Sunday, August 24, 2008

Be nice to someone day: Oliver Cromwell

You might not think a piece on Oliver Cromell is exactly cutting edge political commentary - but in East Anglia you'd be oh so wrong. Readers of the Cambridge Evening News will have spotted that the old ironside has subjected to a curse no less from the high priest of the British Coven of White Witches, Kevin Carlyon.

What brought this on say you? Well, Cromwell's a local boy and down the road in Ely they are celebrating the 350th anniversary of his death with a bit of do.

Master of magic Kevin is displeased as Cromwell "turned a blind eye to the exploits of the self-appointed "Witchfinder General" Matthew Hopkins, whose witchcraft trials led to the death of about 300 people between 1644 and 1646, including women from the Cambridgeshire villages of Haddenham and Sutton." Which has led him to curse the celebrations.


A few things. Firstly, just to get this out the way, white witches are always claiming they don't curse people - this is now clearly untrue. There's no point moaning that everyone thinks you use your non-existent powers for selfish ends if you go round trying to literally rain on people's parades.

Secondly, and rather more to the point, Hopkins' title Witchfinder General was not one bestowed upon him by Parliament but by himself and his brief career (and he did make money out of it) flourished during the civil war - which was clearly a time of upheaval and agitation. 200,000 people died during a conflict (more than 3% of the population) that resulted in a fundamental change in the social structure of this country. All sorts of shit went down at this time - Hopkins was by no means the worst of it.

I'd also like to point out for the record that none of his "witchfinding" actually happened once Cromwell was in charge, so it seems a bit unfair to blame Cromwell for something that was essentially out of his control at a time when he had quite a bit on his plate. So, Kevin, I don't think the good people of Ely deserve your rather horrid little spell.

Cromwell gets a bad press as it is. He was a good guy and the moderate leader of revolutionary forces, without whom the first modern democracy would not have been founded. The revolutionary forces did not simply replace one set of religious dogmas with another that prohibited Christmas presents.

Historian Christopher Hill describes it this way "The Civil War was a class war, wherein on the side of reaction stood the landed aristocracy and its ally, the established Church, and on the other side stood the trading and industrial classes in town and countryside . . . the yeomen and progressive gentry, and . . . wider masses of the population whenever they were able by free discussion to understand what the struggle was really about ."

The victory of the Parliamentary forces signalled the end of absolutist monarchy and, despite their stern reputation, actually allowed a more progressive, and tolerant, form of religion - less dominated by social hierarchy - to flourish. This was the end of the period when citizens of England would be murdered by the state for their religious views and, for instance, saw the resettlement of many Jews in England, who'd previously been discouraged by rampant anti-semitism. It seems particularly unjust for that reason to lay at Cromwell's door the charge of religiously motivated murder.

After all you don't have to look very hard to realise that Cromwell had plenty of blood on his hands, and not just of the blue variety. Whether it was the king's supporters, the revolutionary wing of his own movement, the Irish, the Scots, indeed the blood stretches all the way to the West Indies - there's plenty of killings, much of which is totally justifiable in my view - but we certainly don't need to add these ones to weigh upon his restless soul.

If you'd like to thwart the curses and turn out to support the great man here are the details; "Saturday, September 6, will see a squadron of Civil War re-enactors perform military drills outside the historic cathedral - just a few yards from Cromwell's Ely home - from 10am-4pm, while an actor on horseback will play Cromwell himself."


Jack Ray said...

I don't think posterity needs to bestow things like 'being a good guy' on historical figures!

Jim Jay said...

I live for the day when things I say is mistaken for posterity



If you prefer - he moved society forwards and swept away a whole host of conservative elements that prevented England progressing - which makes him a good guy to me.

Weasel said...

I Applaud him for his effect on the English system of government, but don't think much of his religious attitudes or the way he acted in Ireland.

I am, however, bloody tempted to go out and raise a glass to him in contrast to this oggabooga curse lunacy - witches need to read some history, stop moaning on about 'the burning times' and do something useful in the now.

Weasel said...

(Nice piece, by the way!)

Matt Sellwood said...

Bloody hell Jim, controversial. I don't agree at all. Cromwell was a puritan mass murderer. The fact that the people who opposed him were also *&^£ers doesn't make him a good guy.


James said...

Offtopic, we're apparently playing tag, and you're next.

Jim Jay said...

I said this was cutting edge!

Cromwell is controversial whilst the Obama post just slides by everyone - cool.

Weasel: his religious attitudes: I need to be careful about my phrasing here... I'm not a fan of puritanism BUT this was a massive step forward from they religion had been used for 150 years prior to this, as an excuse to kill people who don't agree with you.

There was a massive relaxation towards those of other religions (which doesn't sound like much but actually was a massive step forward) and was founded on people having a *personal* relationship with God - rather than one mediated by a powerful institution.

Also when I was taught about this at school a great play was made of the fact they abolished Christmas - without telling us that there was nothing resembling the modern Christmas to abolish.

Ireland: this really is controversial... people seem to think that Cromwell invading Ireland (and then Scotland) was just like the bad side of the man... but it was driven by ensuring that Catholic, monarchical Europe did not have a local base to gather support and destroy the new Parliamentary based society.

Ireland and Scotland could not be used to destroy the advances of the revolution - and frankly the policy worked. I'm not saying I'd have been waving flags or anything - but I think it's important to recognise there was an important reason behind the invasion.

Matt: mass murderer in what sense? He was ruthless in order to win a civil war - which are bloody affairs usually.

I'm not supporting everything he did - but taken as a whole he was on the right side of history.

James: thanks.

Jack Ray said...

heh, have given up arguing with you about Obama. Civilised disagreement ;)

Doesn't Cromwell even get in trouble for dissolving parliament and declaring himself Lord Protector?

Jim Jay said...

I believe he did get in trouble for his good deeds and his bad ones - after all they executed him after he was dead - not many people get that distinction - him and General Kornilov.

I think revolutions often have these moments where the best elements are propelled by their own logic into terrible mistakes. That's certainly something that's clear from the French version.

Poor Marat.

weggis said...

Bring back the Ducking Stool.

Anonymous said...

Cromwell was like Napoleon, became a virtual monarch, indeed he was asked to become king and was buried like one.
To say he was responsible for sweeping away the consevatism of the previous regime is to ignore that there was a huge social movement for change represented by people like the Levellers and various radical christian groups (not all by any means puritan!)
As the head of the huge standing army at the end of the civil war, he took the opportunity that presented itself and took power.

I suppose you can admire him if you admire Lenin.


Jim Jay said...

Hey Nick,

I'm going to put my pedantry hat on again. I reckon he's more like a more successful Robspiere.

Napoleon stepped into a revolution in crisis having played a very minor role and became a stabilising new influence.

Cromwell was at the head from the start and innovations like the New Model Army with a current of ideological agitators running through the army was central to his strategy to win the war.

These free thinkers were a bit *too* free thinking for him once the main battles were won and he over consolidated power - definately - but I think it's right to say it was part of the same process, rather than a new development.

Do I admire Lenin.... hmmm... I guess I can admire people I don't agree with. Lets be, clear he'd have me shot, so he probably wouldn't be on my Christmas card list.