Monday, 19 December 2011

What do we really know about Oliver Cromwell by Professor John Morrill? The First Barry Coward Memorial Lecture.

 Professor John Morrill gave the First Barry Coward Memorial Lecture last Friday. It was fitting that a historian of Morrill’s calibre gave this lecture. This is the first time I have heard John Morrill speak. While not necessarily agreeing with many of his historical conclusions he is a historian worth listening to and this memorial lecture was a joy and extremely informative. The event itself was well organised by the Birkbeck Early Modern Society

I may not have changed my thinking on many aspects of Cromwell but Morrill’s intellectual rigour raises a very high bar. His introductory remarks and the lecture as a whole paid fitting tribute to Barry Coward both as a person and as a historian of note. Morrill’s only note of regret and sadness and this goes for the audience as well was that Barry Coward’s untimely death rob us of his input into such an important project.

Morrill used the lecture to outline the project that he and a team of eight editors chosen by Oxford University Press to assemble a five volume edition of Oliver Cromwell’s collected writings and speeches. It is clear that this edition will give us a more concrete and precise appreciation of OIiver Cromwell. It remains to be seen if this is a fundamental reappraisal of “Our Chief of Men”.

It was clear from Morrill’s lecture that this is a long overdue project. The fact that the team won significant funding of £250,000 from Leverhulme Trust is testimony to its importance. 

John Morrill’s main emphasis throughout the entire lecture was the importance of accuracy in historical research. While it is fairly standard knowledge that the various previous collections of Cromwell’s collected speeches and writings are found wanting this project undertaken by Morrill and his team give us the first real attempt to put the historical record straight and give us a more precise understanding of one of the most important historical figures in both English and world history.

Morrill began his lecture by going over previous editions of Cromwell’s collected speeches and writings. The first and probably most well-known of the collected edition of Cromwell’s words was by Thomas Carlyle in 1845 and updated by S. C. Lomas in 1904. Morrill’s main criticism of Carlyle was that he made little effort at accuracy. Carlyle never looked at previous examples of speeches quoted in his collection. Morrill believes the Lomas version is better but not by much.

In his hand-out at the lecture Morrill gives us an example of the obstacles the team has encountered during their research. Probably one the more well-known misinterpretations of Cromwell’s speeches, by the way Austin Woolrych in his book on the Barebones Parliament, makes a similar point in that Cromwell’s speech at the opening of that parliament. One version, made in 1654, says:I confess I never looked to see such a day as this – it may not be nor you neither – when Jesus Christ should be so owned as He is, at this day, and in this work. Jesus Christ is owned this day by your call, and you own Him by your willingness to appear for Him; and you manifest this, as far as poor creatures can, to the day of the power of Christ. God manifests it to be the day of the power of Christ, having, through so much blood, and so much trial as hath been upon this, made this one of the great one of the great issues thereof……I confess I did never look back to see such a day

The same speech recorded 100 years later says this: "I confess I never looked to see such a day as this – it may not be nor you neither – when Jesus Christ shall be so owned as He is, at this day, and in this world. Jesus Christ is owned this day by you all, and you own Him by your willingness in appearing here; and you manifest this, as far as poor creatures can, to a day of the power of Christ by your willingness…god manifests it to be to be the day of the power of Christ, having, through so much blood, and so much trials as hath been upon these nations made this one of the great one of the great issues thereof… I confess I did never look to see such a sight.

According to Morrill the second statement makes Cromwell a far more radical figure than had previously thought. Nick Poyntz agrees with this assessment as well “The differences are small but important. In the one version, "Cromwell is far more radical. Members of the Parliament have called forth the spirit of Christ through their presence, and the day itself is “the day of the power of Christ”, an apocalyptic climax to the struggles of the past eleven years. In the second version, Cromwell calls it “a day of the power of Christ”, which softens its millenarianism. Representatives have been summoned by Christ, not the other way around”.

It would be fair to assume that Morrill understands that his research does not take place in either a historical or political vacuum. Cromwell was and still is a controversial figure. Every century historians have interpreted a Cromwell that fits in with the politics of their age.Morrill dew attention to one such historian in the 20th century, Wilbur Cortez Abbott, a Harvard historian who spent most of his career to compiling and editing a collection of Cromwell's letters and speeches.

These volumes were published between 1937 and 1947. According to Morrill Cromwell was described by Abbott as “a proto-fascist”.  Suffice to say Morrill had no time for this extreme right wing political assessment or for Abbott’s editorial approach. Certainly the most controversial part of Cromwell’s life was his time spent in Ireland. Morrill explained that even today Cromwell’s involvement and the extent of civilian casualties is still open to debate. This of course like all of Cromwell’s actions is open to different interpretations again depending on your political and to some extent historical persuasion. The sack of Drogheda in September 1649 by parliamentary forces is one such action.

In his article on Cromwell Nick Poyntz makes the point that this oft-quoted phrase: “I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood; and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are the satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret”. He questions whether these are Cromwell’s words as no original letter survives. He also makes the point as does Morrill that parliament had a habit of tidying up speeches and letters of Cromwell. Again to what extent his words are accurate is one of the tasks of the project. It must be said that this is not an envious one.

Morrill made the distinction between civilians killed in the heat of battle as opposed to in cold blood.29 September 1649 two letters from Cromwell sack of  Drogheda were read in the Parliament

“Our men getting up to them, were ordered by me to put them all to the Sword; and indeed being in the heat of action, I forbade them to spare any that were in Arms in the Town, and I think that night they put to the sword about two thousand men, divers of the Officers and Soldiers being fled over the Bridge into the other part of the Town, where about One hundred of them possessed St. Peters Church Steeple, some the West Gate, and others, a round strong Tower next the Gate, called St. Sundays: These being summoned to yield to mercy, refused; whereupon I ordered the Steeple of St. Peters Church to be fired, where one of them was heard to say in the midst of the flames, God damn me, God confound me, I burn, I burn; the next day the other two Towers were summoned, in one of which was about six or seven score, but they refused to yield themselves; and we knowing that hunger must compel them, set onely good Guards to secure them from running away, until their stomacks were come down: from one of the said Towers, notwithstanding their condition, they killed and wounded some of our men; when they submitted, their Officers were knockt on the head, and every tenth man of the Soldiers killed, and the rest Shipped for the Barbadoes; the Soldiers in the other Town were all spared, as to their lives onely, and Shipped likewise for the Barbadoes. I am perswaded that this is a righteous Judgement of God upon these Barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood, and that it will tend to preventthe effusion of blood for the future”.

As Morrill pointed out Cromwell made a list officers and soldiers killed “Two thousand Five hundred-Foot Soldiers, besides Staff-Officers, Chyrurgeons, &c. and many Inhabitants”. So it is clear that inhabitants were killed.


Let’s hope Professor Morrill and his team does succeed in their endeavours and we get a much truer picture of Oliver Cromwell “warts and all”. As Morrill said “Cromwell will come alive in much the same way as a Great Master painting takes on a new and different life when it is cleaned and restored”.
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