I could have been writing a serious post for the horse history blog, working on my book proposal, planning an article, sorting out my Zotero collections, uploading PRO documents to Flickr, or lots of other things. But the other day my brother took me on an expedition into the attic to look for old toys and books. We found the Ladybird book Oliver Cromwell: An Adventure from History by the fantastically named L. du Garde Peach (scan of cover here). This must surely have been a formative influence on me, and was quite possibly my first ever encounter with the English Civil War. But I can’t remember it at all. That might be just as well because it turned out to be completely insane. Maybe it isn’t fair to laugh at a children’s book first published in 1963 (it wouldn’t have been new when I got it – I’m not that old!), but I’m going to do it anyway. And there’s a serious point here: too many people assume that children are stupid and unimportant, and that therefore it’s OK to give them all sorts of patronising rubbish.
The book starts with the story that as a baby Oliver was carried onto the roof by his grandfather’s pet monkey. I have no idea if this is true but I don’t really care because it’s just so cool. He was nearly dropped off a roof! By a monkey! I don’t think there’s any biography which couldn’t be improved by the protagonist nearly being dropped off a roof by a monkey. Apart from anything else, the cause of death “kild by a monkey” would make the best parish register entry ever. As the author says “it is impossible to imagine what England might have been like to-day if the monkey had dropped him”. It is pretty hard to imagine what England might have been like in 1963 if Cromwell had been killed by a monkey as a baby. But try to imagine it anyway. Maybe you could write a story about it…
The story on the next page almost certainly isn’t true:
Oliver’s uncle, Sir Oliver Cromwell, was an important man, and lived on an estate much larger than the farm belonging to Oliver’s father. He was in fact so important in the county that on more than one occasion he was visited by the King, James I. On one of these visits the King was accompanied by his son Charles, and whilst Sir Oliver was entertaining the King, the two boys, Oliver Cromwell and Prince Charles, were sent into the garden to play. According to the story, the boys quarrelled and fought, and Oliver was the winner.
If this had actually happened I like to think that Oliver would have got his ass kicked by Prince Henry, who is strangely absent from the story. Maybe he was off somewhere being a good protestant. [Edit: I later discovered that Prince Henry and the Earl of Essex had a fight, which could be the origin of this story; see this post]
The same page states that: “Oliver had six sisters but no brothers, so his friends were the boys of the little town, who were his schoolmates”. God forbid that he would ever be friendly with his sisters. That could have made him effeminate and stopped him from becoming A Great Man. You’ll also notice that his sisters don’t have names. In fact no woman is ever named anywhere in the book. Even Elizabeth Cromwell is just introduced as “the daughter of Sir James Bouchier”. Once they’re married she’s just “his wife”.
At this time in England there were in England a large number of people known as Puritans. We have come to think of these people as disliking any sort of happiness and always going about with gloomy faces, intent on preventing others from enjoying themselves. This is wrong. They were not all like that.
Unfortunately no-one told the artist, as the accompanying picture features the gloomiest puritans ever. Unless the people dancing round the maypole are supposed to be non-gloomy puritans.
Oliver Cromwell was a Puritan, but he liked music and dancing and was fond of going to horse races. There were many like him.
This is true. Cromwell and others like him were perfectly able to combine music, dancing and horse racing with an obsessive hatred of altar rails, transubstantiation and the Book of Common Prayer. No wonder that “when James I followed Elizabeth, he demanded that all Puritans be driven out of the country”!
But on the next page the stereotypes come right back:
If we had lived in England in Cromwell’s time we would have noticed that there was a wide difference between the clothes worn by the Puritans and those who were on the side of the King and the Church. It was a time when wealthy people mostly dressed in coloured velvets and silks, with lace collars and cuffs, and rich embroidery on their coats and dresses. Many of the men wore lace or coloured ribbons at their knees, and all wore their hair very long. The King and his court must have been a very gay and colourful sight.
No laughing at the word “gay” please. It’s just the emptiness of the signifier.
The Puritans did exactly the opposite. They wore simple clothes in dull colours, with plain white collars. The women wore dark dresses and no jewellery. What chiefly distinguished the Puritan men from the Royalists, as the King’s men were called, was the fact that the Puritans cut their hair shorter. Because of this, they were later known as Roundheads. The Puritans were quiet and sober in their speech and habits, and always strictly observed the Sabbath day.
Oh yes, all those quiet and sober speeches about Shibboleths, and curse ye Meroz, and to your tents O Israel. Let’s face it, puritan preachers were what John Sinclair would have been like if he abandoned the radical counter-culture and became a right-wing christian fundamentalist.
Anyway, “Many things were happening in England during the eleven years of the King’s government without a Parliament”. (Apparently not in Scotland or Ireland, but we’ll get to that later.) One of those things was William Prynne in the pillory. Surely the most famous thing about Prynne’s ordeals at the hands of Star Chamber is that in addition to being pilloried, whipped, and branded, he had his ears cut off. Twice. But in the picture he’s surprisingly unmutilated. I know it’s a children’s book, but surely children love all that stuff. I feel cheated that we never had Horrible Histories when I was little. The text describes Prynne as “Another brave Englishman… who had written against the illegal taxes”. That and saying actresses were whores. Such a brave man. Misogynistic above and beyond the patriarchal standards of his time, but brave nevertheless.
Cromwell’s involvement in the enclosure dispute around St Ives in the 1630s gets a mention. His role is exaggerated way beyond the evidence, but there’s another problem: it’s described as “another battle for freedom in Lincolnshire”. This is the start of a weird obsession with Lincolnshire. Later we’re told that Cromwell raised his first cavalry troop in Lincolnshire, and that after that “he was put in charge of the whole of Lincolnshire”, where he had to search the house of his uncle Sir Oliver Cromwell. Look L. du Garde Peach, Huntingdon just isn’t in Lincolnshire and never has been.
After eleven years, during which the King had governed the country as he pleased, he found that even the illegal taxes did not bring in enough money. So he was forced again to summon a Parliament.
No mention of the Scots Covenanters or the Bishops Wars. Anglocentrism is pretty standard for the time this was written, but it’s taken to a really absurd degree here. At the battle of Marston Moor “The Parliament army had been joined by some Scottish soldiers”. Either this is a serious understatement, or it’s an unorthodox counting system in which “some” means “about 20,000″. But they weren’t there for long: “The Cavaliers on the right scattered the Scots and thinking that the battle was won, rode after them as they ran away”. That would be the right wing commanded by well-known Scotsman Sir Thomas Fairfax, with his Scottish Yorkshire cavalry. Meanwhile David Leslie and his cavalry, who actually were Scottish, were on the left helping Cromwell and didn’t run away. “Many brave Englishmen were killed on both sides at the battle of Marston Moor”. No, the Scots weren’t brave. They ran away, remember? And you might be surprised to learn that they changed sides as early as 1646. When Charles I escaped from Oxford “He finally reached Newark, which was held for him by a Scottish army”.
But if you think the Scots have it bad, spare a thought for the Irish.
Cromwell was also a good man. He was deeply religious, and neither greedy nor – except in Ireland – cruel. He was a good father to his children and the friend of all honest men.
See, he was only cruel in Ireland. And that doesn’t count.
In Ireland, Cromwell was the most hated of all. There were still men in Ireland who were ready to fight for King Charles II after Charles I had been executed. In order to crush them Cromwell crossed to Ireland with an army. The Irish were no match for trained and experienced soldiers. The two towns of Drogheda and Wexford, which tried to hold out against them, were besieged and quickly captured. All the defenders were killed without mercy. To this day the people of Ireland hate Cromwell’s memory. They have never forgotten Drogehda and Wexford.
They’re so unreasonable. Can’t they see what a Great Man he was? And it was only Ireland. But surely the Irish armies were also trained and experienced soldiers. Maybe it was just their essential Irishness that made them lose.
But the greatest Anglo-bombast comes in the 1620s with a description of Cromwell’s journey to London to study at the Inns of Court (which have no record of him, according to the DNB): “Although the English roads were bad, English inns were at that time among the best in the world”.
I’m probably oversensitive to cavalry myths, but you have to admit this is pretty stupid:
The foot soldiers of the seventeenth century had not got the weapons to stand up to a charge by soldiers on horseback. Prince Rupert, the King’s nephew, commanded the Royalist cavalry and often charged right through the Parliament army of foot soldiers.
Yeah, those 18 foot long wooden poles with big metal spikes on the end. What were they called again? Pikes? I don’t think those would have been any use for fending off horses. Or maybe they didn’t really exist. But the Great Man knew exactly what to do about this:
So Cromwell and Hampden decided after the battle of Edgehill, that they must have more mounted soldiers to fight Prince Rupert’s cavalry. Cromwell immediately set to work to raise more troops of horse soldiers. These men were known as the New Model Army.
Just forget about the Self-Denying Ordinance, Sir Thomas Fairfax, Philip Skippon, Robert Scawen, the Army Committee, the monthly assessment and all that crap. The New Model Army was created by Cromwell and Hampden. Just after Edgehill. And it was all cavalry. It is true.
Cromwell was so good that he didn’t really want to execute the king or expel the rump. He just had to. Maybe it was his destiny as a Great Man.
Cromwell now found himself obliged to do what King Charles had done earlier: he went to the House of Commons with a regiment of soldiers at his back. But where Charles had failed Cromwell succeeded.
See, the real problem with Charles wasn’t that he went into the Commons with soldiers, it was just that he did it wrong. As we’re told on the page about the Five Members: “King Charles was a very stupid man”. That might sound harsh but it’s not so very different from what lots of proper historians have said.
The book ends:
It is a blot on the history of our country that when Charles II returned, Cromwell’s body was taken from the tomb and his head set upon a pike [you know, those things that didn't exist] for all to see. It was a mean and unworthy revenge on the part of those whom he had beaten in a fair fight, whose country he had preserved from tyranny, and whose freedom he had ensured.
Bastards. They’re almost as bad as the Irish. But for a final thought, let’s go back to the very first paragraph:
Oliver Cromwell is one of the most important figures in English history. In the time in which he lived, a great man was needed to lead the people of England in their fight for freedom, and to-day we still enjoy freedoms which he won for us.
There’s a cookie for anyone who can name a freedom we enjoy today (sorry I mean to-day) which Cromwell won for us. Come on, there must be at least one. And don’t forget to thank the monkey for not dropping him.