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Oliver Cromwell: Villain or hero?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

What’s remarkable about Oliver Cromwell, 350 years after he died, is that he is still a touchy subject. Why should that be? I would propose that it’s because the conflicts of the 17th Century have not really been settled: What kind of government is best, and what should religion have to do with it? In many ways, we’re still fighting the English Civil War, just as we are still fighting the American Civil War.

Cromwell is on my mind because I just finished reading Sir Walter Scott’s Woodstock, in which Cromwell is a character, as well as the future King Charles II. And Hilary Mantel, who wrote Wolf Hall, died last month.

I am by no means qualified to make any sort of historical argument about Cromwell. I can only throw up my hands and say that it’s clearly complicated. Historians are still arguing about Cromwell and writing about Cromwell. In November, Blackwell’s will release a pricey new tome, volume 2 of The Letters, Writings, and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell. Volume II, February 1649 to December 1653. A recent article in the Guardian about this book asks the question, “Has history got it wrong about Oliver Cromwell’s persecution of Catholics?

Sir Walter Scott, though he was a royalist, does not demonize his Cromwell character. Scott’s Cromwell is pompous and menacing, but he’s also rational, and he’s not gratuitously cruel.

As for Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell in Wolf Hall, I don’t know, except that according to the reviews I’ve read she is highly sympathetic to Cromwell. I tried to read Wolf Hall but could not get beyond the second page. It was some of the most atrocious writing I’ve ever tried to read, and I made the remark at the time that it’s a wonder that some writers aren’t killed by their editors. I was not the only one. According to Wikipedia, Susan Bassnet wrote in Times Higher Education, “[D]readfully badly written… Mantel just wrote and wrote and wrote. I have yet to meet anyone outside the Booker panel who managed to get to the end of this tedious tome. God forbid there might be a sequel, which I fear is on the horizon.” For no reason other than her horrible writing, I am highly skeptical of Hilary Mantel’s take on history.

As for what makes the question complicated, we might start by saying that it depended on where one lived. The English, the Scottish, and the Irish all had good reasons for seeing Cromwell differently. As for the doctrinal and political questions, they’re still argued today. Cromwell was a Puritan, and for that reason alone I can’t imagine that I could like him. In Waller R. Newell’s book Tyrants, Newell writes that “it would be hard to know whether to describe him as a Puritan Machiavellian or a Machavellian Puritan.” Here Newell does not intend the term “Machiavellian” as an insult; rather, he has in mind “the heart of Machiavelli’s dual endorsement of ‘princes’ and ‘peoples.'”

Whatever material historians may recently have uncovered that suggests that Cromwell was more tolerant of Catholics than was previously known, there is no disputing what Cromwell did in Ireland, where, according to Wikipedia, 15 to 50 percent of the population died from Cromwell’s war and the famine and plague that followed.

Here I confess a personal grudge against Cromwell, though it is purely speculative. My paternal ancestors arrived in Virginia at the very tail of the 17th Century. No one has been able to precisely determine where they came from, but the Y-DNA genetic evidence available today strongly suggests that they came from Ireland, not from England. The speculative theory of mine is that those two young brothers left Ireland because of the devastation and redistribution of property caused by Cromwell. They saw no future for themselves in Ireland.

There are grudges aplenty today as the old civil wars continue. We know what happened to King Charles I, and it seems that King Charles II was a pretty good guy. Just yesterday, King Charles III appeared in Scotland’s Dunfermline for some royal duties. According to the media, Charles III and his consort were cheered by the large crowd waiting to see them. When Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, appeared, there were boos along with the cheers. This surprises me, but it also shows how the complexities of the 17th Century live on. According to the Daily Mail, quoting a woman in the crowd:

“Remarking on the booing of Nicola Sturgeon she said: ‘That doesn’t surprise me. She thinks she is Queen of Scotland and doesn’t realise how many people dislike her. We are very happy with the Royal Family we have and with the union, thank you.’”

Another royalist, in Scotland. Yep. It’s complicated. And very little has been settled.


  1. Chenda wrote:

    You remind me David I have a collection of unread books by Christopher Hill, who was the seminal historian of this period in the 1970s. Hill was a superb writer and I’ve been meaning to read them.I think you are right, there is a lot of unfinished business from this time.

    Btw, the BBC did a period drama on Wolf Hall some years ago. I’ve not seen it but it was very well reviewed.

    Tuesday, October 4, 2022 at 6:50 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Chenda: Thank you, yes. I did not watch the BBC series because I disliked the book so much. As you say, it did get good reviews, and I believe that Ken has been watching it. If Ken sees this, maybe he will share his view.

    Tuesday, October 4, 2022 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Ken Ilgunas wrote:

    “Wolf Hall” is some of the best TV I’ve seen in years. It has courtly intrigue that’s as good as early GoT. The acting and sets are magnificent. All that said, I don’t know the history well enough to say that Mantel got it right. But as entertainment, it works.

    I’m surprised Mantel’s writing is so bad. I listened to a podcast of her being interviewed on Fresh Air, and Mantel seemed so perceptive, wise, and clearheaded. it’s a shame that that doesn’t make it to the page.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2022 at 7:44 pm | Permalink
  4. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Ken: Clearly many people like Mantel’s writing (or claim to), though that’s hard for me to comprehend. The entire thing is written in the present tense. I had to read sentences and paragraphs two or three times trying to figure out what was being imparted, and often the ambiguities were just not resolvable — for example, pronouns for which the antecedent could not be determined, or dialogue in which I couldn’t figure out who was talking. It would be exhausting to have to read a novel two or three times just to have read it once. I deemed that though there might be a story in it, I wasn’t willing to work that hard to try to puzzle it out. When texts are difficult because the subject matter requires it, I’m perfectly fine with that. I don’t shrink from dense and difficult texts. But in a novel there is just no excuse. I don’t know why editors and publishers put up with it. Intentional, invented, idiosyncratic vagueness, I think, is an affectation that some writers manage to pass off as literary. They see writing clearly as beneath them. It deceives people, and writers get awards for it.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2022 at 8:56 pm | Permalink
  5. Chenda wrote:

    Thank you @Ken, I will have to watch it.

    Thursday, October 6, 2022 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  6. Dan wrote:

    David, do you mind if I ask how much you read on a daily basis? I’m just curious because you seem to digest a lot of books.

    Thursday, October 6, 2022 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  7. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Dan: I read books for several hours a day most days. I also spend too much time on line, checking newspapers and periodicals. As for books, I usually have a fiction and a nonfiction book going at the same time. I have read a great deal my entire life, but now that I’m retired of course I read more. I buy a lot of books and have to keep having shelves made for them (I’ve run out of space for my shelves). I tend to become interested in a certain subject and pursue it for a while — physics, history, linguistics, some philosophy, and books that touch on politics such as Thomas Piketty’s or Fiona Hill’s. Just now, for fiction, I’m reading Sir Walter Scott until I can’t take any more, and so far I’m greatly enjoying Scott and have not reached the saturation point. I have a strange brain in that I’m as interested in technical stuff as in imaginative stuff. Both sides of my brain are voracious, and I have to take care to feed both sides. It’s a curse, but I’m an introvert and I live alone, so why not? 🙂

    Thursday, October 6, 2022 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  8. Henry Sandigo wrote:

    Entertaining blog re Cromwell. I watch a lot of British TV and from all the shows I have watched – I just surmised that Cromwell wasn’t a nice guy. I just completed the life of Anne Boleyn and it seems there was always someone out to get whomever was in the Kings favor. It is to me always a pious person out to get even. I know it is happening today in any power struggle. Liz Truss is being hammered by the press for her latest financial scheme and who got the sack, Kwasi Kwarteng – poor bugger took the knife for the PM.

    Friday, October 14, 2022 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  9. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Henry: I had a bad feeling about Liz Truss right from the start. Apparently she identifies with Thatcher. But from what I see, Truss has nothing like Thatcher’s intellect. Truss got hammered in the House a couple of days ago during prime minister’s question day. I particularly enjoyed listening to a member with a superb Scottish accent laying into her. 🙂

    Friday, October 14, 2022 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

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