The Making of Oliver Cromwell. 424pp.Yale University Press. £25 $35. By Ronald Hutton.

So restless Cromwell could not cease

In the inglorious arts of peace,

But thorough advent’rous war

Urged his active star.

Andrew Marvel- An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland

“In this way, Cromwell built not merely an army but also a party — his army was to some extent an armed party and herein precisely lay its strength. In 1644 Cromwell’s “holy” squadrons won a brilliant victory over the King’s horsemen and won the nickname of “Ironsides.” It is always useful for a revolution to have iron sides. On this score, British workers can learn much from Cromwell.”

Leon Trotsky[1]

“No one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.”

-Oliver Cromwell.

“I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else.”

-Oliver Cromwell, letter to Sir William Spring, September 1643.

In the first part of his introduction, Ronald Hutton tries to justify why there is a need for a new biography of Oliver Cromwell. He admits the market is a little crowded ( there have been five full-length academic studies alone since 1990), but the historian is on very dodgy ground already if the first words he utters are an apology. On the whole, the book has been well received and heavily reviewed. It is not that surprising because Hutton’s book is largely a very conservative piece of historiography. Also, if the historian Thomas Carlyle were alive today, he would have sent a strongly worded email to the Bristol University Professor Ronald Hutton asking why he had heaped a further dead dog on top of the great leader of the English bourgeois revolution.

The biography has been welcomed by the more conservative-minded writers who have had enough of being kind to Cromwell as Anna Keay writes, “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”.[2]

Cromwell is a bit of a strange choice for a biography, given Hutton’s area of expertise. He is a prolific historian of early modern England’s political, military, cultural, and social history books. He has covered subjects such as the Royalist war effort, high politics, and the social history of witchcraft and paganism.

Hutton’s new book is the first of a three-part biography on one of the most controversial figures in British history. Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) was the only English commoner to become the overall head of state. It must be said from the start that this book is a very conservative piece of historiography. It contains nothing new about Cromwell, and the author has not presented any new archive research. It seems doubtful that Hutton has examined in much detail the new work on Cromwell by the historian John Morrill.[3]

If Cromwell were alive today, it is a safe bet that Hutton would not be on his Christmas card list. His recent hatchet job in the BBC History magazine is testimony to that.[4] Hutton believes that historians have failed to appreciate that Cromwell was “more pragmatic and more devious” than has been shown in the previous historiography and that he was “about 50% saint and about 50% serpent.’

This first volume is primarily a military history. Hutton’s book contains no real or deep insight into the “making of Cromwell”.  Hutton admits somewhat grudgingly that Cromwell had a spectacular military career but believes that Cromwell had a large amount of luck on his side and that he took the glory of victory away from his other commanders.

As Hutton is a distinguished historian of 17th-century England, you would have expected him to examine in greater detail the political context of Cromwell leadership of the English bourgeois revolution. However, instead, he concentrates, like all conservative historians, on Cromwell’s early religious experience. From a historiographical standpoint, Hutton borrows heavily from John Adamson, who subscribed to Cromwell being part of a “Junto”. As historian Jared van Duinen points out, “When historians discuss the Long Parliament, they frequently refer to a hazy and often ill-defined collection of individuals invariably centred around the figure of John Pym.  This assemblage is variously referred to as ‘Pym’s group’, ‘Pym and his allies’, or ‘Pym and his supporters.  Probably the most common appellation has become ‘Pym’s junto’, or more often simply the ‘junto’.  Over the years, this junto has assumed a variety of historiographical guises, and its role within the Long Parliament has been the subject of some debate”.[5]

What political analysis Hutton offers he believes that  Cromwell’s politics should be seen in the context of a balancing act between the radical groups such as the Levellers and Diggers and a group of “Independents”, both on the battlefield and within parliament. Hutton offers no political analysis of the class forces involved in this dual power struggle that erupted during the English revolution. The Levellers are not mentioned in his book, and neither does he go into much detail as to the class nature of the so-called “Junto”.

A historian has the right to use any source material he chooses to back up his argument, but Hutton could have done no worse than to consult the writings of a man who knew a little bit about revolutions. As Leon Trotsky points out, “The English Revolution of the seventeenth century, exactly because it was a great revolution shattering the nation to the bottom, affords a clear example of this alternating dual power, with sharp transitions in the form of civil war. At first, the royal power, resting upon the privileged classes or the upper circles of these classes – the aristocrats and bishops – is opposed by the bourgeoisie and the circles of the squirearchy that are close to it. The government of the bourgeoisie is the Presbyterian Parliament supported by the City of London. The protracted conflict between these two regimes is finally settled in open civil war. The two governmental centres – London and Oxford – create their own armies. Here the dual power takes a territorial form, although, as always in civil war, the boundaries are very shifting. Parliament conquers. The King is captured and awaits his fate. It would seem that the conditions are now created for the single rule of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie.

But before the royal power could be broken, the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents, the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in social life, not merely as an armed force but as a Praetorian Guard and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers’ and officers’ deputies (“agitators”). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents’ army. This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its army the “model army” of Cromwell – that is, the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – try to oppose to the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritably plebeian regime”.[6]

Hutton is correct when he states that the war radicalised Cromwell. But is unable to answer why this is the case, how a simple member of the gentry with no military experience rose to be one of Englands greatest military commanders and leader of the first bourgeois revolution. Hutton did not have to go very far to look for answers but has declined to do so. He makes no mention of the great historian Christopher Hill’s work, Gods Englishmen.[7] Hill sought to place Cromwell in a wider social, political and economic context. Hill was critical of conservative historians like John Morrill and Conrad Russell, who, like Hutton, tend to minimise the revolutionary significance of figures like Cromwell, writing, “People like Morrill and Russell are taking things aboard. Russell said of Cromwell, for instance, that he was the only member of parliament of whom we have records before 1640 who tried to help the lower orders in his work for the fenmen – but he does not draw any conclusions from that, yet this is one of the most important aspects of Cromwell. He had a much broader approach than most of the gentry”.[8]

Hill’s advocation and practice of a materialist conception of history are foreign to Hutton. I doubt he has heard of the great Marxist writer Georgi Plekhanov whose book The Role of the Individual in History should be the first port of call for any historian writing biography. Although the great Russian Marxist G.V Plekhanov was writing about a different period of history and different historical characters, his perceptive understanding of the role great figures play in history could be applied quite easily to Cromwell.

Plekhanov writes, “In the history of the development of human intellect, the success of some individual hinders the success of another individual very much more rarely. But even here, we are not free from the above-mentioned optical illusion. When a given state of society sets certain problems before its intellectual representatives, the attention of prominent minds is concentrated upon them until these problems are solved. As soon as they have succeeded in solving them, their attention is transferred to another object. By solving a problem, a given talent-A diverts the attention of talent B from the problem already solved to another problem. And when we are asked: What would have happened if A had died before he had solved problem X? – we imagine that the thread of development of the human intellect would have been broken. We forget that had A died, B, or C, or D might have tackled the problem, and the thread of intellectual development would have remained intact in spite of A’s premature demise.

Conclusion

It must be said that before I read this book, I had little hope that it would be an objective assessment of the life of Oliver Cromwell. Hutton’s book does not disabuse me of that. It can be only hoped that the next two books contain a degree of insight and analysis missing in the first. I will not hold my breath.

Cromwell was the leader of the bourgeois English Revolution and deserved a better epitaph than this from Hutton. I will leave that to the great Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky, who wrote, “‘In dispersing parliament after parliament, Cromwell displayed as little reverence towards the fetish of “national” representation as in the execution of Charles I he had displayed insufficient respect for a monarchy by the grace of God. Nonetheless, it was this same Cromwell who paved the way for the parliamentarism and democracy of the two subsequent centuries. In revenge for Cromwell’s execution of Charles I, Charles II swung Cromwell’s corpse upon the gallows. But pre-Cromwellian society could not be re-established by any restoration. The works of Cromwell could not be liquidated by the thievish legislation of the restoration because what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen.’


[1] Leon Trotsky’s Writings On Britain-Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism- https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/britain/ch06.htm

[2] Young Ironsides-The Making of Oliver Cromwell-By Ronald Hutton-https://literaryreview.co.uk/young-ironsides

[3] Why We Need A New Critical Edition of all the Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell-https://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2012/01/why-we-need-new-critical-edition-of-all.html

[4] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/bbc-history-magazine/20210708/282041920106086-See also My article-I Come To Bury Cromwell Not Praise Him-http://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2021/07/i-come-to-bury-cromwell-not-praise-him.html

[5] Pym’s junto’ in the ante-bellum Long Parliament: radical or not? https://oajournals.fupress.net/public/journals/9/Seminar/duinen_pym.html. See also my article Does the Work of British Historian John Adamson” Break New Ground” https://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2011/10/does-work-of-british-historian-john.html

[6] The History of the Russian Revolution-Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism-https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch11.htm

[7] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gods-Englishman-Cromwell-English-Revolution/dp/0140137114

[8] https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1992/isj2-056/hill.html

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