Page 6, 25th September 1970

25th September 1970
Page 6

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Locations: Dublin, Belfast, Rome, Derry


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God's Englishman Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution by Christopher Hill (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 50s.) IN 1958, the present Master of Baliol wrote an essay for the Historical Association to mark the tercentenary of Oliver Cromwell's death. This book is an ex, panded version of that essay to the extent of some 300 pages, and as an academic exercise it cannot be faulted.

It is not a biography designed to show Cromwell "warts and all," but a closely reasoned analysis of his character, personality, and policies and their results, by the author of Lenin and the Revolutie)n and other "revolutionary" studies. It is sustained throughout by a wealth of quotations from contemporary and later sources including Stalin, who not surprisingly admired Cromwell for having, as he put it in an interview with H. G. Wells. taken up arms "in the name of the constitution . . . executed the king, dissolved Parliament, imprisoned some and beheaded others."

Christopher Hill sees Cromwell in the context of his revolutionary achievements, although these achievements were by no means the result of his deliberate design. He was therefore no conscious revolutionary like Robespierre or Lenin. Nevertheless he left a tremendous imprint upon his country's subsequent development.

Dr. Hill sums it up thus:—

The British Empire, the colonial wars which built it up, the slave trade based on

Oliver's conquest o f Jamaica, the plunder of India resulting from his restitution and backing of the East India Company, the exploitation of Ireland; a free market, free from government interference and from government protection of the poor; Parliamentary government, the local supremacy of Ws, the Union of England and Scotland; religious toleration, the nonconformist conscience, relative freedom of the press, an attitude favourable to science; a country of landlords, capitalist farmers and agricultural labourers, the only country in Europe with no peasantry: none of these would have come about in quite the same way without the English Revolution. without Oliver Cromwell.

Consider religious toleration. Cromwell certainly believed in it as a matter of principle, as well as because it was an asset to fighting morale. "Truly I think he that prays best will fight best," he declared in 1650.

"1 had rather that Mahometanism were permitted amongst us than that one of God's children should be persecuted." In such beliefs he was with the radicals, and, as Dr. Hill points out, we must never forget how very subversive these beliefs appeared to his contemporaries -not only to royalists but to conservative Parliamentarians.

Cromwell's religious toleration extended from the Presbyterians to the Jews. The latter were encouraged to settle in England as refugees from Spain and Portugal and their contributions to English trade, commerce and banking were by no means inconsiderable. Dr. Hill dismisses this achievement in one short sentence.

He might well have devoted a little more space to it, as he does, for example, to Cromwell's attitude to the Catholics. With the English Catholics he was relatively easy; Catholic historians agree that their co-religionists were better off during the Lord Protector's rule than they ever had been under James I and Charles I. But it was quite another matter with the Irish.

"For that which you mention concerning liberty of conscience, I meddle not with any man's conscience," Cromwell told one of the military governors in Ireland. "But if by liberty of conscience, you mean a liberty to exercise the Mass, I judge it best to use plain dealing, and to let you know that, where the Parliament of England have power, that will not be allowed of." In 1649 he told the Irish Catholic priesthood that the Mass had been illegal in Ireland for 80 years before the rebellion of 1641, and that he was determined to reinforce this law "and to reduce things to their former state in this behalf."

The Irish rising, encouraged by the priesthood and the papacy itself, had shown the utter failure of 80 years of proscription to uproot Catholicism in Ireland or to sever its links with Rome. By contrast, the English Catholics were weak in the 1640s; indeed lack of effective foreign contacts at this time surprised the Puritans and Parliamentarians. Cromwell regarded Irish Catholicism as essentially a political religion, as those who dwell today in Belfast's Shankill Road and behind Derry's walls regard the faith of 'those in the Falls and Bogside, following an example which goes back for more than three centuries. In other words, in Northern Irish Protestant eyes Irish Catholicism is still synonymous with treason and disloyalty to the British connection. For this reason Northern Ireland's first Prime M mister Lord Craigavon wanted the local legislature to be "a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people," although two-thirds of the inhabitants of Ulster were Catholics. Broadly speaking, Cromwell wanted the same in Dublin for the whole of Ireland.

However, most students of English history will probably agree that Cromwell deserves his statue outside Westminster Hall.

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