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A portrait of power, warts and all A series of novels set in Cromwell's England shows that taking control is easy enough — but keeping it is much harder

The Dismissal of the Rump Parliament by Oliver Cromwell in 1653 (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Dismissal of the Rump Parliament by Oliver Cromwell in 1653 (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)


September 3, 2020   3 mins

As our politicians head back to Westminster, we asked: what should be on the Cabinet’s reading list? Which books might provide helpful insight for the challenges ahead? James Kirkup recommends the Seeker novels by SG Maclean

 

SG Maclean is a historian who lives on the Black Isle in Scotland, which isn’t actually an island. She writes very good crime fiction set in Oliver Cromwell’s England, which isn’t just about Cromwell’s England. She wins prizes for her novels, and deserves more fame to go with them. Especially among people in politics.

On the face of it, Maclean’s Seeker novels are about Damian Seeker, a Yorkshire soldier for Cromwell who becomes the leading enforcer for the Protectorate’s domestic intelligence operation. Slowly and subtly over several books, Maclean explores the essential tension here: how can a fundamentally decent man serve a regime he increasingly recognises as falling short of his own high moral standards?

Seeker’s answers are instructive: because he fought for them once, and against another lot who were worse. But that is not enough to sustain — or deserve — lasting loyalty.

It is the theme of loyalty that makes the Seeker novels good reading for politicians, who always need to understand why people support causes — and why they stop.

In the end of the series — so far, at least, for there is hope she will write more — Maclean shows Seeker’s break with the collapsing Cromwell regime not as a grand gesture or an exercise in psychodrama but rather the way real people make big decisions — with a resigned shrug.

Cromwell’s story deserves more attention in the Britain that voted for Brexit. It’s a reminder that, no matter what we tell ourselves about our phlegmatic stability, Britain does indeed do revolutions. Cromwell, of course, was no radical from outside the system. A son of the gentry who sat in Parliament, he led a cause that united disgruntled notables and true grassroots revolutionaries — for instance, the Levellers, who were to be marginalised and bitterly disappointed by Cromwell in power.

Maclean’s hero is part of that non-conformist tradition, a Seeker by faith as well as name, he was part of a small, obscure sect before shifting his faith to Cromwell’s cause and its defence against scheming royalists plotting to restore the dissolute Stuart monarchy.

Such royalists are still a major presence in the England Maclean guides her readers through. Because no revolutionary regime can make its opponents simply disappear — accommodations must be made. The Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell makes regular appearances as an agent of Seeker’s intelligence operation. Marvell’s precise loyalties were and are unclear: he lionised leading Royalists, but then worked for Thomas Fairfax, the great parliamentary general.

We also meet a young Samuel Pepys, another parliamentarian who converted to Royalism when Cromwell died in 1658.

When that death comes, Seeker is in Bruges tracking the royalist cells that made that city their base while supporting the young Charles Stuart in his designs on the throne amid the shifting backdrop of European politics. This is the setting for the fifth and most recent Seeker novel, The House of Lamentations. It’s a nice way to illustrate the international dimensions of turmoil in British government, as well as a reminder that British leadership worrying about European plots is not a new thing.

The Seeker novels’ lessons for today’s rulers are numerous.  Perhaps the biggest is that taking power is easy enough — just win some big battles — but keeping it is much harder. In the end, the stars of the series are the ordinary folk who lent their support to Cromwell and his cause, but then, tired and resigned, welcome back the Stuart monarchy, albeit briefly. It’s a reminder that while elites take politics and government very seriously, the public on whom those things ultimately depend generally don’t pay too much attention, instead just getting on with their lives. Revolutions are easy to declare but hard to sustain.


James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation

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Albert Kensington
Albert Kensington
3 years ago

Cromwell deserves great credit for keeping the lid on the revolutionary forces that had been unleashed. England did not experience terror as proved to be the case in France.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

He became a dictator.
Napoleon did the same thing – put down the revolutionary forces.

Albert Kensington
Albert Kensington
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

I wouldn’t agree with that. As I said democracy was anathema to the vast majority of political opinion, because the slide into anarchy was greatly feared. Germany had been turned into a wasteland by vicious religious conflict. It’s not apparently all that clear how strong Leveller views were within the Army anyway.
Cromwell, to his vast credit, was instrumental in ending the war – thus averting the Thirty Years War nightmare scenario – and he nipped putative revolutionary tendencies in the bud(revolutionary as they were regarded by the social order at the time). He had a few mutineers shot at Ware and at Burford, but it wasn’t exactly a counter-revolutionary bloodbath.
It is simplistic and misleading to describe him as a dictator – he desired above all “a Settlement of the Nation”, to that end for instance he backed the Barebones/Nominated Parliament, the Parliament of the Saints – they were supposed to sort out political and religious questions while he took a back seat, it didn’t work, it descended into a fractious mess – he had to step back in. Previously he had booted out the Rump, but then the fear was that they proposed themselves “perpetual”, a permanent ruling oligarchy.
Later on he summoned Parliaments, which similarly proved unhelpful. Had a go – in desperation I suppose – at local rule by the “Major-Generals”. He even toyed with the idea of becoming King.
But none of this was about dictatorship really, it was about survival(for himself and his close friends and associates) and about finding political arrangements that worked – which eluded him, but the situation he found himself in was wholly unprecedented.
What is perhaps worth mentioning is that the Protectorate was more tolerant of Non-Conformism and Catholicism in England than the royal governments both before and after. One of his Parliaments cruelly persecuted a religious Dissenter called James Naylor who for reasons which I forget chose to ride through Bristol on an ass on Palm Sunday in 1656 in imitation of Christ. Charged with blasphemy, his tongue was bored through with a red hot iron. Cromwell, pleading for leniency, told the persecutors – “be careful that the case of James Naylor is not your own”.
He was a significant voice for toleration in a world that had, as Christopher Hill put it, turned upside down. Religious movements – Ranters, Firth Monarchists etc – had emerged of pretty borderline sanity. Yet we had no Year Zero in England, Cromwell, the night watchman, by hook or by crook maintained order.

And of course by winning the Civil War, by delivering a pretty decisive check to Absolutism(James II didn’t stick around long) he influenced subsequent political developments in a positive way, taking the long view

Albert Kensington
Albert Kensington
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

For some reason my reply to you is waiting to be approved by unherd. God knows why

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

What happened to your reply to
‘Jeremy Smith’?

Albert Kensington
Albert Kensington
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Remains in quarantine

williamritchie2001
williamritchie2001
3 years ago

It was certainly better than France but Cromwell deserves some criticism for the failure of the Commonwealth. His use of Major Generals-basically purity enforcers- as a means of moral regeneration led to needless friction and unpopularity. His persistent and punitive taxation of quiescent royalists created a ready made constitution for Charles II. Impressive as he was many of Cromwell’s achievements were makeshift and wholly dependent on his personal authority. When he died most of his edifice collapsed with him.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
3 years ago

“When he died most of his edifice collapsed with him.” Largely because Cromwell chose an undistinguished son to succeed him as Lord Protector. Ultimately, he had merely replaced one dynasty with another. And thereby lost all moral authority.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

Had Richard Cromwell been made of ‘sterner stuff’,the Commonwealth would almost certainly have survived would it not?

Michael Reardon
Michael Reardon
3 years ago

He failed to understand the need to govern the nation rater than rule for a faction. A lesson for our times indeed. If Charles 1 had been more astute and accepted Cromwell’s terms ,then perhaps we might have seen more radical and revolutionary upheaval later on as a more authentic republican tradition grew in strength.

Albert Kensington
Albert Kensington
3 years ago

“He failed to understand the need to govern the nation rater than rule for a faction.”

His power base was the Army which had become home to religious and political radicals with far reaching agendas, including democracy. There was no way that could be reconciled with C17th orthodoxy on the primacy of property. During the Putney debates Cromwell’s son in law the sharp minded lawyer and New Model Commissary General Henry Ireton repeatedly pressed the point with the “Agitators”(representatives of the regiments)that if democracy was in introduced then there was nothing to stop poor man taking the property of the gentry for their own use. With about 150 years of democracy behind us we can see that such fears were rather alarmist but at the time they were real enough. Property right was the bedrock of society, take away property then anarchy was not far behind. The political and religious radicals at Putney accused Cromwell of supposing that anarchy was what they wanted – he responded that no one was saying that but this was where enfranchising the bulk of the male population would inevitably lead. To this charge the radicals could make no satisfactory answer – beyond throwing up their hands and saying well if this be so, what did the soldier fight for in the first place? It was their proud boast that they were “no mere mercenary army”.

Cromwell was a member of the gentry class, his political and social opinions were typical of his class. He had come to power in quite extraordinary circumstances. After the entirely justifiable execution of the king – “the traitor and man of blood Charles Stuart” as the army put it – he and his colleagues tried out a number of political formats with a view to stabilising the country, none succeeded but as I said above he deserves enormous credit for ensuring that there was no Robespierre in England, at the end of his life he saw himself as a night watchman, sticking doggedly to his task less worse befall

Frank Colson
Frank Colson
3 years ago

The discussion prompts a review of the ‘sequel’, English politics under James II – someone interested in politics under Johnson might draw some conclusions…the recent study by Steve Pincus ‘1688 the First Modern Revolution’ (Yale, 2009) is a compelling read.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
3 years ago
Reply to  Frank Colson

It’s totally unfair to compare James II to Boris Johnson. James II knew what he wanted to do once he was in power.