From Socialist Review 233, September 1999.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Last Days of Charles I
Sutton Publishing £19.99
Sutton Publishing £18.99
These two books, beautifully printed and lavishly illustrated, are designed (I hope) for people without a serious interest in the English Revolution. It is true that Charles I and Oliver Cromwell were fairly important characters in the revolution, but, with the subject being narrowed in the first book to a day by day narrative of the final weeks in the king’s life, and in the second to the ceremonial of the Protector’s court, almost all connection with the revolution is lost.
Roy Sherwood’s book is the more scholarly and does demonstrate that Cromwell as Protector was surrounded increasingly with traditional regal ceremonial. There is some mildly interesting information on the iconography of the Protectorate and some tedious details about costumes worn on state occasions. But the reader should not look here for information about the policies of Cromwell’s rule, or his treatment of Ireland and Scotland.
Graham Edwards does introduce his subject with some desultory chapters on the period from the defeat of the royalists to the death of the king, but his account is superficial, sometimes chronologically confusing, and often marred by factual errors. Both these books, however, do allow thoughts to be raised about one of the central concerns in the revolution – kingship.
The public trial and execution of Charles I was intended to establish that kings were responsible to those over whom they ruled rather than only to god. The king himself in his speech from the scaffold showed clearly enough what was the issue: ‘For the people, truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whatsoever; but I must tell you that their liberty and their freedom consists in having government, those laws by which their lives and their goods may be most their own. It is not their having a share in government; that is nothing appertaining unto them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things.’
Charles was a hereditary monarch. Sherwood shows that Cromwell became a ‘king in all but name’, but he does not consider that before the civil war, despite his aristocratic connections and his status as a ‘gentleman’, his economic position, as John Morrill shows in The Nature of the English Revolution, ‘was essentially that of a yeoman, a working farmer’: ‘Cromwell’s economic status was much closer to that of the "middling sort" and urban merchants than to that of the county gentry and governors. He always lived in towns, not in a country manor house; and he worked for his living. He held no important local offices and had no tenants or others dependent upon him beyond a few household servants.’
His rise to being in effect a king was a supreme example of ‘the world turned upside down’, the phrase which during the revolution summed up what the ruling class feared and what some of the lower classes hoped.
Cromwell was well placed to lead the most dynamic element in the parliamentarian party – the radical section of the ‘middling sort’. Poised uneasily between the old ruling class and the aspiring ‘middling sort’, Cromwell could move from association with radical forces in the 1640s to identification with conservative elements in the 1650s, compassing the transition in the revolution from demolition to consolidation. Few then or since deny that he rose by virtue of his talents. As against the men who had power only because they inherited high social status and great wealth, Cromwell epitomised the radical notion of power being earned by ability and merit (the latter included religious zeal). The trial and execution of the king and the elevation of Cromwell both happened because there was a revolution: they were consequences, not causes, of that revolution.
Karl Kautsky pointed out that the role of ‘great men’ in history should be related to the group or class which they represented or symbolised. In the English Civil War Charles I defended aristocracy and episcopacy, and his strength came from his party. Sherwood should have asked who made Cromwell ‘king in all but name’. He should have considered the power hungry politicians, the seedy financiers, and the sycophantic journalists who pushed him forward and, more broadly, the lords of manors who rightly trusted him to defend their rank and property, the clergy who successfully pressed him not to abolish their tithes (the tax which supported them), and the lawyers who managed to keep him from reforms of the legal system that would have reduced their profits.
Cromwell’s power in the last resort, however, rested on the army. A consistent theme in his career was that when by persuasion, intimidation and bribery he could not manipulate the soldiers, he gave way to them, though often then seeking to evade or circumvent the consequences. It was the soldiers who pushed him into accepting the purge of parliament and the execution of the king, and it was the soldiers who prevented him from accepting the crown offered by parliament in 1657.
As many had predicted when civil war broke out in 1642, power lay with the victorious army and its commander. But it was not the commander in chief, Sir Thomas Fairfax, who came out on top, but the second in command, Oliver Cromwell, and as Engels observed, if it had not been Cromwell, it would have been another general. It was not Cromwell who was the decisive influence, it was military power, which itself arose from the revolutionary struggles.
Last updated: 7.7.2012