Top 10 Lockdown History Books: 8/10: God’s Englishman by Christopher Hill

During the 2020 lockdown, Soul City Wanderer took the opportunity to catch up on his history book reading: These are his top ten recommendations from the pile he ploughed through (in no particular order). 8/10: God’s Englishman by Christopher Hill.

Soul City Wanderer’s own book Soul City Wandering was released in 2020. Available in paperback or on Kindle, it encourages readers to rediscover their urban surroundings.

God’s Englishman (1970) by Christopher Hill (Penguin Classics, 2000)

The Prince That Wasn’t a Prince

The 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.

The author Christopher Hill (1912-2003), was an Oxford University historian who focused on English 17th-century history. He was also a confirmed Marxist. The book is split into 10 chapters. The first 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.

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 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 and towered over the Cromwell home. To Cromwell, it represented the constant bullying nature of the established Anglican church. He was an anti-uniformity ‘Independent’ worshipper (also termed as ‘Congregational’. In effect, meaning no priesthood). He also believed in religious toleration for other protestant faiths.

As the religious crisis of the early 17th-century loomed with an apparently inevitable civil war, he experienced a sudden epiphany. He became convinced he would be guided to carry out God’s purpose. When Parliament was recalled in 1640, Cromwell was elected MP for Cambridge.

In chapter three, Hill explains how Cromwell became a military general. According to the author, free conscience and self-control were the key to Cromwell’s military greatness. However, it is still something of a minor miracle Cromwell rose to such soldierly heights at all: he was 43 when war broke out in 1642, and had never fought before in his life.

First he raised his own unit, the ‘Lovely Company’, to protect his native Anglia. Then he selected handpicked soldiers in vast numbers to form his ‘New Model Army’, led by officers who were not necessarily selected by virtue of birth-right. The troops were loyal, well-drilled, and properly equipped for warfare. His cavalry, known as the ‘Ironsides’, had the military discipline to regroup and charge again, unlike the royalist cavalry. Their tactics and training were matched by their religious fervour. God was on their side. They charged into battle with the war cry: “The Lord of Hosts is among us.”

I’d always gauged from reading other histories of Cromwell that he was a fairly straightforward man of principle, and perhaps one of his main drawbacks was that he went to extreme lengths to enforce his beliefs on others. However, what I gleaned from reading Hill’s book was that Cromwell’s principles could be actually quite fluid, and how much of a Machiavellian character he was.

There were so many factions in the aftermath of Cromwell’s Civil War victory, that rather than resolving the political situation, it got even more complicated. Cromwell himself represented at least five major stake-holding 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. Yet at the same time he secretly sowed discontent amongst the troops. A policy of divide-and-conquer?

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 historians claim Cromwell made arrangements for the king to flee. Hill especially suggests 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 again 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.”

In running the country, 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.

It has to be said that Cromwell was not the only duplicitous character in this whole saga. There were many others. For example, his most powerful general George Monck. As ‘kingmaker’, Monck swapped sides as much as his predecessor from the War of the Roses, 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 infer, 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.


Soul City Wanderer’s own book Soul City Wandering was released in 2020. Available in paperback or on Kindle, it encourages readers to rediscover their urban surroundings.

“A great book… a great guide.

Poems… music… history… and fantastic ways to… go for walks”

Robert Elms, BBC Radio London
Soul City Wandering – the 5-star rated top ten bestseller

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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