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