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.…

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