Monday, 31 December 2012

Oliver Cromwell (Profiles In Power) Barry Coward 216 pages: Longman; (22 Aug 2000) ISBN-10: 0582437512

Barry Coward’s book is a valuable introduction to the complex and controversial world of Oliver Cromwell. His book has become a standard textbook on the period. While not an orthodox biography Coward manages an open mind on the significant issues surrounding Cromwell and quite prepared to change his mind, a hallmark of Coward.

Coward makes no secret of his admiration of Cromwell being a paid-up member, and sometime president of the Cromwell Association means his biography is a little partisan. With a lesser historian, this might be a problem but it does not compromise Cowards historical investigation into Cromwell.

Cowards biography entered into an already crowded field. The high interest in Cromwell is not a bad thing as it began to stips 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[1].

The previous 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 “an opponent of capitalist syndicates.” Coward does not believe Cromwell’s class position made him a champion of popular rights.

Cromwell, in his own words, describes his class position when he 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”.[2]

One shortcoming of the book is that it fails to place Cromwell within the huge changes, both socially and economically that was wracking England at the time. To do so would give the book 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 correctly believes that Cromwell’s political views were radicalised by his interpretation of the James Ist bible. Cromwell from a very early period before hostilities had even broken out opposed the King. One of his first actions before the war had officially broken out was to raise a troop of soldiers to seize money bound for the King. Cromwell was evident as regards religion not being the only disagreement with the King when he said: “Religion was not the thing at first contested for at all but God brought it to that issue at last; and gave it unto us by way of redundancy, and at last it proved to be that which was most dear to us”[3].

Cromwell it must be said saw further than any of his contemporaries in need from a more proletarian army to combat the King. His famous words “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.”[4] Need little explanation.

Coward’s biography is a million miles away from a Marxists approach to Cromwell contained in Christopher Hill’s Gods Englishman. Coward believed that because there were “middling sort “ on both sides of the revolution, hence there was no bourgeois revolution. For Coward 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 significant 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 radical protest and demands”[5].

Ann Talbot in her essay “These the times, this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill [6] counters this argument saying “the prevailing academic orthodoxy is that there was no bourgeois revolution because there was no rising bourgeoisie and that people from all social classes can be found on either side of the struggle. Even Cromwell, it is argued, can better be understood as a representative of the declining gentry rather than the rising bourgeois. He and those around him aimed not at revolution but wished merely to restore what they believed to be the ancient constitution of the kingdom. The whole unpleasant episode could have been avoided if only Charles II had been a little wiser. Hill, of course, was well aware that there were gentlemen and landowners on the Parliamentary side in the civil war and small farmers and artisans on the Royalist side. He had read enough Marx and Lenin to know that one could not expect a chemically pure revolution in which the members of one social class lined up one side of the barricades and those of the other on the opposite side. However, he was sensitive enough to his historical sources to detect the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into struggle against the king and well grounded enough in history to identify new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared—as the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half-understood historical precedent for some theory to explain what they were doing”.

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 the Levellers did not politicise it. Coward says the army spontaneously gravitated to radical solutions over pay and grievances. This downplaying of the ideological debates that took place in the military is a major weak point in the book. It is therefore not surprising that Coward devotes so little to the Putney Debates 1647.

What conclusions did Cromwell draw from the debates at Putney? The dangers of a Levellers inspired mutiny against the Grandees were a real possibility. He alongside Ireton a growing danger of losing control of the New Model Army to the radicals. This army was already to the left of Cromwell and would move against both the King and Cromwell himself if left to its own devices. Cromwell’s nervousness over the Levellers was expressed when he said: “I tell you sir; you have no other way to deal with these men [the Levellers] but to break them in pieces”[7].

It does not leap of faith to believe that the conclusions Cromwell drew from Putney was the need to purge the army of radicals and began to move to military dictatorship under his control. In the chapter Cromwell and the Godly Reformation, 1653-54 Coward outlines Cromwell move towards a military dictatorship. On Page 96, Cowards explains following the Barebones Parliament; there was a definite playing up of a fear of social revolution.

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. Coward tends to hold this position as well.

His fixation with Cromwell’s attempt at Godly Reformation misses Cromwell’s legacy in establishing the rule of the English bourgeoisie. On this score, the great Russian Marxist  Leon Trotsky offers a better epitaph for Cromwell  “In dispersing parliament after parliament, Cromwell displayed as little reverence towards the fetish of "national" representation as in the execution of Charles I he had displayed insufficient respect for a monarchy by the grace of God. Nonetheless, it was this same Cromwell who paved the way for the parliamentarism and democracy of the two subsequent centuries. In revenge for Cromwell's execution of Charles I, Charles II swung Cromwell's corpse upon the gallows. However, pre-Cromwellian society could not be re-established by any restoration. The works of Cromwell could not be liquidated by the thievish legislation of the restoration, because what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen.[8]


Coward’s biography of Cromwell is one of the better ones and deserves to be the standard textbook on the subject. A reissue would not go amiss. As Karl Marx said, "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 generalisations”[9].

[1] Electing Cromwell: The Making of a Politician (Political and Popular Culture in the Early Modern Period)
[2] Speech to the First Protectorate Parliament (12 September 1654)
[3] Speech made on the Dissolution of the First Protectorate Parliament on
22 January 1654
[4] Letter to Sir William Spring (September 1643) “A few honest men are better than numbers.”
[5] (London and the Civil War)
[7] The English Wars and Republic, 1637–1660-By Graham E. Seel
[8] Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism
[9] 1872 Preface to the French edition of Das Kapital Vol. 1,

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.