‘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.

In the winter of 1656-57 Cromwell abandoned the rule of the Major-Generals in response to Parliamentary criticism of the Decimation. Why had he set them up in the first place? At one level their appointment bowed to the logic that would soon be spelled out by the republican theorist James Harrington, who remarked that England could be governed only through a nobility or an army. The traditional intermediaries between the Government and the shires, the Lords Lieutenant, had succumbed to the pressures of the Puritan Revolution, and so military rulers of the regions perforce succeeded aristocratic ones. But the Lords Lieutenant had drawn their authority not only from the Government they served but from their strong roots in the provincial communities. The Major-Generals could not match that authority. They represented not mediation but the imposition of direct rule from the centre, the nightmare of the 17th-century ruling class.

Cromwell’s decision to appoint them ran counter to many of his political instincts. For years he had been eager to heal the wounds of civil war. He had sought not to punish Royalists but to reconcile them. He had tried to release them from the tests of political loyalty which less forgiving politicians had imposed on them. He had striven to win their allegiance, together with that of neutrals and pragmatists. In 1651-52 he urged generosity as the Commonwealth debated the Act of Pardon and Oblivion, a measure which exempted most Royalists from future penalties for their Civil War deeds – and which in 1655 the Decimation would flagrantly breach. Yet he expected a return for his magnanimity. Royalists must recognise, in their defeat, God’s judgment on their evil cause. When Cromwell and his supporters uncovered the conspiracy of 1655 they were infuriated by the evidence of the Royalists’ obstinacy, of their ‘inveterate hate’, their ‘bloody’, ‘restless’, ‘implacable’, ‘indefatigable malice’. The Civil War had ended on the battlefield but not, it appeared, in men’s hearts.

So in 1655 Cromwell undid his conciliatory work. He fell back on his old campfire allies, the hardliners who had forcibly purged and dissolved the Long Parliament and brought Charles I to justice. Radical Puritans through the land, who had been troubled by Cromwell’s political ecumenicalism, rejoiced in his new readiness to prolong the war of light and darkness, to round on the ‘malignant’ and ‘delinquent’ Royalists (whose implacability can hardly have been diminished by the persistent deployment of that vocabulary against them). Radicals had other reasons for welcoming the rule of the Major-Generals. In their eyes God’s servants had won the war but were losing the peace, had triumphed in arms but not in men’s minds. Before the war they had been persecuted in the parishes by the Laudian regime. Now they asked how much had changed. They had watched Royalists clawing their way back onto the commissions of the peace and urban magistracies and grand juries. They saw the ‘spirit of malignancy’ renewing its confidence. They watched Anglican clergy defying efforts to evict them and mocking their thwarted prosecutors. Puritanism might command central government, but what of the regions? Congregationalists and other Puritan groups felt, as they complained to Cromwell, ‘naked’, ‘exposed to violence’, to ‘molestation’, to derision and legal discrimination. They feared for their safety. The Major-Generals – required to ensure ‘the quiet and security of all that are godly in the land’ – afforded them protection, while also enabling them to settle local scores, for in every locality it was on the radicals that the Major-Generals relied for the identification of the ungodly. The termination of the Major-Generals’ rule cost the radicals both their power and their protection.

If Cromwell’s anger was one cause of the setting up of the Major-Generals, panic and despair were others. In December 1653, when the dying days of Barebone’s Parliament had threatened anarchy, he had clutched at the new Protectoral constitution as a drowning man at a raft. Somehow, over the ensuing spring and summer, a measure of stability had been restored. When Parliament met in September 1654 his hopes of a lasting settlement were high. The unexpected hostility of its members stimulated opposition to him in the nation. After Parliament’s hasty dissolution in January 1655, open military rule was the only option. With a huge army and navy to finance, the Government was desperately short of money. It also found its right to raise conventional taxes challenged in the courts. The reign of the Major-Generals was not intended to increase military expenditure, rather to reduce it. They were instructed to build up local militia forces – rapidly mobile companies of horse – whose effectiveness would enable the costly standing army to be reduced. Meanwhile the fiscal burden would fall on the Royalists. In the event the Decimation, an exhaustingly complicated tax to assess and to levy, fell far short of the expected yield, while the reduction of the standing army was suspended. By the spring of 1656 financial shortfalls, and the Major-Generals’ inability to pay the commissioners, had brought much of their work to a standstill.

However intense the political and financial pressures to which the scheme was a practical response, the big political decisions of Cromwell’s life derived less from political calculation than from the stresses of what he Biblically called his ‘inward man’. The year 1655, the lowest psychological point in his later life, had its own nadir in July with the news of the humiliating defeat on Haiti of the forces he had sent to capture Spanish bases in the New World. Why had the God of battle, who had brought Cromwell victories so manifold and miraculous, now inflicted defeat? It was while the Lord Protector pondered the causes of divine disfavour that the new military arrangements, which until now had existed only in tentative and improvised form, were formalised and the Army’s brief extended from military vigilance to godly reformation. At last he accepted the diagnosis of England’s troubles so long ventured by fellow Puritans, who knew that God punishes nations for their sins. Unless vice were purged and the land made fit for God’s eyes, the afflictions that had been visited on the wanton Israelites of the Old Testament would surely scourge England too.

That was not a novel view or even, except in the methods by which Cromwell chose to impose it, an unconventional or narrowly sectarian one. At least since the mid-16th century there had been sporadic initiatives, mostly at local level and especially in towns, towards the imposition of godly rule. A century ago S.R. Gardiner, who introduced modern scholarly methods to 17th-century studies, said that ‘it was as discouragers of vice and encouragers of virtue that the Major-Generals aroused the most virulent opposition,’ but the evidence does not support him. There was plenty of support for the principle of moral reform. In the Civil War it was the moderate Parliamentarians, not the extreme ones, whose supporters among the clergy – the Presbyterians – had issued the gravest and most frequent warnings against the provocation of the deity by vice. On the Royalist side there were many sober figures who did not care for their frivolous allies. Reformation, seen by Cromwell as the necessary means to appease God’s wrath, also offered the Protector the hope of reconstructing that broad base of reforming zeal which in the initial stages of the Long Parliament had crossed party lines. He was thwarted not only by the divisions between Cavalier and Roundhead but by those within the Roundhead cause. The Major-Generals’ efforts to mobilise commissioners who were both godly and influential were fatally hampered by the resentments born of the fratricidal military coups of 1648-49 and 1653.

Even so, Cromwell was pleased by the rule of the Major-Generals. They had, he told them, ‘done their parts well’. He maintained that they had saved England from insurrection, though it is a question how much of a military threat Royalism posed after the fiasco of the 1655 rising. He also praised them, again with questionable judgment, as reformers. Their regime, he told Parliament in 1656, had been ‘more effectual towards the discountenancing of vice and settling religion than anything done these fifty years’. Cromwell shared the general Puritan frustration, at least as common among presbyterians as among radicals, at the failure of so many of the law-enforcers of the shires, especially the JPs, to root out immorality and ungodliness. As Puritan after Puritan remarked, there was no shortage of laws against wickedness, only of a readiness to implement them. The Major-Generals were intended to work with, not to replace, the local machineries of justice, which in some cases were galvanised, if only briefly, into action – to the pleasure of the Government, whose publicity machine liked to present godly reformation as a civilian and local impulse. A number of JPs and urban magistrates who had struggled for years to puritanise their communities welcomed the Major-Generals’ arrival. Yet an old difficulty remained. Like the Major-Generals and their commissioners, the more zealous of the justices tended not to have been recruited among the natural leaders of the shires, who were ready to bypass or cold-shoulder them. A reforming JP, Cromwell declared, ‘shall be most wondered at as an owl if he go but one step out of the ordinary course of his fellow justices’.

Despised by posterity, the Major-Generals were hardly popular at the time. Yet the extent of contemporary hostility to them is hard to gauge. Much, perhaps most of it was aimed not at their actions or characters but at the tax which financed them. There was frequent criticism of military rule under Cromwell, but soldiers had been arbitrarily interfering in the workings of central and local government through the Interregnum and it is not plain that the sway of the soldiery in 1655-56 was regarded as a radical departure. The conduct of the Major-Generals barely figures in the anti-Government electioneering and pamphleteering that preceded and accompanied the meeting of the Parliament of 1656. The evils of courtiers and office-holders and taxmen were the conspicuous themes. In the debates of that Parliament, opposition to the Major-Generals took long to surface and, when it came, was almost exclusively targeted at the Decimation.

The evidence of the Parliament’s proceedings is not conclusive. There are hints that MPs’ fear of yet another military coup, and their realisation that the civilian political settlement for which they yearned would require Cromwell’s amicable co-operation, induced reticence. Yet even after the Restoration, when the Cromwellian and Puritan past was so easy to impugn, there are surprising silences. MPs who were antagonised by the standing army of Charles II, and who in arguing against it were ready enough to supply historical examples of evil military rule, rarely included the Major-Generals among them. Only at the end of the 17th century, through the editorial endeavours of John Toland and other radical Whig publicists, did standing armies and the Major-Generals emerge as the great evil of Cromwellian Government.

It is when we trace the historical reputation of the Major-Generals that broader implications for the study of early modern politics emerge. For only since the late 17th century has the belief that England should be run by Parliamentary and constitutional means been a dominant influence (even during that time, for instance in 19th-century working-class radicalism, there have been fond memories of the readiness of Cromwell’s troops to smash Parliamentary oligarchies). During the 17th century there were politicians and lawyers who cared urgently for constitutional principles, but they found it difficult to persuade the rulers of the shires to share that preoccupation. Concern about constitutional rights and liberties, though it could become widespread in times when the policies of an unaccountable government raised fears for the survival of the nation’s religion or for its international security, shrank once the policies were rectified. Reforming Protestants liked parliaments when they thought parliaments would help them, but were ready to champion the extra-parliamentary powers of any monarch who would favour their cause. To Cromwell parliaments were means to a godly end, to be disposed of when they did not answer to it. Hence his reluctance, in spite of his fiscal plight, to call a Parliament in 1656, which he knew would react against the sway of the radical godly. During the elections in Kent Major-General Thomas Kelsey, seeing the country’s seats fall to conservative gentry, urged the Government to ‘maintain the interest of God’s people’, which ‘is to be preferred before a thousand parliaments’.

In early modern England unconstitutional perspectives were not the monopoly of killjoy fanatics. In the middle of Queen Elizabeth’s reign her Government, which was as much hated by the huge Catholic population as Cromwell would be by the huge Anglican one, and which was as alert as he would be to the threat of rebellion, made plans for military rule which anticipated the regime of the Major-Generals – and which the textbooks leave out. The council debated proposals that ‘horsemen’ be raised and ‘divided into sundry quarters of the realm’, ‘upon the sudden to stay all attempts at insurrection’. ‘Obstinate and suspected persons’ were to be disarmed and removed from populous towns. The scheme was spelled out and commended in a literary work that no one would call killjoy, the Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney. Sidney voiced despair at the inertia of England’s JPs, much as Cromwell would three-quarters of a century later. Euarchus, the model king portrayed in the Arcadia, a ruler not hampered by constitutional restraints, raises forces whose functions include ‘the punishing of the disordered subject’. Cromwell told the Major-Generals to promote ‘piety and virtue’: the military commanders set over Euarchus’s subjects assist ‘the progress of wisdom and virtue’. Behind the Whiggish assumptions of the 18th and 19th centuries we can find an alternative tradition, less pleasing to liberal sensibilities. It put virtue before rights, ethics before constitutions. In the Victorian age Thomas Carlyle revived it. One of the few historians to admire the Major-Generals, he pleaded for the rule of God and scorned parliaments as obstacles to it.

A number of scholars have planned books about the Major-Generals, but Christopher Durston is the first to write one. The result is shrewdly organised and unfailingly lucid. Where historians of earlier times tended to be struck by the tyranny of the Major-Generals, Durston, following a recent trend, is more conscious of their failures. It might be objected that he has cast his net a little narrowly. He is a perceptive guide to the actions, the machinery and the practical difficulties of the regime, but might have done more to relate them to a broader context of Puritan rule and mentality. We get only a limited sense of the background of military rule through the Interregnum and of the arrangements for the militia made by the Commonwealth around 1650, which admittedly have left tantalisingly few records but which do seem to have anticipated the Cromwellian experiment. Like other historians of the Protectorate, Durston could have made fuller use of the printed material of that period, especially the newsbooks. He overlooks, too, the British context. It was when the scheme of the Major-Generals was being planned that Cromwell and his council overhauled the administration of the recently conquered countries of Ireland – where Cromwell’s son Henry was Major-General – and Scotland. But it is the merits of the book that count. The story of military rule in 1655-56, which has long waited to be told, need not be told again.