‘I would fain know what the soldier hath fought for all this while?’ That question, posed by the Leveller Thomas Rainborowe during the Putney Debates of 1647, hangs over Paul Lay’s enjoyable and erudite new book, just as it hung over the several efforts to create a new society in England in the 1650s following the end of the Civil War. What had the years of conflict been for? Was there to be more of the same – government by an elite that answered only to itself? Or were the victors in the Civil War of the 1640s going to build a city on a hill, where the saints would reign in glory while they waited patiently for the last days?
Providence Lost explores the various attempts to answer those questions during the extraordinary eleven years when England was a republic – and, more specifically, during the period between 16 December 1653, when Oliver Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector, and 25 May 1659, when his hapless son and successor, Richard, submitted his resignation to the Rump Parliament and the Protectorate was formally dissolved. Lay rightly places religion at the heart of things, because, for the men who had fought, the peace was a religious peace, just as their war had been a war of religion. The soldiers who had marched into battle singing psalms still saw themselves as God’s instruments. So did their commanders. So did Cromwell himself. God moved in them, and they had won their wars because God had been on their side. When peace came, God would work through them to win that too.
That was fine as long as things were going their way. The problems began when, after a string of military victories that left them feeling invincible, the providentialists began to suffer setbacks. For example, there was the disastrous Western Design, the name given to an expedition launched in 1654 to