Sir Walter Scott on Oliver Cromwell: An Evenhanded Royalist Evaluates a Usurper

By Trela, D. J. | CLIO, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Sir Walter Scott on Oliver Cromwell: An Evenhanded Royalist Evaluates a Usurper


Trela, D. J., CLIO


Historian W. C. Abbott once remarked that "Of all the characters in English history there is not one more vividly remembered, whether for good or ill, than Oliver Cromwell."(1) While this observation still holds true today for Britons with some sense of history, the division of opinion during the early decades of the nineteenth century was much more virulent. Points of view then seem to have been much more sharply drawn along political and religious. Partisan analysis of the Civil Wars was common in both historical and literary works while balanced appraisals were virtually nonexistent. The chief exception can be found in Sir Walter Scott's 1826 novel Woodstock.(2) In this essay I hope to present Scott's relatively evenhanded assessment of Cromwell by analyzing the novel as well as Scott's Tales of a Grandfather, and also by briefly comparing the novel with works of fiction and historical writing on the Civil Wars published during the same period. Before reviewing the early nineteenth-century view on Cromwell, consider the following exchange from an 1847 novel:

"This afternoon . . . I was wondering how a man who

wished to do right could act so unjustly and unwisely as

Charles the First sometimes did; and I thought what a pity

it was that, with his integrity and conscientiousness, he

could see no farther than the prerogatives of the crown. If

he had but been able to look to a distance, and see how

what they call the spirit of the age was tending! Still, I

like Charles--I respect him--I pity him--I pity him, poor

murdered king! Yes, his enemies were the worst; they

shed blood they had no right to shed. How dared they kill

him!"

The speaker is Helen Burns; the novel, Jane Eyre; the setting, Lowood School. Helen and Jane had studied the Civil Wars that day. Their instructors, teaching in an institution intended for the daughters of poor Anglican clergymen, seem to have inculcated a proper loyalist attitude toward the martyred king.(3) The exchange lasts scarcely a paragraph, but nonetheless suggests how the nation's seventeenth-century history pervaded nineteenth-century attitudes.

In earlier writings, I have summarized at greater length opinions on Cromwell as they tended to divide on religious and political lines.(4) Briefly, Tories like Robert Southey were the most violently opposed to Cromwell for his having killed a lawful monarch and upset established institutions. Whigs like Thomas Macaulay praised Cromwell's administration, his cautious promotion of religious liberty and relatively liberal government, but ignored the importance his religious beliefs had on his actions. Radicals generally felt Cromwell had betrayed the cause for which he originally fought. It was only among marginalized Dissenters that Cromwell was warmly admired for his military and administrative virtues as well as for his religious toleration. Dissenters generally viewed his own religious faith as the central facet of his character. Hardly anyone in these four groups can be said to have originated a firmly balanced view of Cromwell except, as I will argue, for Scott. Perhaps because of his own Tory leanings and the fact that his most extended treatment of Cromwell came in a work of fiction, Scott's contribution to the restoration of Cromwell's character has been largely ignored. Scott's balanced assessment, however, is all the more remarkable when compared to the general imbalance his fellow historians evinced, in particular his fellow Tories.

Conservative writers generally ran a close second to Radicals in the virulence of their anti-Cromwell sentiments. Robert Southey, for example, emphasized the disruption and violence of the war and the nobility of the martyred King Charles, both matters that Scott also would stress. Cromwell by contrast was a "rare dissembler" and a "hard and vulgar ruffian." "He gained three kingdoms; the price which he paid for them was innocence and peace of mind. …

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