Providence Lost

From The Critic:

Of all the events in the history of British Isles from the Conquest to the present day perhaps none is quite so important to understand as the Reformation and, with that, to understand one of its main and more immediate offspring and consequences, the English civil wars. Their legacy is everywhere, as was outlined in one of the best history books of the last 20 years, Blair Worden’s Roundhead Reputations. Some of the fundamental divisions in our society, not necessarily between Labour and Conservatives, but of attitude and broader questions of ideology, can be traced back to them.

Our forebears, even 250 years after the events, had a better understanding of these things than we do. When, in the late 1890s, it was decided to put up a statue to Oliver Cromwell outside parliament, there were such fierce objections to the state paying for it that Lord Rosebery — who as prime minister had been one of the progenitors of the idea, but who was by this stage no longer in office — paid for it out of his own considerably well-lined pockets. It was strangely appropriate that he did, because the Primrose family coffers had been boosted by his marriage to a Rothschild; and it was one of the Lord Protector’s more enlightened policies, in 1656, to re-admit the Jews to England, whence they had been expelled more than 300 years earlier.

The concerns about Cromwell rumbled on well into the twentieth century. When Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, suggested to King George V that one of the new Dreadnoughts be named after the Lord Protector, the King roundly objected, reminding Churchill that there had been an unhappy sequence of events involving Cromwell and his distant predecessor, Charles Stuart.

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Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate, by Paul Lay, concentrates on the period of less than five years between Cromwell assuming control of England as Lord Protector in 1653 and his death — supposedly from gout and “various distempers” (which may have included Fenland malaria, contracted long before in Cromwell’s earlier life as a Huntingdonshire farmer) — on 3 September 1658, the anniversary of his famous victories at Dunbar and Worcester. Cromwell was 59 — far from a bad age for those days — and as Lay also points out, his health had been broken by the hard physical campaigning of the civil wars, and by the illnesses, including dysentery, that he had contracted during them.

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What Lay gives us is a warts-and-all picture of a man with the weaknesses of any other, and who struggled heroically to stabilise, and to attempt to unite, a country shattered by a decade of civil wars.

More than that, of course, Cromwell had to unite a country that had gone against an ancient precept, that of hereditary monarchical rule. He was one of the more prominent men who signed Charles Stuart’s death warrant, but it was far from clear at the time, in the winter of 1648-49, that Cromwell would be the man who ended up as the next English head of state. The new form of rule was meant to be parliamentary; but when Cromwell and others close to him in the Commonwealth forces discerned just what a shambles this was, a new form of administration had to be found: and that was the Protectorate.

Link to the rest at The Critic