Oliver Cromwell was the pivotal figure of the English Revolution. He emerged from relative obscurity to become Parliament’s greatest commander of cavalry in the Civil War, the leader of the radical wing of the mainstream revolutionary movement, and, eventually, the military strongman who attempted to impose a permanent political settlement following the execution of the King and the abolition of the monarchy. In a sense, he combined the roles of Robespierre and Napoleon in the French Revolution.
He has, of course, been the subject of an enormous quantity of biographical literature. Much of this, however, as Ronald Hutton is at pains to explain in this new study, is problematic.
The contemporary sources are highly partisan. This includes Cromwell’s own voluminous testimony. More of his own words are preserved than for any other British ruler before Queen Victoria. Many historians, with such an abundance of source material, have been tempted to take it at face value.
Needless to say, given the circumstances, virtually all other contemporary testimony is either hagiographical or hostile, for Cromwell sits in history’s crosshairs.
The task that Bristol University historian Ronald Hutton sets himself – he is a specialist in 16th- and 17th-century British history (and, interestingly, ancient and medieval paganism, magic, and witchcraft) – is to re-evaluate the primary sources and attempt a more rounded picture of the real Cromwell. To make the job manageable, he carries the story only to the winter of 1646/47, by which time Cromwell’s transition from ‘an obscure provincial into an enduring national figure’ was complete.
And what an extraordinary ascent it was. Though related to greater gentry families, Cromwell belonged to the lower gentry class, and at times had been reduced to the humble status of working farmer. Partly because of this, the first 40 years of his life is shrouded in obscurity, and some of Hutton’s mission is to sift out what little can be known with reasonable confidence about these formative years.
At some point during the 1630s – when King Charles I was attempting to establish an absolutist regime by ruling without Parliament – Cromwell seems to have undergone some sort of ‘born-again’ conversion to Puritanism. Henceforward this was to be his lodestar.
Facing rising opposition from city merchants, country gentry, and yeoman farmers, the King was attempting to suppress dissent by imposing a stricter form of worship in the state church, with the emphasis on ecclesiastical authority and ritual. Puritanism, on the other hand, put the emphasis on preaching, reading scripture, and debating the meaning of God’s message. Increasingly, this took the form of ‘gatherings’ outside the framework of the state church.
Cromwell built a political base among local Puritans, and they ensured his election to Parliament to represent Cambridge in 1640, when the King, embroiled in war with the Scots and desperate for money, finally gave up his attempt at autocratic rule. Over the next two years, Cromwell emerged as an active, prominent, and successful opposition MP of the second rank.
When the war broke out in 1642, like many other MPs, he returned to his constituency to galvanise local Parliamentary resistance to the King, raising a troop of horse that eventually, by early the following year, had swelled into a full regiment.
Commander, radical, manipulator
In charting Cromwell’s career over the next three years, Hutton emphasises three things. First, that Cromwell, despite having no previous military experience and having to learn everything on the job, became an outstanding leader of cavalry, first commanding the cavalry of the Eastern Association, and later that of the New Model Army.
Second, that he was disdainful of aristocratic rank, promoted men on merit, and became a forthright protector of religious radicals and an outspoken advocate of religious toleration. Cromwell’s soldiers acquired a reputation for piety, discipline, and what would later be called ‘levelling’ tendencies.
A split was emerging between more conservative Presbyterian generals and politicians who wanted a negotiated end to the war and a centralised state church, and more radical Independents and Sectaries who wanted all-out war and religious freedom. By the end of the war, Cromwell was widely seen as the principal standard-bearer of the Independent/Sectarian cause.
But there was a dark side.
Hutton’s third crucial insight was the degree to which Cromwell was devious, deceitful, and deliberately manipulative in self-promotion – in particular in his use of the popular press to trumpet his achievements, denigrate his enemies, and advance his own career and cause. Hutton sums up thus:
‘He was courageous, devout, resolute, principled, intelligent, eloquent, able, adaptable, and dedicated, but also self-seeking, unscrupulous, dishonest, manipulative, vindictive, and bloodthirsty: definitely not somebody to be taken simply at his word. There was no internal contradiction in this bundle of qualities, for they were all woven together, in a single seamless whole, at the centre of which lay an acquired sense of a special relationship with God, which informed and justified all.’
This sense of being God’s instrument might have been given greater emphasis. Revolution is highly polarising, yet also leaves many confused, vacillating, seeking some sort of compromise. Successful revolutionary leaders are characterised by absolute certainty and an iron will. Communicating this, they stiffen the resolve of others. In the 17th century, when religion was the language of politics, it is difficult to conceive of a revolutionary leader who did not have something of the bloodcurdling Old Testament prophet about him.
Quite apart from Hutton’s biographical insights, his analysis of Cromwell’s military campaigns is outstanding. He writes of grand strategy with crystal clarity, and his battle narratives are vivid, imaginative, and gripping. Particularly noteworthy are his accounts of Marston Moor, Naseby, Newbury, and Langport/Bridgewater.
Hutton displays a sure grasp of the nature of mid-17th-century warfare, and his analysis underlines Cromwell’s decisive role in the last two years of the Civil War – the great charge that broke Rupert’s cavalry at Marston Moor; the second great charge on the same battlefield that broke Goring’s cavalry on the opposite flank and proceeded to roll up the Royalist foot; the comparable role Cromwell’s horsemen played at Naseby the following year; and the close collaboration with Sir Thomas Fairfax thereafter in the final campaigns to reduce the last Royalist strongholds and break up the last-ditch attempts to assemble new Royalist armies.
We bear witness to the learning process. Hutton records how Cromwell’s Eastern Association cavalry got out of hand in an early battle, pursuing a beaten foe off the battlefield and riding off in search of loot before the main battle had been won. The lesson? The importance of rallying, reforming, and redirecting victorious cavalry, so that it becomes what would later be called a ‘masse de manoeuvre’, able to strike not once, but twice, even thrice, to deliver tactical triumphs like Marston Moor and Naseby.
I have no idea whether Hutton has plans to write a second volume, charting Cromwell’s later career – the Second Civil War, the trial and execution of the King, the struggle with the Levellers, his campaigns in Scotland and Ireland, and his rule as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. It would be of great interest were he to do so, for this study of the first part of Cromwell’s public career is an outstanding contribution to understanding of the man.
My only caveat is that Hutton seems to subscribe to the pervasive revisionism that shrouds modern British historiography of the Civil War. I think I am right in saying that the word ‘revolution’ does not appear once in the entire text, and the impression is sometimes given that the entire conflict might have been avoided had decision-makers been more tolerant, less blinkered, more willing to compromise.
Context is all. Cromwell emerged from provincial obscurity because he lived in revolutionary times, because his social background, his politico-religious outlook, and his fiery temperament equipped him to play his historic role as the leader of a revolutionary vanguard that destroyed a proto-absolutist monarchy and ensured that the British propertied classes could never again be excluded from governmental power – changes that ensured, in the course of time, that the British would go on to build the world’s greatest maritime empire and pioneer the industrial revolution.
No one doubts the reality of the American, the French, and the Russian revolutions. Why are the British forever in denial about what happened between 1640 and 1660?
Review by Neil Faulkner.
The Making of Oliver Cromwell, Ronald Hutton, Yale University Press, £25 (hbk), ISBN 978-0300257458.