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.
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”.
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”.
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.” 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”.
Ann Talbot in her essay “These the times, this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill  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”.
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 up on 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.”
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”.
 Electing Cromwell: The Making of a Politician (Political and Popular Culture in the Early Modern Period)
 Speech to the First Protectorate Parliament (12 September 1654)
 Speech made on the Dissolution of the First Protectorate Parliament on
22 January 1654
 Letter to Sir William Spring (September 1643) “A few honest men are better than numbers.”
 (London and the Civil War)
 The English Wars and Republic, 1637–1660-By Graham E. Seel
 Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism
 1872 Preface to the French edition of Das Kapital Vol. 1,