If you know anything about Oliver Cromwell—and few do nowadays— you probably have an opinion about the man. Some vilify him; “A curse upon you, Oliver Cromwell, you who raped our Motherland,” the Irish rock band The Pogues sang. Others praise him as an enemy of arbitrary rule and a proto-republican. Ronald Hutton’s new biography of Cromwell’s early life and his climb to prominence makes no final judgment on the man, but it does offer a nuanced view of this complex historical figure. From Hutton’s excellent book we get not just history but the realization, in this desiccated age, that men such as Cromwell always emerge during great turmoil, rising as if from sown dragon’s teeth.
Hutton wisely focuses on his subject, and makes no attempt to tease out the political and social complexities behind the Civil War. He expertly evokes the England of the mid-seventeenth century, both in politics and the natural world. As to the latter, quite often Hutton describes in detail the flora of the region and season, at the same time he narrates a particular historical event, which makes the reader feel more immersed in the story, as if he were there. It also makes the reader a little sad, though. Why? Because it brings to the mind’s eye a lost time and a lost country, before industrialization, liquid modernity, and alien invitees destroyed both the English landscape and England’s ancient culture.
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The short version of Hutton’s biography is that Cromwell “was both godly and wily, and the two at times seem to jar with each other.” No doubt this is often true for a godly man called to be a temporal leader. Hutton believes that most Cromwell biographers focus too much on the godliness and too little on the wiliness. This is not really a popular history; it offers extensive notes, and Hutton often refers to controversies among Cromwell scholars of little interest to the casual reader. Nonetheless, it is very readable, so any reader who is willing to put in a little effort will be rewarded.
Until he was forty, Cromwell lived as an obscure provincial, a collateral descendant of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s minister who fell from grace. In his thirties, however, he became a devout Puritan, something about which we know very little. (He kept no archive of correspondence, and while he left voluminous public words, he left no record of his own private thoughts other than letters to others.) Hutton fleshes out what we can know about Cromwell’s life prior to 1640, in the East Midlands, in and near Huntingdon. There was no reason to expect great things from Cromwell; he was on the lower border of the gentry, a man of no importance. In fact, for a time until he inherited money from his uncle, he directly worked the land as a tenant farmer.
The uncle was crucial. He had no children, and he kept Cromwell in his will even though Cromwell had unsuccessfully tried to get him declared mentally unfit, and thus acquire his wealth before his death. This is one of the few documented mentions of Cromwell prior to his emergence, and Hutton believes it shows Cromwell’s devious streak, which it probably does. It also shows Cromwell’s good luck. As did Napoleon, he continuously benefitted from the dice falling his way, though Cromwell called it Providence. Other records show some early involvement in local politics, and they also show an intemperate streak—for example, after a dispute, he sold everything he owned and precipitously left Huntingdon entirely.
In 1640, under again-obscure circumstances, Cromwell was elected to Parliament, as a candidate from Cambridge, which had a strong Puritan element but was fifteen miles from Ely, where Cromwell had moved. This Parliament was the Short Parliament, so called because it lasted three weeks until Charles I dissolved it for failure to vote him necessary new taxes. But by the end of 1640, Cromwell was again elected to Parliament, to the Long Parliament, which would sit, in various iterations, until 1660. Hutton expertly sketches the processes and procedures of Parliament, as well as the essential issues in the growing conflict between King and Parliament. Yet again, we have little specific knowledge about Cromwell himself; the phrase “it is not clear,” and variations on it, appear repeatedly. What is clear is that Cromwell worked hard and became closely associated with the Puritan factions in Parliament, and especially with the “independents,” who opposed state control of preaching (that is, they opposed the Presbyterians). Cromwell gave speeches that were forceful, even violent, and highly emotional. He would, in modern psychological terms, score very low on tests of “agreeability.” But his approach was successful, and that raised his profile.
For the next two years, relations between Parliament and King deteriorated, and the countryside began to separate into armed factions. When Charles sought to fund himself by asking for donations from Cambridge colleges, Cromwell returned to Cambridge, apparently on his own initiative, and raised a militia, successfully preventing the dispatch of gold and silver to the King. Soon he was formally commissioned a cavalry officer in the army being raised by Parliament, and so he remained for the entire war, rising ever higher in rank.
From 1642 until 1646, the end of the period covered by Hutton’s book, Cromwell alternated vigorous military activity with political activity. He remained a member of Parliament. In 1645 Parliament, in order to resolve a dispute between the Lords and Commons, forbade members to also be military officers. Such a separation was part of creating the famous New Model Army—but Cromwell alone was given a dispensation. This was meant to be very temporary, meeting an immediate critical need, not an acclamation of Cromwell, who had made plenty of internal enemies. But as it happens, Cromwell’s greatest military successes immediately followed, at the most crucial period of this first phase of the Civil War, and so he continued to both lead soldiers and serve in Parliament. This lucky confluence of events was what ultimately made Cromwell.
Cromwell’s rising political power wasn’t just due to military victories. The Civil War saw the birth of war propaganda, and Cromwell’s friends made sure that he received a disproportionate share of credit in the papers, and that his accomplishments were inflated, whether in battle or in the prevention of supposed plots by royalists and Papists. Cromwell himself was a tireless self-promoter, although, naturally, he also thought that thereby he was promoting the aims of God. He more than once unfairly threw his fellow officers under the bus, using his propaganda machine, when Parliament lost a battle. Still, Cromwell was a brave, competent, and lucky commander, highly intelligent and blessed with a durable middle-aged body, and the scale and scope of his actual achievements increased as the war ground on.
Little of Cromwell’s personal life appears in these pages, because little is known, but a few glimpses appear. He was very happily married. Two of his sons died as young men. Characteristically, he turned to Scripture for solace “when my eldest son died, which went as a dagger to my heart, indeed it did.” Instead of his personal life, Hutton focuses on Cromwell’s ability to learn from mistakes and experience. This was true of tactics, as Cromwell, a man with no military experience before the war, came to better understand the use of cavalry in battle—beginning with dropping beginner errors like allowing his cavalry to chase fleeing elements of an otherwise-unbroken opponent. It was also true of how he dealt with enemies. Although he had a vicious streak, exacerbated by belief in his own righteousness, he learned to calibrate the treatment of defeated enemies in order to maximize future peace, and his own power. Like Sulla, he promoted his friends and punished his enemies, with careful calculation in both cases.
What should perhaps be most interesting to us, in our own unsettled times that seem to be lurching in the direction of civil conflict, is how Cromwell embodied what most twenty-first century Americans deny exists: Carl Schmitt’s sharp distinction between friend and enemy. We have absorbed the peculiar idea that, if we must love our enemies, we must deny that we have any enemies. This would have greatly perplexed Cromwell. Even when he managed to tamp down his natural bloodthirstiness, he would not have deluded himself that his enemies were not his enemies. This did not mean total war—Cromwell, for example, himself defused the threat of the Clubmen, country dwellers who took up makeshift arms against both King and Parliament, by seizing the leaders and sending everyone home, rather than slaughtering them. Instead, it meant always seeing clearly, and taking decisive action to achieve the necessary result.
Cromwell invariably strongly defended his soldiers accused of straying from the established Church. As Hutton says of one such incident, “He rejected accusations against them of being partisan and divisive as jealously provoked by their godliness and good discipline.” This, along with his battle-winning ways, earned him strong loyalty from his men, and a unique power base, something of much use to him after Charles was defeated and conflicts within the Parliamentary side came to a head.
But we do not learn about those events here. Hutton ends his book in 1646, after the Battle of Naseby, with Charles in captivity but before the final spasms of violence and the subsequent execution of the King, and years before the Protectorate. The author apparently intends two more volumes to cover the remainder of Cromwell’s life; if this book is any indication, those will be very much worth reading.
[This review first appeared in Chronicles magazine, which you should read, and to which you should subscribe.]