by Professor Peter Gaunt
Synopsis by Serrie Meakins
Professor Gaunt looks at the controversial legacy of Olive Cromwell, both in popular terms and within professional historian’s circles. He studies the impact of the Second World War on Cromwellian studies and particularly the impact of the rise of the Dictators in the 1930s on the work of Ashley and Wedgewood. He finishes with a resume of Cromwellian scholarship since the 1970s, noting that much of recent historiography is positive. Useful for interview preparation!
‘And if a history shall be written of these times and of transactions, it will be said, it will not be denied, but that these things that I have spoken are true.’
Oliver Cromwell and the historians, from Abbott to the present day.1
On 22 January 1655, just five lunar months since his first Protectorate Parliament had assembled, an angry and disappointed Cromwell summoned the MPs to meet him in the Painted Chamber, to dismiss them and to dissolve the parliament in a bitter speech, alleging that they had squandered their positive and productive inheritance and, through unnecessary and unfruitful constitutional overturning, had created divisions and dangers and given heart to the enemies of the parliamentarian cause. His speech opened by reminding the MPs about how hopeful and rosy everything had looked when they had first assembled the previous September, apparently the glorious culmination of ten or twelve years of struggle, with the country and its people arrived at a very safe port, he claimed. Cromwell then recited much of Psalm 78, the Psalm of David, showing how God’s glory and godly achievements should be passed down, cherished and built upon from one generation to the next. ‘This, I thought, had been a song and a work worthy of England… You had this opportunity fairly delivered unto you. And if a history shall be written of these times and of transactions, it will be said, it will not be denied, but that these things that I have spoken are true’2 Cromwell then went on to give a selective and in fact not entirely truthful account of very recent history, a version of events since the previous September which was selective and in places downright false, to justify his angry and abrupt dissolution.
It is sometimes claimed by historians and biographers that Cromwell did not have much of a feel for history. That is not entirely true. In several speeches of the 1650s he recounted the history of the parliamentarian struggle since the start of the civil war. He also recommended to his eldest surviving son and heir, Richard, that he study a little history, picking out Sir Walter Raleigh’s rather sprawling but providentialist History of the World as especially worthy of study. But Cromwell does not come across as particularly interested in broader history or as someone really historically minded. In speeches and debates, declarations and legislation of the 1620s and early 1640s, MPs often went out of their way to ground their claims in English history, the older the better. The Petition of Right of 1628, for example, cites Magna Carta and its later reissues umpteen times, the Statatum de Tallagio non Concedendo of Edward I’s reign, as well as various statutes and precedents from Edward III’s reign. We do not get any of that in Cromwell’s speeches in parliament or outside it. Many parliamentarian politicians were apt to hark back to the time of the Norman Conquest, when the supposedly golden age of Anglo-Saxon freedom was cruelly snuffed out by the Norman yoke, a yoke which they now were seeking to lift. There is little of this very wobbly history in Cromwell’s letters and speeches. At times he referred to current events in the wider world, but references to past European history, such as the French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years War, are as rare as hen’s teeth in Cromwell’s letters and speeches. Equally, as is well known, he was just as reticent about his own personal history, and references to his early life in post-1640 letters and in his speeches are very infrequent and often veiled. Like most contemporaries, Cromwell did not see the need to tell folksy stories about his family and family background, his birth, education and upbringing. The sort of dewy-eyed and rather nauseous stuff which is almost de rigueur for a modern politician had no part in Cromwell’s speeches or those of his contemporaries.
So there is no evidence that Cromwell was particularly interested in history beyond the very recent history of the struggle of the parliamentarian cause against its enemies. He could be selective, even deceitful, in his speeches and he certainly knew how to use and to deploy propaganda and to manipulate information as Lord Protector, but it was almost certainly both of, and aimed at, the present and the circumstances of the 1650s, rather than drawn from history or with an eye to the future, to legacy, to future historical opinion. Despite the passing comment in his speech of January 1655 already quoted, Cromwell gives the impression of being not particularly concerned about how he would fare and be treated by future historians. Indeed, I often wonder whether he would approve of historians like us today still poring over his life and work and achievements more than 350 years after his death and what he would make of it all.
But of course he did leave a legacy, albeit a mixed and disputed one, and interest in the man and his achievements has not waned in the decades and centuries since his death. Far from it. There remains a vibrant popular interest in Cromwell and the corpus of Cromwellian mythology and folklore, strong throughout the twentieth century, which shows no signs of waning in the twenty-first. He is a character who very few approach in a completely open and undecided way; most people think they know quite a lot about Cromwell. In popular writing and journalism, in the pronouncements of politicians and commentators, an image of Cromwell is repeatedly conjured up and deployed, for good or ill. Most recent prime ministers have been compared to Cromwell at one time or another – political journalists claimed to detect Cromwellian traits in Margaret Thatcher and to see Cromwellian roots for Tony Blair’s so-called ‘third way’, while a famous cartoon showing a troubled Gordon Brown viewing his predecessor at number ten, apparently in his coffin but in fact still full of life and claiming the right to go on and on, was modelled on the equally famous Victorian painting of Cromwell looking down on the body of the newly- executed and coffined Charles I. I have yet to see a cartoon of David Cameron as Cromwell, but give it time. At the start of the present century, Cromwell came tenth in the BBC poll of greatest Britons, garnering around a tenth of the votes of the overall winner, Sir Winston Churchill, and coming in behind John Lennon and Lady Diana, but narrowly ahead of Paul McCartney and Michael Crawford. I am sure that we are all familiar with the stories of how in the mid twentieth century the bigwigs at Durham University blocked proposals to name a new college after Cromwell, instead preferring the ringing title of Grey College, and of how Tony Benn’s plans to include Cromwell in a new set of stamps depicting all British heads of state from James I onwards was vetoed by the queen and the whole set, which had been fully designed and the artwork completed, was scrapped. On 3 September 1969 the personal column of The Times had two entries for Cromwell. One simply noted that it was the anniversary of his death, as well as of some of his greatest victories, and quoted a phrase from the Psalms which Cromwell himself reportedly uttered as he saw victory to be within his grasp at Dunbar – ‘Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered’. But the other entry was altogether less flattering – ‘Cromwell, to the eternal condemnation of Oliver, seditionist, traitor, regicide, racialist, proto-fascist and blasphemous bigot, God save England from his like’. It is hardly surprising that Cromwell still arouses such feelings, that he generates such strongly-held views in popular culture and that opinions are so divided. He was, after all, the leader of, and the driving force behind, the most revolutionary acts of the English revolution and many of the key issues with which he struggled or is linked remain unresolved and controversial to this day – the role, power and existence of a monarch and monarchy, of a House of Lords or other second parliamentary chamber, and of the official state church and its composition.
But what of ‘professional’ historians, whether academics based at and employed by universities, or others, whose works draw upon a wide range of primary source material in order to come up with new research-based interpretations of Cromwell, even if they are not themselves university- based academics? – and, as we shall see, some of the most influential biographies of Cromwell of the middle decades of the twentieth century were not written by university-based historians, a trend which has now largely faded, as it is hard to think of important and valuable full-length studies of Cromwell of the last generation or so which have not been written by university academics. If we focus on fairly serious, rigorous, source-based and full-length studies of Cromwell which have been written and published in the seventy years or so since Abbott began producing and issuing his volumes of Writings and Speeches, what themes emerge? I think that there are three main traits, which I will cover and explore in turn – the first in detail, the second and third more briefly – before, by way of a brief conclusion, I will close by surveying very recent published work and so exploring where Cromwellian studies might be leading today and in the near future.
Firstly, if we focus on full-length and fairly detailed published studies of Cromwell, it becomes very clear that the appearance of Abbott’s four- volume set did not stimulate a flood of new book-length biographical studies of Cromwell in the years after its publication and completion. In David Smith’s article on W C Abbott and the Historical Reputation of Oliver Cromwell (this volume), he explores how wider political developments at home, and more importantly in Europe, prompted a mass of new published work on Cromwell during the 1930s. Focusing on English-language studies alone, by my reckoning over a dozen quite substantial biographical studies appeared during the 1930s – thereafter, nothing like that quantity of new work appeared in a single decade until the very late twentieth century. In the wake of that surge and with the impact and distraction of the Second World War, we would of course expect a lull, but in fact a fairly dramatic post-war famine followed the pre-war feast. Moreover, what little did appear in this period kept its distance from Abbott.
In 1941 there appeared, published by Nelsons and Sons of London, a fairly substantial Selection from the Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, selected, edited and annotated by Miss L.C. Bennett and dedicated to the memory of the (by then) late John Buchan. A generous selection of texts, arranged thematically, and accompanied by a short biographical sketch and a chronology of Cromwell’s life, it may well have been in part a Cromwell Association project, for it carried a three-page foreword by one of the founders of the Association and its then chairman, the Rt. Hon. Isaac Foot. In it, Foot praised the Carlyle collection of the letters and speeches, especially the edition revised and enlarged by Mrs Lomas in 1904, while also proclaiming the merits of the new thematic selection by Miss Bennett. But both Foot in his foreword, and Bennett in her introduction, made clear that the selection had been made, with the publisher’s permission, from the Lomas edition of Carlyle’s text throughout, even though the first two volumes of Abbott’s Writings and Speeches, down to spring 1653, were readily available, having been published in 1937 and 1939. The introduction made a passing reference to the Abbott edition as being ‘essentially a work for the specialist’,3 but offered no explanation for why the material down to 1653 had been taken from Lomas’s edition of Carlyle’s work, whose faults Miss Bennett duly noted in her introduction and which was still in copyright at the time, so permission had had to be sought from Lomas’s publisher, Methuen, rather than taken from Abbott’s volumes.
Apart from this volume, the only other new and fairly substantial English- language studies of Cromwell to appear during the war years were a slim volume of sixty pages, and so making more widely available a lecture given to the Royal Society of Literature in April 1944 by Isaac Foot, comparing and contrasting Cromwell with Abraham Lincoln. This was published by the Royal Society later in 1944. There was also a children’s biography of Cromwell, written by Dorothy Erskine Muir, a prolific author who produced other biographies, as well as detective stories and fiction aimed at a young readership. It was published by Blackie and Sons in 1945 and, although of limited historical value, it actually gave quite a fair and balanced account of Cromwell’s life and achievements, mainly positive and noting, for example, that while Cromwell’s Irish campaign included much cruelty towards the inhabitants, as Protector he then attempted to benefit and to rebuild Ireland and its people through his economic policy.
If the dearth of new studies of Cromwell appearing during the war years is understandable, the continuing drought of major new work for the rest of the 1940s and much of the 1950s is, at first sight, more puzzling. The completion of Abbott’s magnus opus in 1947 and the availability of the texts of Cromwell’s writings and speeches and of much more material by or about Cromwell, missing from all editions of Carlyle, should have been the spur to a new wave, even tide, of writing. But it did not happen.
In 1946 Duckworth published a quite substantial though not very original work by Hugh Ross Williamson, comparing and contrasting Cromwell and Charles I. Again, it was not an academic study, for although a very prolific author – between the early 1930s and his death in 1978 Williamson churned out at least fifty books, including several others on the Stuart period which might ring a bell, such as biographies of Hampden, Buckingham, James I, Raleigh and Guy Fawkes – he was also a dramatist, and from 1943 an Anglican clergyman at the high Anglo-Catholic end of the spectrum and in the 1950s he converted to Roman Catholicism. His other works included studies of Eliot’s poetry, of the Mass and of assorted saints. His study of Cromwell and Charles I was generally sound and sensible, using some of Cromwell’s own words taken from letters and speeches – though again apparently not drawn from Abbott – and reaching solid conclusions, but it offered little that was really new or original.
With this partial exception, the only other substantial and full-length new study of Cromwell to appear down to the later 1950s was the very important biography by R.S. Paul, entitled The Lord Protector, though in fact it gave a full account of Cromwell’s whole life and career, from birth to death. It was published by Lutterworth in 1955. Robert Sydney Paul was born in 1918, just before the First World War ended, so his study of Cromwell was written by a comparatively young man, still in his thirties. Three decades later, now retired, he published a very detailed study of the Westminster Assembly, seen by many as the definitive account, entitled The Assembly of the Lord. A churchman and theologian, long-time assistant director and then director of the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, near Geneva, his religious interests and focus shone through his elegant study of Cromwell. While not discounting other formative influences from his early years, nor denying that the later Cromwell was also partly shaped by his military and political experiences during the 1640s and early 1650s, for Paul not only were faith and religion at the core of Cromwell and the central tenet of his life and career, but also in Cromwell he claimed to have found a fellow ecumenicist, a man who strove to overcome doctrinal differences and to bring groups together to create Christian unity. Although in due course Paul’s biography came to be praised and in it we might see a forerunner of the modern historical stress upon Cromwell’s religion and the centrality of his pursuit of liberty of conscience from which a new religious coalescence or unity might emerge, at the time it was not particularly warmly received in some quarters. It got remarkably little attention, barely a passing nod, in Paul Hardacre’s 1961 survey of historical writings on Cromwell since 1969;4 Christopher Hill was initially rather cool towards it, though he later accorded it warmer praise; and it garnered very few academic reviews of any sort, good, bad or indifferent, in the historical journals of the day.
But Paul’s biography was, and is, very important in a number of ways. Firstly, it was one of the first studies to undertake really detailed analysis of Cromwell’s language and, in its religiously-driven interrogation of key letters and speeches, it set the tone for the type of close textual analysis of Cromwell’s (religious) language which has become a key part of many Cromwellian studies since then. Secondly, it was very fully referenced, particularly in terms of its extensive use of primary source material, far more fully referenced than the biographies which had preceded it earlier in the twentieth century, even fuller than the much-regarded biographies by Gardiner and Firth, which in fact were quite lightly and sparsely referenced. Thirdly, and most tellingly for my subject today, Paul was far from enamoured by Abbott’s work. He made reference in his introduction to the ‘evident’ debt which future historians would owe to Abbott, commenting that Abbott’s ‘exhaustive survey…and Abbott’s own great work needs to be given the place it deserves’.5 But in fact Paul used Abbott very cautiously and although Abbott’s Writings and Speeches appeared quite frequently in footnotes, it is surprising how often Paul also supplied a reference to the Lomas edition of Carlyle alongside the Abbott reference. Paul seemed generally to have favoured Lomas where her text differed from Abbott’s. In a fascinating appendix, Paul came clean, admitting that while he admired Abbott’s ‘exhaustive scholarship’ and ‘American thoroughness’, he distrusted the result, as in his view Abbott had failed to understand the centrality of religion to Cromwell and instead developed ‘too close an identification of the Lord Protector with the twentieth-century dictators – an identification which becomes increasingly and embarrassingly marked through his work…which seems to keep pace with America’s own increasing preoccupation with the war against dictatorship’. Paul saw Abbott’s work as shot through with ‘unconscious distortion’, which seemed to have made Paul wary about relying on Abbott, even for transcriptions and reproductions of Cromwell’s own texts.6
Whatever the reaction to the appearance of Abbott’s work and subsequent historians’ opinion of it, there is probably another reason why so little major new work was published on Cromwell during the 1940s and for much of the 1950s, namely a change in the wider approach being taken to the study of seventeenth-century England in general and to the investigation and understanding of the key issues of the period in particular, including the causes and nature of the English civil war. Beginning in the inter-war period but gathering pace and coming to dominate work on the early Stuart period after the war was a new historical approach, which ignored as largely irrelevant the study of particular political, constitutional and religious problems and tensions in early modern England of the sort which had dominated the work of Whig historians such as Gardiner and Firth. Instead, whether Marxist, neo-Marxist or not Marxist at all, it was fashionable during the middle decades of the twentieth century to view the period as shaped by broad trends and tensions linked to perceived socio-economic changes. In the purest Marxist form, the first half of the seventeenth century saw an inevitable clash and conflict arising from the agonised death of the old feudal order on the one hand and the rise of capitalism, the growth of the middle class(es) and a bourgeois revolution on the other. Herein lay the key to understanding the early and mid-seventeenth century, they argued, not the study of any single man, even Oliver Cromwell.
During the 1940s, 1950s and on through much of the 1960s, much early Stuart scholarship and research focused on exploring and testing these broad socio-economic interpretations, investigating not a single man, however great or powerful, or even a single family, but groups, circles, whole social strata and classes, in order to see whether socio-economic interpretations held water. The focus was on the traditional elites – the peerage and aristocracy, and Cromwell was not one of those – and the gentry or middle classes. Historians such as R.H. Tawney, J.H. Hexter, H.R. Trevor-Roper, Lawrence Stone and Christopher Hill debated and disputed whether whole groups were moving up or down in socio-economic status and power or whether sub-groups with differing fortunes – mere gentry, rising gentry, declining gentry and so on – could be detected. Cromwell was only a tiny bit-player in this wider gentry controversy or so-called ‘storm over the gentry’. Tawney, in his Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, originally published in the 1930s but reprinted in Britain at least seven times between the 1940s and the 1960s, made only a handful of passing references to Cromwell, Hexter almost entirely ignored Cromwell in his contributions to the gentry debate, and while Trevor-Roper made passing allusions to Cromwell as one of the declining gentry of the pre-civil war period, as a ‘country-house radical’ as well as a ‘natural backbencher’ in parliament, he did not figure highly in Trevor-Roper’s contribution to the wider debate, and rumours that he was writing a full-length biography of Cromwell proved incorrect or were unfulfilled.7 The only historian who was heavily involved in the storm over the gentry debate and who went on to write a full-length biography of Cromwell was Christopher Hill, and his biography did not appear until the 1970s, by which time the gentry controversy was largely at an end. During the decades when most of the leading historians working on the early and mid-seventeenth century were engrossed by the gentry debate and by interpretations of tensions and divisions within the state and of the causes of the English civil war predicated by this line – whether they were supporting and contributing to this line of argument or were reacting to it and undertaking work to expose its flaws and shortcomings – it is perhaps not surprising that Cromwell suffered a degree of academic neglect.
So, to conclude my first – and most substantial – theme, the appearance of Abbott’s volumes did not give rise to a significant body of new work on Cromwell and did not give an impetus to new research and book-length publications on the man and his career. For various reasons, including the impact of the Second World War and its immediate legacy, trends and fashions in historical research, and in Anglo-American approaches to the seventeenth century and to key issues in that period, together with a distinct academic coolness towards, or reservations about, Abbott and his magnus opus, very little substantial new published work specifically on Cromwell appeared during the twenty years, from the late 1930s to the late 1950s, over which Abbott’s volumes appeared (his fourth and final volume was published in 1947) and were newly-available to the historical community.
Most of what did appear over this period made little or no use of Abbott’s work – the authors ignored it, deliberately and consciously steered clear of it, questioned its value and kept it at arm’s length.
The second theme or trait of the post-Abbott study of Cromwell, shaping work in the mid and later twentieth century, can be covered more briefly, as it has already been touched upon by David Smith in his article ‘W C Abbott and the Historical Reputation of Oliver Cromwell’ (see this volume). Ernest Barker recalled that in 1936 he gladly accepted an invitation from an old friend to lecture on Cromwell and duly delivered his lecture on the evening of 17 December.
It was a singularly happy occasion. My audience sat at tables, dotted about the room, smoking and drinking beer (it was a social evening); and I lectured all the more happily because I felt that my hearers were comfortable. The lecture was delivered in two parts (the lecturer retiring for rest and refreshment to one of the tables during a brief interval); and I fear that it lasted for nearly an hour and a half. Perhaps only a German audience could have been so generous and so patient, and I owe a very deep debt of gratitude to all who listened to me for the honour of their attention.8
The lecture was given in Hamburg at the invitation of a local academic and civic dignitary. In his preface to the printed version, Barker went on to apologise for his comparisons between the English revolution and events underway in Germany and between Cromwell and Hitler – ‘I can only plead that the comparison between the German Führer and our English Protector is one which has been pressed on my attention not only in Germany but also in England’.9 Barker went on to say how proud he was to have lectured in the Hamburg area, as that was where the English themselves had come from 1500 years before. As well as the main lecture, in the resulting book Barker added a substantial epilogue, further exploring similarities between the English puritan revolution and the German National Socialist Revolution, seeing many similarities between the two and between Cromwell and Hitler, while also stressing some differences, especially the power of Cromwell’s personal faith and his desire for religious toleration and plurality.
Ernest Barker, a political theorist and academic, was highly critical of both Nazism and Marxism in the inter-war period, but he also strongly supported Chamberlain’s appeasement policy and wanted ‘realism’ in maintaining good British relations with Hitler’s Germany. Hence the visit to and lecture at Hamburg at the end of 1936 and the resulting study of Oliver Cromwell and the English People, published by Cambridge University Press in 1937, which makes such uncomfortable reading today. Yet, as we have already heard, he was one of many Cromwellian historians of the 1930s who portrayed Cromwell in this light, in the mould of the contemporary European dictators. So another feature of the post-Abbott historiography of Cromwell, my second main theme today, is how several of those historians subsequently recanted and returned later in the century to Cromwell, producing very different published portraits of the man and his career. I will focus on and explore two historians who published studies of Cromwell before the Second World War and who returned to him in a very different light two or three decades later.
One such figure was Maurice Percy Ashley. Born in 1907 and a brilliant student, he undertook a doctorate on Cromwell’s financial and commercial policies during the Protectorate. But to his disappointment, an academic career did not follow. Instead, during the 1930s he worked as Churchill’s research and literary assistant and also began producing journalist-type pieces for The Manchester Guardian and The Times. In 1934 he published his first book, springing from his doctoral thesis and thus reflecting on aspects of Cromwell’s Protectorate government and policy. But much more importantly, three years later, in 1937, he published with Jonathan Cape a detailed 350-page biographical study of Cromwell. Its title, Oliver Cromwell: The Conservative Dictator, and the closing chapter, called ‘Death of a Dictator’, reveal and confirm that this was a biography written very much with an eye on contemporary European affairs and heads of state, and to some extent Ashley’s Cromwell was portrayed in that light.
Twenty years later, having served in intelligence during the Second World War, with far more extensive journalistic experience and having become deputy editor of The Listener – he would shortly become its editor – Ashley wrote and published through Hodder and Stoughton a very different biography of Cromwell. Even in its title, it reveals how Ashley’s views had moved on, from Oliver Cromwell: The Conservative Dictator to an examination of The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell. In it, Ashley admitted that his earlier biography ‘was profoundly influenced by the rise of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin and by many years of Conservative government in Britain’ and that now, knowing ‘more about Cromwell (and recent dictators) than I did then,…the emphasis of the present book is different’.10 Indeed, Ashley’s extensively rewritten 1957 biography, plus further studies on Cromwell which he continued to write into old age, gave a far more balanced view of Cromwell, more sympathetic, stressing more strongly his faith, his religious goals, his attempts to win over friends and his inclusivity, and his many positive achievements. Talk of dictatorship and comparisons with contemporary European or world politics and politicians were rare and muted in these later works. (It is also noticeable that by the late 1950s the earlier reservations concerning, and squeamishness about relying upon, Abbott seemed to have been fading, for in his new biography Ashley praised Abbott’s four volumes as ‘an indispensable work [and] all the verbatim quotations in the present book for which sources are not indicated will be found in Abbott’.11)
Cicely Veronica Wedgwood was a near contemporary of Ashley, born three years after him in 1910 and also dying three years later than him, in 1997. She, too, was a distinguished student, who studied at Oxford in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but she did not pursue an academic career – at that time, still a difficult path for women – and instead, like Ashley, she focused on a literary and journalistic career, working at Cape publishers, writing for The Times and The Telegraph and for several years editing a feminist weekly review, Time and Tide. Like Ashley, too, she began having her historical work published quite early in life – by 1938, still in her late twenties, she had published two widely-respected books, a biography of Thomas Wentworth, first Earl of Strafford, and a history of the Thirty Years War. At the end of the 1930s, she was asked to write a shortish biography of Cromwell, which was published by Duckworth in 1939, on the eve of war, in their ‘Great Lives’ series. It remained in print and was occasionally reissued down to the early 1960s. Around 1970 she was invited to update it for a new edition, which duly appeared in 1973, but on revisiting the text of her early career, Wedgwood was horrified and discovered that it needed to be almost completely rewritten – indeed, comparison of the two texts reveals that little from the 1939 edition survived unchanged in the 1973 edition.
In Wedgwood’s case, far more than in Ashley’s, we know exactly how she felt about her 1930s view of Cromwell in the post-war era and why she thought it necessary to undertake such extensive revisions and rewriting, for she discussed and analysed the process in her address to the Cromwell Association’s 1972 AGM, in a lecture entitled ‘Cromwell After Thirty Years’, subsequently printed by the Association. She noted that the text needed such revision in part simply because she was much older and more experienced and her own perspectives had changed, in part because the primary sources were now much fuller, thanks to the appearance of the Abbott volumes – again, no hint of criticism of or reservations about Abbott now – and in part because other studies of Cromwell had appeared and had to be taken into account; she dutifully picked out Ashley’s biographical studies as particularly important, tactfully praising the then president of the Association at its AGM. But even more crucial, she admitted, was the change in atmosphere, of the ‘climate of opinion’ in which she wrote. She noted a mixture of horror and dismay on discovering just how much her biography of the late 1930s reflected ‘the rise and apparent triumph of the dictatorships…which cast a lurid and misleading light backwards on to the figure of Cromwell’. Wedgwood spoke of ‘this ugly discolouration of Cromwell’s image’ which had pervaded her own 1939 biography – though in fact, of the various studies of Cromwell in the 1930s hers was far from the biography which adopted this perspective most strongly and most explicitly and Wedgwood noted that ‘I had at least avoided open references to Hitler and Mussolini, but there were numerous oblique comparisons’. Wedgwood also noted that this perspective had since faded, though she felt it continued in the popular mind into and through the 1950s. She thought that her 1939 text both drew too many comparisons with the European dictators of the day and was misguided in spending too many words and too much space on the defensive on that topic, highlighting contrasts as well as similarities between Cromwell and the contemporary dictators of Europe. But in her 1972 address she then continued with some rather odd stuff, repeatedly highlighting the ‘politically restless and morally permissive society’ of the early 1970s, how ‘the basic self-confidence and the basic political and moral codes which still held good in 1939 have given way by 1972 to something like moral anarchy’, the loss of an age when people could be confident that ‘right would win against might and that the English would be in the forefront of the battle’ – so much for the Scots and the Welsh. She suggested that in the 1970s historians, having set aside the image of Cromwell as an inter-war dictator, could and should approach and portray Cromwell in this new light, as he too ‘lived in a period of violence and doubt and change, of fierce moral speculations and revolutionary ideas,…a period when it seemed at times that society was perilously near to a descent into anarchy’. Cromwell’s fight against the abandonment of morals and the approach of anarchy, Wedgwood claimed, should have resonance in the present day and ‘give him a new contemporary meaning to us in 1972’.12 It is all rather strange and one wonders whether in approaching Cromwell anew in the early 1970s Wedgewood – by now a senior establishment figure, showered with honours, including the Order of Merit, and chairing various worthy committees – had put aside the misleading context of the 1930s only to adopt a new set of obsessions which tell us more about how she viewed the 1960s and early 1970s than about Oliver Cromwell.
If retreat from ‘Cromwell the dictator in the mould of the inter-war European dictators’ is my second post-Abbott trait, the third and final trend in serious and substantial historical studies of Cromwell since Abbott’s day has been the very significant expansion of writing and publication on him over the past generation or so, since the 1970s onwards. Only in these very recent decades has the quantity and frequency of new books about Cromwell returned to those of the 1920s and the 1930s.
Other than further work by Ashley, following up but not really bettering or superseding his 1957 biography, not many new full-length studies of Cromwell appeared during the 1960s – a fairly short, military biography, focusing on his military career of 1642-51, by Peter Young; a short 64-page biography by Austin Woolrych in the ‘Clarendon Biographies’ series; and a couple of children’s books, including the lovely and quite balanced Ladybird book. The 1970s saw more work by Ashley, Ivan Roots’s very valuable collection of old and new writings, Cromwell: A Profile, and two biographies which in different ways became very influential – Christopher Hill’s pithy and provocative God’s Englishman and Lady Antonia Fraser’s Cromwell: Our Chief of Men, certainly very weighty and detailed, remaining in print since it first appeared in 1973, and not only still the best known and most influential study outside academic circles but also unusual in the modern era for being written by someone who was not a university-based academic. Cromwellian studies gathered pace during the 1980s and 1990s and published works have shown no sign of slackening in the opening years of the twenty-first century. Biographies and edited collections have appeared in substantial numbers, almost all of them by academic historians, including Andrew Barclay, Martyn Bennett, Barry Coward, Colin Davis, Peter Gaunt, Ian Gentles, Patrick Little, Alan Marshall, John Morrill, David Smith and others. Of all these works from the 1960s onwards, Hill’s God’s Englishmen is very unusual, written by an author much older than the others, with a pedigree of research and publication stretching back to the mid twentieth century, but also a biography reflecting his own left-wing and radical perspectives, finding much to admire in the Cromwell of the civil war and the 1640s but seeing him then going off the rails, drifting to the right, abandoning the pursuit of radicalism and increasingly becoming conservative and even dictatorial during the 1650s. Hill’s interpretation is exceptional, however, for it is remarkable how most full-length academic studies of the recent decades have taken a similar and broadly or strongly positive approach to Cromwell. All rely heavily on Cromwell’s surviving letters and speeches, now generally taken from Abbott’s edition rather than from Carlyle and Lomas, and to a greater or lesser degree thus allowing Cromwell to speak for himself. Although recent works stress slightly different aspects of the man, focus on different phases of his life and career, incorporate a few new or unusual sources and come up with some new or additional information, they largely conform to the same overall pattern. Over the past generation or so, Cromwellian studies have fairly consistently portrayed a man of sincere faith pursuing godly ends, radical to the end despite the distraction and temptation of settling for the status quo and of healing and settling, a man without much personal ambition and largely uncorrupted by power and material things. Cromwellian scholarship almost seems stuck in the rut of slightly cosy and positive consensus, and even those authors and editors who at the outset claim to be taking a different approach and to be throwing new light on particular incidents, developments or periods, in the end largely conform to the now well-established consensus. Can it last and, while it does, is this a healthy or productive phase of Cromwellian historiography?
If, by way of conclusion, we review important new work on Cromwell which has appeared over the past decade or so, during our current century and millennium, does it give us any hint about where Cromwellian studies may be heading in the near future? There has been important and valuable work on Cromwell’s early life, throwing new light on the pre-civil war man and his career and on his personal, religious and political affinities.13 His record in handling Ireland, particularly during his military campaign of 1649- 50, has continued to attract attention and still strongly divides historians, with recent published accounts ranging between attempts to rehabilitate him and to stress his honourable actions and his adherence to the rules of war on the one hand, and a portrait of Cromwell in Ireland every bit as black as the blackest late nineteenth-century nationalist image of the man on the other, together with a more cautious and less loaded middle-of-the-road account.14 Although Cromwell’s role as a military figure and his relationship with the army during the 1650s deserves more work, a detailed study of his handling of the Major Generals during 1655-57 has painted a rather uncertain figure, dithering and drifting as the system came under fire at the end.15 Focusing on Cromwell as Protector, we have had a lot of interesting new work on both his and his regime’s image,16 on their culture and cultural activities (broadly as well as narrowly defined)17; and, with a more political and governmental focus, we have some questioning of Cromwell’s constitutionalist outlook and approach and of his abiding by the written constitutions and constitutional limitations placed upon him, and instead an attempt to move back towards the older image of an all-powerful Lord Protector who ruled through the military.18 But perhaps the most interesting and suggestive new work on Cromwell to appear in recent years is a chapter- length reassessment by Ronald Hutton, not entirely iconoclastic, praising and reinforcing some recent work, but altogether less reverential and more challenging than most of the portrayals of Cromwell over the past generation or so. Most pertinently, perhaps, Hutton questions whether the approach adopted by most recent historians, of resting so heavily upon Cromwell’s own words and of allowing him to speak for himself through his surviving letters and speeches is ‘quite proper’ and amounts to good and robust history. The very thorough and perceptive study of the letters and speeches, by Worden, Morrill and others, certainly provides an understanding of what Cromwell wanted people to think of him, Hutton suggests, and a valuable insight into how he ‘employed and manipulated a set of images and ideas’, but little more than that. In challenging the conventional approach to Cromwell adopted by, and central to, the work of almost all historians – including myself – over the past generation or more, Hutton also lays down a challenge to how Cromwell’s own words, whether garnered from the Abbott volumes of 1937-47 or drawn from the major new edition of Cromwell’s ‘voice’ currently in preparation and due to be published later this decade, can and should be employed by historians, just as his rather sharper and far less reverential image of Cromwell might shake up the generally positive consensus of recent years and open up different routes for future study and debate.19
This article was presented at the study day ‘Cromwell and the Historians, 1937-2012’ held in October 2012.
1 This version of a lecture given at the Association day-school in October 2012 has been slightly tidied-up for publication, including restoring a little material dropped on the day as time became pressing and very lightly referencing the piece, generally no more than to give sources for direct quotations. However, it has not been extensively revised and so retains the feel of a paper delivered orally, complete with occasional colloquialisms and use of first person singular.
2 I. Roots, Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (London, 1989), p. 58.
3 L.C. Bennett, A Selection from the Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (London, 1941), p. 6.
4 P.H. Hardacre, ‘Writings on Oliver Cromwell since 1929’, Journal of Modern History, 33 (1961).
5 R.S. Paul, The Lord Protector (London, 1955), p. 13, though here Paul seems to be referring to Abbott’s earlier published bibliography of Cromwellian material as much as to the Writings and Speeches.
6 Ibid, appendix eight, ‘Professor W.C. Abbott and Oliver Cromwell’, pp. 415-17.
7 Trevor-Roper, as quoted in C. Hill, God’s Englishman (Harmondsworth, 1970), p. 261 and see his own Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (London, 1967), passim. He did, of course, study Cromwell in other contexts, including an important article/chapter on his relationship with parliament 1640-58, reprinted in ibid.
8 E. Barker, Oliver Cromwell and the English People (Cambridge, 1937), pp. 7- 8.
9 Ibid., p. 8.
10 M. Ashley, The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell (London, 1957), p. 23.
12 C.V. Wedgwood, ‘Cromwell After Thirty Years’, Cromwelliana (1972), pp. 8-11.
13 See especially S. Healy, ‘1636: the unmaking of Oliver Cromwell’ and S. Roberts, ‘“One that would sit well at the mark”: the early parliamentary career of Oliver Cromwell, 1640-1642’, both in P. Little, ed., Oliver Cromwell, New Perspectives (Basingstoke, 2009) and A. Barclay, Electing Cromwell: The Making of a Politician (London, 2011).
14 T. Reilly, Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy (London, 2000), a new and revised edition of which is rumoured to be preparation, rehabilitates Cromwell, while M. Ó Siochrú, God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland (London, 2008) paints him in the darkest of colours. J.S. Wheeler, Cromwell in Ireland (Dublin, 1999), while a little older, provides an account resting somewhere between the two.
15 C. Durston, Cromwell’s Major Generals: Godly Government during the English Revolution (Manchester, 2001). Henry Reece’s The Army in Cromwellian England, 1649-1660, due to be published early in 2013 and keenly awaited at time of writing, may throw new light on Cromwell and the military during the 1650s.
16 See especially L.L. Knoppers, Constructing Cromwell: Ceremony, Portrait and Print, 1645-1661 (Cambridge, 2001) and the relevant parts of K. Sharpe, Image Wars: Promoting Kings and Commonwealths in England, 1603-1660 (New Haven, 2010), while there is also much on this theme in N. Greenspan, Selling Cromwell’s Wars: Media, Empire and Godly Warfare, 1650-1659 (London, 2012).
17 Much of it drawn together in P. Little, The culture of the Cromwellian court’, Cromwelliana, series II 6 (2009) and reprinted in P. Gaunt, ed., Cromwell Four Centuries On (London, 2013).
18 See especially, arguing for the powerlessness of the executive council, B. Worden, ‘Oliver Cromwell and the council’, in P. Little, ed., The Cromwellian Protectorate (Woodbridge, 2007), another version of which is to be found in Worden’s God’s Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell (Oxford, 2012).
19 R. Hutton, Debates in Stuart History (Basingstoke, 2004), chapter 4, especially pp. 97-101.
Peter Gaunt is professor of early modern history at the University of Chester. He was chairman of the Cromwell Association from 1990 until 2009, when he became the Association’s president.