Although Ronald Hutton is perhaps best known for a series of authoritative books on the history of folklore and various strands of paganism, other publications over the years have amply demonstrated his academic credentials when it comes to the history of seventeenth-century England. With The Making of Oliver Cromwell, he has chosen as his subject one of that century’s most significant figures, whose actions and reputation continue to be analysed over 350 years after his death. Indeed, it is a good question whether yet another book about Cromwell is needed when, as Hutton himself points out, since 1990 alone there have been five full-scale biographies. The author’s rationale for producing this latest volume is explained in terms of “the sheer allure and importance” of Cromwell, who was “the only English commoner to become the overall head of state and so arguably the greatest commoner of all time.” On the other hand, for some historians, Cromwell has continued to elude his biographers —not least in terms of certain incongruities between how he represented himself and how his contemporaries saw him. In particular, Hutton is interested in examining Cromwell’s persona as a conviction-driven inspirational leader in relation to those aspects of his character which could lead him to deviousness, cruelty, and pragmatic self-service.
In order to more forensically unearth insights into Cromwell and his ‘making,’ Hutton has opted to concentrate on the first forty-eight years of his subject’s life (i.e. just prior to the outbreak of the so-called Second English Civil War), rather than dilute his investigations by spreading them over an exhaustive birth-to-death biography. Even so, at somewhat over 330 pages, the amount of detailed information that Hutton supplies about Cromwell and his world can, at times, be a challenge to absorb. This richness is particularly remarkable given the widely accepted view that Cromwell passed the first two-thirds of his life in relative obscurity, so that any attempt to delve into this —as Hutton terms it— ‘prehistoric’ period presents significant problems for identifying the biographical cross-currents of those earlier formative years. Added to this difficulty is the way in which Cromwell has, by turns, been both idolised and vilified over the centuries, prejudicially distorting some of the documented evidence of his life and character.
According to conflicting sources, in his youth Cromwell either studied law or worked in his father’s brewery, travelled in Flanders or never set foot on the Continent; added to which, even his date of birth is in doubt owing to deliberate damage done to his baptismal record. However, one aspect of his subject’s life on which Hutton can report is the East Midlands countryside that he grew up in. Indeed, a survey of the flora, fauna, and seasonal landscapes which Cromwell and his associates would have encountered throughout the years covered by the book turns into a series of regular interludes woven into the text. These are often lyrical and evocative, if just occasionally a little contrived and supererogatory. What Hutton’s mise-en-scène musings do show, however, is the extent to which our modern experience of the physical environment would have differed from that of our seventeenth-century ancestors, particularly in terms of the levels and types of sounds that they encountered and the menacing fears that people shared around the onset of pitch-black or —at best— dimly-lit night.
As to the acknowledged facts about Cromwell’s family and early life, he was born in Huntingdon in 1599, a descendant of Welsh ancestors who managed to manoeuvre their way into the service of the Tudors, thus elevating themselves into the upwardly mobile yeoman class. Among their number they could boast Oliver’s great-great-grand uncle and Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell. By the time young Oliver came along, his extended clan still retained their gentry status and, as befitted his station, the young man attended Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, until the death of his father in 1617 meant that he had to focus his energies on managing the family’s somewhat deficient financial affairs. No more is heard from him until 1620, when he is recorded as marrying his bride Elizabeth at St Giles’s Church, Cripplegate, in London. This appears to have been a contented and successful marriage, yielding nine children. From 1628-1629 Cromwell was the MP for Huntingdon. There are reports of his various clashes with the town’s leaders over political and economic issues during this period. As for his thoughts on the state of the nation during the early part of his public career, as Hutton puts it, “there is no sign at all in the 1630s that Cromwell either took much interest in national politics or regarded himself as a champion of the common people.” It is only towards the very end of the decade that we begin to see a fully committed member of England’s Puritan network emerge, with all the moral rigour which that entailed. At the same time Cromwell had to live under the monarchical rule of Charles I, with whose religious policies he was thoroughly out of sympathy.
Meanwhile in Scotland, the reaction to the king’s 1637 attempts to impose a new church service had, by 1639, stirred up a virulent Covenanter protest movement, to which Charles responded by raising an army and advancing to the Scottish border in an effort to put down the rebels —a conflict which became known as the first Bishops’ War. A compromise of sorts was reached which, in reality, reflected the royal troops’ lack of appetite or training for combat as much as it did the Covenanters’ commitment to their cause. When Charles decided to reassert his authority over the Scottish Church the following year, he lacked the funds to pursue a second Bishops’ War and had to recall Parliament, which had been dissolved eleven years earlier. In the subsequent election of MPs Cromwell was selected, in 1640, as the member for Cambridge. Although he seems to have made little impact in what has historically been referred to as the Short Parliament, with a duration of just three weeks, when the House reconvened as the Long Parliament (which lasted, in various incarnations, for twenty years), the new MP began to make his mark.
At this point it is probably best to shift the focus away from simply revisiting the famous episodes in the history of the Civil War wherein Cromwell featured as a prominent cast member to instead look at whether Hutton has succeeded in uncovering, as the book blurb has it, “the inner workings of a man who has puzzled biographers for centuries.” To that end Hutton examines how his subject —once he had nailed his political and religious colours to the mast— established a reputation as a steadfast member of ‘the Junto’ of prominent parliamentarians who led the attack on royal policy (as well as being gifted with an impassioned, plain-speaking oratorical style that impressed his listeners). Throughout the often-intricate debates and political stratagems by which the Puritans sought to safeguard their religious liberties and limit royal power, Cromwell’s personality began to assert itself more and more. If some later sources claimed that this plainly-dressed upstart was guilty of adopting a shockingly confrontational, even violent, tone towards those titled members of the House whose wealth and status far exceeded his own, none of the contemporary parliamentary diarists recorded such intemperate behaviour. What seems more likely is that when it came to pursuing a cause that he believed in, Cromwell had a singular disregard for rank and would boldly advocate for his convictions.
In 1642, by which point Charles I’s various invidious attempts to reassert his authority over the country had been repeatedly thwarted and the populace were faced with choosing sides in the looming civil war, Cromwell the astute and obdurate politician added ‘skilful military tactician’ to his list of attributes. Having gained Parliament’s approbation for a series of actions around the Cambridgeshire area, in which he and his band of partisans had seized vital Royalist arms and supplies, Cromwell was recalled to Westminster to receive a commission as Captain in the Earl of Essex’s horse regiment. By all accounts he didn’t make much of an impact at Edgehill (the first pitched battle of the Civil War), having arrived late with his troops. However, once he was made a cavalry colonel in the East Anglian defence force known as the Eastern Association, Cromwell’s commitment to the cause became undeniably manifest. In Hutton’s intricately documented account of his successes and setbacks in this first period of the Civil War, the man himself tends to be glimpsed only now and then, and in these brief appearances speculation about his motives and thought processes are offered to the reader instead of verified psychological readings. In contrast to such surmise, what is readily apparent during this period is Cromwell’s steadily-accumulating prestige amongst both friends and enemies, as well as how in 1643, once he had been appointed to serve as second-in-command to the Earl of Manchester in the Eastern Association, his clashes with those members of the parliamentary aristocracy who attempted to pull rank on him became a recurrently motivating animus. That Cromwell had little time for the posturing of his ostensible superiors, in comparison to his admiration for those amongst the soldiery who earned his respect, is summarised in a famous quote from his correspondence in which he declares, “I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and nothing else.” Such frankness, combined with his acclaim in the parliamentarian press and reputation as a protector of religious independents, had established him as a force to be reckoned with by the end of 1643.
1644 began with more plaudits for Cromwell when he was admitted as a member of the Committee of Both Kingdoms, established to orchestrate the joint war effort between Parliament and its Scottish allies. Before long he had also received a commission as Lieutenant-General of Horse, a position which gave him a body of men with whom to range across the country, skirmishing with the enemy, organising sieges, and commandeering vital supplies. All of this led to his instrumental role in routing Royalist forces at the Battle of Marston Moor. In a letter written just after that battle, an altogether more bloodthirsty facet of Cromwell’s character comes briefly to the surface: Hutton describes how he “dehumanised and demonised the defeated royalists, rejoicing that ‘God made them as stubble to our swords,’” laying stress on the debatable claim that it had been his faction of zealous religious independents, in particular, who had won the victory. That Cromwell had “a savage streak in his nature which enjoyed inflicting death, injury or humiliation on those against whom he had taken” is exemplified for Hutton by his prominent part in the downfall of his immediate superior the Earl of Manchester, who became something of a scapegoat in a war-fatigued climate, when popular opinion and the Commons criticised the Parliamentary Army’s perceived military shortcomings. Cromwell’s subsequent lengthy speech in the Commons, based on his own report, was an emotional (and tearful) tour-de force designed to show beyond doubt that Manchester had consistently and deliberately sabotaged the war effort by means of telling “a string of lies and distorted truths.” Not that Cromwell had it all his own way in the aftermath of this histrionic performance: opinion was divided as to whether he really was an unimpeachable paragon of virtue or, as others would have it, “a dangerous and unscrupulous radical.” These irreconcilable viewpoints soon evolved along constitutional and religious faultlines with Cromwell epitomising the cause of the Independents, who collectively sought to win the war outright and promote freedom of worship (for non-Catholics at least), whereas the grouping known as the Presbyterians favoured a negotiated peace and a church hierarchy to tightly control any deviation from Anglican orthodoxy. Out of this conflict emerged the New Model Army, a standing militia largely dominated by Cromwell’s Puritan allies which proved a key power base for the future Lord Protector.
In his final chapter “The Glorious Year,” Hutton, having meticulously charted his subject’s progress from yeoman anonymity through to national prominence, highlights the Battle of Naseby in 1645 as a decisive triumph for the Parliamentary forces, thanks to the New Model Army. Thereafter Cromwell’s forces scored a string of victories against the Royalists, mainly by capturing their former strongholds, to the extent that the House of Commons decreed a national thanksgiving for his efforts. It is at this point that Hutton steps back from his subject, leaving Cromwell to set off on what would be his eventual installation as ruler of the British Isles as Lord Protector in 1653. Whilst Hutton is always an authoritative and nuanced chronicler of Cromwell’s rise to prominence, ultimately the man himself remains shadowy, although the book provides a meticulously-detailed evocation of the world which his subject inhabited. However, what does seem apparent from the evidence presented is that Cromwell was an efficient, charismatic, and courageous leader with staunch convictions and formidable resilience. However, for modern sensibilities he was also alarmingly sectarian in matters of faith and —as and when it suited— vindictively Machiavellian.— Mark Jones