Saturday 30 October 2021

The Making of Oliver Cromwell

 I have been reading, even if the blog posts do not necessarily reflect the fact. Actually, not everything I read is wargame related, and rather than drift off into the intricacies of Seventeenth-Century religious radicals or the multiple universe interpretation of quantum mechanics here, I try to keep those ramblings elsewhere – on the MOAT-SM blog, linked from the right, as it happens.

Still, I have been reading something more wargame friendly, this time:

Hutton, R. (2021). The Making of Oliver Cromwell. New Haven: Yale.

I have seen this book reviewed a number of times and it has received a fairly enthusiastic reception, and, I think, with good reason. I have seen one reviewer (Judith Maltby in the Church Times) complain that there is a bit too much military stuff in it, but that might be because our Oliver spent quite a bit of the time duration of the book engaging in military activity. It might also be that the military stuff sells books, of course.

The book covers the early career of our Oliver, from birth to 1646. One of the things that Hutton is clear about is that there is rather little to go on until the 1630s. Rather than speculate, as some other historians have done, or build myths around what scraps of evidence we do have, Hutton refuses to go beyond that evidence. Cromwell moved about a bit, from Huntingdon to St Ives to Ely in the 1630s. That much we know. He seems to have fallen out with the political elite in Huntingdon and been reduced to being a tenant farmer in Ely. He was the tenant of the Bishop, incidentally, who was one of the most Laudian of the House of Bishops.

Sometime, probably in the early to mid-sixteen-thirties, Cromwell experienced a Puritan conversion. So far as I know, other people who experienced such a conversion made quite a lot of noise about it, but Cromwell, as a rather poor tenant farmer, does not seem to have, say, kept a spiritual diary as some of his contemporaries did. Not that it was required, I suppose, but his views, and how they changed, are a mystery to us.

By the end of the 1630s Cromwell’s fortunes had improved, due to the death of his rich uncle (whom Oliver had tried to get declared insane a few years earlier, possibly in order to get his hands on the money sooner). He was also in with the in-crowd of Puritans, in Cambridgeshire and with links more broadly through family ties with some of the leaders of the ‘Junta’ of politicians opposed to the King’s policies, particularly on religion. He had been MP in the 1629 Parliament and was elected for Cambridge for both the Short and Long Parliaments.

At Parliament, Oliver was an active if fairly minor player. His main claim to fame seems to have been as defender of John Lilburn, who, throughout the book, is someone Oliver seemed to have rather a soft spot for. As I recall, later in his career, when Lilburn was a general pain to the authorities, Cromwell still acted with a degree of leniency. Freeborn John was a nuisance, and Leveller influence in the army was a bit of a problem, but Cromwell did not really see direct action against Lilburn as the solution.

Anyway, Cromwell slowly came to the fore as a Parliamentarian as the crisis of 1641-2 developed and was dispatched to Cambridge to defend it in the summer of 1642. He was fairly active within the limits of his remit, attempting to intercept convoys of plate from the university colleges to the King. How successful he was at that is a bit moot, but here we do start to see some active spin-doctoring by Cromwell and his supporters. Intercepting one load of plate was the news. Failing to intercept the rest was not news, nor was the fact that, quite possibly, the intercepted plate got through anyway.

Cromwell’s role in the defence of what became the Eastern Association is quite well known, and Hutton covers it in some detail. He always draws attention to the issues surrounding the historical record. For example, the defence and loyalty of the Eastern Counties was not assured. Crowland fell into the hands of the Royalists several times. King’s Lynn revolted against Parliament and, if Newcastle had not withdrawn north the invest Hull, he might well have overrun the Eastern Association, which, at the time, had the biggest army and biggest tax bill in Parliamentary land.

Cromwell also learnt. At his first major action, his charge got out of control and when he returned to the field the battle was lost (or, according to accounts favourable to him, had been thrown away by disaffected parties). His cavalry does not seem to have subsequently had the same problem. That said, at the major action of the first civil war, Cromwell’s side seem to have had the bigger numbers, which does mean that they could have kept a viable reserve. Exactly how good the Eastern Association horse could have been against equal numbers of the best royalists is not known, although Hutton notes that in 1645 former troops of Cromwell’s double regiment were beaten up by Goring’s horse.

Oliver had a tendency to divide the world into good and evil. The royalists were evil and, as Hutton notes, were dehumanised in some of Oliver’s battle reports (’God made them as stubble to our swords’). As the war developed the New Model (after the slaughter of Welsh women after Naseby) became more willing to accept surrender by the royalists, as the battle lines between the Independents and Presbyterians started to harden. This would be an interesting theological-historical debate, which Hutton ducks. By 1646 the royalists were defeated, by the hand of God, in Oliver’s estimation. God’s instrument in that was the New Model Army, which was slowly becoming dominated by the Independents. The Presbyterians, including the Scots, did not acknowledge this and wanted to exclude the sectaries from the church settlement. Therefore, it seems, at some point, the evil enemy switched for Oliver from being the royalists to being the Presbyterian party in Parliament.

By the end of 1646, the battle lines were drawn. At this point, the book ends, but there is the promise of another two volumes to come. The book is highly recommended for anyone trying to make sense of Oliver and his manoeuvrings, or who is interested in the English Civil War.

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