Christopher Hill’s classic history biography God’s Englishman was published 50 years ago in 1970. It tells the story of the 17th century English revolutionary leader Oliver Cromwell. Soul City Wanderer briefs.
Split into 10 chapters, the first chapter of God’s Englishman acts as an introduction. The next three reveal the first 50 years of Oliver Cromwell’s life from his birth in 1599 to the year 1649, when King Charles I was beheaded on the orders of Cromwell and his allies. Chapters 5 to 7 cover Cromwell’s decade in power from 1649-58, and the final three chapters conclude. The author Christopher Hill (1912-2003), a confirmed Marxist, was an Oxford historian who focused on English 17th century history.
To be honest, Cromwell’s early life is not much to write home about. Born in Huntingdon in 1599, his father was the younger son of Sir Henry Cromwell. His mother was a farmer’s daughter. Cromwell went onto study at Cambridge University. In 1620, he married Elizabeth Bourchier (1598–1665), the daughter of a London merchant Sir John Bourchier. The wedding was held at St Giles-without-Cripplegate, London. By the mid-1630s, Cromwell was a well-to-do landowning member of the minor gentry living with his wife and eight children in Ely.
In Ely, the huge cathedral dominated the town. To Cromwell, it represented the constant bullying nature of the established Anglican church. He was an ‘Independent’ worshipper (Congregational, in effect meaning no priesthood), anti-uniformity, and believed in religious toleration for protestant faiths. As the religious crisis and subsequent civil war loomed, he suddenly experienced an epiphany and became convinced God would guide him to carry out His purpose. When Parliament was recalled in 1640, Cromwell was elected MP for Cambridge.
In chapter three, Hill explains how Cromwell became a military general. First he raised his own cavalry unit, the ‘Lovely Company’, to protect his native Anglia. Then he selected handpicked soldiers in vast numbers to form his ‘New Model Army’. They were well-drilled, disciplined and properly equipped for warfare. They were also loyal, and their officers were not necessarily leaders by virtue of birth right. Their tactics and training were matched by their religious fervour. God was on their side. His cavalry troopers, known as the ‘Ironsides’, charged into battle with the war cry: “The Lord of Hosts is among us”, and had the discipline, unlike the royalist cavalry, to regroup and charge again.
Free conscience and self-control are the key to Cromwell’s military greatness according to Hill. However, it is still something of a minor miracle Cromwell rose to such soldierly heights. He was 43 when war broke out in 1642, and had never fought before in his life.
I’d always gauged from other histories of Cromwell that he was a fairly straightforward principled man, but went to extreme lengths to force his beliefs on others. I also presumed that was one of his main drawbacks. However, what I gleaned from reading Hill’s book was actually how much of a Machiavellian character Cromwell was.
In the aftermath of the civil war, there were so many factions that the whole situation began to get very messy and complicated. Yet Cromwell was representing at least five major groups: the army generals, the army rank-and-file, the landed property class, Parliament, and the Congregationalist Church.
He seemed to enjoy playing strange games of ‘whack-a-mole’ with all the different disputes within those groups. For example, when Parliament reneged in settling the army’s back pay, sowing the seeds for its own destruction, it is suggested that Cromwell encouraged Parliament to provoke the army with false assurances, but at the same time secretly sowed discontent amongst the troops. A policy of divide and conquer?
Meanwhile, at the Putney Debates, the army generals argued for a propertied-class franchise, while the rank-and-file army, with the support of the Levellers, argued for near universal male suffrage. In effect, this was an argument between the middle class and the working class (having defeated the ruling class). Cromwell, with a boot in both camps, had a near impossible task trying to forge a compromise.
However, ‘luck’ was with him. The king had suddenly escaped from captivity, which allowed Cromwell to swerve the debate entirely. Some claim Cromwell made arrangements for the king to flee. Hill also wonders if the plot was contrived.
Cromwell’s Machiavellian character continued to pervade during his decade in power, 1649-58. In political negotiations among the many disparate religious factions such as the Baptists, Anabaptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Fifth Monarchists and Quakers, he employed divide and conquer tactics. Hill says that even amongst Cromwell’s contemporaries there were those who “suggested that Oliver deliberately maintained divisions among the religious sects in order to play one off against the other.”
What Hill shows, is that Cromwell wasn’t as so much single-minded as he was multi-faceted. We see how he allowed the immigrant Jewish community to operate and worship with impunity in England for the first time in 400 years. We see how he made great strides in pursuing British business interests abroad with great success. We see his strategic genius in persuading the military navy that it was their chief duty to protect the merchant navy, ensuring British mastery of the seas for the next three centuries. And, we see his cruellest side that he took to Ireland. It appears that he was not particularly anti-Irish or anti-Catholic per se, but somehow the combination of being Irish and Catholic drew his ire, and his wrath was tyrannical and merciless.
Cromwell was not the only duplicitous character in this whole saga. There were many others, including his most powerful general, George Monck. As ‘kingmaker’ Monck swapped sides as much as his War of the Roses predecessor, the Earl of Warwick. It was Monck, of course, who facilitated the return of the monarchy two years after Cromwell’s death.
Without first-hand evidence, Hill cannot establish if Cromwell had indeed studied Machiavelli’s The Prince. What Hill does suggest, however, is that Cromwell’s rise to the top would have required the mind of a Machiavellian genius.
Christopher Hill: God’s Englishman (1970). Penguin Classics, 2000.