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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.”

Worden’s long account of Cromwellian Oxford might seem parochial. Its abundant detail will certainly fascinate the locals, who can look up their particular college and see what happened to its members in the period of Puritan rule.3 But the subject raises much larger issues. In seventeenth-century England most of the country’s spiritual and political leaders were educated at Oxford or Cambridge. To control that education was to shape the nation’s character. That was why William Laud, Charles I’s archbishop, devoted much of his time to being a hyperactive chancellor of Oxford, and why the philosopher Thomas Hobbes concluded that the instruction of the people in the correct political principles “dependeth wholly, on the right teaching of youth in the universities.”

The parliamentary victory in the Civil War was followed by three successive “visitations” to the universities designed to purge them of royalist sympathizers and replace them by heads and fellows of colleges sympathetic to the new regime. Cromwell, who was a Cambridge man and held that, without learning, “no commonweal could flourish,” was elected chancellor of Oxford in 1651. His name can still be seen on the Bodleian Library’s table of benefactors. But he never visited the place after his election. He bestowed a good deal of university patronage in his first year, but subsequently intervened in appointments less frequently than Tudor and Stuart monarchs had done. Instead, he put the chancellorship into commission and left the running of the university to his chosen vice- chancellor, John Owen, a prominent Independent minister, who had been intruded as dean of Christ Church, Oxford’s richest college. Through Owen and his close ally Thomas Goodwin, another Independent, who had been intruded into the presidency of Magdalen College, Oxford exercised a decisive influence upon the staffing and character of the Cromwellian church.

Owen and Goodwin both believed that “one main end of the university” was the production of ministers to save souls; and that Oxford’s thorough reformation was necessary to achieve this goal. Yet here, as elsewhere, there was, as Worden points out, an enduring tension in Cromwellian policies between the desire to achieve reform and the pressing need to give the regime a broader basis by reconciling others to it.

Owen’s attempts at the moral reform of the university were largely unsuccesful. He tried to abolish academic dress as “totally superstitious,” but the only effect was that those academics who had previously been indifferent to caps and hoods now went out and bought them. Owen’s defeat on this issue was hardly surprising, for he was reputed (unjustifiably, thinks Worden) to wear cambric bands, a velvet jacket, breeches with colored ribbons, and, according to one contemporary jester, “enough powder in his hair that would discharge eight cannons” (a heavy pun on the canons of Christ Church who had been expelled from their positions).

Owen’s great rival was John Wilkins, warden of Wadham College, and patron of the little circle of natural philosophers whose meetings in the 1650s foreshadowed the foundation of the Royal Society. Wilkins worked to preserve the political independence of the university but had powerful connections, for in 1655 he married Cromwell’s sister. The diarist John Evelyn thought that he did so

to preserve the Universities from the ignorant Sacrilegious Commander & Souldiers, who would faine have ben at demolishing all…places & persons that pretended to Learning.

In fact, as Worden emphasizes, “the Puritans came to reform Oxford, but also to preserve it.” Although they believed that “great learning” could “coexist with monstrous wickedness,” they wanted to make the “nation…more learned, for the saving of souls.” There were radicals who wanted root-and-branch reform of the universities, by getting rid of “monkish” colleges, ending the study of dead languages and scholastic philosophy, and introducing more utilitarian subjects, but they had no influence on Oxford, which continued in its traditional ways.

The conclusion of Worden’s fine-grained account is that Oxford found Puritan rule acceptable because it restored order and held the university’s more radical critics at bay. But the idea of a serious program of reform was never embraced. Some of the clergy educated in Cromwellian Oxford became Dissenters after 1660, but many others were High Churchmen and opponents of Puritanism. At the Restoration, John Wilkins was made a bishop and the university became a bastion of royalism and the Anglican Church.

The same limits to revolutionary commitment are revealed in Worden’s discussion of English republicanism. The years between 1649 and 1660 were the only period in English his- tory when the country was governed without a monarch. But such an outcome had never been envisaged by those who went to war in 1642. As late as 1648 Parliament was still expressing its commitment to government by the three estates of King, Lords, and Commons. The death of Charles I did not itself create a republic, for, as Cromwell allegedly said, the plan was to cut the King’s head off with the crown still on it. It was only the failure to find an acceptable successor that led to the abolition of the monarchy six weeks later. A mere handful of MPs were republicans on principle. The establishment of the Commmonwealth came about for pragmatic reasons, not ideological ones.

Worden’s distinctive insight is to point out that, although republican arguments did not cause the abolition of the kingship, they arose from it. By 1657, when Cromwell was offered the crown, there was substantial opposition from some of his old army associates. This opposition was, for the most part, not so much republican as anti- Cromwellian. But hostility to Cromwell’s dictatorship gradually turned into hostility to single rule as such. John Milton, for example, had once thought that monarchy was possible if a sufficiently virtuous leader was available. But by the end of the Protectorate he was hostile to all forms of single rule. In 1659 there were self-styled “commonwealthsmen” and the word “republican” came into general use. After the Restoration, when the term became one of abuse, it was wrongly asserted that “republican” principles had been responsible for the revolution.

As a further example of how new ideas arose after the Civil War rather than before, Worden cites the coupling of “civil and religious liberty.” He reminds us that the original meaning of “religious liberty” was a theological one: “Christian liberty” was freedom from sin through Christ. This liberty of the soul was wholly unrelated to politics. As John Calvin had remarked, “Spiritual liberty may very well agree with civil bondage.”

Worden traces the shift from this older notion to the recognizably modern conception of religious liberty as freedom to believe and worship according to one’s conscience. Cromwell himself endorsed the growing myth that it was the demand for civil and religious liberty that had brought about the Civil War. After his death the two liberties were regarded as the essence of the “Good Old Cause.” Worden comments that “like most outcomes of the Puritan Revolution, the conjunction of civil and religious conceptions of liberty was remote from the original goals of the parliamentarians.” It would, nevertheless, prove enduring. The inseparability of “civil and religious liberty” became a stock slogan in Whig and liberal discourse after the revolution of 1688. As John Witherspoon, president of Princeton University, declared in 1776, there was “not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire.”

Throughout God’s Instruments the reader is conscious of the dominating presence of Oliver Cromwell, as enigmatic a figure to posterity as he was to contemporaries. Worden has been working for decades on his biography and most of the essays in this book are best understood as necessary preliminaries to that great goal. They illuminate the Protector’s religious convictions and they analyze the foundations of his rule. They do justice to his enduring belief that he had been specially chosen by God to save England and to his equally infuriating habit of asserting that he had never sought his own advancement. He claimed to have known nothing in advance of the plans to purge Parliament in December 1648 or to make him Protector in 1653 or to offer him the kingship in 1657. Above all, Worden emphasizes his constant search for an enduring settlement, his readiness to conciliate his opponents, to hold back the more confrontational reformers, and to maintain a balance between the civilian and the military supporters of the Protectorate.

Worden’s view is that the Protectorate was doomed to failure because it never achieved legitimacy. The king’s execution was only possible because the Long Parliament had been purged in the previous month of those MPs likely to oppose it. Cromwell would never have become Protector without the military coup that preceded the Instrument of Government, the constitution that granted him executive power. His council was important “only because the generals sat on it.” His first Parliament challenged the legal basis of the Instrument and had to be dissolved. His second went the same way. The primary attraction of the restoration of Charles II was that it offered the first “full and free” Parliament for a decade.

Yet though Cromwell never got parliamentary consent to his rule, his prospects in 1658 were perhaps brighter than Worden suggests. In the last years of the Protectorate, Cromwell had broadened the basis of his rule by attracting back the Presbyterians whom he had alienated in 1649 and securing the passive obedience of many of the old royalist families. He was quietly increasing the power and participation of civilians in his regime and growing less dependent on the army for domestic security. In the amended Petition and Advice—in effect a second constitution—he had the basis for a permanent settlement, not least in its specification that no part of the public revenue in peacetime should be raised by a land tax. The later years of Charles II would prove that, so long as they escaped direct taxation, England’s landed classes could live happily enough without a Parliament. The Protectorate’s great est weakness was its dependence on heavy taxes to finance the (otherwise very successful) war against Spain. But these fiscal demands would have diminished in 1659, when Spain and France made peace and the war came to an end.

When Cromwell was offered the kingship in 1657, the more prescient royalists were terrified lest he should accept, for they knew that that would mean the end of the Stuart monarchy. Fortunately for them, he declined. Had he lived longer, it is almost certain that he would have been offered the crown again and very probable that he would have accepted it. If that had happened, one of his descendants might well be sitting on the English throne today, for, as the later seventeenth-century historian Gilbert Burnet observed, the nobility and gentry would have been “in a great measure satisfied when they saw a king and a court again,” and none of the discontented army leaders could have staged a successful revolt.4

The ablest of the generals, John Lambert, had resigned in 1657 in protest at the Petition and Advice, but no one followed him. The generals were not great lords with private armies. In 1660, General George Monck would cashier the dissidents among his troops before marching from Scotland to London to restore Charles II. As he had remarked earlier, there was not an officer in the army who could draw two men after him once he was deprived of his commission. It was only because Richard Cromwell lacked his father’s military authority that the generals were able to overthrow him in 1659.

As it was, Oliver Cromwell died in September 1658 at the age of fifty-nine. His great French contemporary Blaise Pascal noted in his Pensées that Cromwell and his family had looked set to enjoy power indefinitely, when a grain of sand lodged itself in his bladder. It was because of this tiny fragment of gravel that Charles II was restored and the Puritan experiment came to an end.

  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). 

  3. 3

    When I arrived at St John’s College in 1957, the then president was still grumbling about the rule of his intruded predecessor, Thankful Owen, president from 1650 to 1660. 

  4. 4

    A Supplement to Burnet’s History of My Own Time, edited by H.C. Foxcroft (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902), p. 232. 

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