Lord Protector, but for the history of Britain itself.

When your wives and children shall ask you where you have been, and what news: say you have been at Worcester, where England’s sorrows began and where they are happily ended.

Engraving of Oliver Cromwell
Engraving of Oliver Cromwell
So wrote Hugh Peters just after the second of the three memorable events of Cromwell’s life that fell on a third of September, the battle of Dunbar being the first, and his death the last. In terms of power, of the 'providences' by which he believed God justified His purposes, Worcester was the 'crowning mercy' of which he wrote to Speaker Lenthall. Here he laid down for ever the sword, first used by this middle-aged civilian a bare nine years before, and took up the staff of 'the constable in the parish', to restore and keep the peace.

Though the result of the battle was a foregone conclusion, for his armies much outnumbered the Royalists, and all England had risen against the Scottish invaders, none was more decisive for British history. Nor was the arena unworthy of that triumph. Worn out by a month on the march since leaving Stirling, harried by Lambert and Harrison and Robert Lilburne, the Royal army had tramped into Worcester on 22nd August. And now the trap had closed. As Charles II surveyed the field of battle from the Cathedral tower, eastward he would see Cromwell’s main body coming from the Avon and Evesham, where an earlier rebel had played his last stake and lost; westward across Severn, he saw the divisions of Fleetwood and Lambert fighting their way towards the Teme, which brought down through the orchards all the memories of monarchy at Ludlow and of Tudor Wales; near the junction of Severn and Teme was being finished Cromwell’s bridge of boats, by which he was to shuttle the deciding weight of victory from east to west, and back again. By sunset the guns taken from the Scots, and turned down the streets of Worcester, had done their work. By dawn on the 4th nothing survived of the Royal cause, except a group of horsemen fifty miles to the north at Whiteladies, among whom was the King.

No English subject, I suppose, unless it be Nelson, has so impressed himself on the national imagination as this English squire of Welsh descent. Ride where you will, he has ridden and fought over the soil before you—from Bovey Tracy in the west to Stirling, or from Pembroke to King’s Lvnn. At Ely or York or Westminster, close your eyes and you may yet see him as Philip Warwick described him, with ill-made country clothes, massed swollen features, untuneable cloudy eloquence, and on his collar specks of blood. So that everywhere, right or wrong, slighted castles and devasted monuments are put down to 'Ironside'. Nor has any Englishman, unless once more it is Nelson or Drake, made his might so respected in Europe, as the general whose redcoats extorted Dunkirk from Mazarin, whose ascendancy vindicated the slaughtered saints of the Vaudois, or whose ships under Blake’s command menaced Leghorn, Lisbon, and Algiers.

It seems improbable that history will ever seriously revise the presentation of Cromwell, given us by the genius of Carlyle and the life-given long labours of Gardiner and Firth. Neither the 'bold bad man' of Clarendon’s painting, nor the self-seeker and apostate of Ludlow and Mrs. Hutchinson, can survive the accumulated evidence of an habitual hesitation, a fixedly conservative outlook on society, an instinct to conciliate and to preserve, a tolerance as immense, and yet as severe, as Abraham Lincoln’s, with a readiness to abdicate his own powers if that way the Divine finger pointed. That, surely, is the clear moral of the Clarke Papers, and of all the tangled advances, retreats, and reactions of the years from 1646 to 1648. Again, to analyse the essential Cromwell is one thing; but it is quite another to criticize the politics of his civilian advisers, Thurloe or St. John or Lockart; while those of Povey and the rest of the business men behind the committees of trade, with whom today we are not concerned, present a further problem. As for Cromwell himself, we are today ill-equipped to estimate the true personality of one who held that political events were but 'dross and dung in comparison with Christ'. Gardiner wrote of him, in his wonderful Ford lectures, as not only the greatest but the 'most typical Englishman of all time': against which we must set a large interrogation mark, unless we believe that the 'typical' Englishman is either a fanatical Calvinist, or a mystic. It might be typical of early seventeenth-century England to massacre the garrison of Drogheda or knock friars promiscuously on the head, to view Rome as Babylon, or to avow that 'the Lord Himself hath a controversy with your enemy', the Spaniard. But it is scarcely typical of the permanent English character to believe that, having been once in grace, salvation is assured, or that a cavalry skirmish is an appeal to God. Like Johannes Agricola, he was 'alone at God’s right hand', assured that He was leading His saints by a predestined way. Cromwell’s clinching argument at any political turning-point was always this intolerable view of 'outward dispensations', this waiting on the issue of battle or negotiation as the providences of God, which 'hang so together' and are 'so constant, so clear, unclouded'. Yet these were the beliefs that made him a pillar of fire in the darkest night, and armed his slow decisions with an inexorable energy, so that, having stood out last of all men against violence and the breaking down of all bridges with the past, in the end he carried through the trial and execution of the King, 'this man against whom the Lord hath witnessed'. 'I tell you we will cut off his head with the Crown upon it'. How could the instruments of God feel remorse for this 'necessity' cast upon them, which 'Christians in after times will mention with honour, and all tyrants in the world look at with fear?'

For the rest he was, indeed, a true type of what the late Elizabethan age had bred in plenty, the sober God-fearing rustic aristocrat, devoted to his home and his 'little wenches' and his-country, jealously proud of the liberties and the religion which, in her own peculiar and grudging way, the Queen 'of most happy memory' had bequeathed. Like scores of others on both sides, Capels and Culpeppers and Fleetwoods and Gerrards, this cadet of the Hinchinbrook magnates belonged to a cadre of natural leaders, who lived on and by their native acres, first learning to govern men in small corporations and petty sessions, or in meetings of commoners in the Fens. He possessed in full measure their tastes, their limitations, and their most virile virtues. For he loved good music and singing, as he loved good horses and horse-training, while his grammar school, Cambridge and the Inns of Court gave him an admiration for good learning, a feeling for the glorious heritage of his country, and a sense of how to rule his fellow citizens. His heroes, and the causes he clung to, were those which all the fighting class of his generation admired — Queen Elizabeth, Gustavus Adolphus, or the Huguenots. Most naturally gifted of cavalry leaders, reckless of danger and ruthless in pushing victory home, he was also a tender-hearted and merciful man, a good neighbour, strictly just to honourable enemies, and full of compassion for the poor, the afflicted, and the misguided.

He had not, of course, the advantages of some modern historians in being able to read history backwards, and to view this as a social war. With his stalwart body of 'bourgeois' kinsfolk, Hampden and Whalley and the rest, having served under Essex and Manchester and Fairfax, and having commanded regiments mostly raised and led by country gentlemen and lawyers, he could hardly be expected to think of his forces as a people's army. It was not into rich and poor, but into servants of God or His enemies, that he divided mankind, all men being set by their various gifts and training and heredity in an unequal social order. Disliking abstract terms and ideologies at least as much as Burke, he distrusted fanatics. Not so legally or so logically minded as his admirable, though rather wooden son-in-law, Henry Ireton, he would not have the State 'desolated' by pushing one fair premise to extremity; liberty and property, for instance, were both 'noble things abused for the patronizing of villainies'. The Army were not mere mercenaries but citizens who bore up the fabric, and Burford churchyard witnessed his way with Levellers who would sacrifice the whole to the part: 'you must break these men, or they will break you'.

For all that, we might claim that, in the fundamentals of justice and mercy which knit a society together, no greater soldier of democracy has existed. His rules of political thinking, if they can be called such, are few and familiar. 'Sir, the State in choosing men to serve it, takes no notice of their opinions; if they be willing to serve it faithfully, that suffices'. He had, indeed, moral expectations of what he could call the upper 'interests' in a State. But 'I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain, that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else'; 'better plain men than none'. This State of his was not to be a police State, and no member of Parliament spoke out more vigorously against the shortsightedness of forced solutions. 'What we and they gain in a free way is better than twice so much in a forced way, and will be more truly ours and our posterity’s. That you have by force, I look upon as nothing'. He was ready enough, as the work of his Major-Generals especially showed, to attempt moral reformation through government action. For 'the mind is the man. If that be kept pure, the man signifies somewhat; if not, I would fain see the difference there is betwixt him and a beast'. Yet all this must not be pushed by moral pedantry to demoralization. 'From brethren, in things of the mind, we look for no compulsion, but that of light and reason.' 'It will be found an unjust and unwise jealousy to deprive a man of his natural liberty upon a supposition he may abuse it. When he doth abuse it, judge.' His dying prayer for the people is not so very far, given its own idiom, from Clarendon’s praise of 'their old good humour'; 'give them consistency, of judgement, one heart, and mutual love.'

We find no abandonment of these canons of his faith in all his dealings both as General and as Protector after Worcester field, nor any contradiction to the line he had taken before in those memorable inter-war debates in Putney church. Hemmed in by a triumphant Army of militant sectaries, Royalist plotters, Leveller assassins and mutineers, a recalcitrant Presbyterian or merely political aristocracy, we find him always applying, as and whenever he could, to these tough irreconcilable elements some degree of 'healing'. Though sworn to extirpate 'Popery and prelacy', his government abolished fines for recusancy, and winked at almost open Anglican worship. To the Quakers, whom Puritan magistrates hounded from pillar to post, he extended some protection. Himself he would have given full toleration to the Jews, and meanwhile connived at many particular leniencies. His speeches commiserated the lot of humble Royalists, driven like sheep to confiscation so that the Rump might pay its way. If he thought always first of the godly, he often told his hearers they should have 'not a spirit for believers only but for the whole people', expecting the day when all should be the Lord’s people.

Worcester, and not the expulsion of the Rump with its baubles, gave him his power, for inevitably it produced the moment when the Revolution, like all revolutions, turned and rent itself, thus making room for the reactions. The questions at issue involved the whole future of the country. Was all to be swept and garnished, or would the continuity of our law and institutions prove its strength? Was Parliament to rule or the Saints, the Army or the civil power? Was the law to be the law of Bracton and Coke, or the law of Moses? Was property to go on as ever with its removable inequalities, or be frozen into some Utopia of 'Diggers', edified by preachers at Blackfriars? In these eddies we see Oliver swinging to each tide, as does the greatest vessel in the stream, slowly but with gathering weight as the scour deepens and the channel clears. He was never, he had admitted years ago, 'wedded or glued' to forms of government. Something 'with monarchy in it' might suit the national temper best, better anyhow than committing all powers to a single-chamber unrepresentative Parliament. Yet thrice he refused the Crown, rather than offend the godly soldiers who had fought for the cause. When the Saints failed egregiously in 'Barebones' Parliament, he would not keep power in his own hands but 'worked for a real Parliament again, and would not have parted with his Parliaments if they had left intact the religious toleration which he and the army prized above all earthly blessings, and the political buttresses he judged necessary to keep that toleration safe.

There is little apparent ground for calling him a great legislator, and what gives to the Commonwealth law-making its abiding interest —that is, its anticipation of so many reforms barely touched again until the age of Brougham and the Utilitarians—derives much more from the Rump and the Barebones Assembly than from his own volume of ordinances and statutes. Even so his administration took reasonable care for some vital matters—the reform of Chancery, the struggles of the East India Company, and commercial treaties; while his own hand may be traced in causes much nearer to his daily thinking. As Chancellor of Oxford University and projector of another at Durham, he encouraged learning and its endowment; and it was to his Oxford vice-chancellor, the very remarkable John Owen, that he chiefly looked for the organization of national and established churches, embracing the main Protestant bodies, filled with ministers of proved and tested godliness.

If Worcester settled one thing, it was this: that, while Oliver lived, the Army’s supremacy would be used to maintain the maxims of English policy as an Elizabethan Protestant would see them. England had been ignored in Europe for twenty years; she should, be respected. The old alliances should be furbished up—friendship with France, Holland, Sweden, and Protestant Germany, against Spain, the great 'underproper of Babylon'. Portugal should be made our commercial satellite and our roadstead. We should establish an equilibrium in the East Indies, and cut the Spanish roots in the West. It was a costly, an illusionist, and an obsolete policy—at least as to half of it, of which the only fruits were the temporary possession of an untenable harbour in Dunkirk and the painfully slow colonization of Jamaica. Many voices in Council opined that it was not to our interest to reinforce France against a declining Spain. Thurloe himself came to argue that a second and decisive war against Holland could not be avoided; neither the Great Elector of Prussia, nor the Danes, were prepared to sink their hatred of Sweden in an Evangelical League. But Oliver, ready to go on to the very gates of Rome, encouraged Charles X to attack Vienna and, in effect, to re-start the Thirty Years’ War.

Though there is much to question here— for the costs of this warfare strained his power at home and must soon have compelled him to peace—it seems mistaken, as Agincourt shows, to assume that even a wrong-headed war is always barren. The Protector’s mighty name and energy put Britain where Elizabeth’s best years had left her, and where William III was to put her again. His fleet, much increased in strength and improved in tactics and recruitment, was the first substantial and continuous professional Navy. The valour even of his raw recruits won European prestige for the first standing Army. To call him the founder of Empire is grotesque; he found it natural to act as if this small island were a great Power. If the power of armies is, as Wordsworth wrote, 'formal and circumscribed', there was a morality in the effort of this armed Republic, even when its policy went astray, which 'to all States not free shall climacteric be'.

What then, were the lasting fruits of Worcester? If the Puritan experiment failed or died with Oliver, if the King 'enjoyed his own again' (and a good deal else), if the iron Sheldon ruled at Lambeth and the 'Clarendon' Code evicted the godly Cromwellian ministers, none of this meant that Worcester field might never have been fought. The bones exhumed from the Abbey, to lie beneath Tyburn gallows, yet live. William the Norman took twenty years to cement his new settlement in Domesday book; nine, or eleven if reckoned from the execution of the King, were long enough for Cromwell and his Colonels. In these years there was no King, no House of Lords, no coercive and exclusive Church, no Star Chamber, no High Commission, no torture. These were, on the other hand, general tolerance for all Protestants and Acts of Union with Scotland and Ireland. What was done left a deep mark behind, even if momentarily swept away; and what was undone never wholly revived, even though restored in form. Cavalier Parliaments continued the struggle against the executive begun by the Puritans, their leader before the century ended being Harley, the son of one who had fought against the Lord’s anointed.

Thus from Worcester we may date the fundamentals in the British State as it went on till Waterloo. An energy and quality were released by Commonwealth and Protectorate, of a kind that the first two Stuarts had not permitted, and which the vacillations of the last two cannot disguise. The servants and inheritors of that State, even when they foreswore it, had a confidence and vigour that came of a new and braver world—Thurloe and Marvell, the admirable William Petty and the villainous George Downing, Samuel Pepys and John Locke, Shaftesbury and Sir Robert Moray and Christopher Wren. There had been a revolution of property as well as of mental atmosphere, and nothing henceforth could arrest the surge upwards of the Commons as the motive power of government. For a decade, the Committee of Both Kingdoms and the Protector’s Councils of State had held three kingdoms and scattered Colonies in a fast grip, entrusting all the resources of the State, as in their Board of Admiralty, to representatives of the Commons, and laying the foundations of the Cabinet system. In Committees of Trade and Plantations, afforced by experts, and in Thurloe’s department of foreign affairs, there were the germs of a permanent civil service. Their work had been done under the fire of many thousand pamphlets, against vocal protest from juries, under the eyes of the new coffee houses. Such government through public opinion could not long be suffocated by poor creatures like the second Buckingham, or tyrants like Lauderdale.

Since, for a decade after Worcester, the Saints were in power, what Oliver had most treasured would certainly not die. His sword had guarded a great balancing interest in the State until it grew too strong to be overthrown; political Nonconformity was his legacy, from which in due course proceeded the ideals, and whatever there was of spiritual fire, in the middle and yeoman class and the Whig party. There were men active in public life well before Worcester—Lord Craven if you will, or John Maynard—who lived to applaud or deplore the Revolution of 1688, and to read the doctrines of Locke, which were to reverberate in New England and thence to return, charged with fuller content. It was a queer ending for the visions of the Saints, an odd re-welding of the sword which had first been buckled on by the slow willow-edged rivers of Huntingdonshire.

All revolutions are led, and most are made, by a minority, which has either to convert its opponents or suppress them by force. And one man’s life does not often give the time for a conversion. Illegalities, therefore, blind spiritual oppressions, and some judicial murders characterized this rule of the Saints, for which the Protector must bear his share of responsibility. Yet how much less was his, whose passion was for 'healing and settling', and who showed an unfailing practical pity for 'the poorest Christian, the most mistaken Christian'. Necessarily, he must rule as the armed voice of a minority; but he imparted to such a rule something endurable and magnificent. Let us hear him once more speaking, to a hostile audience, of the English people;

a people that have been, like other nations, sometimes up and sometimes down in our honour in the world, but yet never so low but we might measure with other nations; and a people that have had a stamp upon them from God.

If, a little later, his defence of his Major-Generals is in a minor key, it still has an historic validity: 'truly England doth yet receive one day more of lengthening out its tranquillity by that same service of theirs'.

We return to Worcester. On the 12th September, after a day of hawking in the vale of Aylesbury as he passed, he was received at Westminster, with large cheering crowds and much firing of guns. On October 2nd, he wrote to the pastor of Boston, New England, formerly pastor of Boston in the Old, asking his prayers —asking too, 'how shall we behave ourselves after such mercies? who is a God like ours?'


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