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11/6/2018 Tristram Hunt: rereading God's Englishman by Christopher Hill | Books | The Guardian

Tristram Hunt: rereading God's Englishman by


Christopher Hill
Oliver Cromwell: radical hero or bigot and murderer? Christopher Hill's study of Cromwell a
man at the centre of English history is a triumph of complex interpretation and delicious
prose.
Tristram Hunt
Fri 30 Aug 2013 12.00 BST

O
ver the fearful spring of 1942, as the German Luftwaffe sought to bomb the allies
into surrender, William Beveridge worked away on the report set to transform
postwar Britain. By nature, Beveridge was a rather dry civil servant and his draft
for a new welfare state looked set to be equally austere. Until, that is, his future
wife Jessy Mair got hold of it. She urged him to put aside the bureaucratic language
and instead insert some "Cromwellian spirit" into the prose. And so the Beveridge report
became one of the most inspiring publications of the 20th century, with its call to slay the
"Five Giant Evils" of Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness and Disease, and to build a new
Jerusalem of social justice.

We all know what Mair meant: an uncompromising sense of urgency, fierceness and drama; a
belief in a great human goal centred around a conviction of England's heroic purpose. Because
even after 400 years, Oliver Cromwell, the lord protector, Our Chief of Men, Andrew Marvell's

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"force of angry heaven's flame", remains firmly lodged in the British political psyche and
cultural memory.

From the beginning, his reputation divided opinion. For the earl of Clarendon, royalist
chronicler of "the Great Rebellion", Cromwell "had all the wickedness against which damnation
is denounced, and for which hell-fire is prepared, so he had some virtues which have caused
the memory of some men in all ages to be celebrated; and he will be looked upon by posterity
as a brave, bad man". By contrast, to the Victorian statesman and historian TB Macaulay he was
"the greatest prince that has ever ruled England". The admiring Liberal prime minister Lord
Rosebery erected a statue of him outside the Palace of Westminster, but every time Ann
Widdecombe passes "Old Nol", it causes her "a quick grinding of the teeth. He was a bigot,
a regicide, and a deeply oppressive ruler." So it goes on.

Cromwell, the East Anglian Puritan landowner who interrupted centuries of monarchical rule,
stands both at the apex of British history and as the defining figure of the 17th century.
So it was no surprise that the historian Christopher Hill (1912–2003) felt called to write an
interpretation of a man who oversaw the English revolution – and about whom Hill was as
conflicted as anybody else.

Like Cromwell, Hill was both a Puritan and a radical. He was brought up as a northern
Methodist, cycling twice every Sunday to the imposing Centenary Chapel, built in 1840 to
commemorate the first hundred years of Methodism in York. Afterwards, he would discuss the
day's sermons with his mother. And although he would cease being a Christian as an
undergraduate at Oxford University, Hill retained all the moral seriousness, piety,
egalitarianism and intellectual inquisitiveness bestowed by his Dissenting inheritance. The
radical Protestant conviction that demanded that spiritual equality in the eyes of God be met
with a greater social equality here on earth never failed to inform his history writing.

Yet, as for so many of his generation, his childhood spiritual faith was replaced by Marxist
philosophy. By 1934, Hill had joined the Communist party and started to work with Soviet
scholars in Moscow, who were then introducing a more materialist interpretation into English
social and economic history. After the war, Hill, together with the likes of Eric Hobsbawm and
Victor Kiernan, was a central figure in the Communist Party Historians Group, which was
determined to abandon the history of "great men" for a more socially attuned, finely grained
discipline drawing on lost voices and vernacular sources. (Hill left the Communist party in
opposition to the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, and what he regarded as the absence of
any effective internal debate within the party.)

He was, from the beginning of his studies at Balliol College, Oxford, drawn towards the 17th
century. His first publication was an article in a 1940 collection, The English Revolution, 1640,
which was a no-holds-barred assault on the traditional presentation of the civil war as an
aberration in the stately continuity of English history. He would later downplay the essay as
the work of an angry young man who expected to die in the war, but it marked the beginnings
of his lifelong attempt to revive the energy, ideas, religiosity and politics of the 1600s for an
educated 20th-century readership.

Of all of his books, why has God's Englishman lasted? Of course, it is partly the subject – with
Cromwell's ability to enthral and divide audiences working down the centuries. However,
there are some 160 other biographies of "Old Nol" that have failed to stay the course. What
marks out Hill's work is partly the energy of its composition, written as it was during the 1968
student revolts and high-point of postwar, 60s counterculture. Although, as master of Balliol
College, Hill had to deal with the unwelcome consequences of the student protests, his prose
was greatly energised by the revival of a 1650s-style anti-establishmentarianism that he
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saw around him. Then there was the historical significance and unconventional format of the
biography: in a series of interpretative essays rather than straight narrative, Hill rescued
Cromwell from the Victorian hagiographies of Thomas Carlyle and Macaulay, as well as from
the narrow, military buffs and those who saw the lord protector as some kind of 1930s proto-
fascist. Instead, Hill was able to introduce complexity and nuance into the character of
Cromwell and the nature of his revolution; agonisingly and persuasively, these essays explored
how the competing tensions of Cromwell's radical Protestantism and social conservatism
played themselves out through the 1640s and 1650s, and how the civil war itself turned
to revolution and then, arguably, to reaction. Above all, Hill argued for the truly revolutionary
nature of the 1650s as a proper caesura in British history, which overthrew the old order and
unleashed powerful intellectual and cultural forces that the Restoration was unable fully to
quench.

It was his commitment to being led by the authentic voices and testaments of the past that so
surprised critics of a former Communist party ideologue. Because not only was the
biographical form somewhat at odds with the traditional Marxist focus on mass movements
and socioeconomic tectonics, but religious impulses had usually been regarded as expressions
of false consciousness when it came to historical motivation. Hill places religion front and
centre in his account of the motivations of Cromwell and the shape of the English revolution.
Indeed, he approvingly quotes Cromwell's own account of events: "Religion was not the thing
at first contested for, but God brought it to that issue at last."

Equally unorthodox was Hill's approach to the relationship between economic base, class
consciousness and political action. Again, the classical Marxist interpretation of the 17th-
century recounted how a quickening pace of capitalist production found its voice in a rising
middle class and its placement in parliament. And while God's Englishman rightly
contextualises much of the civil war amid economic inequalities, and Hill does ultimately
consider the civil war a bourgeois revolution, what the biography actually describes is how
political change paved the way for economic transition. Cromwell oversaw the "creative
destruction" of the old economic order, the Western Design and policy of colonial expansion,
the expansion of the financial capacity of the City of London and the unleashing of a
Protestant work ethic which, Hill suggests, set in train the conditions for the industrial
revolution and the British empire. The historic significance of Cromwell partly lies in this
incredible socioeconomic legacy that underpinned a rather Whiggish narrative of British
progress. And, no doubt, Cromwell would have been as surprised as anyone "that his heroic
struggles to build God's kingdom in England had as their lasting consequence the removal
of obstacles to the development of English capitalism".

Cromwell's role as the progenitor of modern British capitalism should make him a complicated
figure for a man of the left like Hill. Indeed, the left has been wrestling with the mixed legacy
of Cromwell since at least the time of the Chartists in the early to mid-19th century. On the one
hand, here was a leader who ended monarchy, created a Commonwealth, abolished the House
of Lords and the established church, and, in his better moments, was a genuine advocate for
radical egalitarianism and religious pluralism. On the other hand, there was the innate social
conservatism of Cromwell, and his repeated determination to save a stable, hierarchical social
order based on private-property rights from the kind of Leveller socialism Colonel
Rainsborough and others were preaching at Putney. Rightly, Hill points to the multiple
attempts Cromwell made in trying to save Charles I's life, born of a terrible fear of the
unknown consequences of a republican society.

And how did Cromwell deal with those irksome Levellers? "I tell you, sir, you have no other
way to deal with these men but to break them or they will break you; yea and bring all the guilt
of the blood and treasure shed and spent in this kingdom upon your heads and shoulders, and
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frustrate and make void all that work that … you have done." Infamously, Cromwell followed
up his own advice to the Council of State by crushing the Levellers at Burford church in
Oxfordshire and executing the ringleaders. As Hill cynically notes, "Property had been saved."
This is the beginning of the revolution betrayed and the transformation of Cromwell from the
earnest Ely Puritan to a figure more akin to Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. "He no longer hoped
to realise the rule of God's people in England: he saw himself as a constable whose task was to
prevent Englishmen from flying at one another's throats." As a scholar, Hill hides his
disappointment in Cromwell's journey towards lord protector, military rule and attempts at
kingship. Instead, he is resigned to suggest we are all sinners and simply abides with the
judgment of Cromwell's cofferer John Maidstone: "A larger soul, I think, hath seldom dwelt in
a house of clay than his was."

Curiously, Hill is more forgiving about Cromwell's conduct in Ireland. Of the 1649 bloodbaths
in Drogheda and Wexford, from where Cromwell unleashed a murderous savagery out
of revenge for the Irish rebellion of 1641 and to ensure there would be no Popish plots against
the Commonwealth in England, Hill admits it "is not one of the pleasanter aspects of our hero's
career" and he has no desire "to whitewash" his conduct. Nevertheless, "we must get the
campaign and its aftermath into historical perspective, and try to see it through the eyes of
Cromwell and his contemporaries". Cromwell's progression through Ireland is now widely
regarded as an ugly display of bloodthirsty, even genocidal violence towards Irish Catholics.

Ireland seemed to reveal Cromwell as a historical actor existing beyond the normal parameters
of explanation – as God's avenger whose earthly mission was personally blessed by divine
sanction. And for all Hill's attempts to contextualise Cromwell as the product of a mercantile
nexus of East Anglian, Puritan squirearchy, who could so easily have joined some fellow
pilgrims across the Atlantic, these essays also posit Oliver as a world-historic figure. He was a
man who "presided over the great decisions which determined the future course of English
and world history". It was another Cromwell biographer, Carlyle, who developed the notion of
the hero in history as a deus ex machina figure who reshapes the world around him, and by the
time Hill starts to think of Cromwell's place in English history this Carlylian ideal (itself the
product of John Milton and Andrew Marvell's propaganda) has coloured his own
interpretation. He deals brilliantly with Cromwell's sense of sin and salvation, as well as the
bouts of depression that enveloped him, but if in the final analysis the English civil war was
our revolution, "then we can agree with those historians who see Cromwell in his revolution
combining the roles of Robespierre and Napoleon, of Lenin and Stalin, in theirs".

Needless to say, since its publication over 40 years ago, Hill's approach to the English
revolution has been subject to extensive historiographical critique. The bourgeois revolution
has come and gone, and the kind of deep-rooted ideological opposition to the Stuart monarchy
that Hill traced has been junked for an interpretative framework that extends time frames,
stresses a European context, focuses on regional and national motivations, and highlights the
political failings of Charles I. At the same time, unlike Hill, few modern historians have the
kind of Nonconformist inheritance that allows them to access that Cromwellian sense of
Puritan mission that dwelt in much grander epochs.

And for all the advances of contemporary historical research, God's Englishman nonetheless
speaks powerfully to a contemporary audience. Arguably, the focus on Cromwell as a
decidedly English figure is even more relevant in 2013, with Scotland on the brink of a
referendum on independence, than it was in the more settled British culture of 1970. What is
more, that peculiarly English strand of political radicalism, wordful expression and dogged,
Puritan cussedness that Hill explores offers an exciting narrative of philosophical alternatives
to the traditional, conservative dominance of "Middle England". Similarly, Hill's foregrounding
of Cromwell as the vital enabler of Britain's development as an imperial power – through
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Ireland, the West Indies and the East India Company – has a relevant tone today as Britain
comes to appreciate its post-colonial place in the world. It is always helpful for modern,
globalised, history-lite England to understand its origins.

Then there is the prose – its delicious precision, knowing understatement and witty asides.
Above all, there is Hill's winning conviction that you cannot begin to appreciate Britain's island
story or the passage of the "Cromwellian spirit" from the battle of Naseby to the Beveridge
report without knowing "Old Nol" himself. In his generosity, wisdom and tangible feel for the
significance of the 17th century, Christopher Hill stands as the finest of guides to the man of
the times.

• God's Englishman by Christopher Hill is available from the Folio Society.

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