July 26, 2009

Oliver Williams or the Welsh Cromwell

Thomas Carlyle, the great nineteenth century historian and thinker, was often wrong- but when he was wrong was spectacularly wrong. Witness for example this statement

Facts, even trifling facts, when indisputable may have significance but Welsh Pedigrees... are highly unsatisfactory to the ingenuous mind.

Carlyle was talking about Oliver Cromwell who was several generations back a Welshman, descended from the Williamses of southern Wales. Carlyle, as Lloyd Bowen suggests in a very interesting article in Patrick Little's recent collection on Cromwell, was completely wrong. Cromwell's Welshness mattered a great deal both to the man himself and to the course of British history. It is noticeable that Cromwell was JP for only two counties- the Isle of Ely (where he served as a military governor) and Monmouthshire. His Protectorate arms and regalia were enthused with Welsh symbols: the centre of his arms bore the coat of Caredig Lord of Powys, the standards of Ynyr (King of Gwentland), Iestyn ap Gwrgant (last native ruler of Glamorgan), the red dragon of Cadwalladr and the arms of Cynfrig Sais accompanied the Protector with flags commemorating his Welsh ancestors, to his tomb in 1658. Even his personal seal had a Welsh flavour, it incorporated the quarterings of Madoc ap Meredith (prince of Powys), Iesyn ap Gwrgant (prince of Glamorgan), Collwyn ap Tangno (a Dark age Lord) and Caradoc Freichfras (a sixth century King of Gwent). Cromwell even mentioned to John Williams, Archbishop of York, that the two men shared a Welsh heritage.

Sentimental attachment is one thing- but an actual policy influence is another. Bowen shows, in my opinion, the first and he clarifies for historians evidence that we already should realise indicates the latter. After all Cromwell dissolved the Rump Parliament in 1653 partly because of his irritation about plans to interfere with the Commission for the Propagation of the Gospels. Many of Cromwell's early allies in the Commons were Welsh MPs- most importantly Sir Robert Harley, MP for Monmouthshire- and its noticeable that as the Welsh Puritans became more radical they turned from Harley to Cromwell himself to petition. Many of these figures within the Welsh Puritan world became important figures in the Commonwealth and Protectorate- Colonel Phillip Jones was a key figure both in the New Model Army and in the Council of State for example. There are other more minor figures than Jones whose histories run on from the moment of their engagement with Cromwell in 1642 right up until their or his end: one might think of William Erbury, a constant presence in London and at the army headquarters in the late 40s and a Welsh preacher, or Morgan Llwyd, the famous Welsh Fifth Monarchist. Bowen can't prove that the two things are tied together and he leaves his readers to speculate- like a good historian he goes no further than his evidence will take him.

I think though that as a unserious blogger the evidence is suggestive- that Cromwell's Welshness influenced a particular tinge in the Protector's interests. It made it harder for him to argue that the Welsh like the Irish were inherently barbaric- despite Welsh conservatism in religion- because he was descended from them. As Bowen shows it opened roots of patronage from Wales to the Protector- but its worth noting as well that Cromwell responded to that patronage- he held offices and eventually confiscated royalist lands in Wales- he advocated for Welsh petitions and supported Welsh politicians. The evidence suggests that contrary to Carlyle a full understanding of Cromwell's policy needs to take into account the fact that he was Oliver Williams as well as Oliver Cromwell. Bowen has shown us that yet again Carlyle, excellent phrase maker though he was, was no judge of what was a significant minor detail.


James Higham said...

You always bring in a fresh angle and that makes for interesting reading.

Sulla said...

Very interesting I'd say that the Welsh's conservatism was different enough from the Irish's Tridentine Catholicism that a distinction was likely in any case. They seem much like the Scottish who similarly were regarded differently despite their Presbyterianism and in some cases outright Catholicism .And i thought Cromwell was positive about he small number of Irish Protestants (though am open to correction!) .

To be widely speculative on the other hand I wonder if his Welsh connections didn’t’ give him access to party of the country which lacked the clear puritan networks of his home- and may explain why he did not support the Presbyterians that arguably in many ways develops out of those puritan networks. Ie that his break with the parliament may partly have been shaped by a Welsh experience where puritans were “independents” out of necessity if nothing else.