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.

In accordance with that apophthegm, history is usually on the side of the winners. Between the Restoration and the Revolution of 1688, the Royalists were clearly the winners of the Cavalier-Roundhead struggle of 1641-60, and Cromwell was naturally vilified. Indeed, for nearly two hundred years after his death he had a bad press. He was considered a hypocrite, a usurper and a tyrant. The general picture of him, to use his own celebrated word, was of a man of warts and virtually nothing else. Clarendon’s verdict (published later) that he was ‘a brave bad man’ was relatively charitable. Only the Protector’s foreign policy was conceded a measure of praise. ‘He made us Freemen of the Continent,’ according to Dryden before his switch to the Royalist side. ‘What brave things he did,’ Pepys wrote privately in his diary in the 1660s, ‘and made all the neighbour Princes fear him.’ Neighbourly fear was a drastic change from the previous reign. Under Charles I, the Venetian Ambassador noted, England had become ‘a nation useless to all the rest of the world, and consequently of no consideration’. Under Charles II, things were little different. The Merry Monarch disbanded Cromwell’s Army, sold Dunkirk, which had been captured by Cromwell, and neglected the Navy, with the result that the Dutch were able to sail up the Medway, sink three of the Navy’s biggest ships and tow away its flagship. The contrast between British power under Cromwell and British impotence under the Stuarts was too stark to be concealed by propaganda.

The rest of Cromwell’s legacy was damned or ignored, even after the events of 1688-89 had made the outcome of the 1641-60 struggle seem far less clear-cut. Over religion, 1688-89 did not upset the clear Royalist victory. ‘If there is a single force which perpetuated the divisions of the Civil Wars,’ Worden writes, ‘it is the religious settlement of the Restoration which extruded hard-line Puritans from the Church and made Puritan Nonconformity, or Dissent, into a lasting alternative culture.’ Elsewhere, however – constitutionally, politically and economically – the post-1688 resettlement was closer to the sentiments of those who had opposed Charles I in 1641-43 than to those of the King and his supporters.

But that did nothing for Cromwell’s reputation; there was still no place for him. He was anathema to Royalists as a republican regicide, and to radical Whigs as a quasi-Royalist. Roundhead sympathisers admired what he had done in the Civil Wars and their immediate aftermath, but they did not condone the Protectorate. Admittedly, Oliver had twice refused the Crown, yet as Lord Protector he had behaved like a monarch. Hence his reputation suffered with both sides because, as Christopher Hill put it, he had been both Robespierre and Napoleon.

With Cromwell thus effectively hors de combat, the Roundheads’ successors concentrated on rehabilitating or redesigning Edmund Ludlow. A republican, a regicide and a Puritan, Ludlow had strongly opposed Cromwell’s abolition of the Commonwealth and was briefly imprisoned. After the Protector’s death he commanded the Army in Ireland before managing to escape to Switzerland shortly after the Restoration. His memoirs were published in 1698, but to make them serve the purposes of the radical Whigs, who wanted to show that the 1688-89 Settlement did not go nearly far enough, they had been fundamentally rewritten. Worden calls the result a ‘semi-forgery’, and by skilful detective work he has spotted the probable forger: John Toland, an Irishman born in 1670 who was apparently the illegitimate son of a Roman Catholic priest. The real Ludlow was a fierce Calvinist who believed that his escape from England had been due to the Lord having ‘hid [him] in the hollow of His hand’. But to make him popular and influential in the England of William III, the Ludlow of the memoirs was largely stripped of his religion and made a secular figure. The memoirs, Worden points out, transformed Ludlow from a saint into a patriot.

Algernon Sidney was another Roundhead pressed into service as a radical Whig standard bearer. Unlike Ludlow, Sidney did not die in his bed. He was executed for treason in 1683 after a trial before Judge Jeffreys, who gave a preview of his behaviour in the Bloody Assize after Monmouth’s Rebellion. Even though Sidney should on the evidence have been acquitted, he had plotted armed rebellion. Like Ludlow, Sidney, who had been a member of the Rump, had been appalled by Cromwell’s expulsion of the Long Parliament in 1653. His Roundhead credentials were impeccable, and his Discourses concerning Government, which had helped to bring him to the scaffold, were scarcely, if at all, doctored by Toland. Although his book was more admired than read, Sidney became something of a cult figure in the 18th century. In 1773, though, his posthumous career as a radical Whig champion was blighted by the revelation that five years before his death he had been paid a thousand guineas by the French Ambassador. The patriotic hero, it turned out, had venally conspired with foreigners. David Hume, who had earlier mocked the Sidney cult, found it ‘amusing to observe the general and I may say national rage’.

Shortly after the exposure of Sidney, John Wilkes – in the House of Commons, of all places – extolled Cromwell’s ‘wonderful, comprehensive mind’ which ‘embraced the whole of this powerful empire’. A few years before, Wilkes had told the Commons that he was in favour of observing the anniversary of Charles I’s execution but ‘not in the usual manner of fasting and prayer to deprecate the pretended roars of heaven’; he thought 31 January ‘should be celebrated as a festival, as a day of triumph’, since Charles had been ‘an odious, hypocritical tyrant’. But Wilkes was almost unique. In merely saying he had no instinctive preference for either Charles I or Oliver Cromwell, Horace Walpole was in advance of his time.

Even when radicalism revived in the last decades of the 18th century, Cromwell’s rehabilitation was slow. Though his achievements were sometimes admired, his character was not. The radical William Godwin thought he had come to power ‘by basely deceiving and deserting’ his associates. Furthermore, Cromwell’s intense religious feelings were not tailored to appeal to most 18th-century minds. Apart from Wesley and his followers, not many people then considered God to be so active a participant in earthly affairs as had Cromwell and the Puritans, who were sure, at least until 1658, that Divine Providence was on their side. Hence Cromwell’s religious avowals were thought to be sanctimonious impostures. In his History of England published in the 1750s, Hume wrote him off as a ‘fanatical hypocrite’, and thought that a peasant of modest capacity would have been ashamed to deliver the Protector’s speeches to his Parliaments.

Cromwell’s providentialism was out of fashion and has remained so, though there are passages in Field Marshal Alanbrooke’s War Diaries which have a Cromwellian ring. In 1942, Alanbrooke had wanted Montgomery to be given command of the Eighth Army, but General Gott was appointed. As, however, Gott was immediately killed in an air crash, Montgomery got the job. Three years later, Alanbrooke referred to ‘the part that the hand of God had taken in removing Gott at the critical moment’. Probably even Cromwell would have doubted that, if God was seeking to help Britain and the Eighth Army at that time, he had done so by killing off its newly designated commander.

Again, on VE Day Alanbrooke confided to his diary that often ‘during the last six years’ he had seen God’s ‘guiding hand controlling and guiding the destiny of this world toward that final and definite destiny which He has ordained’. Cromwell believed, as he told the Council of Officers in 1649, that in the Civil Wars God was ‘our Commander-in-Chief’, but he might have had difficulty in discerning God’s ‘guiding and controlling hand’ between 1939 and 1945.

Be that as it may, it was not until the early 19th century that Cromwell began to cease being a villain and start being a hero. Although his character, Macaulay averred in 1828, had been often attacked and seldom defended, it was ‘popular with the great body of his countrymen’. Certainly, well before 1828, many people would have passed Isaac Foot’s test. Shelley would undoubtedly have done so. He had no liking for kings in general; and he wrote of Charles I’s execution that England had afforded to the world a ‘mighty example . . . of bringing to public justice one of those chiefs of a conspiracy of privileged murderers and robbers whose impunity has been the consecration of crime’. Byron, too, would have passed the test despite an ancestor having fought on the Royalist side at Marston Moor. He was not an admirer of kings, and he thought Cromwell both ‘the sagest of usurpers’ and an ‘immortal rebel’.

Macaulay himself thought that Cromwell ‘had a high, stout, honest English heart’ and that ‘no sovereign ever carried to the throne so large a portion of the best qualities of the middling orders.’ England’s current King, George IV, was an immensely unpopular sovereign, who carried to the throne none of the best qualities of the middling orders. But in the 1820s there was no danger of a quarrel over the succession, let alone of a republic. At the same time, the political system, from which the middling orders were largely excluded, was all too clearly in need of reform, and the importance of the country being well led and militarily strong had been abundantly demonstrated. Cromwell’s achievements could therefore be praised and admired without any fear of his example being followed. Indeed, not only was Oliver not a threat to liberty, but he had, in the Whig view, been its safeguard. The Roundheads’ exploits between 1641 and 1660, and those of their successors in 1688-89 had, many Whigs believed, established England’s free institutions, which had survived the Napoleonic Wars intact. Having enjoyed no such Whig Revolution in the 17th century, France had had to suffer the horrors of its very un-Whig Revolution in 1789.

So by the time Carlyle published his massive Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches in 1845, the ground had been well prepared. When its author had earlier claimed that the ‘History’ of Cromwell had hitherto been an ‘infinite ocean of froth, confusion, lies and stupidity’, he was as usual exaggerating, as was Lord Acton when he said that Carlyle had ‘invented’ Cromwell. A number of scholars had for some time been taking a favourable view of the Lord Protector. But among the wider public, Carlyle’s book, which was an instant success, did have a sensational effect. Although he correctly thought of it as ‘a kind of Life of Oliver’, he let his hero, whom he had described five years before as ‘one of the greatest souls’, speak for himself. That, together with Carlyle’s great dramatic power, brought Cromwell’s Puritanism to life and demonstrated its sincerity. Not that Carlyle shared Cromwell’s religion. Over the years he had come to think of Christianity as ‘a rotting carcase’ (though that did not figure in his book), but he still believed in Divine Justice. He was also sympathetic to Oliver’s summary ways with kings and parliaments. In 1830, he had thought that the French Revolution of that year would reach England and that William IV would be the last English king, a prospect which he welcomed. Four years later he was happy to see the destruction by fire of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, since he despised the ‘eternal babblement’ of parliaments. He also disliked ‘the babble of toleration’.

Carlyle was writing what his most recent biographer, Simon Heffer, called an allegory of England. Much of that allegory would not have been wholly congenial to most of his readers, who did not regard parliaments or toleration as mere ‘babblements’. Cromwell’s relative religious toleration did, however, appeal strongly to a Victorian audience, and Carlyle’s admiration of the Protector’s Puritanism struck a deep chord among the Dissenters. Oliver became a hero of Victorian Nonconformity.

Carlyle’s book was not enough to win Cromwell, unlike all the other rulers of England, a statue in the new Houses of Parliament. Another fifty years and the largesse of the former Liberal Prime Minister Lord Rosebery were required before a statue of him was erected outside Westminster Hall. For the time being, his supporters had to be content with the new thoroughfare which ran west from the Victoria and Albert Museum being named, through the efforts of Prince Albert, ‘Cromwell Road’ – a rather better memorial then than now.

Worden does full justice to Carlyle’s successors, S.R. Gardiner, who thought Cromwell had become ‘the national hero of the 19th century’, and C.H. Firth, who in 1900 published what is perhaps still the best biography of the Protector. Unfortunately, however, Worden gives the 20th century, particularly the latter part of it, less of his attention. Those who would like to have read him on Christopher Hill’s scintillating God’s Englishman, W.C. Abbott’s absurd comparison of Cromwell with Hitler, Maurice Ashley’s books on Cromwell and much else will be disappointed. Worden attributes this more cursory treatment to there having been much less historical controversy in the 20th century than in previous eras, and to the past having lost much of its authority in recent years. ‘Never,’ he writes, ‘has public life been less historically conscious or informed.’ While that is true – not only would few people nowadays worry about Isaac Foot’s test, most of them would not have heard of Marston Moor – Worden’s reasons seem scarcely adequate. Maybe he has another book on Cromwell in mind. In any case, the partial omission of the 20th century is only a very small wart on an otherwise beautifully executed book.