Rewriting Cromwell: A Case of Deafening Silences

By Morrill, John | Canadian Journal of History, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Rewriting Cromwell: A Case of Deafening Silences


Morrill, John, Canadian Journal of History


I

In December 1999, the BBC ran a competition amongst its listeners for the UK "person of the Millennium." On Millennium Eve 1999 they announced the result. First, by a distance, was William Shakespeare. Second was Winston Churchill and third, close behind, was Oliver Cromwell. This great general, whose revolution died with him, had a higher positive rating than any of the forty monarchs to have occupied the English throne since 1066. It is but one token of his high and positive profile: there are 250 Cromwell Streets in the UK, one in every city and one in almost every county town. There are currently 400 web-sites that seek to commemorate him. These include one devoted to him as an exemplar of good family values, one devoted to exploring his institutionalized violence against the people of Ireland, several devoted to making available key passages from his letters and speeches, and one devoted to commemorating a black slave who had been given the name Oliver Cromwell and had been decorated for his courage in the American Civil War. George V may have vetoed Churchill's intention in 1915 to name a battleship The Cromwell, but George VI made no objection to the naming of a class of tanks that helped to win World War II after him. He is even memorialized musically: a folk song bearing his name was edited by Benjamin Britten in 1938. A nursery rhyme that can be first traced back to the late seventeenth century begins "Oliver Cromwell lay buried and dead, hee-haw, buried and dead." The most extraordinary musical evocation is undoubtedly the rendering of a John Cleese prose poem by the Monty Python Team (in the film The Meaning of Life [1983]) that tells the life of Cromwell set to the music of a polonaise by Chopin. (2)

He has become one of the great, rugged figures of English history. More than twenty biographies by academic historians have been published in the past fifty years. With one qualified exception they have been laudatory, have commended his integrity, his reliance upon his God, his brilliance as a soldier, his restless energy as head of state. There are varying estimates of the long-term effects of his role in the British Revolutions; but no doubting that he was a man to be admired.

Of course, this has never been the Irish view of Cromwell. The Irish remember him as the man responsible for the mass slaughter of civilians at Drogheda and Wexford (3) and as the agent of the greatest episode of ethnic cleansing ever experienced in Western Europe as, within a decade, the percentage of land possessed by Catholics born in Ireland dropped from sixty to twenty. In a decade, the ownership of two-fifths of the land mass was transferred from Irish Catholics to British Protestants. (4) The gap between Irish and the English views of the seventeenth-century conquest remains unbridgeable and is governed by G.K. Chesterton's mirthless epigram of 1917, that "it was a tragic necessity that the Irish should remember it; but it was far more tragic that the English forgot it." (5)

II

Why should I want to add to the stack of biographies? How can I possibly imagine that I can say anything distinctive about Cromwell?

First, I had better explain my interest in historical biography, and then in the biography of Oliver Cromwell. An interest in writing historical biography has grown on me gradually, incrementally. I have always been interested in how men and women in the past made sense of their world. I do believe it is possible to enter into the minds of people in the past, in just the same way as it is possible to enter into the minds of people in the present; and that we can do that not only with those we know and like but with those whose background and experience is different from our own. We can only do so partially but each one of us bases her or his life on the ability to do exactly that: to be able to predict how most people will behave most of the time.6 1 have come to learn that people in the past become predictable in their behaviour in much the same way as people in the present become predictable. …

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