God's Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell

April 12, 2012

Much of Blair Worden's recent work has been devoted to exploring the interface between literature and history in early modern England. Marchamont Nedham, Andrew Marvell and John Milton came together in his Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England (2007). Milton features in Worden's latest publication, too, with a whole chapter given over to an examination of his new-found interest in politics in the overheated 1640s and to his studied choices of poetry or prose as appropriate vehicles at different times for the expression of his agenda.

But in general this volume chiefly marks a return to Worden's long-standing interest in the parliamentary history of the mid-17th century, the subject of his very first book, The Rump Parliament 1648-53 (1974). Here it is the "broken political landscape" and its shifting currents of the 1650s that come under review, with Oliver Cromwell pre-eminent among the self-perceived "God's Instruments" of the title. (By contrast, the Royalist Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, receives chapter-length treatment here chiefly as a committed opponent, and exiled observer, of those who brought down Charles I.) Parliaments and councils loom large in this book. Worden makes clear, like others before him, that the mid-century revolution, in creating a kingless state, far outran its original purposes and involved much political improvisation in the process. "Republic" and "republican" featured very little in the political vocabulary of the times; "commonwealth" and "protector" appeared to offer more advantages as home-grown and unrevolutionary terms. Resistance to the return of kingship, Worden emphasises, was "pragmatic rather than ideological".

Contemporary notions of "providence", the imprint of an omnipresent God, are systematically examined in these pages, as are changing concepts of religious and political liberty both among Cromwell's and Milton's contemporaries and among later disciples such as John Toland and Whig commentators and historians in 19th-century England and 20th-century America. Chapter eight, especially, has a pronounced historiographical dimension. The ideas and slogans of the 1640s and 1650s had an apparently unstoppable resonance, although in due course many anachronisms crept in. Religious toleration, for instance, a revered principle in later times, was completely alien to almost all those who lived through the 1640s and 1650s. Cromwell's readmission of the Jews, for example, is probably best understood as an attempt to convert them to Christianity.

The book consists of a collection of essays, all but one previously published. They vary greatly in length and there are inevitable overlaps. But the essays have been carefully revised, a new introduction glues them together, and a meticulously comprehensive index makes for easy cross-referencing. Much scholarship is paraded here and the result does not always make for easy reading. Chapter four (on Cromwellian Oxford) runs to more than 100 pages and is underpinned by 717 footnotes. For the reader who perseveres, however, insights and pithy verdicts abound. Worden has an enviable armoury of telling contemporary quotations at his command. And he writes in a gently argumentative way, engaging with other historians without being brutal or belittling.

Worden's preferred descriptive label for this period is apparently "Puritan Revolution", the one that - on somewhat different grounds - found favour with the Whigs. The term "God's Instruments" underlines the high-mindedness and moral purposes of those like Cromwell who sought stability in the post-1649 years. But Cromwell, not without reason, aroused distrust and opposition, even among former supporters, for his double-dealing, expediency and manipulations, and for ambitions that ran counter to perceptions of what the "Good Old Cause" of the 1640s had stood for. The naked power struggle in these years between Army and Parliament, although understandable under the circumstances, shows "God's Instruments" in another light. Then, as now, politics could be a raw and unedifying business.

God's Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell

By Blair Worden. Oxford University Press. 440pp, £35.00. ISBN 9780199570492. Published 22 March 2012.

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