AoH Book Club: Paul Lay on Providence Lost

When Providence Lost was first published in January 2020, the 17th century had not received a huge amount of attention, and Oliver Cromwell’s reputation was not even up for debate. That’s not the case today.
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Paul Lay, your book Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate. This has been an in vogue subject of the last few years, really, this period of the 17th century, the Civil Wars and then the Interregnum. Oliver Cromwell played rather a sort of Machiavellian role we concluded during the trial of Charles I and it’s by no means certain that Cromwell takes power in the aftermath of the execution. Would that be fair to say, Paul?

Yes, I think that’s right, and it’s a very unusual career. The trajectory that’s put Cromwell in this position where he’s on the precipice of power is an unusual one. He’s feted during the Civil Wars as a great cavalry general, a leading player in the New Model Army. But this is a man who had no military experience at all before diving in head first in his early 40s. So it’s quite extraordinary. He had no military training. He was not one of those men of the New Model Army who’d fought on the continent or anything like that. He just seemed to have a very decisive attitude towards combat that I think was partly informed by his deep belief in God and the idea of providence that he was on the right side and that God would always back the right side.

That that’s what Parliament was, that their cause was just and that God would be backing them. So he was almost reckless in part on the battlefield. But he earned a reputation as a brilliant cavalry man.  He was certainly a very fine horseman. There was no doubt about that. He had an obsessive interest in horses. But he was, by the time that the second Civil War was won and the King was put on trial, he was a leading political figure. And he played a key role in putting Charles on trial and in the execution. He was one of the signatories.

He was one of the regicides of the document that allowed Charles to be executed in January of 1649. And so he was prominent by that point.

But there was no sense, I don’t think, certainly there was no inevitability that he would become the head of state then. Because, of course, one of the first things he did when the Commonwealth was proclaimed, and this was in early 1649 and then later, he goes to Ireland. And he, well, a strange one really, because he’s notorious, not least in Ireland, for his actions over there. And in fact, it may be the case that, ironically, he’s the single most famous person in Irish history. But he was only there for nine months. And it was others who had to settle Ireland, including later his son Henry.

But he came back to a place in some kind of chaos, and England in some kind of chaos, because this very bold decision had been made to execute the king. But no one really had a plan as to what to do next. And Cromwell is very prominent among those who are seeking what Cromwell himself describes as the healing and settling of the nation.

What should be the settlement that heals this nation that’s been through terrible civil war?

I think we should probably say nations, because by this point, not only Ireland, Scotland has been conquered. Though the English parliamentarians are much more sympathetic to Scotland being a lot Protestant, Presbyterian polity, as opposed to Catholic Ireland. But it’s united, as these islands of Britain and Ireland are united for the first time, albeit at the point of assault.

And then there is the great challenge of how are these nations governed? And that’s the challenge that Cromwell and his contemporaries face.

Well, he was in Ireland, as you say, for nine months, but if there’s a one figure who defines the relationship between England and Ireland it is Cromwell (and indeed Scotland and Ireland). He’s there for nine months and it’s echoed through history since then.

Oh, absolutely. The legacy is enormous, almost to the point where it’s actually quite difficult to have a rational discussion about Cromwell’s activities in Ireland during those nine months in 1649. I would argue that it’s a far more complex engagement than has been highly mythologized articulately by some Irish historians, though not exclusively Irish historians.

Cromwell is the bogeyman for 800 years of English and Scottish, indeed, as you rightly point out, predation of Ireland. He was there for nine months, but we’re talking about 800 years of a very problematic and troubled relationship, and you still have that legacy today.

I personally think that Cromwell’s role in the subjection of Ireland is misunderstood. I think it’s exaggerated. And I think there are others (I think of the commander Charles Coote, for example) who were far more ruthless in their dealings with the Irish, particularly the Catholic Irish, than anything Cromwell was involved in. I think you also have to see the conquest of Ireland within the context of the European religious wars of that century, most notably the Thirty Years War, in which the atrocities were far, far greater. That’s not to let Cromwell off at all for some of the activities at Drogheda and certainly at Wexford, but it’s very difficult to really say that the behaviour of Cromwell and some of his troops was exceptional by the standards of the time, and particularly in comparison with what was going on in Europe during the Thirty Years War, which had ended just a year before Cromwell went to Ireland with a battle-hardened army.

There was real debate about the role of the army in Ireland as well. Just before the New Model Army went to Ireland, there was a mutiny at Burford during which three soldiers were shot for their role. One of the reasons that that mutiny took place was because a highly radicalized group of soldiers in the New Model Army, both politically and religiously, did not want to treat the Irish in the way that they had been treated. There was a strong movement within the New Model Army against the idea of conquering Ireland, although that was problematic in itself because Ireland was seen as a Royalist  landing ship for the re-conquest by the Stuart dynasty of England.

So it’s extremely complicated, but I think if I had to sum up the kind of philosophy, there’s a great irony in the English conquest of Ireland during this point. One of the things that’s often talked about by Parliamentarian radicals in England, including Cromwell himself, is what they call the ‘Norman Yoke.’ They wish to escape the Norman Yoke and go back to the ancient constitution, both highly mythologized concepts of a kind of freeborn English people. They are repulsed by the idea of the Normanisation of England, of this kind of imposed class upon the basic freedoms of the English people. Yet ironically, what you see in the conquest of Ireland is an attempt to anglicise Ireland that mirrors the Norman conquest of England. So there’s a great deal of irony there. The conquest and settlement of Ireland was not an uncontentious act, and it was not perceived so at the time either, often by men of the New Model Army.

I think there was even differences in the command. I think it’s fair to say that Cromwell’s attitude towards civilians in Ireland was far more tolerant than some of those commanders who remained in Ireland after he left, after those nine months. So I think there’s a lot of detail, a lot of nuance, a lot of complexity in this story. There is interesting revisionist stuff, by both Irish and British historians who are working together. And I think it’s going to be a very interesting subject, Cromwell and Ireland and the wider picture over the next few years. I think we’ll have a much more complex picture than the black and white mythology that persists to this day.

You’ve mentioned the religious zeal that many members of the New Model Army felt. When Cromwell returns from Ireland the religious aspect can’t be overstated. And this is whilst elements of the Army are trying to thrash out what kind of government Britain therefore has in the wake of the execution of Charles I. What role did Cromwell play in that?

Well, Cromwell is, in terms of the religious aspect of Cromwell’s beliefs, which obviously influences his politics, because religion and politics are impossible to separate at this point. But you have a divide within the parliamentary forces between Presbyterians who seek what is essentially a National Church but without Bishops. So it’s something akin to the model in Scotland. It’s Conformist – it believes that people should follow one national religion, just as Anglicans believe they should be British. It’s quite an intolerant, religious position. Cromwell is not on that side. Cromwell is on the side of those called the Independents, who have a much more capacious view of religious settlement, which would allow for Presbyterianism, of course, but does not seek a National Church in that sense, but is tolerant towards Congregationalists (which Cromwell was one), the Baptists, and even the Quakers, who are quite a formidable force in the Army, but who are problematic because they don’t believe in the Trinity.

Essentially, the Independents believe that all religious groups should be tolerated, as long as they believe in the Trinity, apart from, of course, Catholics. And you see this really quite capacious view in Cromwell’s determination to resettle Jews in Britain. Jews were expelled from England in 1290 under the Royal Prerogative of Edward I. And it was not legal for them to settle in England until the protectorate in the 1650s. And again, this was under the prerogative of the Head of State, who was Cromwell. So you get this really quite capacious religious settlement, very unusual, again, when you think of the context of the Thirty Years War, which has been a brutal sectarian conflict between Protestant and Catholic. Many atrocities, even acts of genocide, in Europe, particularly the German lands. I think it’s fair to say that throughout his rule, right until his death in 1658, Cromwell is concerned to reach a settlement that is as capacious as possible in religious terms.

He takes power through a coup in 1653 doesn’t he?

Yes, that’s right. In 1653, he dismisses the Rump Parliament.

A coup is overstating it then, Paul?

Well, not necessarily – I don’t think it is. I think a coup is a perfectly satisfactory term to do so. But as always, Cromwell plays by sleight of hand. He’s always slightly at a distance from the events that take place, such as dismissal of the Rump Parliament. But it’s very, very difficult to believe that he’s not a primary agent in these matters.

What you get after the dismissal of the Rump Parliament in April 1653 is easily the most bizarre experiment in parliamentary governance, which is something called the Nominated Assembly, which is Parliament. It’s called the Nominated Assembly officially because the members were supposed to be nominated by the gathered churches that had grown up in this quite capacious religious settlement. It was based in terms of its structure on the Jewish Sanhedrin. It was very much concerned with Old Testament ideas of England being this new Israel, that just as Israel had been the people of the Old Testament then in God’s new Covenant, the English would be the people of the New.

It was not quite as disastrous as it might seem. It passed some quite interesting legal reforms, which were seen as urgent at the time because the legal processes had become extremely convoluted. Nevertheless, it was very difficult to see it survive beyond long.

Cromwell became frustrated by it as he did by all his Parliaments. It actually dissolved itself in December 1653, and it was there for months rather than years. So we see the fortunes of the Commonwealth as it still was then, I suppose.

Cromwell now emerged as the primus inter pares among the political groups at that time. But the one person who is his rival, and some people see ultimately as his heir, is a rather brilliant figure called John Lambert, who’s had a similarly illustrious civil war career, and was also a cavalry officer. While the Nominated Assembly has been going on, he has penned what is the world’s first written constitution, Britain’s only written constitution so far. And that’s called the Instrument of Government, which replaces the old trinity of King, House of Lords, and House of Commons with a new one, which is the Protector, which is offered to Cromwell because they know he won’t become King. He then serves under a Council of State. It’s not a dictatorship because, for example, he can’t declare war without the agreement of the Council. And then you also have what’s left of Parliament at this point, so you have a kind of unholy trinity, I suppose. You also have, and Cromwell accepts this, the beginning of what is called the Protectorate, the Cromwellian Protectorate with Cromwell as Head of State, and it has a quasi-monarchical element to it. That’s why I think the term English or British Republic is problematic.

Paul Lay is Senior Editor at Engelsberg Ideas and the author of Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate which is highly recommended. You can listen to Paul and the Editor discuss the book on the Aspects of History Podcast.