A Conversation between Oliver Cromwell and Bulstrode Whitelocke, November 1652 by Dr Jonathon Fitzgibbons

It was about this time [November 1652], in a fair evening, I being walking in St. James’s Park, to refresh myself after business of toil, and for a little exercise, that the Lord General Cromwell meeting with me, saluted me with more than ordinary courtesy, and desired me to walk aside with him, that we might have some private discourse together; I waited on him, and he began the discourse betwixt us, which was to this effect:

Cromwell. My Lord Whitelocke, I know your faithfulness and engagement in the same good cause with myself and the rest of our friends, and I know your ability in judgment, and your particular friendship and affection for me, indeed I am sufficiently satisfied in these things; and therefore I desire to advise with you in the main and most important affairs relating to our present condition.

Whitelocke. Your excellency hath known me long, and, I think, will say that you never knew any unfaithfulness or breach of trust by me; and for my particular affection to your person, your favours to me, and your public services, have deserved more than I can manifest, only there is (with your favour) a mistake in this one thing, touching my weak judgment, which is incapable to do any considerable service for yourself or this commonwealth; yet to the utmost of my power I shall be ready to serve you, and that with all diligence and faithfulness...

Cromwell. I wish there were no more ground of suspicion of others than of you, I can trust you with my life, and the most secret matters relating to our business, and to that end I have now desired a little private discourse with you; and really, my lord, there is very great cause for us to consider the dangerous condition we are all in, and how to make good our station, to improve the mercies and successes which God hath given us, and not to be fooled out of them again, nor to be broken in pieces by our particular jarrings and animosities one against another, but to unite our counsels and hands and hearts, to make good what we have so dearly bought with so much hazard, blood, and treasure; and that the Lord having given us an entire conquest over our enemies, we should not now hazard all again by our private janglings, and bring those mischiefs upon ourselves which our enemies could never do.

Whitelocke. My lord, I look upon our present danger as greater than ever it was in the field, and (as your excellency truly observes) our proneness to destroy ourselves, when our enemies could not do it. It is no strange thing for a gallant army (as yours is) after full conquest of their enemies, to grow into factions and ambitious designs, and it is a wonder to me that they are not in high mutinies, their spirits being active, and few thinking their services to be duly rewarded...

Cromwell. Your lordship hath observed most truly the inclinations of the officers of the army to particular factions, and to murmurings, that they are not rewarded according to their deserts, that others who have adventured least have gained most, and they have neither profit, nor preferment, nor place in government, which others hold who have undergone no hardships nor hazards for the commonwealth; and herein they have too much of truth...

... Then as for the members of parliament, the army begins to have a strange distaste against them, and I wish there were not too much cause for it, and really their pride and ambition and self-seeking, engrossing all places of honour and profit to themselves and their friends, and their daily breaking forth into new and violent parties and factions. Their delays of business and design to perpetuate themselves, and to continue the power in their own hands... these things, my lord, do give too much ground for people to open their mouths against them and to dislike them.

Nor can they be kept within the bounds of justice and law or reason, they themselves being the supreme power of the nation, liable to give no account to any, nor to be controlled or regulated by any other power; there being none superior or coordinate with them.

So that unless there be some authority and power so full and so high as to restrain and keep things in better order, and that may be a check to these exorbitances, it will be impossible in human reason to prevent our ruin.

Whitelocke. I confess the danger we are in by these extravagances and inordinate powers is more than I doubt is generally apprehended; yet as to that part of it which concerns the soldiery, your excellency’s power and commission is sufficient already to restrain and keep them in their due obedience, and, blessed be God, you have done it hitherto, and I doubt not but by your wisdom you will be able still to do it.

As to the members of parliament I confess the greatest difficulty lies there, your commission being from them, and they being acknowledged the supreme power of the nation, subject to no controls, nor allowing any appeal from them.

Yet I am sure your excellency will not look upon them as generally depraved, too many of them are much to blame in those things you have mentioned, and many unfit things have passed among them; but I hope well of the major part of them, when great matters come to a decision.

Cromwell. My lord, there is little hopes of a good settlement to be made by them, really there is not; but a great deal of fear that they will destroy again what the Lord hath done graciously for them and us; we all forget God, and God will forget us, and give us up to confusion; and these men will help it on, if they be suffered to proceed in their ways; some course must be thought on to curb and restrain them, or we shall be ruined by them.

Whitelocke. We ourselves have acknowledged them the supreme power, and taken our commissions and authority in the highest concernments from them, and how to restrain and curb them after this it will be hard to find out a way for it.

Cromwell. What if a man should take upon him to be king?

Whitelocke. I think that remedy would be worse than the disease.

Cromwell. Why do you think so?

Whitelocke. As to your own person the title of king would be of no advantage, because you have the full kingly power in you already, concerning the militia, as you are general.

As to the nomination of civil officers, those whom you think fittest are seldom refused; and although you have no negative vote in the passing of laws, yet what you dislike will not easily be carried...

So that I apprehend less envy and danger and pomp, but not less power and real opportunities of doing good in your being general, than would be if you had assumed the title of king.

Cromwell. I have heard some of your profession observe, that he who is actually king, whether by election or by descent, yet being once king, all acts done by him as king are lawful and justifiable....

And surely the power of a king is so great and high, and so universally understood and reverenced by the people of this nation, that the title of it might not only indemnify in a great measure those that act under it, but likewise be of great use and advantage in such times as these, to curb the insolences and extravagances of those whom the present powers cannot control, or at least are the persons themselves who are thus insolent.

Whitelocke. I agree in the general with what you are pleased to observe as to the title of king, but whether for your excellency to take this title upon you, as things now are, will be for the good and advantage either of yourself and friends, or of the commonwealth, I do very much doubt...

Cromwell. What do you apprehend would be the danger of taking this title?

Whitelocke. The danger I think would be this, one of the main points of controversy betwixt us and our adversaries is, whether the government of this nation shall be established in monarchy or in a free state or commonwealth, and most of our friends have engaged with us upon the hopes of having the government settled in a free state, and to effect that have undergone all their hazards and difficulties.

They being persuaded, (though I think much mistaken,) that under the government of a commonwealth they shall enjoy more liberty and right, both as to their spiritual and civil concernments, than they shall under monarchy; the pressures and dislike whereof are so fresh in their memories and sufferings.

Now if your excellency shall take upon you the title of king, this state of our cause will be thereby wholly determined, and monarchy established in your person; and the question will be no more whether our government shall be by a monarch or by a free state, but whether Cromwell or Stuart shall be our king and monarch...

Thus the state of our controversy being totally changed, all those who were for a commonwealth (and they are a very great and considerable party) having their hopes therein frustrated will desert you, your hands will be weakened, your interest straitened, and your cause in apparent danger to be ruined.

Cromwell. I confess you speak reason in this, but what other thing can you propound that may obviate the present dangers and difficulties wherein we are all engaged.

Whitelocke. It will be the greatest difficulty to find out such an expedient; I have had many things in my private thoughts upon this business, some of which perhaps are not fit or safe for me to communicate.

Cromwell. I pray, my lord, what are they? you may trust me with them, there shall no prejudice come to you by any private discourse betwixt us; I shall never betray my friend...

Whitelocke. Pardon me, sir.... a little to consider the condition of the king of Scots:

This prince being now by your valour, and the success which God hath given to the parliament and to the army under your command, reduced to a very low condition, both he and all about him cannot but be very inclinable to hearken to any terms, whereby their lost hopes may be revived of his being restored to the crown, and they to their fortunes and native country.

By a private treaty with him you may secure yourself and your friends, and their fortunes; you may make yourself and your posterity as great and permanent, to all human probability, as ever any subject was, and provide for your friends. You may put such limits to monarchical power as will secure our spiritual and civil liberties, and you may secure the cause in which we are all engaged; and this may be effectually done, by having the power of the militia continued in yourself, and whom you shall agree upon after you.

I propound therefore for your excellency to send to the king of Scots, and to have a private treaty with him for this purpose; and I beseech you to pardon what I have said upon the occasion; it is out of my affection and service to your excellency, and to all honest men; and I humbly pray you not to have any jealousy thereupon of my approved faithfulness to your excellency and to this commonwealth.

Cromwell. I have not, I assure you, the least distrust of your faithfulness and friendship to me, and to the cause of this commonwealth, and I think you have much reason for what you propound; but it is a matter of so high importance and difficulty, that it deserves more of consideration and debate that is at present allowed us.

We shall therefore take a further time to discourse of it.

With this the general brake off, and went to other company, and so into Whitehall, seeming, by his countenance and carriage, displeased with what I had said; yet he never objected it against me in any public meeting afterwards.

Only his carriage towards me from that time was altered, and his advising with me not so frequent and intimate as before; and it was not long after that he found an occasion, by an honourable employment, to send me out of the way... that I might be no obstacle or impediment to his ambitious designs; as may appear by the process of this story.

Extract taken from Bulstrode Whitelocke, Memorials of the English Affairs From the Beginning of the Reign of Charles the First to the Happy Restoration of King Charles the Second (4 vols., Oxford, 1852), iii., 468-75.

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The Author

Bulstrode Whitelocke was elected a member of the Long Parliament in 1640 and was a parliamentarian during the Civil Wars. A lawyer by trade, he apparently had little stomach for the conflict and was prominent among those MPs working for a peace settlement during the 1640s, twice going to the Royalist capital of Oxford to broker negotiations with the king on parliament’s behalf. By 1648 parliament held Whitelocke in sufficient regard that they appointed him a Commissioner of the Great Seal – one of the highest legal offices in the land. In the crisis between army and parliament in late 1648 that led to the purge of the Long Parliament and the trial of King Charles I, Whitelocke tried his best to stay out of affairs. But even though he played no part in the king’s trial, Whitelocke continued to serve the kingless Commonwealth established after the regicide and accepted a new commission as Lord Commissioner of the Great Seal from the Rump Parliament.

As the conversation suggests, Whitelocke was a close friend and confidant of Oliver Cromwell. As Cromwell rose to prominence during the early 1650s, so Whitelocke assumed a central role in political affairs. Whitelocke could well boast of the ‘favours’ Cromwell had done for him. It was at Cromwell’s behest, for instance, that Whitelocke was appointed an ambassador to negotiate an important treaty with Sweden in late 1653. But the two men did not always see eye to eye. Whitelocke clearly had misgivings about the arbitrary actions committed by Cromwell and the New Model Army throughout the late 1640s and 1650s. As a lawyer, his political instincts were conservative – he did not share Cromwell’s willingness to ride roughshod over the law whenever providence or necessity dictated. Whitelocke was appalled by Pride’s Purge and the manner in which the king’s trial was handled; he also had a momentary rift with Cromwell after the dissolution of the Rump Parliament in April 1653 and was not nominated to a seat in the Barebone’s Parliament. The most significant split between the two, however, occurred in June 1655 when Cromwell (then Lord Protector) dismissed Whitelocke from the post of Lord Commissioner of the Great Seal for refusing to enforce an ordinance for reforming the Court of Chancery because it lacked parliamentary approval. Yet, it appears Cromwell was not one to hold a grudge: even after Whitelocke’s dismissal as Lord Commissioner of the Great Seal, he was allowed to remain in the financially lucrative post of treasury commissioner. Two years later, Cromwell nominated Whitelocke as one of the ‘lords’ of the newly created ‘Other House’ – an upper parliamentary chamber designed to fill the void left by the abolished House of Lords. Indeed, Whitelocke remained a government insider for the remainder of Oliver’s Protectorate and was a chief supporter of the Protector’s son and successor, Richard Cromwell, who restored him to the custody of the Great Seal in late 1658. The implicit message of this source, that Whitelocke’s career was tied to the Cromwellian interest, is beyond question.

It is therefore hardly surprising that Whitelocke viewed the Restoration of Charles II in May 1660 with a sense of dread rather than relief: as he noted in his diary he was ‘full of trouble in the midst of all this jollity in others’. He was right to be worried. A number of powerful enemies, including the architect of the Restoration George Monck, attempted to have Whitelocke exempted from the Act of Pardon and Oblivion, which offered indemnity to those who had served Cromwell and the various regimes of the Interregnum. Although Whitelocke managed to escape punishment and was given the full benefit of the pardon, he was unable to wash away completely the stain of his involvement in the Cromwellian regime and never again reached the high office he had enjoyed in the 1640s and 1650s. It was in this context, as he continued to hold out hopes of political rehabilitation, that Whitelocke took to writing his memoirs. It is from these memoirs that Whitelocke’s account of his conversation with Cromwell in November 1652 derives.

The Source

Internal evidence suggests that Whitelocke did not begin writing his memoirs until the early 1660s. Although he claimed to write for the edification of his children, rather than for public consumption, it seems likely that Whitelocke envisaged a wider audience than his immediate family circle. Indeed, though not published in his own lifetime, the memoirs were printed in late 1681 under the title of the Memorials of the English Affairs. Historians have long accepted that Whitelocke’s memoirs are as treacherous as they are indispensible. For many of the darkest periods of the 1640s and 1650s, where all other surviving evidence eludes us, such as the later months of 1652, Whitelocke’s account offers a flicker of illumination. But we must proceed with extreme caution.

Leaving aside momentarily the question of whether or not Whitelocke deliberately manipulated this account, there are a number of things about the extract before us that should set alarm bells ringing about its reliability. In particular, the fact that Whitelocke provides such an extremely detailed and lengthy account of what passed between himself and Cromwell is a cause for concern. We must remember the limitations of seventeenth century technology: there was no early modern equivalent of the dictaphone! When recording speeches in parliament during this period, for instance, clerks took shorthand notes of what was spoken which would be subsequently written up into detailed reports. But it seems highly unlikely that Whitelocke was walking in St James’s Park with a notebook in hand, jotting down Cromwell’s words and his own responses. At the very best, he would have made a record of the conversation shortly after it took place.

But if Whitelocke did make notes of this conversation it seems none of them have survived. This is unsurprising. Many of Whitelocke’s personal papers from the 1640s and 1650s were burned by his wife shortly before the Restoration in order to get rid of any evidence that could be used against him by vengeful Royalists. As Whitelocke noted, this meant that when he wrote his memoirs in the 1660s his account was ‘less perfect’ than it might have been. Assuming any notes that Whitelocke did make of this conversation in 1652 were destroyed, it casts further doubt upon the accuracy of the account he presents in the memoirs. As the opening line suggests, Whitelocke could not even remember with any precision the date when the meeting occurred. Writing down the details of a conversation immediately after it happened is one thing, but could you remember in such vivid detail a conversation that you had several years earlier?

Besides Whitelocke’s lack of notes and his fading memory of past events there is also the, not altogether separate, problem of deliberate manipulation. Remembering is always a present-centred business: whenever we remember the past we do so in the present. As the remainder of this commentary will suggest, we must consider the ways in which Whitelocke’s knowledge of later events have coloured his account of this conversation and where its details may tell us more about his attitudes post-1660 than what actually happened in 1652.

Analysis

The encounter Whitelocke describes took place in St James’s Park, a hub of political and diplomatic activity during the 1650s. Located next to Whitehall, where many politicians and army officers (including Cromwell) had lodgings, this was a convenient place to converse informally with foreign ambassadors or simply to take a breath of fresh air after a day cooped up in the House of Commons or Council chamber. Whitelocke claims he went to the park to stretch his legs after a long day toiling over business in the Court of Chancery. Why Cromwell was in the park is not said, but the whole tenor of the account suggests he was itching for a chance to speak privately with Whitelocke.

Cromwell, then Lord General of the army, certainly had a lot on his mind in late 1652. This period marked a crucial crossroads in the army’s tempestuous relationship with the Rump Parliament. Hopes for the nascent Commonwealth regime established in 1649 had been high. First and foremost, the regime had to secure itself both at home and abroad. Preoccupied with the conquest of Ireland and the threat of a Scottish invasion led by Charles II, there was little time to consider the issue of settlement in England. Following Cromwell’s crushing victory over the Scottish-Royalist forces at Worcester in September 1651, however, the army officers hoped the Rump would build upon the opportunities which they believed God had given them through victory: they had won the war, now the Rump must secure the peace. As Cromwell noted in the conversation, they had ‘to improve’ upon those ‘mercies and successes which God hath given us’: they had to ‘make good what we have so dearly bought with so much hazard, blood, and treasure’. Whitelocke clearly knew Cromwell well and knew the idiosyncrasies and cadences of his speech. When constructing his text, the words that Whitelocke puts into Cromwell’s mouth bear striking resemblance to other writings and speeches. For instance, in a famous letter written shortly after his victory over the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, Cromwell urged the Rump to build upon those ‘eminent mercies’ which God put ‘in your hands’. He envisaged a series of wide-ranging social, religious and legal reforms:

“Disown yourselves, but own your authority, and improve it to curb the proud and the insolent, such as would disturb the tranquillity of England, though under what specious pretences soever; relieve the oppressed, hear the groans of poor prisoners in England; be pleased to reform the abuses of all professions; and if there be any one that makes many poor to make a few rich, that suits not a Commonwealth.”

But the Rump failed to live up to Cromwell’s expectations. In many areas their progress on reform was painfully slow or non-existent. For instance, the Hale Commission established in January 1652 to consider law reform proposed a raft of legal reforms to streamline justice. But the Rump failed to pass any of its recommendations into law. Their record on religious reform, an issue particularly close to the heart of the army, was paltry and inconsistent. While there were some sops for the religious sects, such as the Toleration Act of September 1650, which repealed the Elizabethan statutes requiring compulsory attendance at a parish church on Sundays, there were also harsher measures against religious radicalism, such as the ‘Blasphemy Act’ of August 1650. Particularly troubling for Cromwell was the Rump’s failure to provide for a preaching ministry to spread God’s word into the ‘dark corners of the land’. He was appalled by the Rump’s decision not to renew a commission for propagating the gospel in Wales in April 1653.

As the conversation with Whitelocke suggests, by late 1652 both Cromwell and the army were growing impatient with their parliamentary masters. The ‘jarrings’ and ‘janglings’ between the army and the Rump was becoming a greater threat to the stability of the regime than the Royalists ever had been. Interestingly, Whitelocke was keen to place the weight of responsibility for this tension squarely on the shoulders of the army. He noted how it was ‘no strange thing’ that the ‘gallant army’ should ‘grow into factions and ambitious designs’. Alluding in particular to the more radical spirits among the army officers, particularly Major General Thomas Harrison and the Fifth Monarchists, Whitelocke found it a source of ‘wonder’ that the army was not in ‘high mutinies, their spirits being active, and few thinking their services to be duly rewarded’. Yet, while Whitelocke believed that it was Cromwell’s duty, as Lord General, to ‘restrain’ the army and ‘keep them in their due obedience’ to the Rump, it would appear that Cromwell was doubtful that he could, or indeed should, restrain the hotter spirits in the army. Rather, he professed to be broadly sympathetic to their complaints. As he admitted to Whitelocke there was ‘too much of truth’ in the army’s criticisms of the Rump.

Indeed, the course of the conversation makes it clear that Cromwell had no doubt where the blame rested for the growing unrest between the Rump and army. Despite a petition from the army officers to the Rump in August 1652, pressing them to get on with the business of reform, little had been done. To Cromwell’s mind, the Rump had become a byword for jobbery. As he notes in the conversation, the army had begun to have a ‘strange distaste’ against the Rump, not least because of what the perceived to be the ‘pride and ambition and self-seeking’ of those MPs who sat there. In particular, there were concerns that the members designed to ‘perpetuate themselves’ and ‘continue the power in their own hands’. Of all the complaints against the Rump, this was the one that grew loudest in army circles in late 1652 and early 1653. When the Rump assumed power in early 1649 it was on the understanding that it would dissolve itself sooner rather than later. The Act abolishing Kingship, passed by the Rump on 17 March 1649, had made this clear enough. It declared that ‘a period’ would be put to the ‘sitting of this Present Parliament’ as ‘soon as may possibly stand with the safety of the people’ and that fresh elections would follow for a new, and more representative, parliament which would ‘conduce to the lasting freedom and good of this Commonwealth’. Yet, the Rump had been slow to follow this up – plainly the task of dealing with threats from Ireland and Scotland meant it was impolitic to consider its dissolution and successor prior to the routing of the Royalist forces at Worcester in 1651. But, even after the Royalist threat was eliminated, the Rump remained reluctant to let go of the reins of power and provide for future parliaments. Despite finally agreeing to dissolve itself within three years in November 1651, little progress was made on the ‘Bill for a New Representative’, as it became known, until September 1652.

According to Whitelocke’s account, by late 1652 Cromwell was clearly swaying towards those in the army, particularly the Fifth Monarchists, who were convinced that no good could ever come from the Rump. As the conversation suggests he had ‘little hopes of a good settlement to be made by them’ – he feared they would ‘destroy again what the Lord hath done graciously for them and for us’. Here we see that providential aspect of Cromwell’s thinking which led him to take some of his most radical and arbitrary actions during the 1640s and 1650s. Whenever God led the way, legal niceties were only ever secondary considerations in Cromwell’s mind: as he warned Whitelocke, ‘we all forget God, and God will forget us’.

But what could Cromwell do in order to remedy the Rump’s failures? He suggested to Whitelocke that ‘some course’ was needed to ‘curb and restrain them’ – but what should that course be? Other sources suggest that, outwardly at least, Cromwell was still committed to working with the Rump Parliament. As he would recall in a speech in July 1653, Cromwell had ‘ten or twelve’ meetings with a number of MPs between October 1652 and April 1653. At those meetings, he and the other army officers present urged the Rump to ‘bring forth those good things that had been promised and expected’. Until the evening of 19 April, the day before he dissolved the parliament, Cromwell claimed to be working towards a solution with the members of the Rump Parliament rather than without them. The decision to dissolve the Rump was apparently taken suddenly and was certainly not premeditated.

Whitelocke, by contrast, suggests that Cromwell had not only given up on the Rump by November 1652, he had also had enough of the kingless and parliamentary form of government settled in England after Charles I’s execution. According to the Rump’s Act of May 1649, England was no longer a monarchy but ‘a Commonwealth and Free State’ and was to be governed by ‘the representatives of the people in Parliament’. With both the kingship and the House of Lords abolished, the House of Commons – the people’s representative – became ‘the supreme authority of this nation’. Yet, Whitelocke claims that Cromwell had become convinced that this arrangement gave the Rump far too much authority and allowed them to do as they pleased. As he complained to Whitelocke, the Rump could not be ‘kept within the bounds of justice or law or reason, they themselves being the supreme power of the nation’. Unless there was ‘some authority and power so full and so high’ to restrain the Commons and be a ‘check’ upon them, Cromwell thought it ‘impossible’ to ‘prevent out ruin’.

As Whitelocke pointed out, there were numerous difficulties standing in the way of Cromwell’s hopes of restraining the Rump. Besides the fact that they themselves were both members of the Rump, Cromwell and Whitelocke had also taken commissions from the regime and were therefore nominally its servants – Cromwell as the parliament’s Lord General of the army, Whitelocke as Lord Commissioner of the Great Seal. Moreover, both men had also taken the ‘Engagement Oath’ as members of the Council of State by which they swore to uphold the form of government as it was settled ‘in the way of a Republic, without King or House of Lords’. As Whitelocke reminded Cromwell, they had ‘acknowledged’ the Rump to be ‘the supreme power and taken our commissions and authority in the highest concernments from them’. Little wonder Whitelocke believed it would ‘be hard’ for Cromwell to ‘find out a way’ to restrain the Rump, or set himself over it. To plot the removal of the Rump, or to restrain it in any way, would contravene their solemn oath to uphold the parliament’s authority.

And yet, according to Whitelocke, Cromwell thought little of these objections. Rather than answer Whitelocke’s objections directly, he responded suddenly with that searching question: ‘What if a man should take upon him to be king?’ Perhaps Cromwell really did think that taking the kingly title would be an effective means to bring the recalcitrant Rump parliament under control. But, if so, we must follow Whitelocke by asking ourselves what would have been the point of him taking the kingly title? As Whitelocke makes plain in his response, Cromwell already wielded many of the powers attributed to a king. He controlled the parliament’s army and had a great deal of influence over appointments to the top military and civil jobs. Moreover, as Whitelocke suggests, there was the problem of Cromwell upsetting his ‘friends’ in both the army and parliament who had ‘engaged with us upon the hopes of having the government settled in a free state’. To take the kingly title would be a flat contradiction of Cromwell’s previous actions and principles – a hypocritical retreat from the regicide and the kingless government established in 1649. To Whitelocke’s mind, the only benefit Cromwell would get from the kingly title would be greater ‘pomp’, which would be accompanied by ‘envy’ from those around him and lead to a bitter dynastic struggle between the Stuart and Cromwellian interest.

But did Cromwell really entertain the thought of making himself king in November 1652? After all, we only have Whitelocke’s word for it. We must remember that Cromwell’s burning ambition for power is one of the key narrative arcs of Whitelocke’s memoirs. At a number of points in his memoirs, Whitelocke is careful to drop non-too-subtle hints of what he discerns as signs of Cromwell’s growing thirst for power. In late December 1648, for instance, when parliament began discussing the fate of King Charles I, Whitelocke claims he found Cromwell laying in one of the ‘king’s rich beds’. As the final paragraph of the extract makes clear, Whitelocke saw this conversation in 1652 as yet another stage in Cromwell’s ‘ambitious designs’ to make himself king. When Whitelocke refused to give the Cromwellian master plan any credence relations between the two soured: as Whitelocke explained, his ‘carriage towards me from that time was altered’. Whitelocke even claims that ‘not long after’, in the autumn of 1653, Cromwell found him that ‘honourable employment’ of ambassador to Sweden in order to get him ‘out of the way’ so that he would be no ‘obstacle’ to his designs. As the ‘process of this story’ demonstrated, Cromwell’s designs were brought a step closer shortly after when he was installed as Lord Protector in December 1653 – all of which happened while Whitelocke was abroad. Here was Cromwell at his most Machiavellian. But is it true?

For one thing, subsequent events do not bear out Whitelocke’s claims that Cromwell was scheming to make himself king. If the thought of kingship passed through Cromwell’s mind in late 1652, he dropped the idea pretty quickly thereafter. When he dissolved the Rump Parliament on 20 April 1653 he did not seize power for himself. Rather, after some deliberation among the army officers, it was decided to create a Nominated Assembly, handpicked by the gathered churches and council of officers. This body, known to posterity as Barebone's Parliament, assumed all the same powers as the Rump before it – a unicameral supreme assembly. It was only in December 1653, with the dissolution of Barebone’s Parliament and the creation of the Protectorate that a quasi-monarchical constitutional arrangement was finally established. Even then, despite being offered the title of king in the original draft of the Instrument of Government, Cromwell preferred the less regal title of Lord Protector. There is nothing here to suggest that Cromwell had a burning desire for the Crown.

The clinching evidence against Cromwell aiming at a royal title, however, was his reaction in 1657 to the second Protectorate Parliament’s proposed constitution, the Humble Petition and Advice, which urged him to assume the title of king. If Cromwell really did want the Crown this was surely his golden opportunity. Famously, however, Cromwell refused the kingly title – chiefly on the grounds of the opposition of godly men both within and outside of the army. Whereas in 1652, Whitelocke claims he had to remind Cromwell of the general ‘dislike’ of monarchy among his friends, in 1657 Cromwell was painfully aware that the godly would not swallow the kingly title.

But if Cromwell’s subsequent rejection of kingship is reason enough to doubt the truthfulness of Whitelocke’s account, even more remarkable is the fact that Whitelocke was himself one of those MPs strongly in favour of Cromwell accepting the Crown in 1657. When a committee of 99 MPs was established in April 1657 to deliberate with Cromwell about the kingship, it was Whitelocke who was appointed as the committee’s chairman. Indeed, the kingship debates between Cromwell and the committee of 99 are an almost perfect inversion of the 1652 conversation: the roles of Cromwell and Whitelocke were completely reversed. In 1657 it was Cromwell who stressed that the kingly title was hardly worth the bother; that it would upset too many of his old friends and that it signified no more power than his current office of Lord Protector. Whitelocke, by contrast, was absolutely clear that Cromwell must accept the kingship. Whereas in 1652 Cromwell had purportedly told Whitelocke that the ‘power of a king is so great and high, and so universally understood and reverenced by the people of this nation’, in 1657 Whitelocke recommended the kingly title to Cromwell because it was ‘a known Title, that hath been in all these times and ages received, and every particular person hath occasion of knowing it.’

Are we really to believe that Whitelocke dissuaded Cromwell from the kingly title in 1652 only to urge him to take it five years later? A plausible explanation is that Whitelocke was simply looking to cover his tracks. While his support for the offer of the kingship in 1657 certainly demonstrated Whitelocke’s support for monarchical forms of government it hardly proved his fidelity towards the Stuart cause. As many of the supporters of kingship in 1657 told Cromwell, taking the Crown actually offered an effective means to prevent a Stuart Restoration in the future. As Lord Broghill, one of the leading advocates of Cromwellian kingship, explained in April 1657, there was ‘but a divorce between the pretending King’ (i.e. Charles II) and the ‘Imperial Crown of these Nations’ and there remained the fear that ‘persons divorc’t may marry again’. By taking the Crown, however, Cromwell would ensure that the ‘person [would] be married to another’ and thereby ‘cut off all hope’ for the Stuarts. It is perfectly understandable why, after the Restoration, Whitelocke and others wanted to downplay their involvement in the offer of kingship to Cromwell in 1657. Indeed, Whitelocke goes so far as to undermine those arguments used by the supporters of Cromwellian kingship in 1657. After all, he claims that he warned Cromwell in 1652 that if he took the Crown it would not bring greater stability but would actually lead to a dynastic civil war – the question would be ‘whether Cromwell or Stuart shall be our king and monarch’. This glaring disparity between what Whitelocke claims he said in 1652 and what we know he and others said in 1657 suggest that it is extremely likely that he fabricated, or greatly embellished, the 1652 conversation to muddy the waters concerning his later involvement in the offer of the Crown.

Similarly, it appears that the final portion of Whitelocke’s account was written with an eye to the events of 1660 and their aftermath. For one thing, it does not sit well with the tenor of the rest of the conversation. While Whitelocke had, up to that point, been at pains to point out to Cromwell that a return to monarchy would displease their friends and spell the destruction for the Commonwealth regime, he nevertheless goes on to advocate the restoration of monarchy through a ‘private treaty’ with Charles II. While he claimed Cromwellian monarchy was no good, Whitelocke apparently had no problem with Stuart monarchy. Indeed, it turns out that Whitelocke did not dislike the idea of kingship after all, but was simply looking to dissuade Cromwell from that title in order to leave the door open for Charles II. If Cromwell had a master plan to make himself king, Whitelocke claims he had his own secret design to restore Charles to the throne. Of course, the manner in which Whitelocke talks about Charles, ‘the king of Scots’ is hardly flattering. He states explicitly that Charles was in ‘a very low condition’ following his defeat at Worcester and that he would likely ‘hearken to any terms’ whereby his ‘lost hopes may be revived’. But it seems probable that this was actually a clever side-swipe at Whitelocke’s enemy from 1660, George Monck. After all, Monck had done no more in 1660 than what Whitelocke claims he urged Cromwell to do in 1652. If anything, Whitelocke’s scheme was even more remarkable. Whereas Monck had secured Charles II’s restoration at a time when the English government was in total disarray and the king’s return appeared the only viable option, Whitelocke claims to have made the suggestion when the Commonwealth regime was still relatively secure and the constitutional future seemed open. Whitelocke’s advice to Cromwell that he would be able to ‘secure yourself and your friends and their fortunes’ through negotiations with Charles II also seems to be an implicit criticism of Monck who, by orchestrating Charles’ Restoration in 1660, had done no harm to his own fortunes or those of his friends (Monck himself was elevated to the title of Duke of Albemarle and granted a generous pension from the grateful king.) The underlying message here was that for Monck, no less than Whitelocke and others, self-preservation and profit, not principle, were the guiding hand of actions in the 1650s.

And yet some matters of principle do lurk within Whitelocke’s account, even if he did his best to conceal them. Clearly, for all he claimed to advocate a Stuart restoration, Whitelocke’s primary concern throughout the 1650s was to preserve the supremacy of parliament. Even though at one point in the conversation Whitelocke claims those people were ‘much mistaken’ who believed ‘a commonwealth’ would provide ‘more liberty and right’ than settlement ‘under monarchy’, the preservation of parliament’s role within the constitution was actually a consistent thread in Whitelocke’s political activities throughout the 1640s and 1650s. As noted earlier, Cromwell dismissed Whitelocke from his post as Lord Commissioner of the Great Seal in 1655 because he refused to enforce legislation that did not have parliamentary assent. In this conversation too we see Whitelocke trying to dissuade Cromwell from violating parliament’s sovereignty by making himself king. He urged Cromwell to persist with the rule of the Rump, or rather the rule of parliaments, hopeful that the ‘major part of them’ would do good things when the time came. Indeed, Whitelocke’s underlying belief in the sovereign power of parliament could explain the apparent inconsistency between his advice to Cromwell in 1652 concerning the kingship and his enthusiastic support for that same title five years later. In 1652, after all, Cromwell was advocating ‘taking’ the Crown and setting himself up as king against the wishes of the parliament. In 1657, by contrast, it was parliament itself that offered Cromwell the kingship; he would have been a constitutional monarch created by parliament – not a usurper. When Whitelocke backed the offer of the Crown to Cromwell in 1657 it was not because he believed monarchy was a superior form of government to that of a Commonwealth, it was because he believed a government which had parliamentary assent offered far more safety and security than one without it.

Conclusion

There are certainly aspects of Whitelocke’s conversation with Cromwell that seem plausible enough. The context in which Whitelocke places the conversation rings true. It is beyond question that, by late 1652, the army officers were growing impatient with the Rump Parliament and that the calls for their dissolution were growing louder. The bitter disappointment expressed by Cromwell concerning the Rump’s failure to make good the opportunities that God had put into their hands all seems genuine enough. Less credible, however, is the notion that Cromwell was seriously considering kingship as a means to seize the political initiative. Even if we admit the possibility that Cromwell did float this idea in 1652, there is nothing to suggest that he harboured that thought for long. Besides the fact that no such scheme emerged after the dissolution of the Rump in April 1653 and that Cromwell preferred the title of lord protector over that of king when he assumed the government in December 1653, the details of the conversation also appear to be a complete inversion of the events of 1657 when Whitelocke and other MPs offered, and Cromwell refused, the Crown.

Ultimately, it is impossible to say with absolute certainty whether or not Whitelocke fabricated this account completely. But there are more than enough reasons to doubt its accuracy. Assuming Whitelocke did not have any notes, it is unlikely that he could recall in such precise detail a conversation that took place around a decade earlier. Moreover, the contents of the conversation strongly hint that it was manipulated by Whitelocke in order to assert both his fidelity to the Stuart Cause and the Machiavellian character of Oliver Cromwell. After 1660 few beyond the most committed regicide openly declared their support for the regimes of the Interregnum; even fewer dared speak favourably of Cromwell. True, in this conversation Whitelocke makes plain his close friendship with Cromwell. But we must remember that Whitelocke did so only to reveal that their friendship was not genuine. The form in which Whitelocke records this conversation seems appropriate enough; written like a script to be performed on the stage, Cromwell comes across as the archetypal pantomime villain: scheming, disingenuous and somewhat larger than life. For his part, Whitelocke claimed to be nothing more than a pawn in Cromwell’s master-plan to seize power for himself; once it became clear that he would be an ‘obstacle or impediment’ to Cromwell’s ‘ambitious designs’ he was soon cast aside – sent ‘out of the way’ on that ‘honourable employment’ as Swedish ambassador. In reality, Cromwell may have been angered with Whitelocke at various moments during the late 1640s and 1650s but he never harboured a grudge. Cromwell’s assurances that he would ‘never betray my friend’ seem less insincere than Whitelocke would have us believe. Rather, one is left with the impression that the real betrayal of their mutual friendship and trust was not by Cromwell in the 1650s, but was actually committed in the 1660s by Whitelocke.