A Divided Kingdom: Robert Harris on Act of Oblivion

Oliver Webb-Carter

Our editor met Robert Harris to talk about his latest novel set in the aftermath of the fall of Cromwell.
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In preparation for my meeting with Robert Harris (of course I’d read his latest novel, Act of Oblivion), I read a number of interviews and listened to his Desert Island Discs with Kirsty Young. 12 years old now, it is a fascinating and enlightening episode, and gave an insight into a man who began his career at the BBC. In it he mentioned ‘politics is the drama of life’. Harris was The Observer’s Political Editor from 1987. Born to working class parents in 1957, he read English at Cambridge, and after Newsnight and Panorama at the BBC he moved to The Observer in 1987. He is now a hugely successful author and has been since his first, Fatherland, was published in 1992 to great acclaim. Having written about ancient Rome, the 1930s, and the Second World War, this is his first foray into the 1600s, but what a century for dramatic politics, with civil war, regicide, republic, restoration and revolution.

As regular readers of the magazine will know, we’ve had a whole host of authors write for us on the 17th century. From Miranda Malins and her fiction centring on the Cromwell family, to non-fiction from Leanda de Lisle and Clare Jackson, recent winner of the Wolfson Prize. It’s no wonder Harris sees this century as attractive for a novelist, but was it that, or the two regicides of the story, Colonels Whalley and Goffe that led him to Act of Oblivion?

“Well, I was attracted because I saw, I think, on Twitter, just a line saying, the greatest manhunt of the 17th century. The concept of the two things together caught my interest. And, of course, it turned out to be the hunt for the men who signed King Charles I’s death warrant and sat as judges at his trial. And I read a bit about it and I thought, would it be great to invent the Manhunter? Because we don’t know who it was, but someone must have organised [it]. So, I […] invented a Sub-Committee of the Privy Council and a clerk to the Sub-Committee and so on. So that was my starting point, to create the man on their trail and why he would be so determined. And then I looked at the Regicides and it was obvious to me that the two most interesting for my purposes would be Whalley and Goffe. They were father-in-law and son-in-law. The old man, Whalley, who was 60, was Cromwell’s cousin, and was close to him, and they fled to America and were hunted across America for years. And I just thought that this would be a great story. It was as simple as that. I have always been interested in the English Civil War, but been deterred from writing a novel about it simply because of its complexity.”

Whalley and Goffe, the two regicides of the novel, on the run in America, are very different. Edward ‘Ned’ Whalley has a sense of humour, William Goffe does not, though both are, unsurprisingly, religious. I wonder how close that was to reality? Harris’ answer surprises me, as he’s uncovered something about Goffe hitherto unknown.

“Well, obviously, I researched and read everything that is available about them and indeed I found out new facts about them, as far as I can see, that people didn’t know before. For instance, the precise date of Goffe’s birth, which is about seven years after most estimates. He was 20 years younger than his father-in-law; and Whalley, his wife, [I found] her real name. I think I’m probably the first to track that down, but there are letters from them to Oliver Cromwell’s Chief Secretary, that give us some insight into their characters.

“…there are letters between Goffe, the son-in-law and his wife back in England. And these do give you a flavour of their character. And it is true that Whalley was, I think, a far more confident man. He was from a background of gentry…although they’ve fallen on hard times…He was considered a bit of a dandy…definitely a political moderate. For instance, he urged moderation on Cromwell when he set off on his expedition to Ireland. And mercifully, neither of the two men went on that expedition. And Goffe, we know from the Putney Debates, was fiery, almost a Fifth Monarchist [who] believed that Christ would return to earth in 1666. And he was a political extremist and very much against any negotiations with the King. And curiously, this hasn’t really been touched on by other writers about the Regicides. Whalley, for about nine months, was the King’s jailer. When he was in the army’s hands, he was in charge of him. He seems to become quite close to Charles as well as being close to Cromwell. So, there were lots of straws that I could use to build the bricks of the characters.”

Mention of Charles I pleases me, because I had been meaning to ask Harris of what his view of the monarch was, after all he is a sympathetic figure in the book.

“Well, until I really got into writing the novel, I hadn’t appreciated how clever he was at the trial and how the Regicides, when they were caught, hanged, drawn and quartered, almost to a man, I think, died very bravely, died in the certainty that they were right. Charles I, on the scaffold, died very bravely in the certainty that he was right as well, and I found that the mirror image of the two in that certainty was interesting. I did have some sympathy for him. I’ve always regarded myself rather lazily, assumed that I would be a Roundhead. But having spent a lot of time in the company of these Puritan colonels, I decided that probably I’m one of nature’s Cavaliers. Actually. It was technically very difficult. It’s technically easier, frankly, to write about King Charles I than it is to write about two Puritan colonels on the run. There were many times when I thought, what on earth have I done? What sort of task have I set myself here to make these figures comprehensible and sympathetic to a reader?”

We’ve mentioned Cromwell, and like Charles I, there have been revisionist histories recently, not least Providence Lost by Paul Lay. I’m interested to understand Harris’ view of a man who has been incredibly divisive, and not just to Irishmen and women.

“Well, he was a force of nature and he was a great man. His achievement is staggering: to have gone from a moderately well-off farmer and […] backbench MP with, as far as we know, no military training whatsoever, to found and lead what became probably the greatest army in the world and to completely destroy the professional soldiers on the other side. He was inspirational, brilliant and a curious mixture of qualities of ruthlessness and violence, and compassion and sentiment, and who had the most marvellous way with language.

“The thing you…can never sort out with Cromwell is how much of the religion is genuine. I think almost all of it, but how much of it is also delusional or self-interest? And how ambitious was he? I think there’s little doubt when you look at it, that he was extremely ambitious and saw that there was a route opening up for him to take absolute power. He obviously revelled in power, but one of the reasons he was able to was because even his enemies grudgingly accepted that Cromwell was the biggest man in the country. Once the King was dead and his son was in exile, there was only Cromwell. As long as Cromwell was on the scene, more or less, the show could hold together. The Commonwealth moment, of course, he was removed then there wasn’t anyone with his stature. I think we can debate endlessly because the evidence is inconclusive. He was a very secretive man, I think, in terms of what was going on. In his head and what he was planning. So we can debate endlessly whether he was a good thing or a bad thing, to use the cliché, but sure as hell he was a thing. One of the most remarkable men that this country has ever produced…”

All these descriptions of Cromwell, Charles I, Whalley and Goffe – would suggest this is a male dominated novel, but that isn’t the case. Harris has managed to capture the female experience, and its one that isn’t mute in the background. Women underwent much suffering, not least in childbirth, but were frequently the main figure of the family during the Civil War as men went off to fight.

“Yes, so many of the characters which I put in the book were on their second wife, and in almost all cases, the first wife had died in childbirth. And it must have been hellish. In fact, when they are discussing the Register, the possibility, the prospect of hanging, drawing and quartering, the notion was that actually any ordinary woman probably had gone through equivalent pain and goes through it every year, practically, and a lot of them die at the end of it. So, yes, women are the kind of heroes, in a way. They hold the families together when the men are on the run and they are pragmatic and sensible. They don’t have political power and obviously they’re not soldiers, but they are really crucial. And there are a couple of very strong women in the book. And I liked that, the fact that that was realistic, that I wasn’t writing some kind of kick ass 17th century maiden. I hate that in contemporary fiction, you’ve now got to make the women all like men and killing people and the rest of it. They were very formidable, but in a different way and a more impressive plan somewhere.”

We’re coming to the end of the interview, and I’m intrigued to understand whether Harris thinks the execution Charles I was actually good for England, and later the United Kingdom, in the long run? After all, a line in the sand had been drawn between Parliament and the Crown. It’s one that Sovereigns have largely respected since. Our most recent monarch, Elizabeth II, exemplified respect for the constitutional duties of the monarch.

“I think that they were right to that extent. He had to be got rid of. Whether a trial was the right way, I don’t know, because, of course, like many political leaders, Charles was able to use [it] as a platform and he had the best of it. In the end they had to try him in absentia because every time they brought him out, he would say, ‘Before we go any further, under what law am I being tried?’ Of course, they couldn’t really answer this. His behaviour at the trial and the fact that this became a pamphlet and was read everywhere…were propaganda victories for him. There is a case that the army would have been far better to have just bumped him off whilst he was trying to escape, which he repeatedly did try to [do]…I think that by that time Cromwell was determined to, as he said, cut off the King’s head with [the] crown still upon it. To dispense with this figure who had, as far as they were concerned, an impediment both to peace and to the relationship between people and God.”

Before we do end it, I have the most important question of all. Is Harris a Roundhead or a Cavalier?

“Well, obviously I’m drawn to the radicalism of giving everyone their destiny… so, as a 21st century person, of course, I find all those ideas very attractive. What I don’t find attractive and what I find alienating is the puritanism of the army, which is remarkably similar in some respects to ISIS or Al Qaeda. It’s a kind of Protestant Taliban smashing up images, destroying and desecrating things they don’t believe in, forbidding, suppressing music and services, festivals, theatre, entertainment. That rigidity, that ruthlessness, I find distinctly unappealing. But I kind of accept what Carlyle wrote. I must be one of the very few people in recent years has read Carlyle [Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches: with Elucidations] and he thinks that it was the one time in British history when the greatest people were in charge, when this was the most noble, the most extraordinary thought-through experiment and a new way of living…so when I say I’m a Cavalier, I suppose what I mean by that [is that I] like a drink and a song and going to the theatre and I find this crazy, millennial, Christ will return in 1666, leaves me completely cold.”


Robert Harris is the bestselling novelist and author of Act of Oblivion. You can listen to a full interview with Robert on the Aspects of History Podcast.