The Making of Oliver Cromwell by Ronald Hutton - review by Anna Keay

Anna Keay

Young Ironsides

The Making of Oliver Cromwell


Yale University Press 400pp £25

A monumental statue of Oliver Cromwell stands outside the Houses of Parliament, the single figure silhouetted against Westminster Hall. This celebrated soldier and head of state, one of the ten ‘greatest Britons’ of the last millennium, according to a 2002 BBC poll, cuts a striking figure. He is not triumphant on horseback but stands bareheaded, his hat clutched deferentially under his arm, his eyes down, one hand holding a Bible, the other resting on his sword in a pose of humanity and humility. Mighty but modest, greatness mixed with grave deference, paternalism combined with penitence: this is the portrait of Oliver Cromwell that his own writings do so much to sketch out. It is the image that Ronald Hutton’s remarkable book, the first in what is destined to be a two-volume work, sets out to shatter.

There can be few people better placed to reassess Cromwell than Hutton, whose books include a magisterial biography of Charles II, a forensic account of the Restoration and one of the most original works of scholarship on early modern times, The Rise and Fall of Merry England (1994). All are characterised by meticulous analysis of primary material and an instinctive, deft ability to assess and encapsulate character. Bringing his formidable skills to bear on Oliver Cromwell was bound to produce lively results, and this excellent book does not disappoint.

Cromwell’s popular reputation has waxed and waned like that of few others. In the 19th century, he was the founding father of religious toleration, the champion of liberty and the torchbearer for Nonconformity. In more recent times his fervour for God and war, captured shoutily by Richard Harris in the film Cromwell (1970), has had less appeal. Many have felt pangs of sympathy with the 1066 and All That characterisation of the opposing sides in the Civil War as ‘Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic)’ and ‘Roundheads (Right but Repulsive)’. But this has not been most historians’ view. By and large, the consensus has been one of tempered admiration, not least because, in Hutton’s words, there has been a tendency towards ‘discounting the criticisms and condemnations of Cromwell made by contemporaries, and taking him essentially at his own evaluation’.

This book, which deals with Cromwell’s life and times to 1646, takes nothing for granted, questions every source and identifies ambiguities and inconsistencies, all to fascinating effect. It charts Cromwell’s early fall and subsequent stellar rise from the ranks of the minor gentry in Huntingdonshire, where his family’s wealth represented the dregs of that amassed by his mighty Tudor relation Thomas Cromwell. His inconsequential life as a town worthy and MP might have remained just that had it not been for the disaster from which his greatness would germinate. Erratic behaviour and a loss of temper, to which he was always prone, in 1630 resulted in him being summoned to London and hauled before the Privy Council, where he was publicly chastised. This humiliating episode prompted him to sell up. Within only a few years, he had sunk to the ignominious position of tenant farmer. The darkness of his misery prompted a Damascene conversion. He became, as Hutton remarks, a ‘born-again Puritan’, burning with the fervour of the convert, driven by a personal covenant with God forged in this bleakest hour, which sustained him ever after.

The good fortune of a windfall inheritance from a wealthy uncle rescued Cromwell and his family from penury and brought him the means and standing once again to participate in affairs of the nation – brimming now with religious intent. Reports later emerged that Cromwell had earlier tried to have his uncle condemned as a lunatic, which, had he succeeded, could have brought forward this inheritance. How to reconcile this act of callous self-interest with Cromwell the man of moral courage and personal integrity? One interpretation is that it never happened (the sources are hardly conclusive); another, which Hutton puts forward, is that this is just one glimmer of a different Cromwell: the manipulator, the single-minded pursuer of the fate for which God had intended him, no matter the human cost.

The story broadens out when Hutton examines Cromwell’s emergence as champion of his fellow religious Nonconformists and the volatile politics that led to the outbreak of the Civil War. The complexities of tactics and motivations in the many skirmishes, sieges and full-blown battles of the 1640s are expertly untangled. While any life of Cromwell will inevitably provide a relentless diet of fighting, God and politics, Hutton’s peerless command of the material infuses these with colour and life. The build-up to the Battle of Marston Moor, its 28,000 participants making it one of the largest battles ever fought on English soil, is vividly drawn: the heat, the uncertainty, the second-guessing, the soldiers ‘forced to suck water out of the puddles’ to slake their thirst.

It is hard to get as close to Cromwell as we would want to in these early years. What the hearthside was like in the Cromwell houses, one of which still stands in Ely, is not easy to discern. Character traits visible later, including Cromwell’s love of horses, sense of humour and delight in music, are simply not visible in source material generated largely by military and parliamentary administrations. But Hutton makes up for this unavoidable lack of intimacy by wonderfully conjuring up the context. He sees the roots of Charles I’s problems in the tensions arising from a Scottish dynasty succeeding to the English throne, rather than simply his own idiocy, and religious conflict as baked into the English Reformation. The physical context is also summoned up to excellent effect. Hutton offers us the changing sights, sounds and smells of England as the narrative ranges across the country through the seasons: the foaming elderflower, the kingfishers streaking across the broad River Ouse, the midsummer constellations burning overhead as the troops gathered at Naseby.

The Cromwell who emerges from this book is a tougher, colder, more calculating figure than the one we are used to – all the more strikingly so as the book ends well before his notorious Irish campaigns. Cromwell’s famous declaration about the Royalists defeated at the Battle of Marston Moor, that ‘God made them as stubble to our swords’, is seen as a characteristically bloodthirsty statement by a ‘Puritan jihadi’ who exulted in religious war. A ‘publicity machine’ is identified as having been at work, generating published accounts of Cromwell’s victories that smoothed over the patchier and less palatable realities. Hutton’s book, which ends with the conclusion of the First Civil War, reminds us that Cromwell was neither the premier soldier of that conflict nor responsible for the Royalists’ defeat. Parliament’s pact with the Scots, which brought thousands of extra combatants to its aid, was by far the most significant factor in its victory, and the leadership of the army was a team effort.

The Making of Oliver Cromwell is radical, powerful and persuasive, and it will cause a stir. It stands as a landmark challenge to the hagiographical tendencies of some of the historiography. Hutton’s assertion that Cromwell is ‘definitely not somebody to be taken simply at his word’ is utterly convincing. Whether his callous and calculating Cromwell will supplant more sympathetic versions remains to be seen, but his book will surely set the terms of debate for years to come.

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