Oliver Cromwell had a way with words, and plenty of them. But his words have meant different things to different people. Beloved of the English Left, by whom he is hailed as an exemplary republican, he is abhorred in Ireland, where his brutal invasion and conquest led to a population decrease of around one-third. Condemned for his bigotry in Ireland, he is remembered as the savior of Catholicism in Scotland, where his commitment to religious toleration forestalled the systemic persecution of “papists” that the Presbyterian regime had devised. Famous for taking troops into the Commons to clear out disappointing MPs, he has a statue outside Westminster that stands as beacon of democratic hope. Cromwell was a man of contradictions—a man in whom extremes met. As he has been the subject of more than 150 biographies, his words have been carefully sifted. Yet the new Letters, Writings, and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell offers clearer insights than have so far been available into his mind.
This edition collects material from the beginning of Cromwell’s political career in the late 1620s until his death in 1658. For all his prolixity—represented here in more than two thousand pages of interpretation and text—it is his silences that may be most striking. For the first two-thirds of Cromwell’s life produced virtually no extant written records: all that survives of his first four decades are a handful of letters and a single parliamentary speech. Until he reached his forties, there was nothing to suggest that he would play a significant role in his country’s history. In the early 1640s, his speeches in Parliament moved from the need for the draining of Cambridgeshire fens quite suddenly to addressing existential themes in the polarization of politics—from sabbath observance and liturgical reform to the rights of Parliament and the legitimacy of defensive violence. After the outbreak of civil war, in the summer of 1642, his voice rose above the clamor between Parliament and Crown. His effectiveness as a speaker grew with the grandeur of the subjects he addressed. His speeches reflect his gradual radicalization and his coming to understand what was at stake in the constitutional crisis. That was when his military career began. For, quite by accident, and with entirely no experience, Cromwell discovered his supreme gift, as a cavalry commander on the field of battle. As a writer, speaker, and man of action, Cromwell was created by civil war.
Quite by accident, and with entirely no experience, Cromwell discovered his supreme gift, as a cavalry commander on the field of battle.
In this life of frenetic activity, Cromwell’s pen was never mightier than his sword, but it was nonetheless important. His writings and orations addressed the most personal and most public of subjects. Early in his career, he wrote to a young relative to describe his religious conversion: “You knowe what my manner of life hath bene, O I lived in, and loved darknesse, and hated the light, I was a chiefe, the chiefe of sinners.” Here, as so often in his speaking and writing, he conveyed deeply personal sentiments in a catena of biblical quotations—and embodied scripture to such an extent that its voice became his own. In his thousands of extant words, one often gets the impression that he did little else but quote the Bible. His use of scripture kept his voice human. When he thought of his own soul, it became plaintive, uncertain, hopeful, and consoling. But biblical language also controlled his sense of the politically possible. Scripture provided him with a language for war. He was propelled into political and military adventures with a vision of republican imperialism so powerful that it could almost imagine into being the conquests of Ireland, Scotland, and parts of the Caribbean, as well as victory in a naval war with the Dutch. As head of the army, and later as head of state, his public image was austere. Yet the vision of history that underpinned these extraordinary military achievements was charismatic, providential, and apocalyptic.
Magnetic and repulsive, Cromwell is perennial. The first major edition of his letters and speeches appeared in 1845, when Thomas Carlyle turned the controversial republican into a Victorian hero. While Carlyle’s brilliant but quirky antiquarianism permitted extraordinary liberties with his sources, his edition captured the public imagination and inspired the publication of scores of biographical studies. Later editors of Cromwell were less enthusiastic about their subject. The most important successor to Carlyle’s edition was prepared by Wilbur Cortez Abbott. Working under the shadow of the Second World War, Abbott compared the mid-seventeenth-century crisis in England to the National Socialist revolution in Germany and turned Cromwell into a totalitarian despot. The new edition is published during another efflorescence of interest in this period. Within the last few years, historians have published a large number of books on the civil war period (1642–49) and the short-lived republic that followed (1649–60). And biographical interest in Cromwell has continued, too. Ronald Hutton’s superb account of Cromwell’s rise to power (reviewed by Simon Heffer in The New Criterion of October 2021) will be followed by another written by the general editor of the present edition, taking advantage of the new discoveries and fresh interpretations that it entails.
Cromwell prepared for and witnessed . . . a failure that signaled the disapproval of God.
For these volumes have been prepared under the oversight of John Morrill, one of the leading historians of this period, working with specialist editors for each volume, who possess a remarkably diverse set of approaches to the subject of their study. Volume I describes the buildup of civil war and ends with Cromwell’s signature on the death warrant for Charles I (1649). Volume II covers the establishment of the English republic and the invasions of Ireland and Scotland, when the new state’s republican priorities were most evident (1649–53). This period might be the most controversial of Cromwell’s life, when his soldiers were engaged in some of the day’s most notorious war crimes, which even he lamented. Volume III includes material from the least researched part of Cromwell’s life. These were the years of the Protectorate, the strongest, most stable, and most monarchical period of republican government. These were also the years in which Cromwell prepared for and witnessed the failure of his war in the Caribbean—a failure that signaled the disapproval of God, he worried, which conviction drove him into depression. It was a period in which the republic took a conservative turn, when the revolution began to unravel, when Cromwell was offered the crown and had to be persuaded to turn it down (1657). It was the period in which a new constitution set up a Parliament that, for the first time, included representatives from England, Ireland, and Scotland—a republican Parliament that would define that of the future United Kingdom. When he died, in September 1658, the republic looked to be enduring. Passed to his son, it collapsed within months, not through external pressure but internal weakness. The republic could not survive the loss of the man who embodied its contradictions.
Like earlier editions of Cromwell’s words, these volumes should establish new scholarly agendas. The accumulation of archival sources from this period is encouraging ever bolder interpretations. Morrill’s other recent work has underscored the significance of what this edition has not been able to include. Some of the most interesting of Cromwell’s writings have not survived. In summer 1652, for example, one of the most dangerous of his Irish enemies, Colonel John Fitzpatrick, asked Cromwell to recommend him for employment with Philip IV of Spain. The reference was to attest to Fitzpatrick’s military prowess and the value he could add to Spanish military adventures. Remarkably, Cromwell agreed to do so—to recommend one of his enemies to the service of another—but no transcript of that reference remains. The incident is a good example of the what Morrill has described as the period’s complex “moral economy”—the contradictory attitudes and transactional relationships that cut across the binaries of historical interpretation and that continue to enliven and frustrate historical debate. As that conversation continues, this new edition will serve as a landmark text.
Of course, in completing this work, Morrill and his fellow editors have walked an ethical tightrope, interpreting the words of a man who has been condemned as a genocidal maniac at the same time as he has been celebrated as a liberal hero. Their annotations do a great job of explaining this most reactionary of revolutionaries, showing how the energies of upheaval dissipated as it became obvious that states change more readily than nations. The English revolution is the story of how a tiny group of individuals forged a world in their own image. Forget what you might have heard about it: whatever the claims of the supporters of the King, it was Cromwell and the defenders of Parliament who were the truer conservatives.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 1, on page 70
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com