Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Oliver Cromwell: Politics and Religion in the English Revolution, 1640-1658, David L. Smith ( Cambridge Topics in History series, Cambridge University Press, 1991), 120pp., £4.95 paper, ISBN 0 521 388961.

" Do not trust to the cheering, for those very persons would shout as much if you and I were going to be hanged'. Oliver Cromwell.

“I do not know whether you have been alive or dead. I have not heard you all this time; I have not … Instead of peace and settlement, instead of mercy and truth being brought together, righteousness and peace are kissing each other . . . weeds and nettles, briers and thorns, have thriven under your shadow!”[1]

Like all good biographies of Oliver Cromwell the central purpose should be to do what  Thomas Carlyle did and “drag out the Lord Protector from under a mountain of dead dogs, a huge load of calumny and oblivion”.

David L Smith’s short and handsomely illustrated book does this to a certain extent. Smith’s job is not an easy one as over the centuries Cromwell’s reputation has suffered more than most with calumny and oblivion.

It is therefore perhaps a little surprising that in 2002 the Lord Protector was voted 10th Greatest Briton after John Lennon and Horatio Nelson. His statue still sits outside Parliament.Given Cromwell’s celebrity status, it is very surprising to find that it is possible to go through all phases of the UK education system and not be taught who Cromwell was.

According to one writer “The National Curriculum at no point prescribes that Cromwell be studied, and the range of GCSE and A level options also means that a positive decision has to be taken to teach on the subject, it does not happen as a matter of course”.

It is to David Smith’s credit that he has written a book that is aimed at A-Level students. He tackles a subject that is both complex and “seldom straightforward”.

According to his biography page at Cambridge David L. Smith is a historian on the Early Modern period of British history. He is particularly interested in the political, constitutional, legal and religious history in the Stuart period. He has been an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of History at Cambridge since 1995, and he served as Convenor of the Directors of Studies in History from 2006 to 2010. He also teaches regular weekend, day-school and summer school courses for Cambridge's Institute of Continuing Education.

He is the author or co-author of eight books and the editor of four others. David L Smith’s book on Oliver Cromwell from the Cambridge University Press Topics in History provides us with an excellent introduction to Oliver Cromwell and his place in history. It is not an orthodox biography of Cromwell but a guide to study. It works both for A-Level students, or degree level students. The general reader will find the book a good introduction to both Cromwell and the English revolution.

A significant amount of scholarship published on Cromwell and the English Revolution, in general, have prompted some university examination boards to reflect this at the Advanced level.It is hoped that this publication is the start of more less expensive resources being made available to teachers and students alike. After all, it is cheap to study the 17th century.

Smith ‘s book has managed to combine a high academic with a relatively small price. The book shows significant objectivity towards its subject. One problem I have with the book is that dismisses both Whig and Marxist historiography as outdated and no longer fashionable. Smith’s historiographical preferences are on the conservative side and would not look out of place with other revisionist historians of his generation.

He states “Over the past 20 years, scholars have placed much greater emphasis on political and religious culture rather than on high politics. They are also showing increasing sensitivity to the relationship between ideas and action, and much more sophistication in the analysis of these themes. Many of the sources that I use are records of government (e.g. the State Papers Domestic) and the records of Parliament. I also make extensive use of the letters, diaries and memoirs left by private individuals, together with a range of other sources that reveal political or religious attitudes, including literary sources”[2].

He continues “I came to this period through being taught as an undergraduate by Professor John Morrill, who later supervised my PhD thesis. His inspiration and infectious enthusiasm for this period were crucial in leading me to specialise in it. Another important influence was the late Professor Sir Geoffrey Elton who also took a very supportive interest in my work. Both these historians helped me to appreciate not only the importance of this period but also its complexity, dynamism and colour”.

The book neither favours or criticises Cromwell. Smith does not pad the book out with long-winded explanations of events or Cromwell’s action. He provides the academic or general reader with strong notes to carry out further studies. The book appeared when there were significant re-evaluations of Cromwell and his place in the English Revolution.

Despite having only a hundred and twenty words to play with Smith has made excellent use a wide variety of primary sources. Smith’s book is a useful tool in navigating the choppy water that is the English Revolution.

The book has been well received with Irene Carrier saying “It is a masterly selection from a bewildering profusion of Cromwellian material. It provides a cogent overview of staunchly held opinions and interpretations. A hint of a rather mechanical thesis, antithesis, synthesis approach in the Introduction is occasionally intrusive. Again, the British dimension merits fuller coverage, both during the 1640s and the Protectorate. After all, Cromwell was 'Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland'. Limitations apart, this book is lively, provocative, and an essential stimulus for Advanced level students”.[3]

[1] The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, with Elucidations by Thomas Carlyle, ed. S. C. Lomas (3 vols., 1904), 11, 407. 409.
[3]  Oliver Cromwell: Politics and Religion in the English Revolution, 16401658, (Cambridge Topics in History series) by David L. Smith Review by: Irene Carrier Source: Teaching History, No. 67 (April 1992), p. 38

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