After the Civil Wars

Sarah Mortimer looks at the historiography of what followed the British Civil Wars: the Republic led by Oliver Cromwell.

King Oliver: A Dutch pamphlet of the late 1650s portrays Cromwell as a monarch. In May 1649 Parliament declared the abolition of monarchy. This was, however, a 'Rump’ Parliament, from which all those who were not supporters of the New Model Army had been purged in December 1648. For 11 years England and then Ireland and Scotland were ruled as a republic. But this proved no easy task and soon elements of monarchical rule began to creep back in to government. In 1653 Oliver Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector. Stability was maintained until his death in 1658, but his son Richard proved unable to hold things together and in 1660 Charles II was invited back to London.

The Republic was greeted with a mix of ecstatic enthusiasm and horrified revulsion. The New Model Army and the self-styled ‘Saints’ hoped to see real reforms, while the county elites feared for their status and property. Balancing these antagonistic interests was an impossible task and it is no wonder that the Rump was dissolved by Cromwell and the army just four years after the regicide. The seemingly doomed republican experiment of 1649-53 is not in vogue with today’s historians, who tend to focus either on Cromwell himself or on the radical movements – subjects that seem at once exotic and presciently modern.

Oliver Cromwell was, of course, the real star of the military show and his rise to power was unprecedented. He had been an officer in the New Model Army during the Civil Wars and, after leading the army from 1649, came to lead the country as well. Cromwell continues to fascinate historians, not least because his ideas and his intentions are so difficult to pin down. This is not because our sources are limited; Cromwell’s long speeches and his many letters are easily available in Victorian editions and a new edition is being prepared at the University of Cambridge under John Morrill’s direction. But Cromwell was a master of rhetoric and ambiguity, leaving contemporaries and, later, historians struggling to unravel his meaning.  One way to get a stronger sense of the man is to explore his intellectual and religious milieu and here Blair Worden’s many essays, now collected in God’s Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell (Oxford University Press, 2012), contextualise Cromwell with great lucidity.  From a different direction the essays collected in Patrick Little’s Oliver Cromwell: New Perspectives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) show Cromwell as a cunning and even ruthless political actor.

The bloodiest of Cromwell’s battles were in Ireland and his role in the brutal campaign of 1649-51 has long been controversial.  Micheál O Siochrú’s God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland (Faber, 2008) provides a thorough and, despite the title, balanced account of the Republic’s efforts to settle Ireland.  The Cromwellian conquests merely complicated rather than resolved the tensions between England, Ireland and Scotland; and it was Irish and Scottish Protestant elites who sought to solve the problem by making Cromwell king in 1657. Patrick Little explores this movement in his Lord Broghill and the Cromwellian Union with Ireland and Scotland (Boydell Presss, 2004), shedding new light on the most difficult decision Cromwell faced: whether to accept or reject the crown.

Cromwell refused the crown, concerned that God had abandoned him after the disastrous failure of his military expedition against the Spanish Caribbean, the so-called ‘Western Design’. But we have no satisfactory study of Cromwell’s foreign policy as yet and very little on his relationship with France and Spain. The Rump is better served and Steve Pincus has shown just how far its foreign policy was guided by a millenarian vision of Protestant victory: a vision which led directly to war with the rather less idealistic Dutch in 1652-54. In Protestantism and Patriotism (Cambridge UP, 1996) Pincus challenged the older view that the Anglo-Dutch war was carried out simply for commercial reasons. While his arguments remain controversial, they remind us how important Europe was for the Republicans, whose regime was constantly threatened from abroad. Cromwell himself never lost his belief in a Europe-wide ‘popish’ plot (led by Spain) against the Protestant religion.

Turning back to England, the 1650s has long been seen as a time of intellectual and political innovation. One of the most vivid accounts of this cultural ferment was The World Turned Upside Down (Maurice Temple Smith,1972) by the Marxist historian Christopher Hill. For Hill, the English Revolution unleashed a wave of radical ideas, from the Diggers, who challenged property in the name of a communal society, to the Ranters, who flouted every moral code. Hill linked these ideas with the lower classes, but more detailed study of the most radical individuals has shown that they were often highly educated and able to use their learning to challenge the Establishment. Books like Nicholas MacDowell’s The English Radical Imagination: Culture, Religion and Revolution, 1630-1660 (Oxford University Press, 2003) have stimulated historians’ interest in the relationship between elite and radical culture, making us ever more aware of the links between them.

Perhaps the most creative of all the writers of the 1650s was John Milton, whose place in the political and religious drama of these years is increasingly recognised. The essays in the Oxford Handbook of Milton (2009) show how scholars of literature and of history can work together to understand such a figure, who flouted disciplinary boundaries by writing epic poetry alongside political propaganda. His poetry is sublime, but his political theory was no match for Thomas Hobbes, whose Leviathan (1651) remains a classic. Fortunately the definitive edition of this text, edited by Noel Malcolm, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

Together the work of scholars from several disciplines is reshaping the way we see the 1650s, fruitfully combining the studies of literature, culture and politics, while setting them within a European context. The period is becoming more complicated than we once thought, no longer simply an interlude before the return of the ‘rightful’ king. Such complexity may attract historians, but novelists and film directors are yet to be persuaded. In many ways the recent Channel 4 drama, The Devil’s Whore, represents the older interpretation of the period, familiar from Hill’s work; the 2003 film To Kill a King lacked both the script and the budget to convey the personalities or the ideas of the past. Perhaps the time is ripe for a new adaptation that does justice to this vibrant and important period.

Sarah Mortimer is author of Reason and Religion in the English Revolution: The Challenge of Socinianism (Cambridge, 2010)

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