Friday, February 24, 2012


A review of Antonia Fraser’s Cromwell (1973)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Oliver Cromwell is a historical figure that I often find myself confused on how I feel about him. His story is very exciting, for the first forty years of his life he is mostly irrelevant until the circumstances of the English Civil War would send him at the forefront. A commoner who overthrew a king and took his life as well as his kingdom. On the other hand it is hard to see him as anything other than a hypocrite. How can one be a champion of liberty when that individual crushes the fledgling English Republic in its infancy and becomes a dictator? Cromwell is very complicated man and Fraser does a good job in presenting his many sides.

(Oliver Cromwell Warts and All)

In many ways Cromwell reminds me of King Henry IV. Like Henry, Cromwell had no right by blood to rule the kingdom that he would eventually take command. It is true that Henry was prince by birth as a grandson to King Edward III while Cromwell was just a well off commoner, but there were still a handful of royals in Henry’s time that had a far better claim than he. Both Henry and Cromwell would depose unpopular kings and end up ruling in their place.

That analogy carries us only so far. While Richard II was an outright tyrant, King Charles I was just bad at his job. Henry was smart enough to have Richard killed in secret while Charles was publicly tried, executed, and martyred. Henry also took the throne as King while Cromwell simply called himself the Lord Protector.

(King Charles I, many kings sent their subjects to the ax, he got sent there by his subjects)

Fraser discusses how often Cromwell was tempted to take the title of King and the many reasons he kept deciding against it. Interestingly it is never discussed if Cromwell would of found the title limiting. There were many advantages and disadvantages to being the King, but never is it pointed out that Cromwell had sent Charles to his death for seeking unlawful powers and tyranny. By wearing a crown he could open himself to be judged by the same standard. A problem that Henry IV learned after the overthrow of his tyrannical cousin.

“For whatsoever could be said of the execution of King Charles I, that it was inevitable, even that it was necessary, it could never be said that it was right.” (p.291)

Cromwell as a military leader is easy to admire for he always won. I think Cromwell represents what Napoleon might have been if Napoleon had been confined to an island kingdom as opposed to a great nation-state*. The fact that he had no military experience prior to the English Civil War is a testimony to his natural talent.

“The distinction is surely an unfair one, for Generals are not gods, and their role is not to create situations, but to provide solutions. Just as the function of the solider is to fight battles, the function of a commander is to win battles, and win them in such a way that the last victory also will go to his own side. In this function Cromwell was supremely successful. He never failed, whether in the crucible of Dunbar or with the pincer trap of Worcester, to find either by God’s providence or some special sort of military grace, exactly the type of victory that was required. To achieve what it was necessary to do, and achieve it perfectly is a rare distinction, whatever the scale: it is that which gives to Cromwell, him too, the right to be placed in the hall of fame.” (p.390)

However as a political leader if one wishes to view him as a champion of liberty they are going to be very disappointed. If Charles I committed an act of tyranny by trying to arrest members of the House of Commons on the House’s floor, then what does one call Pride’s Purge or Cromwell dismissal of the Rump? In many ways Cromwell is like a modern day petty dictator who comes to power after a revolution and makes the revolutionaries wonder if they have made a terrible mistake.

“So that into the basic dichotomy of his nature was introduced another discordant element of having to cope with those very problems which he himself had originally raised. More and more, as the shadows of the Protectorate lengthened, he found himself using those very expedients, financial or political, against which he had originally protested. Cromwell maintained his power by means that Charles I would have been delighted to use, if he had had them at his disposal, in the cause of what Cromwell had then termed arbitrary tyranny.” (p.704)

(Cromwell as tyrant)

Often when one reads about the English Civil War, it is said that the final result of the conflict was that Parliament is established as the supreme authority greater than even the monarch. However, in reality, all it did was prove the group with the most effective army was supreme above all law. Parliament created the New Model Army and the Army purged and emasculated the Parliament.

*Yes, I know Napoleon was born on and died confined to an island. My point is if Napoleon had been an Englishman then he would have to concentrate on creating a strong island and not a continental empire.

{Music from Monty Python}

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