Let us take form the bookshelves a copy of Frederick Harrison’s summary biography of Oliver Cromwell and note that this particular dark green, well travelled hardback was published in 1896, the same year that it was awarded as first prize to a member of the Zion Chapel, Wakefield, in recognition of the recipient’s regular attendance for the half year ending April 26 that same year. Then let us read the book.
It is always intriguing to see how historical fact tends to be interpreted through the lenses provided by the milieu of the particular age when the opinion was expressed. For what is immediately surprising about Frederick Harrison’s rather populist text is that it is broadly sympathetic to Oliver Cromwell and his achievements. There is, of course, the venerable late Victorian tendency to imagine that we are actually at play with the young Protector, some three centuries or so prior to writing, during the years that the subject, himself, could probably barely recall. And Harrison also imagines he could quote from his subject’s own words while working in phrases of his own as if they represented the authentic voice. But these are merely stylistic detail. It is the content of this book that genuinely surprises and deserves comment.
For the most part, the author’s pithy text details the political and social forces and also the influences that combined to create the zealot, if that might not be too strong a word, who rose from middle class roots to become the revolutionary leader of England and arguably the greatest military leader the country ever produced. This latter skill, as the book repeatedly emphasises, was based on professionalism, thoroughness and good people management. How modern does that sound? The answer is less than first sight, if God’s presence was always assumed to ensure the victory.
What will surprise the contemporary reader of Harrison’s biography is that overall the author proffers a generally positive gloss on Oliver Cromwell the man and politician, as well as the military leader. Though the account may not be described as definitively anti-Royalist, there is certainly no hint of the now prevalent romanticised or cavalier version of the conflict on show. Cromwell is presented, as in his most famous portraits, warts and all: but on the other hand Charles’s failings figure proportionately larger, because they were more reprehensible and surely less justifiable.
One wonders how it is that in 1896, towards the end of a queen’s long reign, a text such as Harrison’s Oliver Cromwell might have taken such a position. Would it be possible in 2014, towards the end of another long reign by a queen, for a mainstream, possibly populist author to propose a generally anti-Royalist position on England’s Civil War?
Though Harrison describes in detail, with generous quotes from Cromwell’s own hand, how the eventual Protector saw God in everything, and especially his own success, the author also draws parallels with the rise of socialism, rationalism and democracy. He specifically describes the defeat of Charles as the end of the medieval concept of monarchy, where an absolute ruler uses his assumed proximity to God to justify every human whim. Note that his opponent still used God’s presumed judgment as reason for actual success, but crucially not as his right to expect it. In this context, England’s Civil War was a revolution similar to that which later deposed the monarchy for good in France. What it lacked, perhaps, was a stress on rationalism provided by the coming of enlightenment, science and industrialisation, and thus its protagonists stepped back from permanent constitutional change. Perhaps the pragmatism of the age prevailed.
But Harrison does here and there indicate that England at the time was not prepared, as the American colonists were a century later, to effect such radical change as establishing a Republic. Succession was the issue. How could it be realised without chaos in a time when ordinary peoples’ rights did not extend to suffrage? The revolution and Civil War did end for ever the medieval concept of Divine Right and that was progress enough. For more far reaching reform, we would need to wait for an age that was more open to non-conformism, individuality, socialism and equality. And that is perhaps why this copy of Oliver Cromwell by Frederick Harrison was offered as a prize for attending the Zion Chapel in Wakefield in 1896, because it then did fit the assumptions of its own time. England’s industrial north was by then nurturing socialism, and non-conformist religion was at the heart of its growth.
One wonders in 2014 if it might be possible for even such a mildly anti-Royalist position to be expressed in the English mainstream and, perhaps more importantly, where such a standpoint might be awarded as a prize for dedicated youth.