Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Stephen Ambrose- When Historians Are Economical With The Truth

This has not been a good week to be a history writer. With the Orlando Figes scandal still brewing nicely comes allegations that the noted historian of the Second World War Stephen Ambrose (Ambrose, has sold over five million books during his lifetime) who wrote Band of Brothers has been accused of lying over a biography he wrote of former US Dwight D Eisenhower. It has been reported that the respected historian is said to have 'made up' meetings with 34th US president

The book Band of Brothers told the exploits of a company of US airborne troops in the Second World War Europe. Steven Spielberg turned the book into a highly praised TV series.

The American historian who was the authorised biography of President Dwight D Eisenhower's and who wrote or edited more than a dozen books about him is involved (posthumously as he died in 2002) in controversy.

He has been accused of inventing scores of meetings. The most serious allegation is that he fabricated entire interviews with him. The story has reverberated around the academic community all over the world and has grave implications for historical research.

There is no doubt that Ambrose is a gifted writer and historian. The books written by him have brought him much acclaim and with it money. He was used as a military adviser on the 1998 Oscar-winning film Saving Private Ryan. Band of Brothers was turned into a TV series. Ambrose was a producer.

While others have said Ambrose “indulged in some sort of fantasy about the extent of his relationship with Eisenhower” others have been a slight harsher. In many interviews, Ambrose claimed to have had” hundreds and hundreds of hours" with Eisenhower. He further claimed to” spend two days a week working with Eisenhower in his office.”

It has now come to light that records of Eisenhower's meetings prove that Ambrose did not have any lengthy meetings face to face "I think five hours [in total] is a generous estimation of the actual time they spent together. I personally would push it back to less than two or three," said Tim Rives, deputy director of the Eisenhower presidential library in Abilene, Kansas

One newspaper article reported “the discovery came to light almost by accident. The museum had been planning an exhibition exploring the relationship between Ambrose and Eisenhower. Rives found that the records showed that Ambrose and Eisenhower had met only three times, and never alone. He found that on seven occasions when Ambrose had claimed in the footnotes to his book supreme commander to have met Eisenhower, his subject was either elsewhere in the country or holding meetings with other people at the time. “In one example, Ambrose claimed to have had an interview with Eisenhower in Pennsylvania”, when Eisenhower was in Kansas. "The whole story kind of unravelled from there. It was quite a surprise. We were not looking for it, so it sort of happened almost by accident," Rives said.

What is extraordinary for a writer of Ambrose calibre is he must have known that the life of a former president would be detailed minutely by their employees. According to reports, there is little or no chance that Ambrose could have held lengthy interviews with Eisenhower that were not recorded. Ambrose later said a large number of topics were discussed, but even this has been refuted

Rives said he does not believe this” I find that very doubtful. That should be something that would be a concern for scholars. It could cast doubt."

According to newspaper reports, this is not the first brush with scandal for Ambrose. In 2002 a serious charge of plagiarism was levelled at him when he was accused of lifting whole chunks from Thomas Childers book The Wild Blue.

Ambrose’s publisher was forced to issue an apology for Ambrose’s habit of failing to put quotation marks in some short passages taken from The Wild Blue. While not absolving Ambrose surely this sort of thing should be picked up by the publishers.

Another struggling author who had work shamelessly lifted by Ambrose said

"I continue to be surprised that a guy as successful as he was financially would stoop to push a guy like me around," but it doesn't bother me in any way. What I resented the most was the way he denigrated people in 'Citizen Soldiers.' Ralph Kerley was a superb field commander, the coolest guy in the face of battle, the paragon of what a real soldier is like, and in Ambrose's book he describes Kerley as being 'discombobulated.' He wasn't discombobulated, and I made Ambrose change that language. That continues to offend me.” You’ve got to hand it to Ambrose in this sense: he certainly brought to the general public a popularization of World War 11 when it was beginning to fade away. For that, the people who fought in that war owe him a debt of gratitude.” If he had come to me openly and said I’d like to do so and so with your manuscript, I would have been delighted to cooperate. He didn't do that”.

While it is tempting to see this scandal as a one of which is not to let Ambrose off the hook but there are wider considerations. As with Orlando Figes, a growing number of historians have lost sight of why they wanted to be historians in the first place. This has been replaced by an obsession with book sales, fame and money.

Also as James Palmer said, “bad history's corrodes public understanding”.
“It’s tough to write history for a mass audience, as opposed to your academic peers. As a popular history writer myself, I’m all too aware of this. Academic writing can assume greater knowledge on the part of the audience, tends to be more concerned with theory, disputes within the field, and the authenticity of sources, and often eschews narrative for in-depth analysis. Popular history writing, on the other hand, has to entertain first and foremost. A clear story can help carry the readers through a complex mess of characters and motivations, and sometimes things have to be simplified.” but this doesn't mean you can play fast and loose with the truth. In fact, given the impact of popular history writing on public awareness of history, sticking to the facts, or at least as close to them as any historian can get, matters even more”

Ambrose’s bad history is a reflection of the type of society we live in. When money is worshipped to unprecedented heights when lying, cheating and swindling is carried out by huge corporations and governments then it is hardly surprising that this begins to reflect itself in current historiography. After all as I said in a previous blog “while much more will come out on this subject the recent debate does serve as a barometer of the crisis in academia. Whatever Orlando Figes mental state is at the moment he is subject to intense pressures inside and outside university”.

Perhaps I can put it more succinctly as Fred Williams does “academics, however, live not in a vacuum and are subject to the many ideological pressures that rage throughout society. In the mass media, in public discourse, in popular culture, an undeniable trend is easily discernible: the intellectual decay that set in under Thatcher and Reagan has assumed shocking forms under Blair and Bush” and for that matter Gordon Brown.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

In The Orlando Figes Debate History Barely Gets A Look In

Having recently written an article for my blog I had not intended to do a follow-up article. But recent articles by Robert Service and Rachel Polonsky have changed my mind. I will deal with Polonsky first.

Now that the dust has settled on the “scandal” just to recap for those who just arrived from Mars the mystery reviewer who secretly criticised the work of historian Orlando Figes's rivals has been revealed as Orlando Figes himself. The mildly poisonous reviews posted on Amazon were blamed on the professor's wife. Figes wrote secret reviews of some of Britain's leading Russian history writers.

Rachel Polonsky has just written an article that would not look out of place in the Sun Newspaper but instead it was in the Mail that bastion of progressive thought entitled “How I rumbled the lying professor: The story behind the discredited don who rubbished rivals on Amazon...then left his own wife to take the blame”.

Let's be clear Figes did a stupid thing and the resort to his lawyer is unforgivable, but the circling of vultures over his prospective dead historical body (maybe this a bit loud) is becoming a disgusting site. The Mail claimed it had “exposed an extraordinary row that has rocked the usually impeccably-mannered world of academia”. While the row is special, the Mail gets nowhere near the significance. At no stage has there been any discussion on how this debate improves the already small state of current Soviet historiography.

While Polonsky pats herself on the back for her detective work in outing Figes but she is hardly Sherlock Holmes. Figes did sign his review on Amazon Orlando-Birbeck where he is a professor. I don not agree with everything Figes had written when I did my Part time degree he gave a lecture on the Russian Revolution which gave too much emphasis on the role of the peasantry.

So far Polonsky has not issued a single line on her past differences with Figes. This is not just a debate over career semantics but must involve real political and historical differences. Let’s cut out the rubbish and get to the bottom of them.

But Polonsky like Service is much more worried about how her sales of her books on Amazon are going. “I first spotted Figes’s immortal puff for The Whisperers on Monday, April 12. Going online to check how my book Molotov’s Magic Lantern was faring, I noticed a new review. The reviewer, a Historian, had given my book just one star. On Amazon, one star means ‘I hate it’”. So what, as far as I know a review on Amazon is not the be all and end all of the historical debate.

Another thing is the next resort to lawyers to settle historical arguments is petty but then so is gloating over recounting of her spat with Figes. “I have a history with Figes. In 2002, I gave his book Natasha’s Dance a bad review in the Times Literary Supplement. My review made Figes incandescent with rage, I am told, and he issued libel threats to newspapers that wanted to follow up the story. I clicked on the ‘See all my reviews’ link beside Historian’s name and read all ten. As well as trashing my book, Historian had trashed three books by Bob Service, and the book by Kate Summerscale that beat Figes and The Whisperers to the lucrative Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008. ‘It is better to go to Figes’s The Whisperers,’ Historian told Amazon readers in his hatchet-job on Service’s Stalin”. Again what are her differences with Figes?

Her friendship with Robert Service is interesting. She gushes “Throughout this thrilling high-stakes chase, Bob has been a true comrade. He is a good man. He thinks the best of people. It took him until the next morning, April 13, to take it in. Orlando Figes, a fellow historian in a small field, had been attacking his books from behind a mask for years. Bob was angry. He wanted to do something. Meanwhile, I had mentioned Historian’s review to a couple of friends, who went straight to the comments thread. As it turned out, that automatic email could have destroyed Bob. He did not know how dangerous Figes would become when his reputation was on the line”.

I find her picture of Robert Service hard to swallow. This from the man who was reported in the London Evening Standard at a public launching of his new biography of Leon Trotsky said:” There’s life in the old boy Trotsky yet—but if the ice pick didn’t quite do its job killing him off, I hope I’ve managed it.”

Services recent book on Leon Trotsky has been described as a “Character Assassination, Trotsky: A Biography is a crude and offensive book, produced without respect for the most minimal standards of scholarship. Service’s “research,” if one wishes to call it that has been conducted in bad faith. His Trotsky is not history, but, rather, an exercise in character assassination. Service is not content to distort and falsify Trotsky’s political deeds and ideas. Frequently descending to the level of a grocery store tabloid, Service attempts to splatter filth on Trotsky’s personal life. Among his favourite devices is to refer to “rumours” about Trotsky’s intimate relations, without even bothering to identify the rumour’s source, let alone substantiate its credibility”.

So I find it hard to believe that his wife “Adele and I are scared out of our wits,’ I can’t leave her without a home.’ Trust me, the past fortnight has been hell for Bob and Adele”.

Polonsky and Service get some perverse delight in their attempts to break Figes and ruin him. Like a pact of wolves devouring their weakened prey she goes on “The next day, my flame-throwers at Carter-Ruck rained down more fire on Figes and Palmer. It was a tough week. Bob Service, now lighter of heart, helped me keep my nerve. It was not so much a battle of wits now, as a battle of wills. I don’t know what made Figes and Palmer break in the middle of Thursday night. She sent me an email, thanking me for my message, and the next day came to the PR-managed announcement that Figes had confessed”.

This type of behaviour belongs more in the in the pages of some tacky gossip magazine rather than in the realms of historical debate.Service makes one correct point and then proceeds to leave it at that “This is a matter that has broad implications for the public interest”. But along with Polonsky he refuses to discuss his historical differences with Figes or centre the debate within the confines of current Soviet historiography which would enlighten the public

“Fellow Sovietologists continued to send in messages of support”. Who were they and what did they say. Now we get to Service’s real nervousness is the impact this has on sales of his book. He states he “went on Amazon to see how events were affecting the sales of my latest book, Trotsky. Whoever said that there's no such thing as bad publicity got it wrong. The book is doing all right, but it hasn't experienced a dead cat bounce. Still, you have to laugh. This winter I've been picketed by Trotskyists at public talks. While they may be bitter, they do at least deliver their denunciations in the open. They confirm my belief that there's a genuine public need for Ol' Man Trotsky to be looked at with a clear eye”.

But Service is not looking at Trotsky with the clear eye. His book actually lowers the intellectual climate surrounding Soviet historiography. As David North said, it was a “shameful episode” “Despite the considerable length of this review, it has left much unsaid. A comprehensive refutation of all of Service’s distortions and misrepresentations would easily assume the size of a substantial book. This reviewer will leave for another time the exposure of Service’s political falsifications as well as his tenacious defence of Stalin against Trotsky. In this regard, another important issue that remains to be explored is the significance of the Trotsky biographies of Thatcher, Swain and Service as manifestations of the confluence of neo-Stalinist falsification and traditional Anglo-American anti-Communism. Indeed, a striking feature of the on-going campaign against Trotsky is the degree to which it draws upon the lies and frame-ups of the Stalinists”.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Orlando Figes And The Dumbing Down of Historical Criticism

A mystery reviewer who secretly criticised the work of historian Orlando Figes's rivals has been revealed as Orlando Figes himself.. The mildly poison reviews posted on Amazon were blamed on the professor's wife. Figes wrote secret reviews of some of Britain's leading Russianists.

Rachel Polonsky, whose book Molotov's Magic Lantern was attacked as "the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published".

Robert Service‘s Comrades, was judged "an awful book”. Although having trawled through Service’s latest book on Leon Trotsky I must agree with Figes attack on Service. Please see David North’s Review. In The Service of Historical Falsification: A Review of Robert Service's Trotsky 11 November 2009.

What is strange is that a gifted historian who has written numerous books on the former Soviet Union is prize-winning author known for his works about Russia, including Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia. Should stoop so low as to write hack reviews on Amazons website defies belief. No disrespect to anyone who has done so, myself included but there are proper ways of attacking a book or historian.

It is this part that worries me whatever the immediate excuses Figes uses, "I have made some foolish errors and apologise wholeheartedly to all concerned. In particular, I am sorry for the distress I have caused to Rachel Polonsky and Robert Service” he appears to be contributing to an already horrible intellectual climate in Soviet historiography.

What appeared to be start of the disagreement between Figes and Rachel Polonsky was her review of his book in the TLS's. The review was called “savage”. It accused the noted Russian scholar of "inaccuracy, near plagiarism and intellectual irresponsibility". Friends of Figes have said the review was "perhaps unprecedented hostility and malice".

These are serious charges and the response by Figes should have been a strong rebuttal which would have added a new understanding of Soviet historiography. What we have got is a sordid mess. ”I have not read Figes book yet or the Polonsky review. So cannot comment on the charges. But this is not really the point. This should not be a debate in order to boost the sales books by each author but should be an intellectual debate which would enlighten the public.

Instead we are treated to a “grotesque carnival of gossip and spite”

Whatever Figes politics and it is important as E H Carr said to know what is buzzing in a historians head it seems clear that Figes has attacked a growing number of right wing historians and writers. Orlando Figes has written many articles one which attacked Martin Amis's book about Stalin, Koba the Dread.

Orlando Figes, has also in the past, been wrongly accused of plagiarism by the American academic Richard Pipes. Figes launched a successful libel suit against Pipes and the Sunday Times for defamation.

Polonsky has been reticent on the whole spat "I was asked by the TLS to do a substantial review of Orlando Figes's book, and the review speaks for itself. Any response that I may make to any response he may publish in the TLS will be in the TLS."

It appears that Figes has been attacked also for his attempt to widen the audience for his views on matters pertaining to the history of the Soviet Union.

According to one newspaper report “He is widely published as a journalist, which has led to his becoming a figure of distrust among fellow academics, especially those who, I think, would agree with Tolstoy when he wrote, in a letter of 1871, that "All newspaper and journalistic activity is an intellectual brothel from which there is no retreat."

Figes has issued a mild defence of his work in the past "some specialists were bound to be suspicious about a historian like myself venturing into their particular fields of expertise, making connections between these fields, and opening them up to a wider audience."

He also attempted to refute accusations of inaccuracy and near plagiarism. "Polonsky makes no attempt to discuss my book and its broad themes. Instead she concentrates on a few carefully selected sentences where she tries to demonstrate that I have made some 'error' or have been too 'cavalier' in my citation of other people's work."

He went on "Anyone who writes for a general audience is bound to be in debt to academic scholars who have studied their own subject in far greater detail than can be communicated to non-specialists. Perhaps they are suspicious of a scholar like myself who tries to tackle big ideas; perhaps they would not try to make the sort of connections that I make between different subject areas ... If I had written it as an 'academic' work it would have been 10 volumes long."

While much more will come out on this subject the recent debate does serve as a barometer of the crisis in academia. Whatever Figes mental state is at the moment he is subject to intense pressures inside and outside university.

“Academics, however, live not in a vacuum and are subject to the many ideological pressures that rage throughout society. In the mass media, in public discourse, in popular culture, an undeniable trend is easily discernible: the intellectual decay that set in under Thatcher and Reagan has assumed shocking forms under Blair and Bush” and for that matter Gordon Brown.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Oliver Cromwell (Profiles In Power) 216 pages Publisher: Longman; 1 edition (22 Aug 2000) ISBN-10: 0582437512

Barry Coward’s book is a valuable introduction to the complex and controversial world of Oliver Cromwell. I am a little biased in my assessment of Coward since he was one of my tutors at Birkbeck during my part-time degree. I liked him as a person and a historian. But he did have a tendency to sit on the historical fence a little on the main issues of past controversies.

This book on Oliver Cromwell has become a standard textbook on the period. His book is not an orthodox biography. In it, he keeps an open mind on the major issues surrounding Cromwell. He has a typical revisionist attitude towards the Putney Debates of 1647 in that he downplays them as an ideological struggle. Coward does wear his history on his sleeve and like Gaunt Coward was a paid up member of the Cromwell Association. So his biography is a little partisan, but this does not spoil the book. Being a member myself I do not subscribe to the charge that this can compromise any historical investigation into Cromwell?

In The Unknown Cromwell, 1599-1642 Coward makes an important point of saying that it is good to strip away the myths surrounding Cromwell. Many of these myths and falsehoods were spread by hostile biographers. The fact that we have started to learn more about Cromwell’s early life is down to significant work by historians such as Andrew Barclay.

Traditional historiography has acknowledged Cromwell’s early religious influences as a young man, especially from Dr. Thomas Beard. Coward, however, pours cold water on this. He does not believe that Cromwell was ‘Lord of the Fens’ or as Coward puts “an opponent of capitalist syndicates.” Coward does not believe Cromwell’s class position made him a champion of popular rights etc. I am with him there as there is no point in painting Cromwell in terms that are misleading and inaccurate. As Cromwell himself said “I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height nor yet in obscurity. I have been called to several employments in the nation — to serve in parliaments, — and (because I would not be over tedious) I did endeavour to discharge the duty of an honest man in those services, to God, and his people’s interest, and of the commonwealth; having, when time was, a competent acceptation in the hearts of men, and some evidence thereof”. Speech to the First Protectorate Parliament (12 September 1654)

There does seem to be some consensus that he was a gentleman, but there is a debate over his finances throughout his life. Despite its shortcomings, Coward’s biography does help one develop a correct class position of  Cromwell but comes up short providing a picture of is what was going on economically around Cromwell in England. After all, he was part of a class that was experiencing extreme social and economic changes. The book is it does not actually investigate these changes. To do so would give it a far more multi-dimensional approach to Cromwell.

Such an approach can be found in  F.A Inderwick’s The Interregnum, 1648-60 “A complex character such as that of Cromwell, is incapable of creation, except in times of great civil and religious excitement, and one cannot judge the man without at the same time considering the contending elements by which he was surrounded. It is possible to take his character to pieces, and, selecting one or other of his qualities as a corner-stone, to build around it a monument which will show him as a patriot or a plotter, a Christian man or a hypocrite, a demon or a demi-god as the sculptor may choose”.

Coward does concede that Cromwell’s political views were radicalized by Religion. He became an opponent of Charles 1st religious views. I am not sure about Coward’s assertion that Cromwell sought to complete the Reformation. Cromwell was from a very early period before hostilities had broken out opposed to the King. This included a raising a troop of soldiers and intervening in Cambridge to seize money bound for the King. Cromwell was evident as regards religion not being the only disagreement with the King when he said: “Religion was not the thing at first contested for”.

In Cromwell and the Civil War (1642-46). Coward is in firm agreement that Cromwell was doing God’s work. It is clear that the Civil War had an impact on Cromwell’s politics. He was moved further than any of his contemporaries. Coward tends to downplay stories of Cromwell’s military prowess. I see no need to contradict his position. You would need to consult a military expect. He was, however, a good leader of men. And was fully cognisant of the need for a cause to unite the army upon. Also the recruitment of like-minded men. “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else.” Letter to Sir William Spring (September 1643) “A few honest men are better than numbers.”

The Search for Settlement (1646-49) shows that Coward was a not materialist historian. While not a revisionist historian he has accepted the way history of this period is now written without any attention to underlying socio-economic causes of events portrayed in the book. Coward believes that the differences which arose amongst parliamentarians were political rather than religious. For him it is “more important in explaining why divisions over religious and policy issues did not spill over into rebellion and attacks on the social order, is the fact that such divisions cut across ‘class’ lines. Indeed, although there was (as has been seen) a significant disparity in the distribution of wealth in early modern London between ‘the rich’ and ‘the poor’, there was also a massive group who it is best to call (as they did at the time) ‘the middling sort’, tradesmen, merchants, craftsmen and their apprentices. It is significant that analyses of different religious and political groups in Civil War London show no significant difference in their social composition; most notably they all show large contingents of the middling sort. People from the same social groups are to be found on all sides. They are to be found amongst the Levellers and the radical gathered churches, but also amongst the readers of Thomas Edwards’s Gangraena and the militant conservative crowd who invaded the chamber of parliament in July 1647. The point quite simply is that what was lacking in Civil War London was the ingredient of class division or class hostility that might have made, for example, excise riots the breeding ground for radical protest and demands”. (London and the Civil War)

If this was the case then- the question that begs being asked is what the class basis of the differences between the Independents and Presbyterians was? As Leon Trotsky said “It would seem that the conditions are now created for the single rule of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie. But before the royal power could be broken, the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen, and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Praetorian Guard, and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers’ and officers’ deputies (“agitators”). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents’ army. This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its own army the “model army” of Cromwell – that is, the armed plebeians. The battle ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – try to oppose to the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritably plebeian regime”.

The logic of Coward’s rejection of a class-based analysis of the ideological battles that occurred during the revolution leads him to make the outstanding claim that the New Model Army was not political from the outset and that it was not politicized by the Levellers. Coward says the army spontaneously gravitated to radical solutions over pay grievances etc. This downplaying of the ideological debates that took place in the military is a major weak point in the book. It is curious that Coward devotes so little to the Putney Debates.

What conclusions did Cromwell draw from the debates at Putney? The dangers of a Levellers inspired mutiny against the Grandees were a real possibility. Also, another option was losing control of the New Model Army which was already to the left of Cromwell and would move against both the King and Cromwell himself if left on its own. Cromwell’s nervousness over the Levellers can be seen when they published England’s New Chains Discovered. I tell you sir; you have no other way to deal with these men [the Levellers] but to break them in pieces”.

Coward centers changes Cromwell was to make regarding his thinking on exacting violence to the King was based on religious grounds. There is no denying Cromwell’s religious thinking but the explanation of the changes wracking Britain at this time was solely religious ignores the growing social and economic changes in Britain’s base and their reflection its superstructure are not mentioned.

In Chapter 5 Cromwell and the Godly Reformation 1653-54 Coward outlines Cromwell move towards a military dictatorship. This was the first of its kind in Britain. On Page 96 Cowards explains following the Barebones Parliament there was a playing up of a fear of social revolution. What was the danger? Some historians have said this was exaggerated. Coward’s grand narrative is his fascination with Cromwell’s attempt at a “Godly Reformation”. Again the weakness in this book is the absence of any class analysis. What social forces were moving not just Cromwell but other players?

What was Cromwell’s heritage? The fact that his name still elicits such hatred or admiration is down to the still contemporary class nature of the Civil War period. Even today there are sections of the ruling elite who still refuse to be reminded that Britain had a violent revolution which was not the British way of doing things. He has a tendency to miss a bigger picture Cowards fixation with Cromwell’s attempt at Godly Reformation misses his legacy in establishing the rule of English bourgeoisie Leon Trotsky “On this score, British workers can learn much from Cromwell. 

The observations on the Puritans' army made by the historian Macaulay are here not without interest: “A force thus composed might, without injury to its efficiency, be indulged in some liberties which, if allowed to any other troops, would have proved subversive of all discipline. In general, soldiers who should form themselves into political clubs, elect delegates, and pass resolutions on high questions of state, would soon break loose from all control, would cease to create an army, and would become the worst and most dangerous of mobs. Nor would it be safe, in our time, to tolerate in any regiment religious meetings at which a corporal versed in Scripture should lead the devotions of his less gifted colonel, and admonish a back-sliding major. But such was the intelligence, the gravity, and the self-Command of the warriors whom Cromwell had trained that in their camp a political organization and a religious organization could exist without destroying the military organization. The same men who, off duty, were noted as demagogues and field preachers were distinguished by steadiness, by the spirit of order, and by prompt obedience on watch, on will and on the area of battle.”

In establishing an accurate picture of the role of Cromwell one should heed the works of Karl Marx when he In the 1872 Preface to the French edition of Das Kapital Vol. 1, he emphasised that "There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits". Reaching a scientific understanding was hard work. Conscientious, painstaking research was required, instead of philosophical speculation and unwarranted, sweeping generalizations”.


1.       Andrew Barclay. Electing Cromwell: The Making of a Politician. Political and Popular Culture in the Early Modern Period, London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011. pp. xi + 288.

2.       The Solemn Engagement of the Army. A Link to the agreement http://www.bilderberg.org/land/solemn.htm

3.       London and the English Civil War-Barry Coward http://www.ull.ac.uk/newsletter/barry_coward_lecture.pdf

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Recollections of Christopher Hill

(Originally posted on the Blog Early Modern History)

C Thompson

I first became aware of Christopher Hill in the Hilary term of 1963. Once a week for eight weeks, I and my fellow undergraduates crossed the snow-covered space between Balliol College’s lodge to its hall to hear Christopher Hill deliver a series of lectures that later formed part of his book, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England. Little of their content remains in my memory although I was struck by his habit of apparently sniffing every two or three sentences. I found this disconcerting.

 I was more impressed by his 1956 work, The Economic Problems of the Church, which I read whilst preparing an essay on the origins of the English Civil War for Roger Howell of St John’s College with whom I was studying the second half of the paper in English History up to 1714. Of the great figures in the University’s History Faculty – Hugh Trevor-Roper, J.P.Cooper, and others – Christopher Hill made the least impression on me.

It was a great surprise to me when, on the point of starting my postgraduate study of the career of Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, in the autumn of 1965, I received a letter from the History Faculty informing me that Christopher Hill had been appointed my supervisor. I viewed this choice with considerable trepidation: Christopher Hill was a Marxist, I was not: he was a specialist in Church history and the literature of the early modern period, I did not expect to be either the one or the other, at least, not much of one since my concern in ecclesiastical matters was likely to be more in the realms of patronage than in those of theology or of Church politics. He, I suspect, had concerns about me since I had been a pupil of Felix Markham and John Armstrong at Hertford College.

Our meetings passed amicably enough. He had just been appointed Master of Balliol which meant he had one hundred and one things to do apart from seeing me. He did, however, use what I subsequently learnt was an old Oxford teaching technique, that of remaining completely silent in his chair in one corner of his office whilst I sat nervously in a chair facing him. This was intended to encourage me (and other pupils) to fill the silence by talking more exhaustively about my research and discoveries.

 I did find this a draining exercise. My unease over this procedure remained throughout my time as a postgraduate. He also invited me to a meeting of his other pupils held, to the best of my recollection, on Monday evenings in his rooms where a barrel of beer was available to those who came along with a large number of female undergraduates and postgraduates mainly from St Hilda’s college invited by his wife, Bridget. These proved to be very noisy events. Since I knew no one there, I stopped going after two or three weeks.

I am afraid that both our apprehensions as postgraduate pupil and supervisor were realised. I was definitely not his kind of historian nor he mine. In the areas in which I was working, in colonial and political history, on estate management and county government, he was not equipped to help me and almost completely unfamiliar with the sources. I gravitated towards Hugh Trevor-Roper, John Cooper and Valerie Pearl. Gradually, we grew apart as I became much more critical of his approach to early modern history. The first pre-monitory tremors of revisionism were already being felt in Oxford and in the Institute of Historical Research. The intellectual parting of the ways was inevitable.

After I left Oxford, I only saw him once before 1997. That was in Malet Street in London in the late-1970s. I did teach a course for the Open University in the late-1980s which he had had a large hand in designing but it was hardly recognisable as a reflection of the state of historiography by that time. 

I did, however, meet him and his wife again in January, 1997 when I and he had the privilege of holding Research Fellowships at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Our discussions were much more relaxed than they had been thirty years before. He still maintained the position that the English Revolution was a decisive turning point in the seventeenth century and the essential precondition for the emergence of capitalism on the world stage. He was just as resourceful as ever in finding literary evidence and material from the secondary sources to support his claims.

But he was no less puzzled by the change in intellectual fashion that had drawn the historical audience he had once hoped to command away from him since the early-1970s and slightly annoyed by the criticism of figures like Mark Kishlansky. He was still the old Christopher Hill. His wife, however, was already concerned about how much his recent work in composing an introduction to the Calendar of State Papers Venetian had apparently taken out of him. Sadly, this was the first sign of the serious illness that was to take his life within a few years. We corresponded for a short while thereafter but, soon, neither Christopher nor Bridget could sustain such exchanges. She passed away shortly before he died in February, 2003.

I am glad to have known him. He was for a period of twenty or twenty-five years one of the major figures in the historiography of early modern England. Now he is to a considerable extent forgotten as John Morrill has pointed out. Postgraduates do not, by and large, read his works any more than established historians look to him for positive guidance. That there will be a revival of interest in him and his output seems highly likely to me. Perhaps his biographer is already at work. He was, as we all are, a product of his time. That is of interest in itself. His intellectual influence may have waned but it will not be forgotten.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Review: Oliver Cromwell: British Library Historic Lives by Peter Gaunt the British Library Publishing Division (Sep 1 2004) ISBN-13: 978-0712348577

As you would expect from a historian of Peter Gaunt’s experience and caliber, this is a book that is well written, handsomely illustrated and is the product of substantial research. The book has in general been well received both in academic circles “this book is as disciplined, vivid and vigorous as the man it celebrates.

Gaunt offers a convincing interpretation of Cromwell's life and a shrewd assessment of his achievement." John Morrill, Vice Master, and Reader in Early Modern History, Selwyn College, Cambridge and in the public domain as well. "A new and controversial account of one of the pivotal figures in British history. This scholarly account is nonetheless entertaining and informative." Rachel Dickinson, Waterstones, Richmond, in the Bookseller.

Having said that it should be noted that this biography is written from a particular standpoint in respect that Gaunt was a former chairman of The Cromwell Association. It has come in for some criticism in that it is “not a genuinely critical study.” Gaunt held that Cromwell “always retained a radical edge and never became a self-satisfied, conservative figure" (p. 9).  But neither is it hagiography.

Gaunt’s preface shows his tendency to wear his history on his sleeve so to speak. While it 's hard to pin down Gaunt’s support for one form of traditional school or another he does have a tendency in this book to blame Charles for the civil war in that the king was arrogant and stupid.

Gaunt’s portrayal of Cromwell’s early life is carefully done. Perhaps he was mindful of the fact that it is a minefield of historical inaccuracy. Hopefully, the current work of Professor Morrill and his term working on a new edition of Cromwell’s writings and speeches will clear some of the mess up.

The book acknowledges that Cromwell was a leading figure of the revolution. Cromwell was not, however, its main theoretical light. Figures such General Henry Ireton were on a much higher plane in that regard. In fact, it is high time that this ideologue of the developing bourgeoisie was given some credit for his importance to the revolution.

Cromwell as correctly portrayed by this biography was a deeply religious man. In the main Cromwell’s courageous and farsighted political action were guided by these beliefs. It would be a mistake to believe that his thoughts and actions were not products of his times as well. It was not for nothing that the metaphysical and republican poet Andrew Marvell said

If these the Times, then this must be the Man.

And well he therefore does, and well has guest,

Who in his Age always has forward prest:

And knowing not where Heavens choice may light,

Girds yet his Sword, and ready stands to fight;

Some historians have questioned Cromwell military prowess. But for me not only was he an important military leader he built an “armed party” The New Model Army was unlike any army before or after the civil war. Cromwell was extremely clear of the social type he wanted in his army “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a Gentle-man and is nothing else.”

On this score the observations by the historian Macaulay are valid “A force thus composed might, without injury to its efficiency, be indulged in some liberties which, if allowed to any other troops, would have proved subversive of all discipline. In general, soldiers who should form themselves into political clubs, elect delegates, and pass resolutions on high questions of state, would soon break loose from all control, would cease to create an army, and would become the worst and most dangerous of mobs. Nor would it be safe, in our time, to tolerate in any regiment religious meetings at which a corporal versed in Scripture should lead the devotions of his less gifted colonel, and admonish a back-sliding major. But such was the intelligence, the gravity, and the self-Command of the warriors whom Cromwell had trained that in their camp a political organization and a religious organization could exist without destroying a military organization. The same men who, off duty, were noted as demagogues and field preachers, were distinguished by steadiness, by the spirit of order, and by prompt obedience on watch, on will and on the field of battle.”

The Putney debates form such an important part in developing an understanding of the English revolution it is, therefore, a little surprising that Gaunt pays so little attention to them in his book. 

The debates held at Putney proved that this was “noe mercenary armie. The debates contained discussions on Social inequality property rights and the nature of democracy.  Coming to Putney, the army was split down the middle over what kind of settlement with the king was needed. The grandees or the more conservative figures around Cromwell and Ireton were in favor of compromise and issued the “Heads of proposals” (http://www.british-civil-wars.co.uk/glossary/heads-of-proposals.htm). 

They were as follow, the episcopacy would be retained in church government, but the power of the bishops would be substantially reduced. All Acts enforcing church attendance, the use of the Book of Common Prayer and the forbidding of holding religious meetings elsewhere would be repealed. The Covenant was to be revoked.

The sitting Parliament was to set a date for its own termination. After that, biennial Parliaments were to be called (i.e. every two years), which would sit for a minimum of 120 days and maximum of 240 days.Parliamentary constituencies were to be reorganized.A Council of State would be established to conduct foreign policy. It would need Parliament's approval to make war or seek peace.Parliament was to control the appointment of state officials and officers in the army and navy for ten years.No Royalists were to hold office or stand for election, for at least five years.

Both the King and the Levellers rejected them. The Levellers were heavily critical of what they termed Cromwell’s "servility" to the King,

At the Putney Debates (October-November 1647), the Levellers issued a counter argument to the Heads of Proposals in the Agreement of the People. Despite this being rejected by Cromwell and Ireton at Putney sections in the Leveller influenced New Model Army had other ideas. Fed up with the Grandees stonewalling they moved to go against both the Presbyterians and the King in a radical and forceful way.

Pride's Purge.

This took the form of a removal of forces inside parliament who were hostile to the radicals in the army. Named after the soldier that instigated it:

An account of Pride’s Purge, 6 December 1648 from The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow, Lieutenant-General of the Horse in the Army of the Commonwealth of England, 1625-1672, Vol. 1, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1894, p. 210)

…officers of the army withdrew into a private room, to consider of the best means to attain the ends of our said resolution, where we agreed that the army should be drawn up the next morning, and guards placed in Westminster Hall, the Court of Requests, and the Lobby; that none might be permitted to pass into the House but such as had continued faithful to the publick interest. To this end we went over the names of all the members one by one, giving the truest characters we could of their inclinations, wherein I presume we were not mistaken in many; for the Parliament was fallen into such factions and divisions, that anyone who usually attended and observed the business of the House, could, after a debate on any question, easily number the votes that would be on each side, before the question was put. Commissary-General Ireton went to Sir Thomas Fairfax, and acquainted him with the necessity of this extraordinary way of proceeding, having taken care to have the army drawn up the next morning by seven of the clock. Col. Pride commanded the guard that attended at the Parliament-doors, having a list of those members who were to be excluded, preventing them from entering into the House, and securing some of the most suspected under a guard provided for that end;

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the book is Guant’s attitude towards the events in Ireland. Gaunt believes that Cromwell was acting as any leading member of the new rising bourgeoisie would act. It is not in the remit of this review to go into detail. But two points should be made. Firstly Cromwell being deeply religious responded to the persecution of Protestants in Ireland (massacres did take place) with his own form of justice against the international ruling elite and sections of the population. He was reported to call them "Barbarous and bloodthirsty” Again hopefully with the publication of a new edition of Cromwell‘s speeches and writing’s edited by John Morrill we may learn the true extent of the carnage inflicted by the New Model Army. Secondly and perhaps most importantly significant economic gains were too made in the plunder of Ireland. Cromwell himself invested heavily in the colonization of Ireland.

Like all historical subjects, Cromwell’s Ireland campaign is open to, in this case, heated debate. For a view that is widely representative of an Irish nationalist view, readers would do no worse than reading `God's executioner: Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland' by Dr. Micheal O'Siochru (2008), Faber. For a counter argument to this book, please read Cromwell by Tom Reilly.


The First Anniversary of the Government under O.C.by Andrew Marvell Source: Marvell, Andrew. The Complete Poems. George deF. Lord, Ed. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1984. 93-104. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/marvell/1stanniv.htm

Further Reading:

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. iii (London 1889)

Ian J. Gentles, Henry Ireton, Oxford DNB 2004

David Underdown, Pride's Purge (Oxford 1971)