Britain's networking president

Oliver Cromwell
April 5, 2002

This is not a textbook in the conventional sense. It belongs to a series titled Reputations, which takes major individuals from the past, unpacks their contemporary and later significance, using them as a point of entry to a particular period. The series, aimed at undergraduates and sixth-formers, is very Anglo-centric - 11 of the 19 volumes so far published or projected are on British leaders - and weighted principally towards the 19th and 20th centuries.

Cromwell finds a place here, however, as a unique figure in British history as this country's only president - and because of all the controversies that surrounded him at the time he lived and later. Few other historical reputations have been so hotly contested.

Although other historians have already provided recent and easily accessible studies of Cromwell - those by Peter Gaunt (1996) and Barry Coward (1991) spring instantly to mind - Davis's is distinctively different and will undoubtedly find new readers. It is a biographical study, not a biography, with a pronounced historiographical dimension, as befits a volume in a series devoted to shifting reputations. Davis re-examines the available sources for a study of Cromwell's life, guides the reader through the lord protector's many paradoxes, and tests the claims made by some later commentators that Cromwell is best understood as a paradigm of the Puritan revolution.

Unlike many other treatments of this subject, including a recent television documentary, Davis makes determined efforts to avoid depicting Cromwell in isolation, as a self-made man, titanic hero or lonely dictator. Networking among relations, co-religionists and the politically and militarily like-minded is argued here as the key to understanding Cromwell's career.

The networks were not necessarily constant, re-building was at times required and sometimes proved impossible. But it was such networks, Davis contends, that enabled this downwardly mobile country gentleman first to establish himself and attract notice and then succeed in the military and political contexts of the civil wars.

Cromwell's aptitude for learning, furthermore, compensated for his lack of military training. His originality as a military commander - particularly his bold innovations in the deployment of cavalry - stemmed from the fact that he had not been constrained to wage war by the book. All this is well handled, and further assistance is provided by the inclusion of a chronology, bibliography and extremely full references.

R. C. Richardson is professor of history, King Alfred's College, Winchester.

Oliver Cromwell

Author - J.C. Davis
ISBN - 0 340 73 117 6 and 73118 4
Publisher - Arnold
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 243

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