Monday, September 3, 2018

The Death of His Highness, Lord Protector Cromwell

Three hundred and sixty years ago today Oliver Cromwell died. Ten years ago, Micheál Ó Siochrú wrote an appraisal of Cromwell's deeds in Ireland: God's Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland:

Cromwell spent only nine months of his eventful life in Ireland, yet he stands accused there of war crimes, religious persecution and ethnic cleansing. In a century of unrelenting, bloody warfare and religious persecution throughout Europe, Cromwell was, in many ways, a product of his times. As commander-in-chief of the army in Ireland, however, the responsibilities for the excesses of the military must be laid firmly at his door, while the harsh nature of the post-war settlement also bears his personal imprint. A warrior of Christ, somewhat like the crusaders of medieval Europe, he acted as God's executioner, convinced throughout the horrors of the legitimacy of his cause, and striving to build a better world for the chosen few.

Here's a review by Dr Jason Peacey of University College London (review no. 777) from the Reviews in History website:

The civil wars that engulfed the three kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland in the mid-17th century remain a battlefield, and generation after generation they retain a capacity to provoke passionate debate and heated historical controversy. Within this field, however, there is probably no single individual more likely to generate historiographical heat than Oliver Cromwell, utterly convincing analysis of whose complex personality continues to elude even the greatest of scholars. And within scholarship on Cromwell and the Cromwellian period there is no more controversial topic than his attitude towards, and activity in, Ireland. Cromwell’s name retains the capacity to inflame passions, and in at least some quarters he has become synonymous with religiously inspired brutality and atrocity, with something little short of ethnic cleansing, and with tyranny and military dictatorship. At the same time, however, he is capable of making the ‘top ten’ in a 2002 BBC poll of ‘greatest Britons’. It was perhaps inevitable, therefore, that the 350th anniversary of Cromwell’s death in 1658 would be commemorated, and that it would revive questions about his reputation. This book represents one of the most substantial and very best pieces of history to emerge from this latest example of academia’s penchant for anniversaries. Ó Siochrú has produced the finest kind of popular history; a work that is both challenging for academic specialists and capable of reaching out to a wider audience. The book is, on the whole, written in a crisp and concise fashion, and makes an important historiographical contribution without becoming bogged down in historiographical debates. It also benefits from generous production values, with a number of valuable maps, a detailed chronology (albeit only covering 1649–53), and a healthy number of glossy portraits of Ó Siochrú’s main protagonists. Perhaps inevitably, however, such an attempt to traverse the scholarly and popular markets creates certain tensions, and it might even be suggested that there are actually two different books here; one a judicious reevaluation of a crucial and contested period of history, and the other a controversial and contentious reading of some of the most bloody episodes in English and Irish history.

Read the rest there, including author's response.

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