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The Truth About Oliver Cromwell

Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey/Bridgeman Art Library
Benjamin West: Cromwell Dissolving the Long Parliament, 1782

“In converting the lecture into print I have excised its local references and subdued its oral character.” The fastidious if somewhat mannered elegance of this prefatory remark to Blair Worden’s collection of his essays on the religious and political history of mid-seventeenth-century England reminds one instantly of the late Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was Worden’s mentor, colleague, and friend, and whose posthumous reputation he has greatly enhanced as his literary executor and sensitive obituarist.1

Trevor-Roper is barely mentioned in the book, but his influence is often discernible. It is most obvious in Worden’s preference for the long essay over the more daunting alternative of a continuous narrative, for though Trevor-Roper’s projected history of the Puritan Revolution was never completed, his essays are the apotheosis of the genre. It is also seen in Worden’s choice of subject matter, which, as in his account of Oliver Cromwell and his parliaments or his commemoration of the royalist politician and historian Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, recalls his master’s earlier forays into the same territory. Even an entry in the index that reads “Larkin, Philip, exiguous poet 357” reminds us of the satirical character assassinations in which Trevor-Roper’s indexes abounded.

Blair Worden, however, is his own man and though he rarely aspires to Trevor-Roper’s stylistic bravura, he greatly exceeds him in the depth of his knowledge, the care of his documentation, and the subtlety of his writing. Moreover, Trevor-Roper was impatient with all forms of religious dogma. He belonged to a generation of sociologically minded historians who tended, as Worden puts it, to assume that religion was the seventeenth century’s way of talking about something else, usually politics or economics. Worden’s affinities lie with those more recent scholars who try to avoid the anachronism of endowing seventeenth-century people with twenty-first-century preoccupations and seek to understand the past on its own terms.

Worden’s conversion to this approach was assisted by his discovery in the 1970s that the so-called “memoirs” of the celebrated regicide Edmund Ludlow, which had been edited in 1894 by the great historian Sir Charles Firth and prescribed for study by generations of Oxford undergraduates, were in fact a late-seventeenth-century rewriting of Ludlow’s original text, from which the evidence of his passionate religiosity had been carefully stripped, in order to make the work usable by radical Whigs who found Ludlow’s Puritan zeal embarrassing.2 For Worden, this startling revelation was a warning that, if scholars are to understand the past, they must constantly resist their natural inclination to rewrite history in their own image. Worden therefore takes the language of the time at its face value and firmly reminds a more secular age of the centrality of religious belief to the politics of seventeenth-century England.

He also rejects many once-popular interpretations of the period. For centuries, the English Civil War has been depicted as a conflict in which puritanical but freedom-loving parliamentarians battled against pleasure-seeking royalist supporters of an intolerant church and the divine right of kings. The execution of Charles I in 1649, the abolition of the House of Lords, the proclamation of a republic, and the grant of extensive religious toleration under Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate between 1653 and 1658 were all seen as the natural culmination of an epic struggle for political and religious freedom.

Generations of English children were brought up to regard themselves as natural Cavaliers or Roundheads, supporters of one side or the other. On January 30 each year royalist sympathizers mourned the death of Charles the Martyr and on May 29 (Oak Apple Day) they celebrated the restoration in 1660 of his son Charles II. Nineteenth-century Nonconformists, liberals, and radicals, by contrast, regarded Cromwell as a heroic champion of liberty. In 1899 they even succeeded in having his statue erected outside Parliament, an institution with which, ironically, he had enjoyed exceptionally bad relations. In an earlier collection of essays, Roundhead Reputations (2001), Worden has written interestingly about the political significance of this posthumous mythology.

In the twentieth century, under Marxist influence, the English Civil War was widely regarded as the result of underlying economic changes. The overthrow of the Stuart monarchy was hailed as the first bourgeois revolution, the forerunner of 1789 and 1917. In the 1950s, rival interpretations of the social causes of the mid-seventeenth-century upheavals generated bitter disputes among British historians. R.H. Tawney, Lawrence Stone, Christopher Hill, and Hugh Trevor-Roper locked themselves into a conflict almost comparable in ferocity to that of the Civil War itself.

Today that passion has largely disappeared. In British secondary schools Hitler and Stalin have long replaced Charles I and Cromwell as the most popular subjects for study, and in the universities the seventeenth century no longer attracts the best young historical talents. The diminishing band who continue to write about the period have largely discarded the grand narratives of liberty and revolution. They no longer believe that two sides in the war were divided by great differences, whether social or ideological. Clear-cut interpretations of the conflict have given way to a complex and confusing story of contingency, accident, and unintended consequences.

For this defusing of passions and abandonment of old allegiances Blair Worden bears a good deal of the credit (some would call it the responsibility). His masterly study The Rump Parliament (1974), about the body that governed England during the four years after Charles I’s execution, portrayed an assembly of extremely reluctant revolutionaries; and his concise history The English Civil Wars 1640–1660 (2009) stressed both the unpredictability of the upheavals and their ultimate futility. His last sentence in that book is a quotation from the poet John Dryden: “Thy wars brought nothing about.”

God’s Instruments contains ten essays, all of them relating to the politics and ideas of the 1650s. Two have not been previously published. The others have been revised and sometimes greatly expanded. They range widely in their subject matter. Three chapters on Puritan beliefs and political principles are followed by a huge piece on the history of Oxford University under Cromwellian rule. Occupying 103 pages and requiring 717 footnotes, it defiantly exemplifies Worden’s belief in the merits of the long essay, which he correctly describes as “now an unfashionable form.” Then come four studies of the politics of the 1650s and, in conclusion, two commemorative addresses on John Milton and the Earl of Clarendon.

All these pieces are meticulously documented and delicately written. They draw upon a profound knowledge of the sources and show an acute linguistic sensitivity to the vocabulary of the period. One or two would have been better if they had been tightened up and the argument made less intricate. Several are overloaded with quotations from contemporary writings. Worden relegates too many of his best points to the extensive footnotes, and the reader’s task is not made easier by the publisher’s choice of an uningratiatingly small typeface. But God’s Instruments will repay the careful attention of scholars and general readers alike, for it contains some of the most distinguished writing on the Cromwellian period since the days of Sir Charles Firth.

The central theme in Worden’s exploration of Puritan belief is the overriding conviction of the godly that nothing came by chance and that divine intervention lay behind all their successes and failures in daily life. This kind of providentialism, he argues, was central to the political arguments and decision-making of the time. When the New Model Army suffered a reverse, then the correct reaction was a prayer meeting; and when Cromwell’s plan in 1655 to conquer the Caribbean island of Hispaniola went awry, he ordered a fast day to discover what had provoked God into frustrating his plans.

The influential biblical text was chapter 5 of the Book of Joshua, which relates how, after the Israelites had triumphed at Jericho, the Lord allowed them to be defeated by the Amorites; he did this because he had been provoked by the sin of Achan, who had taken “of the accursed thing” by looting gold, silver, and a precious garment. Only when Achan had confessed and been stoned to death were the Israelites allowed to resume their victorious course. In the words of a marginal note in the Geneva Bible (curiously, not a source employed by Worden), “God wolde by this ouerthrowe make the[m] more earneft to fearch out and punifh the finne committed.”

In 1655–1656 Cromwell decided that the failure in Hispaniola was a divine punishment for the nation’s moral backsliding. Thereafter he grew more cautious about interpreting God’s intentions and his providentialist outlook became less triumphalist. Worden suggests that the Protector’s refusal of the kingship offered him in the Humble Petition and Advice of 1657 was at least partly attributable to his fear that it was not God’s intention that he should accept it. Of course, the belief in God’s judgments was in no way peculiar to Puritans, but Worden suggests that they saw special providences as playing a particularly important role in their spiritual progress. It would have been helpful, though, if he had reminded us just what he means by “Puritanism,” for it is a notoriously fuzzy concept.

The preoccupation of the godly with the individual’s salvation generated a demand for religious toleration, but it also set limits to it. To tolerate heretics was to condemn them to eternal torment. For mainstream Puritans liberty of conscience was “liberty of erring.” Yet the individual was responsible for his own soul; and his conscience could not be forced. Some contemporaries argued that error should be allowed to flourish, because only in that way would truth emerge; trying to force conscience was “a spiritual rape.”

But that was not Cromwell’s view. He saw liberty of religious profession as indispensable for the advancement of godliness. It was to be allowed to the “saints,” not to the unregenerate. As a leading Independent minister told Parliament in 1656: “It is only the liberty and protection of the people of God as such that we plead for.” Under Cromwell’s Protectorate this meant freedom of worship for Presbyterians, Independents, and Baptists, but not for Quakers and Socinians. “Popery” and “prelacy” were also banned, though in practice Catholics and Anglicans were left alone. This was out of political expediency, not principle. Worden concludes that, contrary to popular mythology, Cromwell “neither wanted toleration nor provided it.”

In a later chapter, Worden reminds us that some of Cromwell’s contemporaries held that religious toleration should be extended to everyone. He sees this not as a symptom of religious indifference, but as a product of the Puritan belief that the liberty of the individual conscience was essential for salvation. In 1648 speakers in the army’s debates described liberty of conscience as a “civil right” and “a common right and freedom.” For the regicides, the link between civil and religious liberty was coming to seem intrinsic. During the Protectorate, Cromwell was forced to compromise his conception of religious liberty as the route to spiritual fulfilment by accepting the pragmatic need to establish a wider base of support for the regime. In his speeches to his Parliaments he linked together “liberty of conscience and liberty of subjects” and even described the former as “a natural right.”

  1. 1

    His superb memoir can be found in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. 150 (2008). 

  2. 2

    Edmund Ludlow, “A Voice from the Watch Tower, Part Five: 1660–1662,” Camden Fourth Series, Vol. 21, July 1978. See also Blair Worden, Roundhead Reputations: The English Civil Wars and the Passions of Posterity (Penguin, 2001), chapters 1–4; and “Whig History and Puritan Politics: The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow Revisited,” Historical Research, Vol. 75, No. 188 (May 2002). 

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