This is not an easy book to read, and readers should be prepared for a marathon and not a sprint to a better understanding of the early political life of Oliver Cromwell. Barclay’s clear first aim was to present a “warts and all” picture of Cromwell, and to some extent, he succeeds.
His second aim was to leave no stone unturned in a search for a more precise picture of the early political life of Cromwell. Barclay opens his book with a preface which outlines his collaboration with the History of Parliament Trust House of Commons project.The author is especially interested in the 1640-1660 section. The book is a very thorough examination of Cromwell’s early political life and of Cambridge borough politics and is as one writer put it “a model for interrogating the silences in the historical record.”
Barclay, it would appear rejects the past conception of placing Cromwell and his actions in the context of the times. According to Barclay “If Cromwell has loomed large in the histories of Civil War Cambridge, he has also done so, more debatably, in more general histories of the Civil War. While few have ever seen him as being wholly typical, his career has conventionally been used to exemplify many of the war’s major themes. He is the most famous soldier in a political conflict that was ultimately won on the battlefield. He remains by far the most obvious example of a man for whom the war was the making of him. He is the archetypal Puritan. This temptation to place him in the foreground of these events has, naturally enough, been least resisted by his many biographers. Linking Cromwell’s career to the wider social drama, so that one becomes an implicit microcosm for the other, has proved itself to be one of the more perennial ways in which historians have tried to make sense of his remarkable story. Furthermore, just because so much that is new has now been discovered from the years before he became famous does not lessen that temptation.”
Not all historians would agree with Barclay’s method. Christopher Hill while appreciating Barclay’s hard work would have been slightly critical as regards solely concentrating on one aspect of Cromwell's early political career. In his essay The Pre-Revolutionary Decade he wrote “ not all historians, unfortunately, read literary criticism (and I fear some do not even read English literature), if they did, they would realise that there was a revolution in English literature as well as in science, even if they cannot persuade themselves that there were revolutions in politics, economics, and society. Those historians, who concentrate on Parliamentary debates, state papers and the correspondence of the gentry, fail to notice what is going on elsewhere. It is one of the disastrous consequences of specialization”.
Having said that Barclay does provide a tremendously detailed look at a huge range of original sources. In his bibliography section, he has examined forty-six archival collections. The book provides an incredibly original piece of research into Cromwell’s election as Member of Parliament for Cambridge borough in both April and November 1640. The book complements John Morrill’s work on a New Critical Edition of all the Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell.
One aspect of this is his re-evaluation is an extensive look at James Heath’s Flagellum. A word of warning if you are unfamiliar with this book, a word of caution as John Morrill said in his History Today review caustically “If the Daily Sport had existed in the 1660s Heath would have been its editor”. Heath’s book has for a very long time been held by historians to be unreliable, and in many places, his book has outright falsifications. Barclay has sought to resurrect Heath as a semi-reliable source of Cromwell’s early political career. According to Barclay Heath’s words are the most “accurate account of the election that exists.” It is not possible in the space of this article to agree or refute Barclay’s claim. Suffice to say the reader should be aware that Barclay’s work is not just a piece of pure research. Historians do not function in a vacuum and Barclay has a definite agenda regarding the use of Heath’s work.
Barclay rejects past and present historiography regarding Cromwell’s election. The resurrection of Heath fits with Barclay’s and other historians such as John Adamson view that the civil war was largely a conspiratorial affair. Adamson’s book has a theoretical premise that the Civil War as basically a coup d’état 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 honor, they acted to protect themselves and the nation. Names such as Saye, Bedford, Essex, and Warwick move from the sidelines to occupy center stage, as do their counterparts among Scottish peers. It was they and not the ignorant masses who plucked a king from his throne. Oliver Cromwell, for Adamson, was merely one of their lesser lackeys”.
I am not the only writer to pick up on the fact that Barclay is agreement with this type of thinking. One writer poses that “the disreputable Heath correctly described the machinations of a group of like-minded godly who had encountered Cromwell in Fenland conventicles and believed him to be a man of action who would successfully plead their case at the national level. They then maneuver the mayor, who had no acquaintance with or prior knowledge of him, into appointing Cromwell a freeman of the borough, and from there Cromwell made his way into the parliamentary election for the district, a process that historically had been fractious. Indeed, in the Long Parliament election, he ignored a double return and took his seat anyway. And the rest, as they say, is history. Barclay ends with crediting the institution of Parliament as the great catalyst that set Cromwell in place to become a national hero and head of state”.
Barclay’s work has been defended in some revisionist circles. John Morrill says “Barclay’s account ‘challenges and overturns’ my own earlier work with its highly tentative suggestions as to why Cromwell was elected for Cambridge. Excellent! Barclay has burrowed deep into archives in Cambridge, Ely and parts of the National Archives (such as ‘Petty Bag’) which few have dared to enter. Many of his sources can be described as terra incognita. Even more remarkably there are citations of manuscripts in no less than 45 depositories. This is an unintended rebuke to much current academic laziness, the world of quick-fix scholarship, in which books and articles are compiled through word-searches in Early English Books Online and British History Online”.
Would I recommend this book, yes I would, but caution is needed. This is a very specialized piece of writing and is not really aimed at the wider reading public. It is a goldmine for serious researchers, but I would not take it to bed with me.
1. Sabrina Alcorn Baron, review of Electing Cromwell: The Making of a Politician, by Andrew Barclay, Journal of Historical Biography 10 (Autumn2011): 138-141, www.ufv.ca/jhb. © Journal of Historical Biography 2011.
2. Why We Need A New Critical Edition of all the Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell-http://keith-perspective.blogspot.co.uk/
3. John Morrill-History Today Posted 18th May 2011
4. Cromwell’s Legacy edited by: Jane A. Mills Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2012, ISBN: 9780719080890 336pp.; rice: £65.00
5. Professor J. C. Davis University of East Anglia Professor J. C. Davis, review of Cromwell’s Legacy, (review no. 1308) URL: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1308 Date accessed: 27 September, 2012