Saturday 23 January 2021

Providence Lost

You might, from recent posts, be forgiven for thinking that I have forgotten about reading, at least, about the early modern period. A few wargames, granted, have taken place, but where are the books, you might ask. Granted I did the Armada of Flanders, which is a nice, obscure project, but what about something more mainstream.

Well, since you asked, I have recently read:

Lay, P. (2020). Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell's Protectorate. London: Head of Zeus.

This is unashamedly at the more popular end of the market, but then the Protectorate is a complex phenomenon which most popular historians pass over as quickly as possible, wanting to get from the drama of the Civil War and execution of Charles I to the restoration and the ‘rollicking’ adventures of Charles II (by which we mean sex, of course. Why else read history?).

Lay’s account focusses on the failure of the Western Design and the failure of the project to capture Hispaniola, the original target; Jamaica was not regarded as being a suitable alternative, although in the long-run it had a fair number of advantages. Nevertheless, the problem with the failure of the Western Design was that it showed strongly that the new English government, which had imposed it will providentially, under God’s protection, on Ireland and Scotland, had lost that direct line to the Almighty. This resulted in a political-religious crisis in the regime, more precisely, in the head of Oliver Cromwell.

Lay does not take a straight path through the years, which confused me slightly at first. The chapters are more thematic although still broadly chronological. Before I realized this I felt the text skipped around rather, but once I grasped the overall scheme it made sense. There are a lot of issues at stake in the Protectorate, although they boiled down, finally, to the legitimacy of the government and money.

To deal with the money first, the army was expensive and was needed to keep the country down, particularly the recently conquered bits. There was also the issue of external threats from other European countries who took a dim view of the deletion of monarchy and monarchs from the British Isles, as well as Royalist diehards, both at home and abroad who did not cease their rather ineffective plotting. Taxation was required, and there were arguments between the army grandees, who wanted to tax Royalists forever, and civilian politicians, who saw that some sort of healing and restoration of the body politic was required. This, of course, played into the other crisis of the period, that of legitimate government and what it could look like, given the circumstances.

There was also the problem of the loss of the providential guidance of God. Lay notes that, since the days of Elizabeth, there had been the idea about of the chosen nation (or godly part thereof) to chastise the Spanish (who were, of course, Godless Roman Catholic oppressors) and spread the ideals of Protestantism (the Puritans were only loosely Anglican, at best) and English commerce (and make a lot of money along the way). This was first expressed in the colonization of the island of Providence in the Caribbean, which was lost to the Spanish in 1641. Given the political crisis in England at the time, no-one really noticed, but the idea was the same (and many of the people backing the project were the same) as the Western Design.

The loss of the goodwill of the Almighty was clearly due to the sine of the nations, and so the radical, army led, wing of the government was persuaded that the morals of the nation needed to be improved. This led to the rule of the major-generals and assorted efforts to root out various sorts of behaviour, usually described as sinful. However, the local gentry, on the whole, disapproved of the activity of the major generals and disapproved of the majority of the major generals themselves. The latter were, on the whole, upstarts and tactless in dealing with the machinery of local government. The idea was an expensive failure.

This led to the civilians taking over and their idea was, as is widely known, to turn the Protectorate into a monarchy. Cromwell did not like this idea, and it would have further eroded his support among the godly, but it might have worked. As it was, the status quo left a serious problem when Cromwell’s health started to fail. That problem was, of course: what do we do next?

Cromwell nominated his son, Richard, as his successor. To be fair, the latter probably did not want the job and was barely trained for it. Henry was governor of Ireland and might have managed, but it seems that Cromwell was concerned that the removal of Henry from office would lead to rebellion. He might well have been right; look what happened when Wentworth moved to England in the late 1630s.

It all fell apart, as is well recorded. No-one could really agree on the country was to be governed after the loss of the military leader who had made it all possible. Eventually, Charles Stuart, guided by Edward Hyde, managed to obtain a consensus for the return of the monarchy, as Charles II.

Who won the civil wars, then? It depends on what time frame you choose, of course. From one perspective, the Parliamentarians did. Indeed, from the post-1688 viewpoint, Parliament emerged supreme. From the 1650s Cromwell won, and from 1660, probably Hyde could be seen as the victor. After all, he managed to become the chief minister of the new monarch and marry a daughter to the king’s brother. After Clarendon’s fall, however, this might not look quite the same.

Other viewpoints might intrude. Jamaica, of course, was the first British colony to employ slaves in large numbers. Lay observes that while in the British Isles slavery was not permitted, and a slave landing here was free, this did not apply to overseas possessions. Perhaps in history, there are no winners ultimately, but there are losers.

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