Sagest of Usurpers

Ian Gilmour

  • Roundhead Reputations: The English Civil Wars and the Passions of Posterity by Blair Worden
    Allen Lane, 387 pp, £20.00, November 2001, ISBN 0 7139 9603 X

Shortly after Oliver Cromwell’s death in September 1658, Dryden wrote some ‘Heroique Stanza’s, Consecrated to the Glorious Memory of his most Serene and Renowned Highnesse Oliver Late Lord Protector of this Common Wealth, &c’. His poem’s sentiments were as reverential as its title. After maintaining that Cromwell’s ‘Grandeur he deriv’d from Heav’n alone’, that all his ‘parts [were] so equal perfect’, and that ‘Peace was the Prize of all his toils and care,’ Dryden predicted that ‘His Ashes in a peaceful Urne [would] rest.’

It was not to be. Less than two years later, Dryden was addressing similar panegyrics to Charles II – Dryden attributed his switch to his being one of ‘the good [who had been] misled’; and Cromwell’s grandeur was by then generally deemed to have come from hell not heaven, his parts to have been equally imperfect, and so far from his ashes resting in a peaceful urne his body was disinterred from Westminster Abbey and taken to an inn in Holborn. From there, a few days later, on the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, it was drawn on a sledge together with the corpses of two other regicides to Tyburn, where the three carcases were hung on the triple tree till sunset. They were then taken down, their heads cut off, their trunks thrown into a deep pit under the gallows, and their heads placed on poles and set on the top of Westminster Hall. That seems a fairly barbarous proceeding, though I suppose it is rather better to hang the dead than the living. The surviving regicides who had not escaped abroad were soon hunted down and duly executed.

Feelings inevitably ran high in the 1660s. During the Civil Wars and their aftermath, nearly 4 per cent of the population died in the fighting or from war-related disease, a much higher proportion, surprisingly, than that in the 1914-18 war. In addition, at least 150 towns were badly damaged, some 11,000 houses were burned or demolished, and about 55,000 people made homeless. In his fine, scholarly, closely argued but clearly written book, Blair Worden traces the downs and ups not just of Cromwell’s reputation but that of the Roundheads from the 17th to the 20th century. Until fairly recently Civil War feelings remained high. ‘We are Cavaliers or Roundheads, before we are Conservatives or Liberals,’ the historian Lecky pronounced in 1892. And not long afterwards, Isaac Foot, the father of Michael and a firm Cromwellian, used to ‘judge a man by one thing: “Which side would he have liked his ancestors to fight on at Marston Moor?”’

Worden has no time for Postmodernism, the view that ‘the past exists only in the present’s head, and that the writing of history is the same as the writing of fiction’. He despatches that idea in a sentence or two. Yet Roundhead Reputations is, he says, ‘a book about the dialogue of past and present: about the power of the past to speak to the present, and about the present’s habit of indicating what it wants to hear’. Some sixty years ago, in his History as the Story of Liberty, Benedetto Croce made the famous claim that ‘all history is contemporary history.’ Earlier, Michael Oakeshott had said much the same thing, as did R.G. Collingwood a few years later. Worden does not quote or mention any of them, but as well as many other things his compelling book is in a sense a learned and lively commentary on Croce’s dictum.

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