Thursday, 7 February 2013

Review: Oliver Cromwell: British Library Historic Lives by Peter Gaunt the British Library Publishing Division (Sep 1 2004) ISBN-13: 978-0712348577

As you would expect from a historian of Peter Gaunt’s experience and caliber, this is a book that is well written, handsomely illustrated and is the product of substantial research. The book has in general been well received both in academic circles “this book is as disciplined, vivid and vigorous as the man it celebrates.

Gaunt offers a convincing interpretation of Cromwell's life and a shrewd assessment of his achievement." John Morrill, Vice Master, and Reader in Early Modern History, Selwyn College, Cambridge and in the public domain as well. "A new and controversial account of one of the pivotal figures in British history. This scholarly account is nonetheless entertaining and informative." Rachel Dickinson, Waterstone's,

 Having said that it should be noted that this biography is written from a particular standpoint in respect that Gaunt was a former chairman of The Cromwell Association. It has come in for some criticism in that it is “not a truly critical study.” Gaunt held that Cromwell “always retained a radical edge and never became a self-satisfied, conservative figure" (p. 9). But neither is it hagiography.

Gaunt’s preface shows his tendency to wear his history on his sleeve so to speak. While it 's hard to pin down Gaunt’s support for one form of traditional school or another he does have a tendency in this book to blame Charles for the civil war in that the king was arrogant and stupid.

Gaunt’s portrayal of Cromwell’s early life is carefully done. Perhaps he was mindful of the fact that it is a minefield of historical inaccuracy. Hopefully, the current work of Professor Morrill and his term working on a new edition of Cromwell’s writings and speeches will clear some of the mess up.

The book acknowledges that Cromwell was a leading figure of the revolution. Cromwell was not, however, its main theoretical light. Figures such General Henry Ireton were on a much higher plane in that regard. In fact, it is high time that this ideologue of the developing bourgeoisie was given some credit for his importance to the revolution.

Cromwell as correctly portrayed by this biography was a deeply religious man. In the main Cromwell’s courageous and farsighted political action were guided by these beliefs. It would be a mistake to believe that his thoughts and actions were not products of his times as well. It was not for nothing that the metaphysical and republican poet Andrew Marvell said

If these the Times, then this must be the Man.

And well he therefore does, and well has guest,

Who in his Age always has forward prest:

And knowing not where Heavens choice may light,

Girds yet his Sword, and ready stands to fight;

Some historians have questioned Cromwell military prowess. But for me not only was he important military leader he built an “armed party “The New Model Army was unlike any army before or after the civil war. Cromwell was extremely clear of the social type he wanted in his army “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a Gentle-man and is nothing else.”

On this score the observations by the historian Macaulay are valid “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.”

The Putney debates form such an important part in developing an understanding of the English revolution it is, therefore, a little surprising that Gaunt pays so little attention to them in his book. The debates held at Putney proved that this was no ”mere mercenary army." The debates contained discussions on Social inequality property rights and the nature of democracy. Arriving at Putney the army was divided over what kind of agreement was needed. The grandees or the more conservative figures around Cromwell and Ireton were in favor of compromise and issued the “Heads of Proposals” ( They were as follow

1. Episcopacy would be retained in church government, but the power of the bishops would be substantially reduced.

2. All Acts enforcing church attendance, the use of the Book of Common Prayer and the forbidding of holding religious meetings elsewhere would be repealed. The Covenant was to be revoked.

3. The sitting Parliament was to set a date for its own termination. After that, biennial Parliaments were to be called (i.e. every two years), which would sit for a minimum of 120 days and maximum of 240 days.

4. Parliamentary constituencies were to be reorganized.

5. A Council of State would be established to conduct foreign policy. It would need Parliament's approval to make war or seek peace.

6. Parliament was to control the appointment of state officials and officers in the army and navy for ten years.

7. No Royalists were to hold office or stand for election, for at least five years.

Both the King and the Levellers rejected them. The Levellers were heavily critical of what they termed Cromwell’s "servility" to the King,

At the Putney Debates (October-November 1647), the Levellers issued a counter argument to the Heads of Proposals in the Agreement of the People. Despite this being rejected by Cromwell and Ireton at Putney sections in the Leveller influenced New Model Army had other ideas. Fed up with the Grandees stonewalling they moved to move against both the Presbyterians and the King in a radical and forceful way.

Prides Purge.

This took the form of a purge of forces inside parliament who were hostile to the radicals in the army. Named after the soldier that instigated it:

An account of Pride’s Purge, 6 December 1648 from The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow, Lieutenant-General of the Horse in the Army of the Commonwealth of England, 1625-1672, Vol. 1, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1894, p. 210)

…officers of the army withdrew into a private room, to consider of the best means to attain the ends of our said resolution, where we agreed that the army should be drawn up the next morning, and guards placed in Westminster Hall, the Court of Requests, and the Lobby; that none might be permitted to pass into the House but such as had continued faithful to the publick interest. To this end we went over the names of all the members one by one, giving the truest characters we could of their inclinations, wherein I presume we were not mistaken in many; for the Parliament was fallen into such factions and divisions, that anyone who usually attended and observed the business of the House, could, after a debate on any question, easily number the votes that would be on each side, before the question was put. Commissary-General Ireton went to Sir Thomas Fairfax, and acquainted him with the necessity of this extraordinary way of proceeding, having taken care to have the army drawn up the next morning by seven of the clock. Col. Pride commanded the guard that attended at the Parliament-doors, having a list of those members who were to be excluded, preventing them from entering into the House, and securing some of the most suspected under a guard provided for that end;

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the book is Gaunt’s attitude towards the events in Ireland. Gaunt believes that Cromwell was acting as any leading member of the new rising bourgeoisie would act. It is not in the remit of this review to go into detail. But two points should be made. Firstly Cromwell being deeply religious responded to the persecution of Protestants in Ireland (massacres did take place) with his own form of justice against the international ruling elite and sections of the population. He was reported to call them "Barbarous and bloodthirsty” Again hopefully with the publication of a new edition of Cromwell‘s speeches and writing’s edited by John Morrill we may learn the true extent of the carnage inflicted by the New Model Army. Secondly and perhaps most importantly significant economic gains were too made in the plunder of Ireland. Cromwell himself invested heavily in the colonization of Ireland.

Like all historical subjects, Cromwell’s Ireland campaign is open to, in this case, heated debate. For a view that is widely representative of an Irish nationalist view, readers would do no worse than reading `God's executioner: Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland' by Dr. Micheal O'Siochru (2008), Faber. For a counter argument to this book, please read Cromwell by Tom Reilly.


The First Anniversary of the Government under Andrew Marvell Source: Marvell, Andrew. The Complete Poems. George deF. Lord, Ed. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1984. 93-104.

Further Reading:

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. iii (London 1889)

Ian J. Gentles, Henry Ireton, Oxford DNB 2004

David Underdown, Pride's Purge (Oxford 1971)