John Buchan was no newcomer to historical biography when his Oliver Cromwell was published in 1934. In particular, his 1927 life of Montrose had been well-received by public and historians alike, and, according to Buchan’s biographer Andrew Lownie, he came to regard his second 17th-century subject as a companion volume to his life of the swashbuckling marquis, like Cromwell a man of ideas and action in equal measure.
In choosing Cromwell, or ‘Oliver’ as Buchan endearingly calls him throughout the book, the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps was choosing a tale well-suited to his consummate skill as a storyteller. Indeed, much of the book has the page-turning readability of an adventure story, as we follow Cromwell from relative obscurity to Parliament, on to success as a soldier and military strategist and finally to his appointment as Lord Protector, a king in all but name. Buchan has the novelist’s gift for the telling phrase (‘those forests which had once lain like a fur over the country’) and the novelist’s ability to sum up his cast of characters in a phrase or two, thereby bringing the story vividly to life. Thus we have Archbishop Laud’s ‘cold donnish insensitiveness’; a man with ‘no inconsiderable faith to preach but not the gifts to make it acceptable’. As for Charles I, ‘the prominent velvet eyes under the heavy lids were the eyes of an emotional intriguer… the eyes too of a fanatic’.
In the preface to Oliver Cromwell, Buchan modestly claimed ‘no novelty for my reading of him’, but what sets the book apart from others of its time – apart from its sheer readability – is its refusal to ‘constrain a man in a great formula’. It is thus bang up-to-date in recognising that paradox was the ‘fibre of his character and career’.
‘… a devotee of law, he was forced to be often lawless; a civilian to the core, he had to maintain himself by the sword; with a passion to construct, his task was chiefly to destroy; the most scrupulous of men, he had to ride roughshod over his own scruples and those of others; the tenderest, he had continually to harden his heart; the most English of our greater figures, he spent his life in opposition to the majority of Englishmen; a realist, he was condemned to build that which could not last.’
As this quotation suggests, Buchan has no time for those who see Cromwell as a national saviour, leading a grateful nation, Bibles in hand, in revolt against the wicked tyranny of the Stuarts in order to claim their natural rights. Nearly 50 years before ‘neutralism’ became a buzz-word among early modern historians, Buchan emphasises the ‘puzzled neutrality’ and ‘intense localism’ of the mass of the commonalty in the face of civil war, and the general reluctance of the vast majority of Englishmen to fight for either King or Parliament. As he puts it, ‘The struggle from first to last was waged by two small but resolute minorities’. However, despite his refusal to condone hagiography (a quality which would no doubt have won the approbation of his ‘warts and all’ subject), Buchan is not tempted either by the image of Cromwell beloved of anti-puritan pamphleteers, as a humourless pedant, ruthless in his thirst for power. Indeed, perhaps because of his own background as the son a Scottish Presbyterian minister, Buchan evokes with great subtlety, and not a little sympathy, Cromwell’s spiritual awakening as a young man; one can almost feel a shudder run down the author’s spine at the memory of the ‘grim Calvinist schedule’ of Cromwell’s conversion, an experience which in some form or other, the author notes, ‘is the destiny of every thinking man’. One senses that the author’s real sympathies lie with the ‘soul of England’ deeply shocked by Charles’s execution, that ‘main body of Englishmen, pursuing their callings and pleasures, deeply rooted in the soil, and perplexed only at odd moments by controversy.’ At the same time, however, there is a genuine respect for Cromwell’s personal integrity and unquestionable physical courage on the battlefield. Perhaps these represent two facets of Buchan’s own personality.
A substantial part of the book is given over to a detailed discussion of the various battles of the Civil War – Edgehill, Marston Moor, Naseby, Preston and Worcester, plus a host of lesser skirmishes. The author brings his considerable knowledge of military strategy to bear on the subject – enriched by his own experiences during the Great War – and this blow-by-blow account (accompanied by useful maps) is considered by many to represent the book’s most enduring contribution to Cromwelliana.
However, no 65- year-old exercise in historical interpretation can be expected not to creak a little with age in places, and Oliver Cromwell is no exception. Despite his own delving in the primary sources of the period, his reliance for background on the published work of historians (a debt freely acknowledged in the preface) makes Buchan, as it were, the unwitting prisoner of the concerns of 1930s historiography. This can be seen for example in the tendency to interpret the events of 1642 as the inevitable result of socio-economic pressures which had been building up over the previous decades. The 1620s and 1630s are thus viewed through the prism of the later ‘ineluctable’ conflict. This leads political and religious cleavages to be exaggerated and creates a misleading picture of pre-Civil War England as a quasi-feudal society straining at the leash, ‘impatient of the old restraints, laying the emphasis on personal rights and individual duties’. Recent research on the causes of the Civil War has tended to downplay such longer-term socio-economic causes, and emphasise instead such proximate causes as Archbishop Laud’s divisive church policy in the 1630s and Charles I’s string of misjudgements and blunders in the run-up to the outbreak of hostilities in 1642. Buchan also the follows historiographical fashion of his day in paying little attention to more radical wing of parliamentary supporters. The Levellers and separatist sects like the Baptists and Quakers, for example, get short shrift, written off as political troublemakers and religious zealots, ‘dreamers and theorists, hatched out by the heats of revolution’. Such groups – the ‘losers’ as it were of the Cromwellian settlement – have recently been at the centre of a fascinating debate among historians.
There is then much of value in Oliver Cromwell. Buchan complains at one point about events that ‘are so deep in shadow, with only a few pinpricks of light in the gloom.’ Recent scholarship has brought new sources of light, considerably deepening our understanding of the religious and political background to this complex but fascinating period, but John Buchan’s biography, what John Morrill, one of Britain’s most respected authorities on Cromwell, has called this ‘unadorned and elegant’ book, remains a stimulating and thought-provoking as well as enjoyable read.
Neil Davie, 2001
Available to read at https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.201578