“I would ask him why he refused the offer of the Crown. Then I would ask him to think again.”
WHAT: “England, 1651. Oliver Cromwell has defeated his royalist opponents in two civil wars, executed the Stuart king Charles I, laid waste to Ireland, and crushed the late king’s son and his Scottish allies. He is master of Britain and Ireland.
But Parliament, divided between moderates, republicans and Puritans of uncompromisingly millenarian hue, is faction-ridden and disputatious. By the end of 1653, Cromwell has become ‘Lord Protector’. Seeking dragons for an elect Protestant nation to slay, he launches an ambitious ‘Western Design’ against Spain’s empire in the New World.
When an amphibious assault on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1655 proves a disaster, a shaken Cromwell is convinced that God is punishing England for its sinfulness. But the imposition of the rule of the Major-Generals – bureaucrats with a penchant for closing alehouses – backfires spectacularly. Sectarianism and fundamentalism run riot. Radicals and royalists join together in conspiracy. The only way out seems to be a return to a Parliament presided over by a king. But will Cromwell accept the crown?
Paul Lay narrates in entertaining but always rigorous fashion the story of England’s first and only experiment with republican government: he brings the febrile world of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate to life, providing vivid portraits of the extraordinary individuals who inhabited it and capturing its dissonant cacophony of political and religious voices.”
WHO: “Editor of History Today. Author of Providence Lost: the Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate.”
Why ‘Providence Lost’?
‘Providence Lost’ plays on the loss of the English Puritan settlement of Providence Island to the Spanish in 1640, but also alludes to the fact that a later venture into the New World – Cromwell’s Western Design – was perceived. by the Protector in particular as a withdrawal of Good’s support and guidance – His providence. And Milton, as always, is in the background.
Was Cromwell as good a statesman as he was a soldier?
Cromwell was a fine cavalry commander, aggressive and brave, though he only fought on home territory (Britain and Ireland). As a statesman, he became the first commoner to become Britain’s Head of State, through an alliance of soldiers, parliamentarians and religious figures. He was held in high repute abroad. The Protectorate depended entirely on this one man.
The framers of the US Constitution relied heavily on the ancient classical learning and tradition, Addison’s “Cato” was a particular favourite. To whom were those concerned with ideas about English constitutional structures during the interregnum looking for their inspiration?
Venice was an important model for Classical Republicans. ‘They wish to make me a Duke of Venice,’ Charles I warned, with some prescience. The Republicanism identified with Milton was rooted in Classical texts. The most famous work of political philosophy of the times, along with Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, is James Harrington’s Oceana, explicitly modelled on the Venetian constitution and addressed personally to Cromwell.
Why did the Protectorate gamble so much of its credibility on the Western Design? Why did they need to reduce Spanish power in the West Indies? Wasn’t Cromwell fishing with a golden hook?
I am not sure the Western Design was that great a gamble. The Protectorate had a powerful and battle-tested army and navy. And the potential riches – of the flota, the mines of Potosi etc – were enormous. But they had become used to winning and were ill-prepared for tropical conditions. A classic case of hubris followed by nemesis.
What’s the most important thing to know about the Protectorate?
The most important thing about the Protectorate, as a consequence of its existence, is that Britain remains a constitutional monarchy.
There are many players entering, exiting, and waiting in the wings during the drama you chronicle. Were any of them both great AND good?
I think John Lambert, who should have succeeded Oliver Cromwell, was a brilliant soldier, arguably even better than his boss, and a serious political thinker. He was also a fine gardener. His firm, unyielding principles meant that he lived out most of his life in captivity.
(God forbid) Huntingdon’s Cromwell Museum is on fire and you only have time to save one item. What is it? If there was one item you could add to the collection, what would it be?
Could the Protectorate have survived without Cromwell, or was some form or Restoration inevitable?
Had the succession gone to Lambert, or indeed Henry Cromwell, it might have succeeded. Had Cromwell taken the crown as Oliver I and accepted hereditary succession, the House of Cromwell may well have survived.
If you could ask Oliver Cromwell one question, other than whether or not he liked pineapple, what would it be? If you could tell him one thing, just to see his reaction, what would it be?
I would ask him why he refused the offer of the Crown. Then I would ask him to think again.
What are you currently working on? (Is it that much-overdue biography of Richard Cromwell?)
I am currently working on a follow up. But I can say no more than that at the moment.
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