Monday, 31 December 2012

Oliver Cromwell (Profiles In Power) 216 pages Publisher: Longman; 1 edition (22 Aug 2000) ISBN-10: 0582437512

Barry Coward’s book is a valuable introduction to the complex and controversial world of Oliver Cromwell. I am a little biased in my assessment of Coward since he was one of my tutors at Birkbeck during my part-time degree. I liked him as a person and a historian. But he did have a tendency to sit on the old fence a little on major issues of historical controversies. 

This book on Oliver Cromwell has become a standard textbook on the period. His book is not an orthodox biography. In it, he keeps an open mind on the major issues surrounding Cromwell. He has a typical revisionist attitude towards the Putney Debates of 1647 in that he downplays them as an ideological struggle.

Coward does wear his history on his sleeve, and like Peter, Gaunt Coward was a paid up member of the Cromwell Association. So his biography is a little partisan, but this does not spoil the book. Being a member myself I do not subscribe to the charge that this can compromise any historical investigation into Cromwell?In The Unknown Cromwell, 1599-1642 Coward makes an important point of saying that it is good to strip away the myths surrounding Cromwell. Many of these myths and falsehoods were spread by hostile biographers.

The fact that we have started to learn more about Cromwell’s early life is down to significant work by historians such as Andrew Barclay.

Traditional historiography has acknowledged Cromwell’s early religious influences as a young man especially from Dr Thomas Beard. Coward however pours cold water on this. He does not believe that Cromwell was ‘Lord of the Fens’ or as Coward puts “an opponent of capitalist syndicates”. Coward does not believe Cromwell’s class position made him a champion of popular rights etc. I am with him there as there is no point in painting Cromwell in terms that are misleading and inaccurate. As Cromwell himself said “I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height, nor yet in obscurity. I have been called to several employments in the nation — to serve in parliaments, — and (because I would not be over tedious) I did endeavour to discharge the duty of an honest man in those services, to God, and his people’s interest, and of the commonwealth; having, when time was, a competent acceptation in the hearts of men, and some evidence thereof”. Speech to the First Protectorate Parliament (12 September 1654)

There does seem to be some consensus that he was a gentleman, but there is a debate over his finances throughout his life. Despite its shortcomings, Coward’s biography does help one develop an actual class position of Cromwell but comes up short providing a picture of is what was going on economically around Cromwell in England. After all, he was part of a class that was experiencing extreme social and economic changes. The book is it does not actually investigate these changes. To do so would give it a far more multi-dimensional approach to Cromwell.

Such an approach can be found in F.A Inderwick’s The Interregnum, 1648-60 “A complex character such as that of Cromwell, is incapable of creation, except in times of great civil and religious excitement, and one cannot judge the man without at the same time considering the contending elements by which he was surrounded. It is possible to take his character to pieces, and, selecting one or other of his qualities as a corner-stone, to build around it a monument which will show him as a patriot or a plotter, a Christian man or a hypocrite, a demon or a demi-god as the sculptor may choose”.

Coward does concede that Cromwell’s political views were radicalized by Religion. He became an opponent of Charles 1st religious views. I am not sure about Coward’s assertion that Cromwell sought to complete the Reformation. Cromwell was from a very early period before hostilities had broken out opposed to the King. This included a raising a troop of soldiers and intervening in Cambridge to seize money bound for the King. Cromwell was evident as regards religion being  not being the only disagreement with the king when he said “religion was not the thing at first contested for.”

In Cromwell and the Civil War (1642-46). Coward is in firm agreement that Cromwell was doing God’s work. It is clear that the Civil War had an impact on Cromwell’s politics. He was moved further than any of his contemporaries. Coward tends to downplay stories of Cromwell’s military prowess. I see no need to contradict his position. You would need to consult a military expect. He was however a good leader of men. And was fully cognizant of the need for a cause to unite the army upon. Also the recruitment of like-minded men. “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else”. Letter to Sir William Spring (September 1643) “A few honest men are better than numbers”.

The Search for Settlement (1646-49) shows that Coward was a not materialist historian. While not a revisionist historian he has accepted the way history of this period is now written without any attention to underlying socio-economic causes of events portrayed in the book. Coward believes that the differences which arose amongst parliamentarians were political rather than religious. For him it is “more important in explaining why divisions over religious and policy issues did not spill over into rebellion and attacks on the social order, is the fact that such divisions cut across ‘class’ lines. Indeed, although there was (as has been seen) a great disparity in the distribution of wealth in early modern London between ‘the rich’ and ‘the poor’, there was also a massive group who it is best to call (as they did at the time) ‘the middling sort’, tradesmen, merchants, craftsmen and their apprentices. It is significant that analyses of different religious and political groups in Civil War London show no significant difference in their social composition; most notably they all show large contingents of the middling sort. People from the same social groups are to be found on all sides. They are to be found amongst the Levellers and the radical gathered churches, but also amongst the readers of Thomas Edwards’s Gangraena and the militant conservative crowd who invaded the chamber of parliament in July 1647. The point quite simply is that what was lacking in Civil War London was the ingredient of class division or class hostility that might have made, for example, excise riots the breeding ground for revolutionary protest and demands”. (London and the Civil War)

If this was the case then then the question that begs being asked is what was the class basis of the differences between the Independents and Presbyterians? As Leon Trotsky said “It would seem that the conditions are now created for the single rule of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie. But before the royal power could be broken, the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Praetorian Guard, and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers’ and officers’ deputies (“agitators”). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents’ army. This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its own army the “model army” of Cromwell – that is, the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – try to oppose to the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritably plebeian regime”.

The logic of Coward’s rejection of a class-based analysis of the ideological battles that occurred during the revolution leads him to make the outstanding claim that the New Model Army was not political from the outset and that it was not politicized by the Levellers. Coward says the army spontaneously gravitated to radical solutions over pay grievances etc. This downplaying of the ideological debates that took place in the military is a major weak point in the book. It is curious that Coward devotes so little to the Putney Debates.

What conclusions did Cromwell draw from the debates at Putney? The dangers of a Levellers inspired mutiny against the Grandees were a real possibility. Also, another option was losing control of the New Model Army which was already to the left of Cromwell and would move against both the King and Cromwell himself if left on its own. Cromwell’s nervousness over the Levellers can be seen when they published England’s New Chains Discovered. I tell you sir; you have no other way to deal with these men [the Levellers] but to break them in pieces”.
Coward centers changes Cromwell was to make regarding his thinking on exacting violence to the King was based on religious grounds. There is no denying Cromwell’s religious thinking but the explanation of the changes wracking Britain at this time was solely religious ignores the growing social and economic changes in Britain’s base and their reflection its superstructure are not mentioned.

In Chapter 5 Cromwell and the Godly Reformation 1653-54 Coward outlines Cromwell move towards a military dictatorship. This was the first of its kind in Britain. On Page 96 Cowards explains following the Barebones Parliament there was a playing up of a fear of social revolution. What was the danger? Some historians have said this was exaggerated. Coward’s grand narrative is his fascination with Cromwell’s attempt at a “Godly Reformation”. Again the weakness in this book is the absence of any class analysis. What social forces were moving not just Cromwell but other players?

What was Cromwell’s heritage? The fact that his name still elicits such hatred or admiration is down to the still contemporary class nature of the Civil war period. Even today there are sections of the ruling elite who still refuse to be reminded that Britain had a violent revolution which was not the British way of doing things. He has a tendency to miss a bigger picture Cowards fixation with Cromwell’s attempt at Godly Reformation misses his legacy in establishing the rule of English bourgeoisie Leon Trotsky“On this score British workers can learn much from Cromwell. The observations on the Puritans' army made by the historian Macaulay are here not without interest: “A force thus composed might, without injury to its efficiency, be indulged in some liberties which, if allowed to any other troops, would have proved subversive of all discipline. In general, soldiers who should form themselves into political clubs, elect delegates, and pass resolutions on high questions of state, would soon break loose from all control, would cease to form an army, and would become the worst and most dangerous of mobs. Nor would it be safe, in our time, to tolerate in any regiment religious meetings at which a corporal versed in scripture should lead the devotions of his less gifted colonel, and admonish a back-sliding major. But such was the intelligence, the gravity, and the self-Command of the warriors whom Cromwell had trained that in their camp a political organization and a religious organization could exist without destroying military organization. The same men who, off duty, were noted as demagogues and field preachers were distinguished by steadiness, by the spirit of order, and by prompt obedience on watch, on will and on the field of battle.”

In establishing an accurate picture of the role of Cromwell one should heed the works of Karl Marx when he In the 1872 Preface to the French edition of Das Kapital Vol. 1, Marx also emphasised that "There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits". Reaching a scientific understanding was hard work. Conscientious, painstaking research was required, instead of philosophical speculation and unwarranted, sweeping generalizations”.


1. Andrew Barclay. Electing Cromwell: The Making of a Politician. Political and Popular Culture in the Early Modern Period, London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011. pp. xi + 288.

2. The Solemn Engagement of the Army. A Link to the agreement

3. London and the English Civil War-Barry Coward

Monday, 10 December 2012

W.H.Coates on the ‘Major Conflicts in Seventeenth-Century England’

(This is an article written by Chris Thompson. I do not know much about Wilson H Coates but I would like to publish Chris's article here. The Storm over the Gentry is a complex debate and although it took place over half a century ago the debate is still relevant to today's historiography on the English revolution.)

The ferocious debates over the fortunes of the English aristocracy and gentry that dominated historical debates over the origins and course of the English Revolution in the 1940s and 1950s were played out by the mid-1960s. They are now distant memories, best known probably for the methodological issues they raised and polemical edge to the exchanges between R.H.Tawney and Lawrence Stone on one side and Hugh Trevor-Roper and J.P.Cooper on the other. Undergraduates and, perhaps, postgraduates are most likely to come across this disputed territory when reading J.H.Hexter’s discussion of the ‘storm over the gentry’ and R.C.Richardson’s comments in his work on the historiography of the  Revolution. Assessments by other scholars – by W.H.Coates, Christopher Hill and Perez Zagorin, for example, - are less familiar or even forgotten.

This neglect of their views lends them interest. The first of these figures, Willson H.Coates, contributed an essay on the ‘Analysis of Major Conflicts in Seventeenth-Century England’ to the festschrift published in Wallace Notestein’s honour in 1960. It had originally been given at the meeting of the American Historical Association in December, 1956 to which Hexter and Zagorin had also given papers. It would have been fascinating to have been present then as a fly on the wall. In its apparently revised version, Coates began by addressing the claims of an American historian, Alexander Thomson, on the significance of the crises through which England passed in the seventeenth-century before moving on to discuss the rival claims of English historians since then. I am not going to comment on his discussion  of Alexander Thomson’s views but rather to focus my attention on his analysis of the claims and counter-claims of Tawney, Trevor-Roper and others, which formed the bulk of his essay.

Coates’s analysis focused initially on the Whig interpretation of the English Revolution. Whigs, he argued, viewed it as “essentially a war of ideas concerning religion and politics which rent families and divided members of the ruling gentry class. The seventeenth century was the crucial period in the emergence of constitutional government and of religious and intellectual freedom in England. Whether or not such a result was the intent of the Puritans, the Parliamentarians, the Cromwellians or the Restoration Whigs, it was – partly because powerful opponents of their particular views survived – their main historical achievement.” There is little or nothing in this to which Whig historians from Hallam and Macaulay to G,M,Trevelyan might have objected.

The most formidable assault on the Whig version of the English Revolution had, however, been made by R.H.Tawney according to Coates. He had found the cause of this political upheaval in antecedent social change and had described the economic transformations in England after 1540 to which political institutions had had to be adjusted to meet the requirements of a new social structure. Coates was not, however, convinced by this argument. Tawney’s hypothesis was not adequately linked in his view to the events in the early-1640s it was meant to explain. Tawney himself had conceded as much in his introduction to Brunton and Pennington’s book on the members of the Long Parliament’s House of Commons when he admitted that, as far as the members of the lower House were concerned, divisions between Royalists and Parliamentarians had little to do with diversities of economic interest and social class: even so, Tawney evidently still hankered after an explanation based on economic divisions amongst the ruling elite in and after 1642. Coates’s conclusion was that Tawney’s pre-occupation with underlying causation prevented him from appreciating that there had been other possible outcomes to the events of 1637-1642 and that he had thus failed to account for the English Revolution.

Essentially, Coates stated or re-stated the standard objection of historical empiricists to all forms of economic and social determinism, namely, that the connection between events and their assumed causes had not been made. Lawrence Stone’s progress from a view of the Revolution as “inevitable” in 1948 to one in which the old regime was overthrown peacefully in 1640-1641 and subsequently on to one in which the political struggle could no longer be explained primarily in economic terms was discussed more summarily. Despite his remaining reservations about Stone’s approach to the Civil Wars of the 1640s, Coates was apparently sympathetic to this evolution in Stone’s thinking.

He was much more critical of Trevor-Roper’s hypothesis about the fortunes of the declining and mere gentry. The idea that the Country-house radicalism of the mere gentry might lead either to Catholic desperation or Puritan Independency struck him as implausible. Indeed, the historical irresponsibility of this kind of diagnosis deserved to be ‘anatomized’ itself in the Trevor-Roper manner. Moreover, neither the declining gentry nor the Puritan Independents could be held to have controlled events between 1637 and 1642. And those M.P.s recruited to the House of Commons after the start of the Civil Wars were scarcely more radical than those elected in the autumn of 1640. Changes in the composition of county committees in a more radical direction after 1642 were hardly enough to vindicate Trevor-Roper’s contentions. Once again, the substance of Coates’s objections appear to lie in the inability of such claims to sustain a secure political analysis.

Interestingly enough, Coates had relatively little, if anything, to say about the validity of manorial counts as guides to changing economic fortunes or on the relative rewards of Court office compared to those from landownership that had preoccupied his colleagues in England. He was not opposed in principle to deploying insights gained into the operation of economic and social forces but thought that the dialectical methods of Tawney and Trevor-Roper belonged to “a kind of scholastic world of twentieth-century economic history.” Coates preferred the complex analysis to be found in C.V.Wedgwood’s narrative works and seventeenth-century realities presented in those of William Haller. “Major historical changes can be analysed only on assumptions of multiple causation and the intricate interdependence of a succession of events.”

Coates did, however, have his own analytical framework to suggest. Three categories of conflict in seventeenth-century England might be distinguished. First of all, there was the “continuous social conflict” of interest to economic historians. A good deal was known about the price revolution of 1540-1640, about the expansion of banking, commerce and industry, the sale of Crown and former monastic lands and the shifting patterns of property ownership among the aristocracy and gentry, industrialists, merchants and yeomen. “Innumerable shifts in property divided members of a class, cut across the well-demarcated class lines and effected new combinations of interest” even if the social revolution was a silent one incapable of large-scale organization. Such vast social changes did not culminate in one single historical event but could be seen, for example, in the political legislation of the Long Parliament in 1641 and in the uncontested sway of mercantilist doctrines later in the century. This category of social conflict had strong economic roots and was “closely related to the emergence of modern Western capitalism.” Calvinism, as Weber and Tawney had argued, placed an emphasis of prudence, industry and frugality, which were the appropriate ideological tools for the accumulation of wealth, including land. It was, Coates claimed, “a moulding factor in economic conflict and change.”

The second distinct category identified by Coates concerned the issues contemporaries thought they were fighting about, i.e. over the roles of the royal prerogative, of Parliament and the judiciary as well as the character of the State Church. In essence, the nineteenth-century picture of the conflict was right although the part of the Tories in the post-1688 settlement needed to be recognised alongside that of the Whigs.

Finally, there was “the real class conflict that loomed up in the mid-seventeenth century” with rising demands from the lower classes articulated by the Levellers and the Diggers. Behind these radical movements lay social and economic discontent. But they were premature and hopeless: the threat of social revolution was easily crushed. Even so, these movements had drawn on intellectual and social circumstances that permitted free discussion and the democratic tendencies of English Puritanism. Religious ideas and concepts of natural law as well as a selective reading of history and law fashioned Levellers’ demands.

What remained to be explained was the relationship between the two main factors in these conflicts, the political and the religious. In 1641, men were concerned with both: by 1688, they were obviously more secularly minded.

The ground upon which Coates chose to stand was clearly demarcated. He saw the economic and social changes of the period up to the English Revolution as critical to its explanation and focused on the influence of Calvinism and the rise of Capitalism as fundamental. Broadly speaking, he accepted the Whig interpretation of political and religious conflicts in the course of the seventeenth-century and an explanation in terms of class conflict for the appearance of the Levellers and Diggers in the late-1640s. The idea of an abortive revolution from below would have appealed to Christopher Hill.

But the objections Coates had made against Tawney’s case for the ‘rise of the gentry’ could have been made with equal validity against his own analytical framework. The economic and social changes he postulated in the century before 1640 were not linked either to the key events of 1637-1642 or to the subsequent period. His approach was based on the old claims of Marx, Weber and Tawney for Calvinism and the rise of Calvinism. This was the Tawney thesis shorn of its untenable statistics and without its analytical failings.

Secondly, of course, Coates gave succour to the Whig interpretation that economic and social explanations were supposed to have rendered redundant. He himself shared the presuppositions of economic and social determinism at the same time as he protested against such preconceptions. Logically, he could not begin by making such a protest and then end by offering a synthesis of the two.

Finally, there is the matter of his use of the language of ‘class’ and of ‘class conflict’. Contemporaries did not use such terminology and the consensus of historical opinion is that attempts to apply these terms to seventeenth-century English society have failed, although some, if not very many, historians believe they can be deployed in this way. When Coates wrote that Royalists and Parliamentarians alike found “the rising demands from the lower classes were ominous” and that the Levellers and Diggers constituted a “social revolutionary movement”, he was using anachronistic language and testifying to his own antique intellectual equipment.

This is why this essay from a mature historian in his prime was so conservative. It is in part confused. It is in part confusing because it has nothing new to offer. The powerful stimulus that the ‘storm over the gentry’ had already given to studies of the origins and course of the English Revolution in economic and social history, in county and urban history was never recognised by Coates. That, perhaps, more than anything explains why his comments have languished in obscurity for so long.