What an extraordinary historian Ronald Hutton is. He is justly celebrated as the author of two books on popular customs and the cycle of the ritual year, a wide-ranging description of prehistoric Britain and a lively book on witches.
Now he returns to his original stamping ground of 17th-century England with The Making of Oliver Cromwell, an exploration of one of the most written-about historical figures of all. Why add to the plethora of lives about him? Well, as Hutton suggests, the more that is written about Cromwell, the more he seems, somehow, to elude historians.
Then there is the sheer fascination of the man: “a big, alluring subject, one of the clearest examples of the way in which an individual personality can credibly sway history”. This is complicated by the frequent discrepancy between Cromwell’s account of himself and that of his contemporaries: “Many who knew him well… found him to be ruthless, devious and self-promoting, for many of them to the point of hypocrisy… there is no doubt that he was both godly and wily, and the two seem at times to jar with each other.”
This volume brings us only to the end of the Civil War and Cromwell’s move to London from East Anglia in 1547. But it establishes a compelling picture of the man, despite the dearth of reliable sources for the early
part of his career and the bewildering abundance of his own writings and speeches from later years.
Cromwell “spent the first two-thirds of his life as an obscure, minor and apparently unambitious provincial gentleman before some of the most dramatic events in world history pitched him into supreme military and then political power in around a dozen years”. It’s all too easy to project back the later famous Cromwell on the early man and to take later accounts as true.
One of the salient features of this history is Hutton’s absolutely scrupulous respect for the sources. Here, every legend of Cromwell is scrutinised for its validity: “we cannot be sure” is his salutary formula.
For instance, the legend that he would have emigrated to the New World were it not that the government prevented him turns out to be unproven. But he does usefully interpret biology; there was a five-year gap from 1632in Cromwell’s wife’s production of children which he considers may be attributable to a period of depression. And one of the advantages the family enjoyed was fecundity.
Hutton has no doubt about the crucial importance of Cromwell’s religious outlook; he agrees with other historians that the decisive event of his adult life was a conversion experience in the 1630s which was a classic element of Puritanism and it was to determine the course of his life, including his habit of seeing military engagements as a conflict between the godly and the unrighteous, which played to an element of savagery in his nature.
At every turn, Hutton turns to contemporary accounts to correct Cromwell’s own account of his achievements. This is especially needful in his extraordinarily successful military career, in which he had a genius for taking credit either for inconclusive outcomes or for victories which were at least partly attributable to others. So, Hutton scrutinises each battle in which Cromwell played a part to establish what part was attributable to him.
Hutton is a wonderful military historian; his account of the decisive Battle of Naseby is masterly. He vividly evokes the terrain of each battle and brings to life the rigours of campaigning in different weathers and the practicalities of artillery warfare. The issue of paying the troops is emphasised; unpaid, they were more likely to plunder civilians.
Another distinctive aspect of Hutton’s narrative is a lyrical emphasis on the natural world in which the human action takes place: “Midsummer drew on, and as the swifts screamed in the sky above the town at dawn and evening, and in the valley around the foliage became a thick uniform green, the elder came into creamy flower, foxgloves bloomed purple and glow worms made small points of emerald fire in the grass after nightfall…” And not just on earth – he points out what constellations would have been seen by the combatants below.
At the close we are left with a far fuller picture of Cromwell the man: irascible, sometimes savage, often calculating, convinced of the workings of providence in his affairs, and a brilliant military commander. Nothing here undermines the Catholic view that he was a stinker.
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