‘Wondered at as an owl’

Blair Worden

  • Cromwell’s Major-Generals: Godly Government during the English Revolution by Christopher Durston
    Manchester, 270 pp, £15.99, May 2001, ISBN 0 7190 6065 6

Among the objects of hatred and ridicule in English memory the regime of Oliver Cromwell’s Major-Generals has a towering place. The division of the country, in 1655, into 12 districts administered by killjoy Puritan commanders was a brief episode, in effect lasting less than a year, but it has been reviled and derided from that time to this. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as constitutionalism grew, the reign of the Major-Generals came to be viewed as a monstrous aberration, England’s sole experience of open military rule since the Conquest. Their powers, David Hume ruled, were exercised ‘not in the legal manner of European nations, but according to the maxims of eastern tyranny’. Nineteenth-century Whiggish historians queued to condemn that ‘despotism’.

That the sword reigned in Cromwellian England is true enough. The Protectorate had no legal base save for the constitutional document, the Instrument of Government, which the Army had invented for it and which the Parliament of 1654-55 repudiated. Not the least of MPs’ objections was Cromwell’s refusal to share control of the military with the nation’s elected representatives. After the Royalist rising of March 1655 he decided on intensive security measures. Royalists were forced to pay for them through an ‘extraordinary’ tax of blatant illegality, the Decimation, which confiscated a tenth of the annual value of the property of those who had supported the King.

Some Major-Generals were harsher than others. Royalists breathed more easily under Major-General Whalley in the Midlands, where insurrection was held to be relatively unlikely and where Whalley had respectable local connections and was ready to mollify them, than they did in the North-West under Major-General Worsley, whose uncompromising reforming ardour drove him to an early death. Life was easier, too, in a group of southern counties, where Major-General Goffe, a stranger to those parts and out of his depth both socially and politically, was outsmarted by the community’s aristocratic and gentle leadership. The overall impact was nonetheless severe. Thanks, mainly, to local commissioners appointed by the Government to assist the Major-Generals, the sports and pastimes of Royalists were interrupted, their movements watched and curtailed. Many supporters or ex-supporters of the Stuart cause were arrested or ordered to move to less restless parts of the country. Fourteen thousand of them had to give bonds for good behaviour. Royalists who travelled to London had to report and register their movements as if prisoners on parole.

With this massive security clampdown went a campaign to Puritanise the land. War was waged on non-Puritan and anti-Puritan culture. Energetic action, sometimes enforced by soldiers, was taken against alehouses, drunkenness, maypoles, neglect of the sabbath and various forms of what the Government press called ‘mirths and jollities’, among them billiards and other bar-room entertainments. Swearing, cursing, adultery and fornication were zealously forbidden. Anglican worship, viewed by Puritans as idolatrous, was forbidden, and Anglican pastors and chaplains and schoolteachers were ordered to leave their posts. It has become usual to reject the traditional emphasis on the repressive element of the Major-Generals’ regime. Certainly the killjoy component of Puritanism can be exaggerated. Puritans were against drunkenness, not drink, against sexual licence, not sex. The larger distortion, however, has been wrought not by critics of Puritan repression but by liberal scholars eager to annexe Puritanism to their cause and soften its fundamentalist features.

There has been another misconception. It is customary, in accounts of the Major-Generals, to distinguish between their military duties and their reforming ones, which were additions to their original task of preventing insurrection. But in Cromwell’s mind and theirs the two went together. The frivolities of the alehouse or the racecourse provided meeting-points for the disaffected, who gathered to grumble and conspire. Puritans knew that where there was sin there would be disorder, and that where there was disorder conspirators would exploit it. ‘Reformation’, Cromwell was sure, would be the nation’s best ‘security’. The actions of the Major-Generals against ‘loose’ and ‘idle’ persons, against people living above their incomes or without visible means of support or moving round the country without a discernibly respectable purpose, conformed – as did many of their deeds and aspirations – to traditional visions of social order, but exceeded previous practice in intensity.

The aspirations of the Major-Generals, it is true, ran far ahead of their achievements. Hard as they worked and stoutly as they tried, and omnipresent as their exertions must sometimes have seemed, their tasks were beyond the resources of 17th-century government, and far beyond those of a regime presiding over a war-torn nation where the customary bonds of local co-operation had broken. As Christopher Durston remarks, their reforming achievement was restricted to the closing of a few hundred alehouses, the rounding up of a few hundred vagabonds, the ejection of a few ungodly ministers from their livings. The nation’s moral and sexual habits, as far as can be judged, were barely affected.

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