Book Corner – May 2020 (1)

Providence Lost – Paul Lay

I’m often told that what can often make or break a work of nonfiction is the timing of its publication and its resonance with the zeitgeist. Is there a contemporary hook that the marketing arm of the publishing house can play on? If that really is the case, then the timing of Paul Lay’s exemplary investigation into Cromwell’s Commonwealth may be apposite. After all, the troubles that have recently beset the House of Windsor have led some to wonder what life would be like without a monarchy and the long Brexit saga shows what can happen when what, to some, might have seemed a spiffing idea is poorly thought out.

Some of the answers, perhaps, can be found in Lay’s narrative. When I was at school, the period between the execution of Charles I and the restoration of his son eleven years later was treated as an unfortunate episode, one to be rushed over quickly, when Puritanism ruled the roost and all forms of fun were outlawed. Lay’s excellent and thought-provoking book suggests that the reality was a bit more nuanced than that.

England was a hotbed of ideas, innovation and mercantile expansion. Cromwell was on a roll, his seemingly unstoppable wave of success down to God’s will or as the Puritans termed it at the time, providence. Providence was also an island in the Caribbean on which idealistic Puritans tried to settle in 1629 but ultimately failed in their goal to establish a viable colony there because of their unwillingness to trade with the Papist Spanish. That certainty in their beliefs and unwillingness to compromise ultimately proved fatal flaws in the Puritan make up.

Cromwell’s annus horribilis was 1655. Fired with the desire to do God’s will and relying on unduly optimistic reports of the wealth to be found in the Caribbean, Cromwell was persuaded to launch an expedition against Hispaniola. It proved a disaster, although they did capture Jamaica which was viewed at the time as not worth the effort. The consequence of the failure was that it dealt Cromwell a telling psychological blow. For the first time, he began to doubt whether God was on his side.

1655 also saw Cromwell suppress an ineffective Royalist rebellion and, spurred on by John Lambert, he decided to clamp down on security and sin in an attempt to incur God’s favour once more. The country was split up into military districts and war was declared on fornication, drunkenness, and gambling, with predictable results. Initially, the Major Generals went about their task with gusto, Worsley, whose fervour led him to an early grave, closing down 200 unlicensed alehouses in the small Lancashire town of Altham within the space of three months. Naturally, the locals were pissed, in the American sense, and the wave of antagonism that the clampdown provoked saw the end of the experiment and, as Lay points out, the experiment of military rule has not been repeated, so far, at least, since.

The elephant in the room, though, was what was going to happen when Cromwell died. It is all very well abolishing the monarchy but what was it to be replaced with? Was Cromwell going to accept the title of King? Was the Protectorate going to be hereditary? If not, who was his successor to be? Cromwell, seemingly, evaded making a definitive decision and when he did fall of this mortal coil, his eldest son, Richard, totally unsuited for the role, assumed the Protectorate. At least he had the good sense to realise he wasn’t up to the job, relinquishing the post in May 1659, but by then the fissure between the military and the parliamentarians was so wide that it was relatively easy for the Royalists to effect a return and restore the monarchy.

In this fascinating book, Lay points out that Cromwell was not as grim as he was painted. He liked music, dance and surrounded himself with lascivious works of art. My main take from this book is that if you are going to make a significant change to the polity and constitution of a country, you need a watertight plan for delivering an alternative. A salutary lesson but one that has come rather too late for us in the 21st century.

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