Friday, 20 April 2012

Oliver Cromwell: God's Warrior and the English Revolution (British History in Perspective) Professor Ian Gentles. 288 pages Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ian Gentles book is the first new biography of Oliver Cromwell in many years. The book contains significant new research and professor Gentles presents us with a far deeper picture of the private and public life of Cromwell. It does not break much new ground from a historiographical perspective, but to his credit he does try to infuse his new biography with the work of previous scholars. Which is a boon for anyone wishing to learn about this great figure of English and world history?.

The book is ideal for students and the general public and should be used as a good introduction to the subject. Gentles’ Oliver Cromwell is a recent and very welcome addition to the British History in perspective Series edited by Jeremy Black. My one complaint is that outside of Amazon and a few other online booksellers the book is extremely difficult to get hold off.

That we know more about Cromwell recently than say ten years ago is down not only to the renewed interest in Cromwell but to the tremendous hard work of a growing number of historians. The work of Andrew Barclay has given us a far clearer picture of Cromwell’s early political life. John Morrill and his team of historians and researchers are working on new critical editions of Cromwell’s collected works.

Knowing this why does Gentles feel the need to justify a new biography? In his forward Gentles is a little defensive in this justification.  His most important answer to the question is that new evidence should throw up new interpretations and to a certain degree this is a slightly new interpretation.

Gentles is a skilled and thoughtful historian. He is Professor of History at York University’s Glendon College and at Tyndale University College. Most of his academic career has concentrated on the English Revolution. He has written significant articles and four books: The New Model Army in England, Ireland and Scotland, 1645-1653 (1992); Soldiers, Writers and Statesmen of the English Revolution (1998) and The English Revolution and the Wars in the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1652 (2007).

The Cromwell biography manages to strike a balance between Cromwell’s public and private life. Although to my mind Gentles concentrates too heavily on Cromwell’s military career to the detriment of spending more time on his political. He does present a “warts and all “picture of Cromwell.  Gentles attaches importance to recent research on Cromwell’s practice of lay preaching and his significant patronage of the arts. Gentles to his credit does attempt to counter the old picture of Cromwell as a dour and cultureless figure.

Gentles spends time on his new research into Cromwell's pay as a soldier. In chapter 10 asks if Cromwell “was a greedy puritan”. Gentles is accurate in his assertion that many modern day historians have paid little attention to Cromwell’s economic position or for that matter even his personal finances.

It has become part of modern revisionist historiography to play down the link between a person’s economic status and their political persuasions. I am not saying that their exists an umbilical cord between the two or that historical figures like Cromwell were not motivated into action by their religious and ideological conceptions, but I do insist as Nick Beams eloquently put it  “that it is necessary to examine the motives behind the motives—the real, underlying, driving forces of the historical process—and to make clear the social interests served by a given ideology—a relationship that may or may not be consciously grasped by the individual involved”.

As was said earlier Gentles spends a large amount of time on military matters. If this floats your boat then this book is for you. Having said this Cromwell's genius as a soldier bares remarkable resemblance to a another revolutionary but that of the 20th century revolutionary Leon Trotsky who similar to Cromwell had no formal military training yet has been acknowledged as an important military figure


Notably three aspects of Gentles historiographical proclivities come to the fore in this biography. Gentles does not subscribe to a "Three Kingdoms" approach to the English civil war. One writer wrote contained within this approach” is a tendency to bounce back and forth from country to country and from campaign to campaign, causing confusion and obscuring the effects that developments in one theatre of operations might have had on the others”

Secondly while taking on board some aspects revisionist and post-revisionist historiography, Gentles centres Cromwell’s life as part of a “people's revolution”. This tends to show that the influence of Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill and Brian Manning is not entirely dead. Professor Gentles is one of the few modern day historians who does not downplay the influence that groups such as the Levellers had.  Gentles does offer a fresh insight into the complex relationship between Cromwell and Leveller leaders such as john Lilburne. 

In fact contrary to modern historiography Gentles offers a description of Cromwell being a far more radical figure than has previously been thought.

Thirdly and perhaps more controversially where Gentles does subscribe to one aspect of modern historiography is when he describes Cromwell belonging to a “Junto”. The definition of junto is “a group of men united together for some secret intrigue”. The champion of this new historiography is john Adamson. The main theoretical premise of his book The Noble Revolt  is to put forward a view of the Civil war as basically a coup d’├ętat by a group of nobles or aristocrats who no longer supported the King. According to Diane Purkiss these nobles were “driven by their code of honour, they acted to protect themselves and the nation. Names such as Saye, Bedford, Essex and Warwick move from the side-lines to occupy centre stage, as do their counterparts among Scottish peers. It was they and not the rude masses who plucked a king from his throne. Oliver Cromwell, for Adamson, was merely one of their lesser lackeys”.

While not rejecting that Cromwell was part of a “Junto” I think far more work is needed to either prove or disprove this thesis.  Gentles biography does not go into too much detail. Maybe in the future he will.

To conclude I would recommend this book to general readers and more academically minded students as it is an intelligent and well researched introduction to Oliver Cromwell. It has extensive footnotes and bibliography, a good list of abbreviations, a detailed index, good maps and battlefield plans.

It is only inevitable that Gentles does revisit the same areas of research covered by other historians such as Christopher Hill, john  Morrill, Barry Coward to name a few. Having said that Gentles book stands on its own two feet. Is it better than his predecessors only his peers can say?

(1)    Electing Cromwell:  The Making of a Politician  Political and Popular Culture in the Early Modern Period Hb:  Andrew Barclay 290pp: 2011 978 1 84893 018 6
(2)    More information on the new critical edition of the collected works of Oliver Cromwell can be found through this link

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