Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate – the British nations’ only foray into republicanism – receives too little popular attention. It is often referred to obliquely as the Interregnum: a failed experiment and an interruption to the otherwise smooth course of monarchical history. The reasons for this can well be imagined. Modern-day monarchists consider the Republic – in reality a theocratic military dictatorship with no correspondence to modern democracy – a bogeyman to be brought out whenever constitutional monarchy is criticised. Modern-day republicans are understandably irritated and embarrassed that history’s best chance to permanently dissolve hereditary monarchy resulted in martial law, infighting, and – as we see in Restless Republic – a pseudo-monarchy in the form of a hereditary Protectorate.
Given this uncomfortable view of the period (from across the political spectrum), Anna Keay has set herself a difficult task in exploring the Republic in terms of what it was and how it felt rather than what it wasn’t. In this, she has succeeded marvellously. Readers will discover not a barren, dour period of waiting for the Restoration, but a marketplace of ideas – a buzz of conflicting political, philosophical, and social models put forward by an array of ebullient personalities.
Keay’s masterstroke is in bringing the era to life through the eyes of those who knew monarchy, war, Commonwealth, Protectorate, and Restoration. Through focusing on people who experienced these tumultuous decades and therefore had a wealth of experience of different systems of government, Restless Republic can make sense of a period which might seem baffling.
The book follows a chronological narrative, but this is not a dull recounting of events. Rather, Keay, in a wonderfully fresh and evocative writing style, tells the story of the Republic via individual, interconnected narratives. She begins with the trial and execution of Charles I, as overseen by the first of Keay’s subjects, Judge John Bradshaw. From consideration of this key figure – a Jacobean and Caroline veteran – and his involvement in the wars and ultimately the execution of the king, we move through the haphazard, almost accidental move from Commonwealth to Protectorate. The stage is set for a world of possibilities, as Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers rose (and dug) and fell; the courageous, counter-revolutionary Countess of Derby, exiled to the Isle of Man, schemed; the renegade journalist Marchamont Nedham wrote; the religiously-motivated, “ungovernable” Anna Trapnell saw visions; the historian Hamon L’Estrange maintained a family; the supercilious genius William Petty mapped Ireland; General George Monck subdued Scotland; and, of course, Oliver Cromwell accepted a Protectorate but refused a crown. Keay’s eye for detail and innate understanding of unchanging human nature makes these figures at once relatable, sympathetic, sometimes horrifying, and often hilarious; their hopes and disappointments become live and immediate. Together, they form the pieces of a jigsaw depicting the whole panoply of Britain without a crown.
Restless Republic is aptly named. Readers both expert and casual will revel in seeing this period brought to noisy, brash, colourful by the skilled pen of a natural storyteller.
Steven Veerapen is a novelist, academic and author of Of Blood Descended and the new Of Judgement Fallen.