(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

The story is told that when Oliver Cromwell sat for an official portrait as Lord Protector, he directed the artist to “paint me as I am, wart and all,” without idealizing or distorting. In the three centuries since Cromwell sat for that portrait, many artists, biographers, even dramatists have tried to show the great Puritan as he truly was, “wart and all.” A most recent attempt to understand and explain Cromwell is this biography by Roger Howell, professor of history and President of Bowdoin College. Howell has written several worthwhile books and numerous articles on English history and is currently the editor of British Studies Monitor. This biography is a conventional, nearly chronological, tracing of the life of Cromwell from birth to death, concentrating almost exclusively on Cromwell’s military and political accomplishments.

In the first chapters, Cromwell’s early years are sketched. Born into a family of country gentry of Huntingdonshire, Oliver was sent to the school of Dr. Thomas Beard, where he seems to have learned “small Latin and less Greek,” but received heavy indoctrination in the theology of puritan Christianity. Young Cromwell was then accepted as a Fellow Commoner at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. That college was a hotbed of Puritan piety at the time, and the young man’s religious bent must have been further fortified by his associations there. He had to leave after only one year’s attendance when his father died; as the only son in the family, Oliver returned to manage the family lands.

Information of Cromwell’s life between 1617 and 1628 is sparse. His enemies later circulated talk that, in this period, Cromwell had been a dissolute person who did excessive drinking, gambling, and wenching. If those charges are true—and Cromwell’s own assertion some years later that he had once been a great sinner lends some credence—the wild life did not last long. In 1620, he married Elizabeth Bourchier, daughter of a wealthy London merchant, and together they settled down to a life of quiet respectability.

The Cromwell family were related by blood or marriage to many of the leading gentry of the region: the Hampdens, Whalleys, St. Johns, and others were his “cousinry.” Men from those families would, in time, be among the leaders of parliamentary opposition to the Stuart monarchy. Through his connection with those cousins, Cromwell’s political attitudes were being formed.

His own respected status and the ties of his relatives enabled Cromwell to be elected to the Parliament in 1628 as a burgess from Huntingdon. Little notice was taken of the unsophisticated young squire. One observer noted that Cromwell made an “impetuous” speech in support of the Petition of Right, one of the early efforts by the parliamentarians to curb the powers of the Crown. Cromwell was not among the parliamentary leadership, but he was marked as a man with strong feelings about the rights and liberties of Englishmen.

In 1636, Cromwell inherited properties around Ely in East Anglia and went to live there. About that time, he also underwent a religious conversion, a rebirth of his Christian faith: “I lived in and loved darkness,” he wrote to a cousin, “yet God had mercy on me. Blessed be His name for shining upon a heart so dark as mine.” By the grace of God, Cromwell believed that he had joined the Company of Saints, “the congregation of the first-born” who had been chosen to lead an upright life dedicated to Christian piety and the propagation of the faith. Religion, more than ever, became the central influence on his thoughts and conduct.

His devotion to the Puritan faith and to English liberties were thus fixed and well known when Cromwell was elected again to sit in the Parliament of 1640. His activities in this so-called Short Parliament were not of sufficient importance to be mentioned in the records, and, indeed, the Short Parliament itself accomplished nothing of note except to further exacerbate the differences between itself and the king; it was soon dissolved. New elections were held that same year (1640), and Cromwell was again returned. This new assembly eventually would be called the Long Parliament because it sat for thirteen years, being dissolved by Cromwell himself in 1653. It was the Long Parliament that broke with the king and made civil war against the Crown.

Opposition to the Crown in the first months of the Long Parliament coalesced around John Pym, whose intention was to bind the king “hand and foot” by establishing parliamentary control over royal finances, ministerial responsibility, and the command of the armies. Cromwell supported those limitations on the royal prerogative, but the chief issue—as he said himself—was religious freedom; to end the authority of the Anglican hierarchy over “tender consciences” like his own. Accordingly, he supported and worked for the passage of the Root and Branch Bill to abolish the Anglican bishops and their coercive powers, and to end the required usage of the Book of Common Prayer in English churches.

Cromwell was still not in the front rank of parliamentary leadership during 1641, but when Pym and other leaders drew up a lengthy summary of all the grievances that the Parliament held against state and Church governance, called the Grand Remonstrance, Cromwell worked to have it passed and printed, declaring that if the Grand Remonstrance had not passed he would have sold all that he had “and not seen England more.” He had considered emigrating to New England as other Saints of the time were doing.

He did not emigrate, of course, but stayed to work for some accommodation between the prerogative claims of King Charles and the demands of the Parliament for reform. As Howell points out, Cromwell was no republican intending to destroy the monarchy at this time. Rather, he hoped and worked for some amicable agreements between the Parliament and the Crown.

Finally, however, no satisfactory agreements could be reached, and in the summer of 1642, Parliament declared war on the King. Although not an extreme antimonarchist, Cromwell inevitably sided with the Parliament.

Now forty-three years old and lacking in formal military training, Cromwell was nevertheless appointed a colonel of horse. He returned to East Anglia to recruit a “godly troop . . . of honest, sober Christians” to oppose the royal forces. He insisted that his men conduct themselves in an exemplary fashion, and he...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Choice. XIV, November, 1977, p. 1267.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, March 1, 1977, p. 261.

Library Journal. CII, May 1, 1977, p. 1010.

New York Review of Books. XXIV, June 9, 1977, p. 39.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXI, March 7, 1977, p. 94.

Times Literary Supplement. December 9, 1977, p. 1453.