Barry Coward is one of the leading names in mid-17th-century studies. His new book on the Cromwellian protectorate is testimony to the unstoppable fascination that this period exerts three and a half centuries after the original events, and provides the author with an opportunity to extend, rethink and revise what he has offered previously on this subject.
It is part of a series titled New Frontiers in History and a lively and well-organised textbook, one that will be much used. It carefully synthesises a large body of relevant recent writing. Its subdivided chapters are easy to negotiate. It has a helpful bibliographical essay and a useful compendium of extracts from primary sources at the end.
(Fortunately, given its abysmal standards of reproduction, only one of these is visual rather than documentary.) A good case is made here for viewing the Protectorate as a "more effective, reforming regime" than most earlier treatments have recognised. Coward does well to remind his readers that a quest for godly reformation and not simply a search for political stability was one of its principal hallmarks and that this does much to explain the "siege mentality" that often characterised it.
Oliver Cromwell comes across as both an idealist and an adroit and ruthless politician who was prepared to ride roughshod over the law. Even Richard Cromwell, his son, gets a better press than usual; much less emphasis is placed on his own shortcomings than on the minefield surrounding him. There are sensible discussions of the barebones Parliament, the limits of religious toleration in the 1650s, the major generals, Scotland and Ireland under the protectorate, and Cromwell's foreign policy.
The Cromwellian protectorate might not have been the "turning point" in British history some historians have claimed it was, but it cannot be written off either as a failure or as a mere interlude between the heat and turmoil of the 1640s and an "inevitable" restoration of the monarchy and Anglican church in 1660.
Coward makes clear the continuities and discontinuities of the 1650s and argues forcefully that the impact of the Protectorate on the emergence of the modern fiscal state, on the political culture and religious structure of England, and on the course of Irish history was long lasting.
R. C. Richardson is professor of history, King Alfred's College, Winchester.
The Cromwellian Protectorate. First edition
Author - Barry Coward
ISBN - 0 7190 4316 6 and 4317 4
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £47.50 and £14.99
Pages - 248