Oliver Cromwell and the Scottish Campaign

The attraction of the Cromwell Association lies in the lack of reverence it attaches to its subject.

Paul Lay | Published in 06 May 2015

The Pourtraiture of His Royal Highness, Oliver, 1659.I am not normally a joiner, though I make an exception for the Cromwell Association. That is not because I am an unquestioning admirer of the Lord Protector, who remains an almost uniquely ambivalent figure: a fine general, though perhaps not as good as John Lambert, his political rival; an inspiring yet verbose speech-maker; a man of considerable personal tolerance but with an authoritarian streak made worse by an unquestioning belief in providence; and an unswerving commitment to government for the people – administered by his circle of the godly elect – rather than by the people. And then there is Ireland. 

No, the attraction of the Cromwell Association is that, while being broadly sympathetic to the achievements of the Protector, it rarely delivers panegyrics; indeed, at one recent symposium, one of its more prominent members, a leading scholar of the 17th century, lamented the fact that most recent biographies of Cromwell had been too positive; it was time for someone to call him to account, to present a more critical view of his rule.

This makes the Cromwell Association a somewhat different kettle of fish from the Richard III Society, though in fairness the Cromwellians have rather richer fare to digest. Whatever one thinks of Cromwell, his achievements suffice to make him great, which is more than can ever be claimed for the last Plantagenet king.

Compare and contrast, for example, the literature produced by the Cromwell Association with that of the Richard III Society. Cromwelliana, the association’s quarterly journal, is one of the more valuable forums for discussion of the crisis of the 17th century, which affected all corners of Britain and Ireland and, in the light of present politics in Scotland, has an especial resonance today.

It is a sad fact, for example, that few people realise that what was once called the English Civil War and is now more accurately called the Civil Wars or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, was actually sparked by events in Scotland. Which makes it all the more shameful that broadcasters such as Channel Four, with a public service remit, could devote hours of their March schedule to embarrassing live broadcasts of the pseudo-medieval shenanigans surrounding the reburial of Richard III – kitsch fit for a king – yet fail to shed any historical light on the current political struggle in Scotland or, say, Britain’s relationship with Europe. Public history? Yes please, but not at any price.

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today.