Cromwell Reappraised

God’s Welshman?
David Morgan reviews Oliver Cromwell: New Perspectives edited by Patrick Little, Palgrave Macmillan, pb £17.99.
A new view of Cromwell as a Welshman with close and abiding affinities to the Leveller cause emerges from this new collection of essays, Oliver Cromwell: New Perspectives.
Christopher Hill’s classic study of Cromwell, God’s Englishman, was published in 1970 and there have been countless books about the great Commonwealth and Republican leader since then. Many revisionist accounts have sought to portray Cromwell as a man of contradictions; others have set out to establish that he was at best a flawed hero, a hypocrite and a religious zealot.
Cromwell’s reputation on the left has been much tarnished by his feud with John Lilburne as he has commonly been portrayed as the villain to the latter’s solid man of principle; a very different view presented in this volume gives a more detailed picture of Cromwell’s associations with the Levellers, particularly with William Walwyn, who often remains in the shadow of Lilburne. Philip Baker explains that Cromwell was sympathetic to Leveller ideas over a much longer period than is often appreciated.
In another illuminating contribution, Lloyd Bowen describes the Welsh family background of Cromwell and how this influenced his outlook. While the Welshness of the Williams “alias Cromwell” side of the family is briefly mentioned by Hill, he makes very little of it. By contrast, Bowen shows how Cromwell took great pride in his Welsh roots and took up the Welsh cause in Parliament on various occasions in the early 1640s when he was gaining a reputation as a militant puritan activist. Bowen argues that Cromwell’s important links with Wales have been almost completely ignored in both popular and academic literature.
Finally, Patrick Little sheds new light on the controversial circumstances surrounding the offer of the Crown to Cromwell in 1657 and his refusal to accept it. The offer came during a period of high tension following the foiling of an assassination attempt on Cromwell by royalists known as the Sindercombe plot, whose significance, Little says “has never been taken seriously by historians”, but which he claims shook the confidence of the Republican regime quite severely. The offer of the Crown was something of a desperate bid to frustrate royalist attempts to deny the legitimacy of the regime.
Other articles in the volume cover Cromwell’s role in the First Civil War, his early parliamentary career, Cromwell’s court, his record in Ireland and the upbringing of his successor, Richard Cromwell.
All in all this is a refreshing and highly readable series of reappraisals of a figure who is still a controversial one in English radical history more than 350 years after his death.

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July 2011

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