Conrad Russell

  • The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries by Christopher Hill
    Faber, 342 pp, £12.50, July 1984, ISBN 0 571 13237 5

The point Mr Hill makes in his title is one he has made before, yet it bears repetition. By 1660, and in many cases before, the radical causes which make the middle of the 17th century such an exciting period for the historian of ideas had been defeated. Advocates of these causes were forced to explain to themselves why they had lost, why ‘new presbyter is but old priest writ large,’ or why the Saints had visibly failed to reign. To those who believed their cause was God’s, the experience was as traumatic as any suffered by Job. So far is common ground: the defeat of 17th-century radicalism was long-lasting and apparently complete. Whether the main body of the Parliamentary cause was more successful, or whether the heirs of Pym and Hampden were equally defeated, is a different question, and one to be discussed later.

Those Mr Hill recognises as defeated produced a multiplicity of explanations of their failure. Among all the explanations, two types seem to recur with more frequency than others. Some ascribed their lack of success to simple failure to make enough converts: they recognised that the bulk of their contemporaries did not want the sort of revolutionary changes they advocated, and blamed their failures on the dead weight of resistance at all levels of society. John Cook, Charles I’s prosecutor, said that ‘we would have enfranchised the people, if the nation had not more delighted in servitude than in freedom.’ William Sedgwick told the generals that ‘not one of a hundred will own what you set down as the public interest ... should you not rather propose that all power and domination should be given to the Lord?’ Sedgwick, like many others, was frank about the extent to which he regarded the rule of the Saints as made necessary by the reluctance of sinners to be governed as they should be: ‘we cannot in reason expect to have a free Parliament at this time, because the people are not fit to have a free choice of members.’ It is important to ask how far this line of analysis was in fact correct, for if it was correct, 17th-century England was a less revolutionary society than it is sometimes made out to be.

The commonest alternative line of explanation for failure was that which is summed up in the slogan ‘sell-out’. Fifth Monarchists, Levellers and so forth regularly accused Cromwellians and grandees of abandoning their principles for the sake of power, place and profit. This analysis would suggest that the cause failed because its leaders, like Oscar Wilde, could resist anything except temptation. No doubt this line of explanation was valid in some cases: Major General Lambert, for example, is a figure whose ambition cannot easily be denied. Yet the truth in this type of explanation is surely limited: ‘the world’s mistake in Oliver Cromwell’ was surely largely a case of self-deception. Cromwell and others around him did not sell out a cause in which they had once believed: they opposed a multiplicity of causes in which they had never believed. Cromwell had always believed in the right of the Saints to be captains (not generals, it may be noted), but he had never believed in a world in which Saints took over power from gentlemen. Indeed, the letter to Hampden in which Cromwell first expressed his demand for better officers expressed a desire for officers who would go as far as a gentleman may go. The terms of the comparison are surely significant. By contrast, the cause of religious toleration, in which Cromwell did believe, was one he did not sell out.

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