Oliver Cromwell (The British Library Historic Lives), by Peter Gaunt
Although I was greatly disappointed by the volume in this series that dealt with Sir Francis Drake, this book was more to my taste and convinces me that not all the people who write in this series are dolts with chronological snobbery. Admittedly, Oliver Cromwell is a figure of considerable controversy when it comes to British History. He is someone whose generally conservative but ultimately republican regime is one that I can support when comparing it to the other possibilities present at the time (feckless royalism or radical levelism being two of the less preferred options). That said, not everyone is as much a fan of his as I am , as I can remember that one former employer of mine reacted with extreme harshness that a book that was favorable to a son-in-law of Cromwell’s was present in the library of the school he happened to run, since as a proud Irish American he was extremely hostile to Cromwell and viewed him as among the lowest of the low, probably for the same reasons that I viewed him highly–harshness towards rebellious Irish and successful hostility to a divine-right king. For those who are at least willing to give Cromwell a fair shake, this book offers a thoughtful view of the man and his times that is by no means flattering but is fair-minded.
This particular book is a short one at less than 150 pages, and begins with a brief preface and introduction that discuss some of the issues one has in writing a biography of a man whose life’s beginnings are so obscure. The first chapter of the book looks at the first 43 years of Cromwell’s life and seeks to find insights about his life from the economic struggles of his family as well as his own education and early efforts at being a tenant farmer and struggling with local political issues (1). After that the author talks about his role as an MP and military leader during the first English Civil War (2), as well as the failure of the political settlement immediately after that war to provide a successful constitutional monarchy (3). After that the author discusses the way that Cromwell served as a key power broker in the period after the execution of King Charles I, including his successful efforts against the Scottish in the Second English Civil War (4). Finally, the author concludes the book with a discussion of Cromwell’s time as Lord Protector between 1653 and 1658 and how he dealt with questions of legitimacy as well as the role of England in European diplomacy (5), after which there is a conclusion, chronology, suggestions for further reading, and an index.
Cromwell came from an obscure background and clearly utilized his power as both a leading Parliamentarian as well as a military figure in order to shape the political events of England in his time. His role in the execution of Charles I and his application of extreme harshness to the Irish seeking to avoid and escape English domination has proven to be of lasting controversy and his regime barely survived his own life as his son was not able to motivate the soldiers of the New Model Army in the way that Cromwell himself did. Yet even if the Lord Protector was a transitional figure who divided the early Stuarts from the later ones, and who promoted a Republicanism that was ultimately contrary to the pro-royal sentiments of the English, he was certainly a figure who serves as an important figure and a precursor to the executive role found in the American republic, where he deserves to be far better recognized. This book does not sugarcoat the ambiguities or struggles of Cromwell in relating to Parliament and the king during the period after 1642, but it does provide a compelling if brief look at a very important historical figure.