Reviewed by Sir Charles Petrie
Oliver Cromwell is alleged to have said: "No man goes so far as the man who does not know how far he is going." His own career as described by the present author supports this statement.
Lady Antonia has been at great pains to penetrate the recesses of her hero's mind, and she has undoubtedly succeeded in enabling her readers to look at the world of the midseventeenth century through his eyes. Certainly not everybody will agree with his outlook, but it is a notable achievement to have been able to interpret it for the reading public of today.
What is often forgotten in considering Cromwell's career is that the era in which he lived was a revolutionary one. In Germany the Thirty Years' War had created a desert, while in France. Spain, and Italy there were disturbances which came within an ace of overturning the existing order.
Such being the case, it was hardly to be expected that Britain would escape the contagion, and, as it actually happened, the disruptive forces gained a greater triumph here than anywhere else owing to the existence of certain conditions, which receive close scrutiny in this book, particularly favourable to them. It would, indeed, be a grave mistake to ignore the international aspect of English revolutionary movements, and in this instance they were but part of the general revolt against authority: Lady Antonia is careful to point out that from his early days in public life Cromwell was opposed to all authority save his own — and God's, which he soon came to equate with his own. The Protectorate was the prototype of many a dictatorial regime of later times. It was a reaction against the licence of the sectaries, and an attempt to get back to all which the old monarchy had stood on its material side, but without restoring the rightful monarch.
At the same time it cannot be denied that Cromwell came a great deal nearer to ultimate victory than most of his more recent imitators, and had he lived longer, or had he left a reasonably competent elder son, and, above all, had he not pursued so fatal a foreign policy, the House of Cromwell might have established itself, as the House of Hanover subsequently succeeded in doing. Even so, it could only have secured itself by doing what the two Napoleons for a time managed to do — that is to say by obtaining the support of those who would normally have been the foremost defenders of the old dynasty. It would ad mittedly have been difficult for Oliver, who had played so prominent a part in the execution of Charles I, to have done this; but Richard might have been more successful.
As it was, the Proteetwate represented but the rule of a faction that kept one man in power by brute force. Oliver realised this fact most clearly, and he did all that he could to get out of so difficult a position. He toyed with the idea of reestablishing the monarchy in his own person, and he attempted to draw up a constitution which should broaden the basis of his rule, just as Napoleon 1 I I was to do 200 years later. It was all in vain, and in his short lifetime as Lord Protector there was a gulf between him and the mass of the English people which no constitutional compromise could bridge. The victories of his incomparable soldiers were not the triumphs of England but of his party, and the Royalists could fight for Philip IV of Spain without the great majority of their fellowcountrymen thinking any the worse of them for it.
The present author has done her best for Cromwell, and she argues his case very skilfully: we are left with the conviction that as a statesman he was under no illusions as to the weakness of his hold upon the supreme power, and that he never desired to rule merely in the name of a section. The first of these facts is a tribute to his head, and the second to his heart.