Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell; drawing by David Levine

Antonia Fraser’s enormous biography succeeds in what I take to be its aim: it can be read with pleasure and profit by almost anyone who can afford it, however well or ill acquainted with Cromwell’s period. The pleasure might have been doubled, and the profit scarcely diminished, if the length had been halved; but even the most knowledgeable of seventeenth-century historians may feel awed by the thoroughness of Lady Antonia’s research. Some of her source references are positively exotic.

There are, as one might expect, no startling discoveries, for the challenge to Cromwell’s modern biographers is less to unearth new evidence than to make fresh sense of the old; and none of Lady Antonia’s perceptions can be said to be very original. Nevertheless, the book is distinguished by narrative skill (especially marked in the accounts of military campaigns) and by unerring good sense. No biographer has dealt so sensitively or so persuasively with Cromwell’s friendships and family relationships, a theme which illuminates the public as well as the private man. The factual errors are mostly trivial. There is an occasional tendency to lean on unreliable sources, but otherwise Lady Antonia’s judgments command respect even where one dissents from them.

These are admirable qualities. They are, indeed, qualities that reviewers always seem to find themselves describing as admirable. The trouble is that Oliver Cromwell was a great man; and this book, for all its merits, does not begin to convey the measure of his greatness. Why not?

To answer that the limitations of any book reflect the limitations of its author would be as inadequate as it would be ungallant. A writer capable of a book as good as this is capable of a better one. It is true that Lady Antonia does not seem to be abreast of the more esoteric of academic controversies, and that there are those who will imagine that this matters. I am not sure, for example, that she would be able to tell a rising gentleman from a falling one, or a Presbyterian Independent from an Independent Presbyterian. She certainly does not know the difference between a Leveller and a Digger, a confusion that will be sternly viewed in some quarters.

Other deficiencies, perhaps, are more serious. Lady Antonia, more at home with Cromwell the soldier than with Cromwell the statesman, shows little grasp of the way politics works or of the political circumstances in which Cromwell operated. Consequently, like many of his other biographers, she is weaker on the 1650s than on the 1640s. A general criticism of the book is that the background of the story is notably less impressive than the foreground. In this respect Cromwell is a much tougher biographical challenge than Mary Queen of Scots, the subject of Lady Antonia’s previous book, and at times one senses that she feels out of her depth. When her confidence wilts, her prose tends to wilt too.

These are disconcerting weaknesses, of the kind reviewers always call disconcerting. But they do not answer our question. Similar criticisms could be made, with far more force, of the one indisputably great work to have been published on Cromwell: Thomas Carlyle’s edition, first printed in 1845, of Cromwell’s letters and speeches. (There have been many good ones, of course, the best being Sir Charles Firth’s biography published in 1900. Firth’s now belongs to the category of books more often praised than read; Lady Antonia’s, I suspect, will join the category more often bought than read. Carlyle’s was little praised when it appeared, but it sold rapidly and was read voraciously.)

Carlyle knew much less about the seventeenth century than Lady Antonia does. The years before 1640 and after 1660 were blanks to him, and even the years between bored him, save when they were dominated by Cromwell. One wonders what fate would attend a present-day PhD student who wrote, as Carlyle did, that “without exception, the documents etc. one has to read are of a dullness to threaten locked-jaw,” who referred to one of his principal sources as “shoreless lakes of ditchwater”—and who described his research technique as a search for

…blazing radiant insight into the fact…the fact deep as Hades, high as Heaven, and written so, as to the visual face of it on our poor earth. This once blazing within me, if it will ever get to blaze, and bursting to be out, one has to take the whole dexterity of adaptation one is master of, and with tremendous struggling, really frightful struggling, continue to exhibit it, one way or the other.

No one would wish Lady Antonia to have imitated Carlyle’s histrionics. He made appalling mistakes, as editor, as historian, and as biographer. But somewhere in the recesses of his mind—that sulphurous mixture of rigid Scottish Calvinism and woolly German Romanticism—a bond was forged between Carlyle and his subject; and from that bond came a depth of inspiration missing from all biographies of Cromwell before and since. It was inspiration of a peculiarly eccentric kind, and today no history faculty would stomach it. Yet sober diligence in archives, mastery of sophisticated research methods, publication of learned articles—these things, though they may discipline inspiration and refine it, can never be substitutes for it. They may even suffocate it.


What present-day academic institution would have given Carlyle a travel grant for his investigations? Ruminating with a cigar beneath a Fenland sunset, in the fields which his hero had farmed, he fought his way into the soul of the “rugged outcast Cromwell,” who—in contrast with “smooth-shaven respectabilities” like Hampden and Pym—had “grappled, like a giant, heart to heart, with the naked truth of things.” Once, with Dr. Arnold, Carlyle tramped the site of the battle of Naseby—or what they wrongly believed to be the site. Lady Antonia thoughtfully protecting future pilgrims from such embarrassing errors, provides in her footnotes a kind of Michelin guide to Cromwellian monuments.

Carlyle brought Cromwell alive for a whole generation. The ground had been prepared for him, by Macaulay and others; but it was Carlyle who rescued Cromwell from the caricature of previous tradition. From a self-seeking hypocrite in league with the devil, Cromwell became at Carlyle’s hands the three-dimensional hero of nineteenth-century Nonconformity, and the spiritual ancestor (ironically, for Carlyle was a great anti-Liberal) of Victorian popular Liberalism. It is hard, at our distance from them, to comprehend the political passions that gave to events of the seventeenth century so profound and immediate a significance for men of the nineteenth. In Oxfordshire, the Watlington Mutual Improvement Society resolved, “after seven nights’ discussion and a ballot vote,” that “a better Christian than Cromwell, a more noble-minded spirit, a greater warrior, a more constant man has scarcely ever appeared on the face of the earth.” In Manchester, the capital of industrial Liberalism, the erection in 1875 of the first Cromwellian statue in England caused a minor political sensation.

Statues were a dangerous subject: as late as 1895 a proposal to erect one of Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament almost brought down Rosebery’s Liberal administration. Redmond, leading the Irish members on whose votes Rosebery depended, assailed Cromwell as “not only a murderer, but a canting hypocritical murderer as well…. While flooding the streets with blood, massacring men, women, and children, he wrote hypocritical canting letters to the Speaker of Parliament, praising God for the infamies which he had committed.” As John Morley, Liberal minister and himself a biographer of Cromwell, ruefully recalled, “Drogheda, and all the other deeds of two centuries and a half blazed forth into the memory as if they had happened yesterday.”

To turn from nineteenth-century attitudes to Cromwell to the audience for which Lady Antonia is writing is to be reminded of the comment attributed to a Victorian gentleman after a performance of Antony and Cleopatra: “How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Queen.” Lady Antonia’s biography is intended, she tells us, for “the general reader.” I have never met the general reader, but I confess that when I find books addressed to this seemingly ubiquitous person my thoughts uncharitably turn to George Eliot’s essay—a model of feline malice—on Lecky’s History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe.

“The general reader of the present day,” she wrote, “does not know exactly what distance he goes; he only knows that he does not go ‘too far’…. He likes sound views—nothing extreme, but something between the excesses of the past and the excesses of the present.” He “may be known in conversation by the cordiality with which he assents to indistinct blurred statements: say that black is black, he will shake his head and hardly think it; say that black is not so very black, he will reply ‘Exactly.’ ” He is characterized by “a spongy texture of mind, that gravitates to nothing. The only thing he stands for is, the utmost liberty of private haziness.” Lady Antonia knows her audience.

Of course, she could not pretend to Carlyle’s genius; but she can pretend to talent. Need she imprison it in so nerveless a literary genre? No safe biography of Cromwell could be a satisfying one. The question to which Lady Antonia really addresses herself is not whether Cromwell was a great man, but whether he was a nice man: the kind of man, in fact, whom the general reader could safely invite to dinner. We know the answer from the start. There are black marks, it is true; but the judicial murder of Charles I and the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, events for which Oliver is severely rebuked (and in her treatment of these Lady Antonia is at her most perceptive), are the only large blemishes on what otherwise, as the almost headmistressish concluding paragraphs make clear, has been a most satisfactory semester.


Yet the fact—from which Lady Antonia is not the only modern historian to avert her gaze—is that in many respects Cromwell was not a nice man at all. We need not resurrect the legend, which brought consolation to his political victims and wealth to his early biographers, that he was a calculating, ruthless hypocrite, cynically exploiting the idealism of others in the service of his own ambition. That he was sly and slippery, however, is attested not merely by his embittered royalist and republican enemies but by such relatively generous critics as Richard Baxter. It is also, I believe, attested by the political record. The intimate friends who taught Cromwell his statecraft, such as Harry Vane, Oliver St. John, and Arthur Heselrige, were among the subtlest and least fathomable politicians of the civil war. Even they mistrusted him—as did most people.

I am not sure that Cromwell ever told a lie, but he achieved equally effective results with the knack, less burdensome to the conscience and often found in politicians whose ideals are loftier than their instincts, of being consistently misread. Lady Antonia refers to the Welsh strain in the Cromwells’ blood, “which one likes to think, even at a century’s remove, gave it the peculiar genius which flowered in the mysterious character of Oliver.” One does indeed, but the conclusions one draws may be less flattering to Cromwell than are Lady Antonia’s. And with the slipperiness went a wild, primitive, vicious streak, for which (as Lady Antonia acknowledges) Englishmen as well as Irishmen paid dear.

The springs of greatness are often elemental, and hence morally neutral. Cromwell’s greatest feats owed as much to his vices as to his virtues. The virtues were, in fact, quite extraordinary, but we cannot grasp their stature if we doctor Cromwell’s whole personality for the benefit of those who, as George Eliot put it, “are incapable of assimilating ideas unless they are administered in a highly diluted form.” We need always to set them against what Lady Antonia euphemistically calls “the darker side to his nature.” Cromwell’s virtues were not born in him: they were earned. His achievement was to tame himself, and to appreciate the magnitude of the process we have to know the beast he tamed.

Greatness is a subject for which we no longer seem to have a vocabulary. Yet to watch Cromwell’s development from the whining Huntingdonshire farmer, whose bigoted attacks on Roman Catholics were so frequent a feature of parliamentary debate, into the tolerant ruler of all England, whose commitment to religious freedom rested on a hard-won understanding of human nature; to observe, in the lulls after his various military and political storms, the unexpected moments of repose and gentleness; to discover, amid the guilt-ridden convolutions of his public utterances, what Christopher Hill has called the “pungent, earthy truths” which “echo down the centuries”: these things may suggest to us, at the least, that Carlyle had a point. Cromwell did “grapple, heart to heart, with the naked truth of things”; and our instinctive embarrassment at such phrases may be a symptom as much of our own spiritual impoverishment as of Carlyle’s spiritual excesses.

Some historians would argue that, seen in a broad perspective, Cromwell’s personality is of little significance anyway: that the eventual failure of the Puritan Revolution is to be explained not by Cromwell’s actions, which were merely the agencies of change, but by impersonal and inexorable historical forces. In reality, there was nothing inevitable about the failure of the Cromwellian program. Cromwell was politically destroyed not by the forces of history, but by himself. The point is brilliantly illustrated in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s long essay on Cromwell’s relations with his parliaments, a devastating indictment of the Protector for his political innocence. I am not sure that Cromwell was altogether as innocent as Professor Trevor-Roper suggests; but the essay towers above everything written on the politics of the 1650s since Firth, and one can profitably return to it again and again.

It was first published in a collection of essays in honor of Sir Lewis Namier, where it found, perhaps, a more appropriate setting than the somewhat patchy volume, in the World Profiles series, in which it is now reproduced. This book contains, it is true, an excerpt from Christopher Hill’s forceful and provocative study of Cromwell, while other able historians are also represented, even if only at half-stretch. But the over-all quality of the articles reprinted here is extraordinarily uneven. This kind of publishing venture may help to make some men a little better off, but it is unlikely to make anyone very much wiser.

This Issue

November 15, 1973