by Mary Harrington
Saturday, 16
May 2020
Weekend read

Who was the real Oliver Cromwell?

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

If you’re after a long read to savour over Saturday coffee, I heartily recommend Ferdinand Mount’s luxuriant LRB review of Providence Lost, Paul Lay’s new history of the Protectorate. Its opening scenes set modern laments about political civility firmly into context: Cromwell dissolving the Long Parliament, flinging insults at MPs — ‘drunkard’, ‘whoremaster’ — booting out the speaker, then flinging the mace into his quarters as a ‘bauble’.

Cromwell comes across as déclassé, foul-mouthed and full of resentment, wholly certain of his divine mission and indifferent to law or precedent. As Protector, he threw anyone who opposed him into the Tower, and is reported to have dismissed the authority of Magna Carta as ‘Magna Farta’:

[T]urning forty, a plain man in a plain cloth suit with a speck or two of blood on his collarband, ‘his countenance swollen and reddish, his voice sharp and untunable’. He was noticed at first only for the violence of his speech, and was reproved by the House for his language; several of his hotter rants against the bishops were excised from the record. 
- Ferdinand Mount, LRB

Cromwell remains an uneasy figure even in English history today. Was he a reformer, tearing at the cobwebs of antiquated monarchism and paving the way for modern liberal democracy? Or a purple-faced, manic-depressive zealot who fought Catholicism to defend his friends’ holdings of former monastery lands, perpetrated ethnic cleansing in Ireland and presided over a military dictatorship? Both appear to have some qualified truth, a fact that makes Cromwell a difficult topic for narratives of either national self-aggrandisement or self-flagellation.

Mount does not shy away from Cromwell’s aversion to popular rule: he purged Parliament six times to avoid votes against his plans. Nor is he indisputably a reformer tidying up after a feckless Charles I. Rather, had Charles’ reign not ended when it did, England might have had an Office of Health running state-funded hospitals nearly four centuries ahead of the NHS.

An early advocate of religious tolerance? Not so much: “His actual legislation continued to outlaw papists and Anglicans on the one hand and Quakers and sectaries on the other”, while his readmittance of Jewish people to England was motivated less by a love of diversity and inclusion than a desire to convert them to Christianity (and secure new funds for his army).

Mount suggests that if Cromwell was an early harbinger of anything it was more in his early elaboration of the idea that entire countries may have a ‘manifest destiny’:

A state that basked in the special protection of Providence was entitled to unlimited freedom of action in realising that destiny. Many influences went into the making of modern nationalism, but Cromwell’s is surely one of them.
- Ferdinand Mount, LRB

With a brisk canter through Civil War historiography, Mount avoids easy analogies with contemporary politics, highlighting instead the murkiness of a political age which — like the pandemic today — seem endlessly re-tellable to prove any pre-existing political bias you please. Is there anything in our political settlement today that could not have been achieved without the slaughter? Lay, and Mount, leave the question open.


  • June 4, 2020
    Isn’t it funny that everyone thinks Jews are this country’s moneybags, with no other redeeming feature. In fact the first Jews allowed in by Cromwell were impoverished Portuguese outcasts who had first settled in Holland. Cromwell allowed them in to fulfil the prophesy in Deuteronomy that Jews... Read more

  • May 22, 2020
    I can't find evidence of it, though I can't access Kevin Sharpe's book either at the moment which is where I would expect it to be likely to feature. Read more

  • May 21, 2020
    Why then does Mount claim that Charles did plan such a service? Is he simply making that up? I doubt it. Read more

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