IRECENTLY LECTURED on Oliver Cromwell in a major Catholic University in the eastern United States. I thought I gave a very balanced account of him. The warts in his personality and legacy were duly noted. As the chairman was thanking me and before he could ask for questions, a lady near the front sprang to her feet and harangued me: how could I find anything good to say
about the man who had massacred her ancestors in County Monaghan? "Madam", I replied, perhaps rather too archly, "Cromwell never visited Monaghan." Blows from her umbrella rained down on me. When peace was restored, I explained that Cromwell left Ireland before the English army entered Monaghan. It was perfectly possible that the army massacred her ancestors. But Cromwell was not responsible for more than a tiny fraction of the deaths in Ireland during the so-called "Cromwellian conquest". Nor was he responsible for the appalling policy of ethnic cleansing (the plan to herd all the Catholic and native Irish population of three of the four provinces of Ireland into Connacht and County Clare, with the refinement of brutality or death for any Catholic found within a mile of the coast or of the River Shannon). Cromwell was in Scotland when this policy was enunciated and when he gained political power as Lord Protector, he quickly mitigated the policy. There is clear evidence that he disapproved of it from the beginning.
I suspect many Herald readers have furled umbrellas, and therefore I write this with some trepidation. But with the 400th anniversary of Cromwell's birth fast approaching (25 April) and this paper reporting that the Catholic community of his home town is refusing to attend the ecumenical service to mark that anniversary, I will risk a buffeting and explain why I find no conflict in being both President of the Cromwell Association and a Permanent Deacon in the Catholic Church.
Cromwell was the only commoner ever to be head of the British state. He fought on 38 battlefields and was never
defeated. His armies played a vital part in resolving the century-long conflict between France and Spain and his navy played a vital part in resolving conflicts in the Baltic, and he gave the British a secure base in the Caribbean. He was perhaps the single most important person in shaping the trial and execution of a king who — he believed had refused to accept the verdict of God and of the English people in civil war and had plunged the country back into blood. He cared not a fig for the ancient constitution or for the principle of consent (government was "for the people's good, not what pleases them-), but he did literally believe that the people of England were a new Chosen People, led forth like the Israelites from Egyptian/
Stuart tyranny, through the Red Sea/Regicide, across a desert/the 1650s towards a Promised Land in which there would be justice and peace, and he worked tirelessly for a more just and egalitarian legal system. For a "reformation of manner" (moral rearmament and greater moral self-discipline), and for social justice for the poor and oppressed. None of this makes him admirable; but it does make him remarkable. It makes him worthy of study. And study leads to a better sense of a man of contrasts, with a light and dark side. It is now widely agreed amongst historians — certainly all the biographers of the past 25 years — that he was a deeply religious man who was always uncomfortable with power, never sought it, and constantly hoped to lay it down; and that it is hard to think of any self-made ruler who was less corrupted by power, less megalomaniac, less venal, less seduced by the things of the flesh. His religiosity was fierce and visionary and Calvinistic, but it was sincere and it was generous. If a facile modern parallel needs to be drawn, it is not with Hitler or Ceaucescu but with the Ayatollah Khomeini. But that is insufficient. For he had a deep and abiding belief in religious freedom that gave to huge numbers of people an opportunity to worship and witness to faith according to the light of conscience. "Therefore I beseech you, have a care of the whole flock. Love all the sheep, love the lambs, love all and tender all, and cherish all, and countenance in all things that are good. And if the poorest Christian, the most mistaken Christian, should desire to live peaceably and quietly under you, soberly and humbly desire to lead a life in godliness and honesty, let him be protected."
I do not know of a historian who doubts the sincerity of these words; nor of his attempt to put them into practice. But the question many readers, umbrella to the ready, will ask is: what about the Catholic goats? Were they Christians in Cromwell's language or were they manifes tations of Anti-Christ? And the surprising answer is that while he did not like Catholics or Catholicism, he was much less bigoted than most Puritans. He made no new laws against English Catholics and imposed the existing laws more laxly than either Charles I or Charles II. There are no Catholic martyrs in Britain in the 1650s; not a single priest executed and few imprisoned; fewer raids of Catholic homes in search of illegal Masses. The priest holes were untenanted. Cromwell had a distaste for English Catholicism, but the 1650s was an easier decade for the Catholic community than any other in the century. More dramatically, Cromwell reinstated the Catholic Lord Baltimore as Lord Proprietor of Maryland. Maryland had been established in the 1620s as a New World refuge for Catholics and over time it had welcomed into its midst victims of internal feuds within the austere Puritan colonies to the North. These wretched men, whose unreasonable religion had caused them to flee from persecution in England and Massachusetts or Connecticut, took advantage of the Puritan Revolution back home to seize power and to persecute the Catholics who had granted them asylum. Cromwell would have none of it. Maryland Catholics had shown they could live "peaceably and quietly with Protestants" and he would preserve their rights. So Cromwell's reputation rests upon the massacres in Ireland; and they are terrible indeed. He captured 28 towns and perpetrated massacres in two of them, in terrorem and as "righteous judgement of God upon those barbarous wretches that have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood". Cromwell did not bring violence to Ireland; he entered into and escalated a cycle of violence which long preceded him. He was sent to avenge the worst civilian massacres of recorded time in these islands — the massacre (many by torture) of 3,000 men, women and children by Catholics in Ulster in the early 1640s. Those massacres of Protestant Britons were caused by a generation of exploitation and humiliation by those settlers living on land confiscated from the Catholic population. That process was itself the result of earlier rebellion which was the result of earlier exploitation. It is fruitless to search out the original cause of the cycle of violence. Cromwell entered into it and rejoiced in it. In the bloody civilian wars of the years 1641-54, perhaps 100,000 people died by acts of violence. Cromwell was responsible for at most 8,000. It is a shameful blot on his life. It is a good reason not to celebrate his life. But it is not a sufficient reason for failure to commemorate it. How furled are your umbrellas?
John Morrill is Professor of British and Irish History at the University of Cambridge.