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GREAT BAD MAN The ‘reign’ of Cromwell continues to spark debate

Regarding your ‘Book of the Month’ (Books, February 2017, Oliver Cromwell: The Protector. One historian nicknamed Cromwell “a great bad man”. David Horspool states in the book that he was the de facto king (official title ‘Lord Protector’). David goes on to say that “Cromwell’s actions threw the whole concept of monarchy into question”. That is a wholly weighted and in my view erroneous perspective.

Cromwell wasn’t essentially a republican. The document called the ‘Head of Proposals’ was masterminded by Cromwell, and is shown in the Richard Harris film Cromwell, where a captive Charles I was handed these proposals, and Cromwell remarked, “never was a crown so nearly lost but so quickly regained” – should the King agree to the proposals. Most historians dealing with the English Civil War agree that those words were indeed uttered by Cromwell.

Turning onto the Irish question about the horrors of Drogheda, Wexford and the ethnic cleansing of the north by Cromwell and the Parliamentarian committees in the House of Commons, it needs to be borne in mind that certain Irish revisionist historians have stated that some of his alleged harsher methods were never actually used. It’s the old adage – that when the legend becomes bigger than the truth, then print the legend. Cromwell’s opponents were in control of the press, and similar to the tabloids today, if you make news and vilify someone who beats his opponents constantly (both on the battlefield and in the House of Commons), he is sure to gain enemies and leave himself open to public attack – which this uncrowned king definitely did.

“Cromwell was never a democrat in the sense we interpret it today”

In the interview, David talks about Cromwell’s obscurity before the Civil War brought him to centre stage, putting the spotlight on his character and his ruthless pursuit of his goals. In my opinion that is partially true – after all, it’s a tremendous step to defeat a king who ruled by a strange concept of divine right, then put him on trial, find him guilty and have him executed. He gave power back to parliament, and only truly intervened when the House of Commons, led by a former statesman called Sir Henry Vane, attempted to corrupt and thwart the schemes and dreams of Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell was never a democrat in the sense we interpret it today. Even in his own time, the crushing of the Levellers, diggers and other disparate elements and solo characters like John Lillburne demonstrated – as Cromwell said – the difference between a ‘gentleman’ and a ‘commoner’. So I do believe, like David, that the generations of today should learn about “the Lord of the Fens”, or Old Ironsides (two of his most commonly known nicknames). As he once famously said to the court painter Peter Lely, “Paint me warts and all or I will never pay a farthing for it”

Duncan wins a copy of The Wars of the Roses: The Conflict that Inspired Game of Thrones by Martin Dougherty (£20, Casemate). Author George R R Martin has previously likened Westeros to medieval Britain, and this work explored the corrupt kings, family blood feuds and foreign wars that inspired the hit fantasy series.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

Discover the real King Arthur with our exclusive article from archaeologist Miles Russell, who believes that the legendary figure was in fact a Dark Age warlord. Elsewhere, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell go head to head, take a look at life on the Thames in the Victorian era, and learn about the forgotten storyteller who wrote one of our most-loved fairytales.