July 16, 2009

The Unmaking of Oliver Cromwell

Simon Healy's essay in Patrick Little's recent collection of essays about Oliver Cromwell is one of the more interesting things written about him that I have read recently. Healy has done thorough research into Cromwell's early life and what he has found indicates some interesting things about Cromwell's position in life, his personality and his religion. Almost any student of Cromwell's life can quote a letter that he wrote to Oliver St John's wife in 1636, in which Cromwell famously says

My soul is with the congregation of the first born, my body rests in hope and if here I may honour God by doing or by suffering, I shall be most glad... You know what my manner of life hath been. Oh I lived in and loved darkness and hated the light. I was a chief, the chief of sinners. This is true, I hated godliness, yet God had mercy upon me. O the riches of his mercy.

Cromwell's statement has often been interpreted as what it is- a confession of religious conversion in the late 1630s. However Healy argues that there is more to this statement than that- that it reflects the fact that Cromwell in the 1630s was repenting for his unscrupulousness- that the future Protector may well have been attempting to convince not merely Mrs St John, but her husband and their friends that he was not untrustworthy or malicious but a true upstanding Christian.

Healy suggests why Cromwell might have needed to do this by examining in detail his movements in the 1630s. Cromwell was elected to Parliament in 1629 and had in the late 1620s emerged as the loser in a long factional fight in Huntingdon politics against his former schoolmaster Dr Thomas Beard (a struggle most discovered and documented by John Morrill). What happened then was very unusual- for Cromwell sold all his lands in Huntingdon and moved to St Ives- he was waiting on an inheritance from his rich uncle, Sir Thomas Steward. In July 1635 though something happened- we have evidence of a hearing in Cambridgeshire about an accusation that Sir Thomas was mad and so ought to be disseized of his estates. This was not unusual- mental incompetence could lead to your heirs holding your estates- what was unusual is that Sir Thomas proved he was sane and consequently held onto his estates. Healy suggests and brings evidence to bear that Cromwell may have been behind this incorrect accusation- hoping to push the old man out of his estates because he would not go into a grave quick enough. Furthermore he suggests that Cromwell's inheritance may have been diminished because of that- that when Sir Thomas eventually did die he encumbered his property deliberately with all his debts, (usually debts were matched off against the deceased's movables). Cromwell's letter becomes therefore a redemptive document aimed at persuading St John (who had acted as a lawyer in the affair) and others that he had repented.

The whole episode, if true (the evidence is fragmentary- from later lives, lines in court records and the like), would account for the fervour of the letter. In a sense though more interestingly it would show how precarious Cromwell's finances were in the 1630s- he was lucky that Sir Thomas Steward still left him the estate. Furthermore many actors in this drama- St John, Henry Lawrence with whom Cromwell stayed in St Ives- were prominent later on in Cromwell's life. But just as much as that it reminds us of two factors within the Protector's character- his religious belief through which he interpreted everything he did and his boldness, his ability to seize the main chance and bravely go for it. It would be a brave man that would indicate that his benefactor was mad- just in case the benefactor bit back- but that bravery would carry Cromwell through war and peace where he would excell politically and militarily through the use of the bold, stunning stroke. Perhaps that feature of his character goes back to his earlier career as a farmer in East Anglia.


James Higham said...

He was hardly likely to do otherwise seeing as he had burnt almost all his bridges.

sulla said...

Very very interesting must read the book.

At the risk of sounding naive I would add it's ver easy to see how this could have been an honest argument. It's very rare with elderly and difficult people for their immeidate family to consider them no longer responsible while others who lack the same biases / and or knowledge to find them perfecly sane if difficult.

If Cromwall was sincere in his belief that might also provide an explanation for why Sir Thomas did not disinherit him.