Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2023), Reviews, Volume 31

Vol. 2 (of 3), 1 February 1649–12 December 1653

Oxford University Press
£190 per volume, £570 for the set of three
ISBN 9780199587896

Reviewed by Jane Ohlmeyer

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Oliver Cromwell’s statue enjoys pride of place outside the House of Commons at Westminster in London. In 2002 the British public voted him one of the ‘greatest Britons of all time’, yet in Ireland Cromwell is remembered as ‘God’s executioner’ and the ‘devil from over the sea’. Hate him or love him, Cromwell remains central to our history, and therefore what he wrote really counts.

This elegantly produced three-volume new edition presents 1,077 separate items: 555 letters, 211 speeches, 43 conversations, 15 declarations and 258 other writings. John Morrill, the general editor, who masterminded the project, offers a magisterial general introduction to each volume in which he explains why a new edition was needed, how it was produced, what is covered in each volume and why recovering the voice of Cromwell matters. Morrill outlines the deficiencies of earlier editions of letters and writings, especially the volumes by Thomas Carlyle (1845) and W.C. Abbott (1937–47).

Morrill and his six fellow editors make a compelling case for why these volumes are a ‘better canon of Cromwell’s recorded words’. In a collaborative endeavour, the skilled editorial team undertook the daunting task of identifying and then editing a wide range of manuscript and printed materials. Their collective goal was to identify evidence of ‘authorial intent’ and items in ‘Cromwell’s voice’. Their hope is ‘that the result is an edition of Cromwell’s words that is much closer to what he actually wrote and said than in previous editions’ (p. l). Without doubt this has been achieved. The editors are to be congratulated for producing a definitive and accessible set of volumes, which will prove invaluable in the classroom and for further scholarly research. Given the importance of these volumes, it is a shame that the prohibitive cost—£190 per volume—will mean that only libraries can afford to buy them.

The focus of this review is the second volume, which features the years between King Charles I’s execution in January 1649 and the establishment of the Protectorate in December 1653. It reproduces 430 documents, 39 of which were in Cromwell’s hand. As well as an insightful introduction to the volume, the editors—Elaine Murphy, Micheál Ó Siochrú and Jason Peacey—provide a pithy guide to each item that contextualises it and reflects on its significance. Every place, person and event is identified. The volume falls into three parts. The first, which begins with the aftermath of the king’s execution, includes much detail on Cromwell’s nine-month campaign in Ireland (August 1649–May 1650). The second covers Cromwell’s military campaign in Scotland (July 1650–September 1651). The third begins with Cromwell’s victory at Worcester on 3 September 1651 and ends when he became lord protector in December 1653, and records the fraught proceedings of the Nominated Assembly (or Barebones Parliament), the first Anglo-Dutch war (1652–4) and his engagement in European affairs.

As Morrill notes in the general introduction, ‘Cromwell spoke from the heart as much as from the head’ (p. l) and the letters do offer glimpses of a more human face. His voyage to Ireland in August 1649 was Cromwell’s first overseas trip and, according to his chaplain, he was ‘as seasick as ever I saw any man in my life’ (p. 75). Occasionally family affairs come to the fore. On 2 August 1649 he wrote a loving note to Dorothy, his daughter-in-law, that ended with ‘I heere thou didest lately miscarie’ (p. 74). In one letter to his wife, Elizabeth, during the Scottish campaign he told her that ‘Thou art deerer to mee then any creature’ (p. lxiv). In the midst of the Irish spring offensive in 1650 he wrote to his son, Richard, encouraging him to read Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the world, which ‘will add much more to your understanding, then fragments of storie’ (p. 239). We also see his concern for the welfare of wounded parliamentary soldiers, widows and orphans, and his determination to root out profanity and drunkenness. He took seriously his duties as chancellor of Oxford University, and his interest in the reform of universities extended to Trinity College, Dublin.

Military matters predominate. Since the nine months that Cromwell spent in Ireland are amongst the most controversial in his entire career, they merit closer scrutiny. The Irish campaign began in the spring of 1649, as Cromwell raised an army of 12,000 horse and foot and secured a massive war-chest of tens of thousands of pounds, much of it in gold. The reconquest of Ireland was an essential step in securing the parliamentarian victory over the king and depriving Charles II of support from Ireland. Shortly after landing in Dublin, in August 1649, Cromwell spoke of the ‘carrying on of the great work against the barbarous and bloud thirsty Irish’ and of ‘restoring that bleeding Nation to its former happinesse and tranquillity’ (p. 76). He made it clear that the Catholic Irish were beyond redemption, ‘for all the world knows their Barbarisme’ (p. 28).

This contempt and desire for retribution manifested itself first at Drogheda, where the royalist army was stationed. Cromwell’s now-infamous correspondence relating to the atrocities that occurred in Drogheda on 11 September 1649 are well known. In one letter, dated 16 September, to the president of the Council of State, he reported that ‘we put to the sword the whole number of Defendants’, which he estimated to be ‘about 3000’, and the few that escaped ‘are in safe custody for the Barbadoes’ (p. 92). In a more detailed letter the next day to William Lenthall, Speaker of the House of Commons, he wrote that ‘I am perswaded that this is a righteous judgement of God upon these Barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood, and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future …’ (p. 97). Having dealt with the royalist army, Cromwell then turned to Wexford, where the fleet of privateers that functioned as Confederate Ireland’s navy was stationed. In a letter to Lenthall he described the bombardment that began on 11 October, noting how roughly 2,000 people had been either drowned or put to the sword. This was, he believed, God’s ‘righteous justice’ for their ‘Pyracies’. He added that the English soldiers got ‘a very good bootie’, while the army confiscated supplies of iron, hides, staves and 100 guns, and commandeered three large vessels.

From Wexford, Cromwell set his sights on capturing key Munster strongholds. Over the autumn/winter of 1649–50 ‘the tempestiounesse of the weather’ (p. 162), sickness (‘Irish ague’ or fever), inadequate supply lines and fierce Irish resistance slowed down the advance of his army. All of this also ensured that Cromwell adopted a more conciliatory approach. In an exchange of 19 October with the governor of New Ross, Lucas Taaffe, over the ‘liberty of conscience’ for those who remained in the town, Cromwell replied: ‘For that which you mention concerning liberty of conscience, I meddle not with any mans conscience; But if by liberty of conscience, you mean a liberty to exercise the Mass, I judge it best to use plain dealing, … that will not be allowed of.’ While willing to tolerate, to issue passes for and even to cut deals with Catholics, Cromwell flatly refused to engage with the Catholic Church as an institution.

While New Ross fell on 19 October 1649, Waterford and Duncannon held firm, only surrendering after lengthy sieges the following year. On 18 May 1650 the Cromwellians assaulted Clonmel in County Tipperary but lost c. 2,000 soldiers, which represented the ‘greatest single loss of life suffered by the New Model Army’ (p. 258) at any point during the mid-century conflicts. A week later Cromwell left Youghal for London, returning home a hero even if it was to be 1653 before the military reconquest was finally achieved.

The Cromwellian reconquest then facilitated a revolution in Irish landholding, which had begun with the plantations of the early seventeenth century. It resulted in the wholesale transfer of land—roughly eight million acres in all—from Catholic to Protestant hands, which was one of the key developments that shaped the face of modern Ireland. Catholic landholding dropped from about 54% in 1641 to 23% around 1670. In short, a new order founded on English legal, administrative, political, landed and economic structures, the English language and English culture had become established.

Given what happened in Ireland, it comes as no surprise that Cromwell’s legacy looms large in social memory. In her ground-breaking book The devil from over the sea: remembering and forgetting Oliver Cromwell in Ireland (Oxford, 2022), Sarah Covington reminds us that ‘facts’ alone cannot explain Cromwell’s legendary status and draws deftly from the rich folklore about him and the Cromwellians extant in the National Folklore Archive, which chronicled stories from across the island recorded by the Folklore Commission from the 1930s. In these stories, Daniel O’Connell is the only historical figure mentioned more than Oliver Cromwell.

At a 2022 launch of Volume 2 of The letters, writings, and speeches of Oliver Cromwell, the British ambassador to Ireland, Paul Johnston, said that Cromwell’s actions in Ireland were ‘wholly indefensible’ and that the massacres of civilians by his army first at Drogheda and then at Wexford (September and October 1649) were among the ‘greatest atrocities in Anglo-Irish history’. The ambassador concluded that Cromwell’s brutality ‘marked him out as a uniquely despised figure’. In an opinion piece in the Irish Times Fintan O’Toole concurred, quoting W.B. Yeats: ‘You ask what I have found, and far and wide I go: / Nothing but Cromwell’s house and Cromwell’s murderous crew’. He concluded by suggesting that ‘Cromwell became one of our curse words and curses linger in the air for centuries. But perhaps the ability to treat him as history rather than as myth is a small step towards the lifting of the curse.’ This, along with the other volumes, represents an important milestone in helping to achieve this.

Jane Ohlmeyer is Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History (1762) at Trinity College, Dublin.


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