Thursday, 19 January 2012

Why We Need A New Critical Edition of all the Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell

Despite being such a major historical figure the collected writings and speeches of Oliver Cromwell are certainly the most inaccurate and some contain outright falsifications. To rectify this John Morrill and his team of historians and researchers have been given a Leverhulme Trust funded research grant of £204,337. On the surface, this may seem a significant amount of money, but given the fact that Leverhulme also gave a quarter of a million pounds grant to study homing pigeons it tends to put Morrill´s award in some sort of perspective.

Morrill will have 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 version 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”, but it is clear that this is a long overdue project.

Among the scholars working alongside Morrill are Tim Wales who will be a Senior Research Associate. He will assist John Morrill and Andrew Barclay with volume 1 (1599-1649). Elaine Murphy will be a Research Associate. She will work with Micheál Ó Siochrú and Jason Peacey with volume 2 (1649-1653). Finally, Joel Halcomb, another Research Associate will be assisting David Smith, and Patrick Little with volume 3 (1654-1658) All three will be assisting with the oversight of volumes 4 and 5, co-edited by John Morrill, Peter Gaunt, and Laura Lunger Knoppers.

It is clear that the team assembled is of a high academic calibre. Eight editors have been appointed and have signed contracts with OUP: Andrew Barclay, Peter Gaunt, Laura Knoppers, Patrick Little, John Morrill, Micheál Ó Siochrú, Jason Peacey, and Davis Smith. According to the University of Cambridge, "all of them have worked in Cromwell’s life or thought, and all have a detailed understanding of the sources for the project. An advisory board of further specialists in Cromwell and/or the editing of early modern texts has been created, including Martyn Bennett, Jan Broadway, Ann Hughes, Pádraig Lenihan, and Blair Worden".

The University of Cambridge website explains "The mission statement of the Editorial Board has been to record all surviving evidence of ‘Cromwell’s voice’. This means including all the speeches in Stainer’s edition; all the letters in Abbott’s edition for which there is any evidence of Cromwell’s authorial hand and many discovered since 1948; and contextualized editions of William Clarke’s contemporary notes of Cromwell’s contributions to the Army Debates of 1647 (their provenance recently re-examined), and (after much discussion and experimentation) versions of Cromwell’s contributions to parliamentary debates in the diaries of the early 1640s (often in very different summary form). With respect to most post-1643 letters and speeches which survive not as originals but in multiple early copies, using recent advances in book and print culture history, it is often possible to establish which of several printers of a letter was being used by Parliament or Protectorate to publish. This, as well as internal evidence, normally allows the ‘best’ text to be established). We have conducted trials to establish the feasibility of tracking down ‘lost’ documents. Where there are major discrepancies between versions and no way of seeing which is the more ‘reliable’, we have permission from OUP to publish both (e.g. the speech to the Nominated Assembly on 4 July 1653). Otherwise, we will establish the best text using advanced source criticism, and will note significant alternatives in footnotes".

Having spent a not insignificant amount of time studying Oliver Cromwell and more importantly his role in the English Revolution, I do not believe it is necessary to justify the amount attention given over to him. He is certainly " is one of the most studied of Englishmen ". If Morrill´s project increases interest in Cromwell more the better, but the project has a deeper and more important role to play.

When I first started to study the English Civil War, it was noticeable even to my limited knowledge of the writings of Cromwell that something was awry. The more I read the clearer it became that every single collection of his speeches and writings were defective or worse still wholly inaccurate. Mine is a small frustration compared to the legions of historians who have worked on Cromwell.

What are the problems with the older editions of Cromwell's words? It is clear that it will be an enormous task to find out. How best to"represent Cromwell's voice" is a big responsibility. Another problem is how to deal with several copies of the same Cromwell speech or what do when earlier editors sneakily and irresponsibly corrected Cromwell's words.

The biggest problem is that recent and past historians have relied on these editions and have most of the time uncritically quoted them without questioning the accuracy of Cromwell´s words or deeds. One such example of this is the biography of Oliver Cromwell by Graham Goodlad. This book which seems primarily aimed at students again quotes Cromwell without any warning off to the accuracy of the quote. Over the last 25 years, Cromwell´s name has been seen in more than one hundred titles in the British History Online Database. All of these titles have relied on out of date and inaccurate editions.

Let's take the most well-known and probably the most valuable collection of Cromwell´s speeches and writings done by Thomas Carlyle’s in 1845. Carlyle´s was certainly a major accomplishment and remained in print for over a hundred years. But as John Morrill recently said at the Barry Coward Memorial Lecture even a writer of Carlyle´s calibre spent next to no time in editing the speeches or writings. But perhaps the greatest mistake was that he never compared different versions of the same letter or statement. He never enquired as to whether the recording of the speech or writing was the best. He took the easiest way out and just "tidied up the spelling and punctuation and printed it"

At the start of the 20th century the noted scholar Mrs S.C.Lomas, decided to tidy up Carlyle’s edition.  According to Morrill this improved the quality of the text Carlyle had chosen, "but comparison of variant texts was a low priority, and the use of source criticism to determine ‘best’ readings was, to put it politely, rudimentary".

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 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 his extreme right wing political assessment or for Abbott’s editorial approach. In a recent lecture, he described Abbott´s defects. It is clear that Abbott spent a considerable time researching his prey. In 1929 he published a ‘Bibliography of Oliver Cromwell’ Between period 1937 and 1947 he published an edition of Cromwell’s written words in four large volumes. But as Morrill says "it is almost impossible to use this version because there is neither a list of contents nor running heads to guide the reader to what s/he wants; its running commentary is distorted by Abbott’s increasing obsession to show that Cromwell prefigured the great dictators of the 1940s." 

What are the other Challenges Facing a New Edition

Even a cursory look at the problems encountered by the editors it is clear that the tasks facing the historians working on each volume will be very different. John Morrill and Andrew Barclay who are working on the period up to 1649 face mainly two major problems. According to Cambridge University "Many of Cromwell’s early letters often only exist in later copies and their transmission histories are, where known, sometimes not encouraging. We have to try to find the originals of documents whose existence is attested down to the 19th or 20th century and then lost. And we have the problem of what to do with the brief summaries of Cromwell’s speeches which he delivered as a back-bencher to the Long Parliament, especially in the years 1640-1642, and what to do about the better-recorded Army Debates of 1647 (including the Putney Debates) without reproducing the whole of the Debates. For the period 1649-1653 the biggest problem is the non-survival of Cromwell’s official campaign letters from Ireland and Scotland except in multiple printed form with often as many as seven or eight versions appearing in a series of pamphlets and newspapers. From the moment Cromwell became Lord Protector in December 1653, a new problem arises: what to do about letters that he signed but did not write – the hundreds of letters which do not speak in his ‘voice’. Abbott in his edition tried to be comprehensive but then, suddenly, in 1657, just stopped. Registers of letters which Abbott had slavishly copied out up to a specified date are then abandoned. We intend to make more informed and defensible decisions about the limits of what to include". 

As Morrill has already said one of the major criticism of Carlyle is that his method of correcting text turned out in some cases to rewrite what Cromwell had actual written or said. Also, Lomas and Abbott, both fixed text and therefore changed some things out of recognition and in extreme cases affected the meaning of passage. This meant instead of an accurate depiction of what Cromwell actually said we get a bastardised version which becomes unusable.

Perhaps the most famous saying of Cromwell is open to two wildly different interpretations. Written by the county committee of Suffolk in September 1643 demanding that "they abandon their preconceptions of what type of person is needed for the New Model Army". In other words, their deeds mattered more than their social standing: ‘I had rather a plain russet-coated Captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a Gentleman and is nothing else. I honour a Gentleman who is so indeed’.

Deeds first, social standing afterwards. But if you take another version of Cromwell´s letter at face value then a much more original Cromwell appears if what Cromwell did, in fact, write: "I honour a Gentleman who is so in deed’ In this quote Cromwell is only after Gentlemen that can not only talk the talk but walk the walk. According to Nick Poyntz, "all existing versions print the first of these versions. But there is another version where ‘in deed’ are two words, not one". 

Cromwell In Ireland 

Perhaps the most challenging work of the team will probably be in regards to Cromwell´s action in Ireland.Certainly the most controversial part of Cromwell’s life. Not so much what he wrote or said but what he did and did not do.

Morrill explained that even today Cromwell’s involvement and the extent of civilian casualties is still open to debate. This, of course, is like all of Cromwell’s actions open to different interpretations again depending on your political and to some extent historical persuasion. The sack of Drogheda in September 1649 by political forces is one such action.

In his article on Cromwell Nick Poyntz makes the point that this oft-quoted phrase justified his actions : “I am persuaded 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 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 recently 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 persuaded 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. 

The team will have to negotiate what is both a political & the historical minefield of differing opinions on Cromwell´s campaign in Ireland. One example being Philip Mckeiver in his book A New History of Oliver Cromwell´s Irish Campaign is an aggressive defence of Cromwell´s actions at one point denying any massacres happened at Drogheda or Wexford.Having said that his book is worth reading as it does expose some myths and outright lies as regards Cromwell´s actions. Peter Reese in his book the Life of General George Monck: For King and Cromwell tend to go well overboard when he describes the Irish rebels fighting Cromwell as "terrorists".

On the other side of the debate is Micheál Ó Siochrú whose book I must admit have not read yet but the title Gods Executioner tends to give you a bit of a flavour as to his historical persuasion. Let us hope his work on the new editions shows a little more objectivity and follows the advice of the historian E H Carr who argued that it was very dangerous to judge people at different times according to the moral values of his or her time. Carr's also warned that historians "should not act as judges".

Perhaps his most valuable advice was that you should "Study the historian before you begin to consider the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the brilliant undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude's, goes round to a friend at St. Jude's to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf, or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger's slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean, and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation. Indeed, if, standing Sir George Clark on his head, I were to call history "a hard core of interpretation surrounded by a pulp of disputable facts", my statement would, no doubt, be one-sided and misleading, but no more so, I venture to think, than the original dictum".

What other problems as regards Ireland will the team face. One is finding different Versions of the Same Speech. In Many previous versions of Cromwell´s speeches, the historian or writer have failed to inform his readership why they chose to publish version they did. Another cardinal sin was to produce "hybrid versions" which historians have found entirely useless for historical research.

Cambridge University website gives us one example of this " on 4 December the Irish Catholic Bishops and other leading clergy met at one of Ireland’s holiest sites, the ruined abbey at Clonmacnoise, on a hillside overlooking the Shannon, and they called for a levee en masse of the Catholic people of Ireland to drive out the invader who had come to ‘extirpate’ the Irish people and the Catholic religion. Cromwell published a scornful and haughty rejection of their claims. It was released in Cork and then in Dublin, his words in those Irish printings of the pamphlet following the words of the Irish clergy. ‘Yours’, he told them, ‘is a covenant with death and hell’. A version of this pamphlet, detached from the clerical decrees, was then published in London under the title A declaration of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland for the undeceiving of deluded and seduced people. Only one copy of the each Irish edition is known to have survived, the Cork printing in a private library in Ireland and the Dublin printing in the Beinecke Library at Yale University. Neither Irish publication appears in Early English Books Online, and they appear in the Short Title Catalogue wrongly ascribed to Henry Ireton and with a very different title. No current edition of Cromwell’s writings and speeches has noted the existence of these Irish versions, and each of them reproduces the London edition, blissfully unaware of the very significant changes that that London edition introduces, which begin on the title page itself. The title of the Irish printings lacks the hauteur of the London title page".

Hopefully, the editorial team will not only correct previous editions but should elaborate more on the mistakes of past historians. My other wish is that the publications should be made available to the widest audience possible and not be priced out of the range of ordinary people or that they are not just done for an academic audience.

One hopes the team remain objective and that the new editions of Cromwell´s writing do not exhibit any of the moral judgements and extreme political bias held by some historians who have written books on the Lord Protector. 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”.

Notes and references

1 More information about the project can be found through this link

2 A New History of Cromwell's Irish Campaign [Illustrated Philip Graham McKeiver

3 God's Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland Dr Micheál Ó Siochrú

4 Oliver Cromwell (History Insights) [Kindle Edition]Graham Goodlad

5 Nick Poyntz blog can be found here

6 A bloody Irish almanack, or, Rebellious and bloody Ireland ... London, 1646; Hib.7.646.1

7 A bloudy fight at Dublin ... London, 1649. Hib.7.649.57 London, 1650. Hib.7.650.8

8 E H Carr What Is History