All historians look at the past through spectacles of the present: those who believe themselves to be totally “objective” are often the most naïve in their acceptance of the values of the world in which they live. That is why history has continually to be rewritten: it is not the past that changes, but the present, and with it our attitudes to the past. We can smile when we read Macaulay describing Oliver Cromwell as a middle-class Englishman of the nineteenth century: “No sovereign ever carried to the throne so large a portion of the best qualities of the middling orders, so strong a sympathy with the feelings and interests of his people…. He had a high, stout, honest English heart.” Carlyle, worried by the threat of Chartism, depicted Cromwell as the hero who had saved his world from both absolutism and democracy. Even S.R. Gardiner called him “the greatest because the most typical Englishman of all time.” In the 1930s and 1940s W.C. Abbott compared Cromwell to Hitler and Stalin, and Dr. Ashley depicted him as “the conservative dictator.” There are almost as many Cromwells as there are biographers—and that is bidding high.
Yet there are special reasons why Cromwell is more controversial, and more elusive, than most great historical characters. He was the key figure in the turning point of English history. He is England’s greatest revolutionary, a regicide; and this in itself creates difficulties for those who—living in a post-revolutionary epoch—believe that “the Anglo-Saxon tradition” is predominantly non-revolutionary, one of progress by compromise and muddling through. The revolution over which Cromwell presided ended the Middle Ages in England and laid the basis for England’s world domination and for the industrial revolution: Germans who saw Cromwell as the herald of British imperialism had a point. His career was not insignificant.
More important, Cromwell played a dual role in the English Revolution: he was—as Guizot long ago put it—both its Danton and its Bonaparte. In his early phase he is magnificently quotable: “I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.” “The state, in choosing men to serve them, takes no notice of their opinions; if they be willing faithfully to serve them, that satisfies.” Promotion under him was based on merit, not rank, at a time when the royalist cavalry was described (by General Monck, who should have known) as “a rabble of gentility.” Despite his own upper-class origins, Cromwell was reported as saying he hoped to “live to see never a nobleman in England.” He cooperated with the extreme radicals in London and in the army to coerce Parliament and to bring the king to trial in the name of the people whom he had betrayed. Yet in his Bonapartist phase Cromwell rejected his former allies as “a despicable and contemptible generation of men,” “differing little from …
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