Biographies & Memoirs


The Game at Cards


The right was certainly in the King, but the exercise was yet in nobody; but contended for, as in a game at cards, without fighting, all the years between 1647 and 1648 between the Parliament and Oliver Cromwell.

Thomas Hobbes in Behemoth

If the previous twelve months had seen the gathering strain of Cromwell’s break with Parliament, the next period of his life witnessed a dramatic series of alliances and reversals on a much swifter time scale. Years later, in his examination of the Long Parliament in dialogue form, Behemoth, Thomas Hobbes described the enormous uncertainties of this time when although the right to rule was undoubtedly in the King ‘the exercise was yet in nobody; but contended for, as in a game at cards, without fighting’.1 In the course of the game Cromwell discovered, as many have done since, how cruelly different are the qualities required by a statesman from those of a successful soldier; in political life, a public decision could entail a public retractment; it was indecision, hanging on events, which often paid valuable rewards. There was already, as we have seen, a strain in Cromwell’s character that could accustom itself to such periods of waiting, until some providence should indicate the correct course; but under the increasing pressure of politics, the purity of such religious feelings became inevitably tinged with more earthly opportunism, and even deceit. The blurring of such distinctions was not necessarily noticeable to the subject in whose mind they existed, and no doubt Cromwell continued to envisage himself as a simple-hearted seeker after the Lord. In the autumn of 1647 however he was no longer a simple man, but an increasingly skilled negotiator who saw to it that whichever way the play went in Hobbes’s game at cards, he himself continued to take the tricks.

The first round of the game consisted of renewed attempts to settle with the King. Charles was now brought first to his palace at Oatlands, and then on to Hampton Court. In the meantime Parliament bore the full brunt of the wrath of the returning Army leaders: all ordinances passed in the Speaker’s absence by the Presbyterian minority were to be repealed, in which work the Generals were assisted not only by the committed Independents, but by the many MPs who belonged more to the ‘middle group’, as it has been termed. This shifting but important body of MPs, whatever their views on military rule, were as one with the Army leaders in believing there should be no disbandment before a proper settlement; that would be merely to hurl power in the direction of the Scots. Even so by the time this Null and Void Ordinance was actually passed Cromwell had lost his patience on at least one occasion. After telling Ludlow angrily that ‘these men will never leave till the Army pulls them out by the ears’, on 20 August he ordered a regiment of cavalry to take up stations in Hyde Park, within obvious striking distance of the House of Commons. Cromwell himself then rode down to Westminster. Although he did leave his escort of soldiers outside, it was at the completion of this ostentatious gesture that, with the help of his vote and those of the other Army MPs, the bill finally carried. The Presbyterians realized that the time had come to vanish once more from the scene. As a result Parliamentary attendance diminished woefully in general, with the average attendance of the House of Lords quoted as seven, and that of the Commons little more than one hundred and fifty on even the greatest issues. With the new and strident Army Council having virtually taken over their authority in the land, there was much to be said for the disgusted verdict of Holles: ‘The Army now did all, the Parliament was but a Cypher, only cry’d Amen to what the Councils of War had determined. They make themselves an absolute Third Estate …’2

But Cromwell and Ireton had problems of their own with this Third Estate. The radical element in the Army, who had been restrained from the march on London like greedy wolves circling a sledge containing human prey, were by no means assuaged by the return to the capital; in particular they were prepared to watch any approaches of Cromwell to the King with vulpine suspicion. For all that, in the coming weeks, in the face of many varied types of protest, Cromwell and Ireton did deliberately court the King once more. Cromwell, although still technically Fairfax’s military subordinate, was now the undisputed political leader, for the General had withdrawn from active participation in their overtures, pained and worried by the turn matters were taking. Conditions at Hampton Court, that great palace built by a King’s servant in the century before and plundered from him by his master, were royally conceived; the number of visitors who were able to flock down there to pay their respects to the King amounted to a positive Court. And down to Hampton Court went not only Cromwell and Ireton – the Army had just moved its headquarters to nearby Putney, just south of the Thames – but also Mrs Cromwell.

Later, this good lady was said to have been taken by the hand by Ashburnham, led forward with Bridget Ireton and Mrs Whalley and ‘feasted’, a process which it was only human to enjoy. On this occasion hostile gossip said that Cromwell was to be made an Earl – perhaps of Essex, the forfeited title of his kinsman Thomas Cromwell – given the blue ribbon (of the Garter) and have his son appointed as Groom in the Prince’s chamber. Although such tales caused understandable glee to Cromwell’s enemies, whether Presbyterian or Leveller, there seems no particular reason, in the climate of rapprochement between Army and King in August and September 1647, why such titles should not have been dangled before the eyes of the Army leaders. Had not Charles suggested earlier that Berkeley should promise them personal reward during negotiations? Even Cromwell’s acceptance of such an honour was not utterly out of the question had such a settlement been reached. Elizabeth Cromwell would not have been either the first or the last woman to enjoy becoming a Countess. As for his son, Oliver like most people of his time firmly believed in his family’s star rising with his own. It was a tendency underlined next month by a sarcastic entry in the Royalist Mercurius Pragmaticus, which forgave Cromwell’s ‘daily craving for money’, in Lilburne’s words, on the grounds that he could hardly help it, considering all the dependents he had in the Army.3 Altogether seven were listed, including his son Henry, his two sons-in-law Ireton and Claypole, and his first cousin Whalley.

On 7 September Charles was brought to the position of informing both Houses that he would accept the Heads of Proposals; in this he was probably the victim of a confusing little manoeuvre on the part of Cromwell and Ireton by which they suddenly threatened him anew with the much less favourable Newcastle Propositions. Yet it was all part of this general picture of conscious effort to settle with the King: the two men now committed themselves to supporting Charles’s demand for a personal treaty. That they were still sincere in these attempts to solve the problems of government in a monarchical context is attested, if by nothing else, by the rising vehemence of men such as Lilburne who saw themselves as being sold out. Cromwell and his Cabinet Counsel of ‘grandees’ as they were called, men such as Oliver St John and Sir Henry Vane, were in consequence suspected of managing affairs to the Army’s discomfort. The radically minded Colonel Rainsborough was nearly done out of the job of Vice-Admiral which he had coveted and fell out with Cromwell as a result. Lilburne, who was in the Tower, heard of the intrigue and passed it on to his companion Sir Lewis Dyve, who duly wrote of it to the King.4 On 15 September Cromwell himself chose to come to the Tower, ostensibly to check what stores of armaments remained there, but he also found time to have a long and interesting conversation with Lilburne.

Cromwell begged his erstwhile protégé to stop speaking in such bitter terms of Parliament, for he would shortly see all things righted. Lilburne responded by asking for a free trial for his alleged offences, to which Cromwell was only able to reply rather lamely that at least matters were better now than under the previous régime. Then there had been a ‘habit of oppression and tyranny’; nowadays on the contrary ‘those things wherein Parliament might seem to have swerved from the right rules of justice was rather by way of accident and necessity’. Reform was on its way, and in the meantime, said Cromwell, patience would best become prudent men, until they had secured their own preservation. Lilburne, no patient man and not a noticeably prudent one either, continued to demand impartial justice for all men – ‘the likeliest and best way to preserve themselves’. Nevertheless the tenor of Cromwell’s remarks and of other pieces of information passed on to Charles at this period via Sir Lewis Dyve was to confirm the notion of Cromwell’s favour to the King. Charles could only have been encouraged by Dyve’s reports towards a feeling of his own indispensability.

Meanwhile Cromwell’s sturdy opposition to the subversive (as he saw it) agitators within the Army itself did not abate. In early September for example he had taken a strong part in getting a Major Francis White expelled from the Army Council for observing outspokenly that there was no ‘visible authority in the kingdom but the power and force of the sword’ – this was not at all how Cromwell liked to envisage matters these days. But an injured letter from Cromwell to Colonel Michael Jones, Governor of Dublin, a week later reflected something of the unpopularity which he was beginning to feel pressing in on him from all sides as a result of his clearly determined desire to settle with Charles: ‘Though it may be for the present a cloud may lie over our actions, to them who are not acquainted with the grounds of our transactions; yet we doubt not but God will clear our integrity and innocency from any other ends we aim at but his glory and the public good.’5 On 21 September he argued cogently in the House of Commons, supported by men such as Vane, Fiennes and St John and in the teeth of Republicans like Marten, that the House should go into committee on the subject of the King. With Cromwell acting as teller for the Ayes, and Rainsborough for the Noes, the vote was actually carried, although subsequently reversed.

The quarrel between the factions became obvious to onlookers: William Langley, writing back to his brother in Staffordshire on 28 September, described how the Agitators suspected Cromwell and his clique of labouring to insinuate themselves into the King’s favour, while Cromwell’s party on the other hand thought the Agitators took too much upon themselves in relation to the government of the kingdom. Langley was informed how much Cromwell had spoken on the King’s behalf when his answer to the propositions had been ‘controverted’ in the House.6 The early weeks of October were spent by Cromwell busying between meetings of the Army Council – whose clamorous demands were increasingly disturbing – his place in Parliament and negotiations with the King’s personal representatives concerning the treaty to which he still pinned his faith as the amulet to ward off the Scottish advance. The arrival in London on 11 October of two new Scottish Commissioners to join Lauderdale only served to underline the danger that might be expected from that quarter, if Charles was able to reach some agreement with his Scottish subjects rather than the English who now held him prisoner.

It was at this unpropitious moment (from the point of view of those in the middle) that a manifesto drawn up by five particularly mutinous regiments on 9 October, The Case of the Army Truly Stated, called for the immediate purging of the House and its dissolution within a year; other demands – manhood suffrage, a Parliament of supreme authority elected on this basis, popular sovereignty of the widest sort – left no doubt of the calibre of these Levellers’ thinking. Fairfax, as Commander-in-Chief, received The Case of the Army on 18 October; two days later Cromwell made another strong speech in support of the monarchy in the Commons. He apparently hoped to persuade Parliament that together with General Fairfax and all the heads of the Army he had not been in any way a part of the designs of those regiments which had mutinied, but that their purpose and wish from the beginning of the war had been none other than to serve the King. Throughout his whole speech he spoke very favourably of Charles, concluding that it was necessary to reestablish him as quickly as possible.7 This same speech was afterwards quoted by frenetic Royalists, believing in Cromwell’s deep-laid conspiracy to achieve supreme power, as part and parcel of his overwhelming hypocrisy. It is more realistic to assess it as one of Cromwell’s unsuccessful but still honest endeavours to preserve the middle ground, against attack from nearly all quarters. Over this middle ground he still genuinely felt that a suitably restrained King might one day be able to hold sway.

It was against this backcloth of sensational uncertainties that the great Army debates took place from 28 October onwards in the chancel of the fifteenth-century church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney.* As an edifice it was high rather than particularly large and lay on the banks of the Thames just across the river from Fulham (then only reachable by ferry). It was the parish church of the district, and although the registers show that there were no weddings celebrated there during this momentous period in its history (the soldiers’ occupation would have made it virtually impossible), there are records of soldiers who had been quartered round about being buried there: some of their names were not even known to the lodging-house keepers who reported them. With their breaks for prayer – the resolution for the proceedings of the second day read ‘from eight to eleven to seek God, etc.’ – and their earnest invocations of Scriptural texts and even the laws of the Israelites as equally relevant to the case as English laws, these debates must rank as one of the most extraordinary moots in British history. On a rather different level, such an unprecedented turmoil of dispute must certainly rank as a triumph for the popular astrologer William Lilly who in his Almanack for 1647 had predicted ‘high and very great contentions … about our Customes, Privileges’ for the end of October. In their course the participants ranged over ideas which varied from the wild to the prophetic, many of them so far in advance of their times that they were not fulfilled until three hundred years later, if then. Fortunately we have a remarkably full account of the course of the debates in the papers of William Clarke, then a young man of twenty-four, who had begun life as the subordinate to Rushworth, Secretary to Fairfax and the Council of War, when the New Model was formed, and had become Secretary to those commissioners who tried to arrange terms between Parliament and the Army in the summer. The notes for the Putney reports, which include the introduction of such attractive archetypal if anonymous figures as ‘Buff Coat’ and ‘Bedfordshire Man’, were probably taken down in shorthand by Clarke himself.8

The meeting was held from the first under the presidency of Cromwell, Fairfax being officially unwell and at Turnham Green; and throughout Cromwell showed himself an effective speaker, as well as capable of producing out of the meeting those results he thought on balance least harmful. In short, he acted the part of a capable committee chairman, having had much practice in the past as a committee man. As an orator, Cromwell ranks among those speakers one would like to have heard to have got the full flavour of his style, since between Marvell on ‘that powerful language’ which ‘charmed’ and Burnet who wrote that Cromwell was famous for speaking at length and ‘very ungracefully’ there is obviously room for more than one interpretation of it. Certainly his actual words, at times superbly vivid and direct, are not enough to account for the profound impression he made on his hearers. Force, not to say vehemence, was clearly one paramount quality he possessed from the early days, an eloquence which Carrington politely described as both ‘Masculine and Martial’ and which he called an inborn gift, not an acquired art. He also did not lack that form of self-induced emotional drive, the prerogative of some speakers, which it is perhaps not too fanciful to link with his inherited Welsh blood. The Venetian Ambassador, trying to sum up this particular rolling fervour dispassionately, described him more like a preacher than a statesman.9 At times this produced tears in his own eyes, at times in the eyes of his enthusiastic audience; and at times it produced the snarl of ‘Hypocrite’ on the lips of his enemies.

But it is at Putney also that we have the first glimpses of Cromwell’s other side as an orator, that extraordinarily rambling and obscure mode of expression which seemed to possess Cromwell like an evil spirit whenever the general issue was most difficult and in doubt. As Protector this tortured language became a distinct feature of his oratory, although other factors may have contributed to the disjointed records including his own lack of notes and hesitations of manner. Nevertheless he was accused at the time of employing such ambiguities deliberately in order to conceal his sense. Such a covering of the tracks of meaning while appearing to expound it was certainly a useful device for one who like the Protector Cromwell was obliged from time to time to address a Parliament or two. Later Sir Roger l’Estrange believed the ‘tangling’ of his discourses to be deliberate: ‘the skill of his part lay in this – neither to be mistaken by his friends, nor understood by his enemies. By this middle course he gained time to remove obstructions and ripen occasions …’ Fletcher commented on his use of this quality at public meetings ‘wherein he rather left others to pick out the meaning than did it himself’. But the genesis of this quality in the Putney debates is significant. Here, far from being already in control, Cromwell was merely anxious to acquire it and in genuine doubt as to what should be done, suggests that the trick began at least involuntarily. An angry writer later referred to Cromwell holding himself physically slightly askew when speaking, with his ear cocked ‘as though Mahomet’s pigeon was about to speak into it’.10 The description of a man hoping to talk his way through to truth is probably accurate even if the alleged source of the inspiration he expected to receive is not.

The basis of the Levellers’ proposals had been drawn up beforehand. Known as The Agreement of the People, it was the work of John Wildman, a leading Agitator and lawyer still in his early twenties who had probably drawn up The Case of the Army. What The Agreement of the Peopleproposed was in fact quite a new system of government. Not only was the existing Parliament to be dissolved and another of four hundred members, chosen every two years, to meet from June to December yearly: these were far less revolutionary demands than the postulation of manhood suffrage as a basis for this Parliament, to include all ‘housekeepers of twenty-one who had not aided the King or impeded the Army’ although not ‘persons on alms, wage-earners or servants’. This body would then appoint a Council of State, erect and abolish law courts, and generally make laws to which everyone within the realm would be subject. As for religion, that was to be reformed ‘to the greatest purity in doctrine, worship and discipline according to the Word of God’ and maintained out of public money, with full toleration, excepting only the Catholics and Socinians as deniers of the Trinity. Behind such extremely sweeping demands, there was an equally sweeping philosophy, and a strange romantic, even antiquarian appeal to English history. When General Fairfax, reaching Parliament with the Army in August, had referred feelingly to Magna Carta – ‘that is what we all fight for’ – he had merely expressed the conventional notion of the origin of English liberties. Lilburne and his associates were now however pushing the argument of inherent liberties confidently back to Saxon times. It was these ancient rights which had been miserably snatched from the people at the time of the Norman Conquest, King Charles i being thus only the latest in a long line of royal Norman conquerors who were held to have imposed their yoke on Saxon (and thus English) heads.

It will be recalled that this appeal to former liberties had featured in the 1620s, in the days of the Petition of Right. In the hands of the Levellers the doctrine expanded wonderfully. Lilburne, who had begun his campaign by appealing to Magna Carta, by 1645 was regarding the great charter as merely an interim position capable of much improvement.11 Lilburne in prison moved to the idea of man as a citizen who had the right to give his own agreement to the government; man could rule over other individuals ‘no further than by free consent, or agreement, by giving up their power each to other, for their better being’. Thus the very title Agreement of the People was full of meaning and stated significantly on what the new society was intended to be based.

All of this was of course aeons away from the struggles of the Parliamentary opposition with the King, which was still trying to establish constitutionally, having done so by force, where the supreme authority of the kingdom lay. An agreement of the type put forward by the Levellers needed to be ratified not merely by Parliament but in sort by every man in the State. It was the whole social contract which had to be made anew, since Lilburne now believed that the original social contract had dissolved into a state of nature with the war – and with it any claims Parliament might have to represent the people. The working out of the Levellers’ programme often took daring shapes which excite the modern imagination. Richard Overton, for example, an extreme and radical and fanatical believer in the oppression of the Norman yoke, in his Appeale suggested free schools throughout the country, and organized care for the sick, the poor and the aged. But it cannot be too often stressed that to judge the social programmes of the Levellers by modern standards – by which they will naturally seem uncommonly worthy and deserving of approbation – is to run the risk of misunderstanding entirely the utterly revolutionary and even frightening nature of such schemes in the society in which they lived.

The debate began with an outspoken speech from a prominent Agitator, Edward Sexby, a man originally from Suffolk who had joined Cromwell’s regiment of horse about 1643 and had been one of the three soldiers charged with a letter from the Army to their Generals in April 1647. Throughout the meetings he showed a particularly trenchant style of speech, and began by declaring forthrightly how antagonized the whole Army was by the notion of Cromwell and Ireton making a treaty with the King. He could see in fact two causes of their present miseries, both brought on by their leaders. On the one hand they had sought to satisfy all men, but in trying to achieve that had merely succeeded in dissatisfying them. On the other hand they had laboured to please the King, but unless they all cut their own throats they would not succeed in that either. They had also supported a House of Commons which Sexby rudely compared to ‘rotten studs’, the crumbling uprights in a wall of lath and plaster. To all of this, Cromwell’s reaction was placating, if wary: ‘Truly,’ he observed, ‘this paper does contain in it very great alterations of the very government of the Kingdom, alterations from that government that it hath been under, I believe I may almost say since it was a nation … and what the consequences of such an alteration as this would be, if there were nothing else to be considered, wise men and godly men ought to consider …’12

Oliver proceeded to conjure up all sorts of dangers, some of which perhaps owed more to imagination than reality. Supposing for example another body of men were at the same time getting together and putting out an equally compelling paper: ‘Would it not be utter confusion? Would it not make England like the Switzerland country, one canton of the Switz against another, and one county against another?’ And public opinion too must not be ignored, whether ‘the spirits and temper of the people of this Nation are prepared to receive and go along with it …’ It was notable that amid these calming and considering sentiments, even the usually clear voice of faith, Oliver’s own refuge, was not necessarily to be heard. Oliver was seeing at first hand the strange marshes into which this formerly reliable guiding light could apparently lead some members of the Army; the prospect evidently caused him much unlooked-for discomfort in a direction in which he had least expected insecurity: ‘I know a man may answer all difficulties with faith,’ he observed, ‘and faith will answer all difficulties really where it is, but we are very apt all of us to call that faith that perhaps may be but carnal imagination, and carnal reasonings.’ And his next remarks smacked even more of the politician, and less of the mystic: ‘It is not enough to propose things that are good in the end, but [even] suppose this model were an excellent model, and fit for England, and the Kingdom to receive, it is our duty as Christians and men to consider consequences and to consider the way.’

Ireton it was, not Cromwell, who had earlier said quite bluntly that no plan which envisaged the destruction of either King or Parliament would secure his own co-operation. Now, as the author of the alternative Heads of Proposals, he postulated with equal firmness that the Army had made an ‘engagement’ or bond to adhere to these previous proposals: they could not now publicly break their word simply because its provisions no longer pleased them. To this Rainsborough and John Wildman had their answer: they argued that the needs of justice were paramount over all earlier commitments. Even here Cromwell appears to have been mainly concerned to fudge the issue, if necessary agreeing with both sides. In a particularly diffused harangue, he ruminated on the righteousness or otherwise of breaking engagements when all the surrounding factors must be taken into account: ‘Circumstances may be such as I may not now break an unrighteous Engagement, or else I may do that which I did scandalously, though the thing be good.’ And he suggested a committee should examine the question, a notion finally adopted at the end of the day, with Cromwell to sit on it, along with seventeen others including Sexby and five other Agitators.13

The next day began with the prayer-meeting which had been called for by one Colonel Goffe, a man of rampant spirituality much inclined to suggestions of this nature. The night before, Cromwell had solemnly adjured Wildman and his followers not to pray with blocked ears: ‘And I say no more but this, I pray God judge between you and us when we do meet, whether we come with engaged spirits to uphold our own resolutions and opinions or whether we shall lay down ourselves to be ruled by Him and that which He shall communicate.’ Whichever course had finally commended itself to the Agitators, the results were equally unsatisfactory from Cromwell’s point of view. The question of the Army’s previous engagements was raised all over again: Cromwell and Ireton, while stating categorically once more that they had no secret understanding with the King, expressed themselves much concerned with the question of the Army’s own good faith. The Army had pledged its word over the Heads of Proposals, and if they now went back on it, Cromwell and Ireton feared they might be accused of ‘juggling, and deceiving, and deluding the world’.14

It was in this atmosphere, which was scarcely pacific, that The Agreement of the People was read over. At once a heated debate on the first article – that which called for a quite different electorate, proportioned according to the number of inhabitants – broke out. It was certainly a novel suggestion since it swept away the notion, prevalent since the first days of Parliament under Edward i, that representation should in some way be connected with property qualification or position in society. It would also have had the effect of altering the ragged manner in which the electoral units of England were parcelled out between counties and certain boroughs (not always corresponding to the facts of a growingly citified realm). Ireton sprang to take issue: ‘This doth make me think that the meaning is, that every man that is an inhabitant is to be equally consider’d, and to have an equal voice in the election of the representers … and if that be the meaning then I have something to say against it.’ And speak Ireton did, valiantly and sincerely, in cogent and clear language which compels admiration as he faced a hostile audience, with the ever unpopular cry of less reform rather than more. First he swept aside the premises on which their arguments were based:

For you to make this the rule, I think you must fly for refuge to an absolute natural Right, and you must deny all Civil Right … For my part I think that [the notion of Natural Rights] no right at all. I think that no person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing or determining of the Kingdom, and in choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here, no person hath a right to this, that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this Kingdom … But that by a man’s being born here he shall have a share in that power shall dispose of the lands here, and of all things here, I do not think it a sufficient ground.15

Looking further into these theories, and no doubt influenced by the faces of the men listening to him, many of whom, military service apart, clearly came into the rough category of have-nots, Ireton discerned a veiled attack on the whole concept of property. It was no coincidence that men were qualified to vote by the possession of property, but a fundamental part of the Constitution, and if this was to be taken away ‘we shall plainly go to take away all property and interest that any man hath, either in land or by inheritance, or in estate by possession or anything else’. To this, Rainsborough replied by insisting passionately on the people’s rights: the foundation of all law lay in the people and ‘I do not find any thing in the law of God that a Lord shall choose twenty burgesses, and a Gentleman but two, or a poor man shall choose none.’ But Ireton stuck to his last. ‘All the main thing[s] that I speak for is because I would have an eye to property’, and this he believed was taken away by the notion of natural rights. When Rainsborough grew furious at Ireton’s implications that they were planning anarchy, it was once more Cromwell who intervened soothingly: ‘No man says that you have a mind to anarchy, but the consequence of this rule tends to anarchy; must end in anarchy; for where is there any bound or limit set if you take away this limit, that men that have no interest but the interest of breathing shall have no voice in elections. Therefore I am confident on’t that we should not be so hot one with another.’16

So the debate wore on: Captain Audeley complained that it looked like lasting till the 10th, presumably meaning the Ides, of March. Sexby made some telling points concerning the soldiers, who had risked their lives in the war and were now told that they had no rights in the kingdom. Cromwell however showed his general inimicability to Sexby’s manner and attack by observing briskly that such sentiments did ‘savour so much of will’, and once more he proposed a committee to work out a compromise. But before the meeting broke up, John Wildman issued a detailed criticism of the Heads of Proposals which, by preserving authority for the King and House of Lords and leaving the militia in their hands, were merely riveting the foundations of slavery more strongly than ever before. For all that Ireton tried to prove that the main points of the Agreement were substantially covered in the Heads of Proposals, Wildman insisted that only the Agreement guaranteed the soldiers’ future freedom. Already, he cried, the godly people were turned over and trampled upon in most places in the kingdom. And there was a particular need for an act of indemnity for their past actions, otherwise in the future the King’s judges could well have them all hanged for what they had done during the war. The real trouble arose because if the present Constitution was maintained, still nothing was law but what the King signed.17

On 30 October, the third day, the committee of officers met again, together with representatives of the Agitators. The strength of the Agitators’ case – or at any rate of their party – had made sufficient impression for it to be agreed that manhood suffrage should be extended to all those who had served the Parliament in the last war, with their services, arms, money or horses. So the soldiers at least were to be enfranchised. But Cromwell’s own mood had undoubtedly been given a rough shaking by the experience of the last few days and latterly talk of monarchy as a form of tyranny, even the necessity of sweeping away the King and the House of Lords, had done nothing to allay his fears. In the meantime the news which was beginning to filter from the Court of the monarch’s own activities was equally disquieting. Was Charles planning to escape, despite having given his parole to the contrary, and if so would he search out the Scots once more and ignite a whole new Scottish war? Cromwell’s cousin Whalley could find at least some portents pointing in that direction: when he posted his guards inside the palace of Hampton Court, instead of outside as previously, he was asked to remove them, ostensibly because the noise interrupted the sleep of Charles’s daughter, the eleven-year-old Princess Elizabeth. It was even more worrying when Charles, asked to renew his parole, refused to do so. As a result, on 30 October, the guard was increased and that loyal pair Berkeley and Ashburnham sent away.

Nevertheless, when Cromwell arrived at Putney the next day for the meeting of 1 November, these royal troubles were not exposed: he was still concerned to argue the practicalities of the situation, which might well include the monarchy. The Jews after all in ancient times had moved through various very different forms of government, ranging from heads of families via judges to kings, according to their needs at the time. It was their duty now to accept whatever form of government best suited the present situation, particularly, he added almost pathetically, since it was liberty of conscience that had been their original aim, and all this contest for temporal things should be ‘but as Paul says “dross and dung in comparison of Christ”’.18 But Cromwell did not succeed in avoiding a series of long arguments on the subject of the King and the House of Lords: Wildman believed that neither should be allowed any sort of negative voice, and even Ireton thought their power should be limited; Cromwell’s main preoccupation however was that the Army should regard itself as bound by what had passed before.

The decision of the committee the next day established a general sort of scheme, much like that originally laid down by Ireton. This maintained the King but robbed him of most of his prerogatives and established all real power with the House of Commons. The day following, yet another meeting demonstrated the continuing unrest on the subject of the monarchy: while Fairfax was accused of wearing ‘the King’s colours’, some of the soldiers were also thought to be suffering a sentimental reaction in favour of royalty. But in general the tide of the Army Council was clearly turning against Cromwell and Ireton, for all their efforts at management, as was proved by two votes hostile to their interests on 4 and 5 November. First it was decided to extend the suffrage to all except servants and beggars, and then the extremists succeeded in getting a vote through for a general rendezvous of the Army, as well as a letter to be sent from the Council to Parliament requesting that there should be no more approaches to the King.

As if Cromwell did not have problems enough within the Army, the monarch they so much deplored was himself persistently demanding to come to London for a personal treaty. At the same time the House of Commons took the opportunity to vote that the King was bound to assent to all laws passed by them. At least a few days later Cromwell managed to secure a more helpful decision from the Army Council that officers and representatives who were members should withdraw to their regiments until the date of the general rendezvous. Still more useful was the decision reached by the Council on 9 November that there should be separate reviews on three different days in place of the huge mass meeting desired by the Levellers. The Army Council now adjourned for a fortnight, but the Council of Officers continued to sit, and it was under their auspices two days later, still at Putney, that a crucial attack on Charles’s position was made by Major Thomas Harrison. The son of a Staffordshire grazier, he had become an MP in 1646 and was soon to show pronounced millenarial tendencies in his religious views – the confident expectation of the coming of Christ’s kingdom on earth. Harrison called Charles openly ‘a man of blood’ and urged that he should be prosecuted for his crimes.19

It has been suggested that in his reply Cromwell for the first time publicly admitted that it might come to that in the end. But from the shortened version available, his main concern seems to have been less with the problematical future than with the rather ugly present. He put several precedents, one of them Scriptural, before the Council, where murder had not been punished for the good reason that the punishment would not have served a useful purpose at the time. And he ended by stating firmly that there should only be lawful punishments of delinquents, nor should they ever be carried out under conditions of dispute, or indeed if there was anyone else to do the work. Cromwell’s conclusion was that such work must only be carried out ‘if it be an absolute and indisputable duty for us to do it’ – a fairly tepid reply,20 whose main inspiration was clearly a desire to damp the whole debate down from such fiery discourses.

None of this took into account the ‘man of blood’s’ own plans for his future, but these were by now quite well advanced. While Berkeley favoured the idea of escape by ship to the Continent, it was Ashburnham who, by his own account, advanced the superior claims of Colonel Robert Hammond, Governor of the Isle of Wight, believed to be favourable to the King’s cause. Hammond was actually a connexion of Cromwell through his marriage to the daughter of Cromwell’s cousin John Hampden, but he was also the nephew of the King’s chaplain; at any rate Ashburnham always stuck to the story that he had good reason to suppose Hammond would prove loyal to Charles if tested. The Scots Commissioners, busy making new overtures to Charles to persuade him to make new religious concessions preparatory to an agreement, suggested a flight to Berwick; there was also the possibility of Royalist Jersey. The only topic on which all parties were as one was on the need for Charles to escape his current captors.

Danger did seem to be at every hand, quite apart from the blood-thirsty public threats of the Levellers in the Council. An anonymous communication which may in fact have been written by John Lilburne’s brother Henry, Lieutenant-Colonel in one of the most mutinous regiments in the Army, warned the King of a plot to kill him forthwith, without waiting for a judicial trial. Then there was the mysterious matter of a letter dated 11 November – the day of Harrison’s attack on Charles – written personally by Cromwell to Whalley at his post in charge of the King. ‘Dear Cos Whalley,’ it began, ‘There are rumours abroad of some intended attempt on his Majesty’s person. Therefore I pray have a care of your guards, for if any such thing should be done, it would be accounted a most horrid act.’ A further phrase in the letter, not subsequently published among the King’s correspondence, but revealed by Berkeley in his Memoirs, spoke of an increased guard being imposed on the King the next day, in order to thwart the violent intentions of the Levellers.21 This letter Whalley immediately placed before the King, not, as he said later, to frighten him, but to assure him of the goodwill and protection of the officers towards his person.

Charles acted for once with swiftness and resolution. He left a note for Whalley explaining that his escape had not been prompted by Cromwell’s letter, but because he was ‘loth to be made a close prisoner under pretence of securing my life’. He then took himself ‘by the backstairs and vault, towards the waterside’ as Cromwell wrote afterwards, into the fresh night air of liberty. Outside he met Ashburnham, Berkeley and another Royalist confederate William Legge, the former Governor of Oxford. The four of them, so far as their guards left behind at Hampton Court were concerned, then vanished. It was not long before the fact at least of Charles’s escape was discovered, and the news was conveyed rapidly to Cromwell. Although unable of course to state the King’s whereabouts, he passed on the news of the escape in turn to the Speaker of the House of Commons in a letter dated ‘Hampton Court. Twelve at night’. By now the little party of fugitives had made up their minds: it was to be Hammond and the Isle of Wight, and to this end Berkeley and Ashburnham travelled on to warn him while Charles waited at Titchfield, near the coast, the house of the Earl of Southampton. Berkeley and Ashburnham intended to present Hammond with the choice of preparing Carisbrooke Castle for Charles’s arrival or finding him a boat to take him on to France. But Hammond’s unexpected reaction of unalloyed dismay put paid to both plans. He turned deathly pale, trembled for an hour or so, and gave vent to such horrified sentiments as ‘Oh Gentlemen you have undone me …’22 Loyalty to Parliament proved stronger than loyalty to his King: Hammond decided to bring Charles to Carisbrooke as a prisoner, not as a guest, and to inform Parliament of the whole amazing unlooked-for happening.

While Charles, and indeed Hammond, found themselves in a state of singular confusion, there was one person who exhibited signs of positive cheerfulness at the news of the King’s new circumstances. When Oliver Cromwell broke the news publicly to the House of Commons, explaining how Hammond was an honest and devoted man who would guard the King jealously, he bore himself in Clarendon’s words ‘with so unusual a gaiety that all men concluded that the King was where he wished he should be’. This significant return to the hilarity of the battlefield, coupled with the undeniable convenience to Cromwell personally of Charles’s removal, made it easy later for his enemies to work up a highly hostile theory of conspiracy. Charles at Carisbrooke was safe from the Levellers, secure also it was to be hoped from the Scots, and yet by his secret flight had somehow forfeited something of his personal advantage. When his eventual fate was known, and Cromwell’s own assumption of power taken into account as well, it was not too difficult a jump to connect all three steps together into a staircase of cunning and deception constructed by Cromwell personally. It was a theory most neatly expressed by Marvell in his famous lines on Cromwell:

Twining subtle fears with hope

He wove a net of such a scope

That Charles himself might chase

To Carisbrooke’s narrow case …

The question remains whether Oliver was, as in so many cases of Royalist traduction, maligned in such accusations, or whether there was at least some element of plot on his part which went towards the making of the King’s escape. It is often pointed out with truth in Cromwell’s defence that he could hardly have planned the sheer details of the escape since these were decided piece by piece at the time in free discussions with Ashburnham and Berkeley (both of whom afterwards testified to it). But there does seem to be some nagging cloud of doubt hanging over his part in it all. That letter to Whalley – was it not, when all is said and done, so neatly fortuitous? Were not the sentiments expressed in it so exactly those most likely to induce the King to flee, and flee immediately? Did it not come so pat into an already explosive situation? Such suspicions continue to haunt one, and there is an additional mystery in the shape of an unexplained visit of Cromwell to Hammond on the Isle of Wight in early September, reported in a newsletter of the time, which for want of any other known motive, hinted that Cromwell might be threatening Hammond’s authority.23

Venturing into the realm of pure conjecture, it is possible to conceive that Cromwell, showing his new mettle as a politician, did envisage the immense advantages in having the King at Carisbrooke rather than close to the capital. He might even have established in advance the reaction of Hammond if such a transference should take place. Having done so, it was even possible that he dropped the idea into the mind of the King’s servant Ashburnham, fertile ground. From then on plans simply fell into place as Cromwell might have dared to hope they would – being possessed by more than his fair share of fortunate breaks – but from then on the uncertainties also become altogether too murky to proceed further. In the final analysis one can only say that such a line of thinking would fit suitably into Cromwell’s new political practice of leading, cajoling and suggesting where he could not drive.

Back in the centre of it all, Cromwell had to face not only the resentment of the Army, but much unpopularity in certain sections of the House of Commons, where Marten and Rains-borough even talked of impeaching him, although John Lilburne’s wilder story that Marten intended to do ‘a Felton’ (the assassin of the Duke of Buckingham) by putting his dagger into Cromwell should probably be disregarded. Then there was the first of the three rendezvous promised to the Army to be faced. Held at Corkbush Field near Ware on 15 November, it was intended to present a manifesto of the officers’ decisions to the soldiery. But the men were in a surly mood, and like a more openly diabolic gathering, that of Milton’s council of fallen angels, displayed ‘that fixed mind and high disdain from sense of injured merit’. What was more, two regiments specifically not invited to the rendezvous had turned up, including that of Lilburne’s elder brother Robert, men notorious for their disaffection. Many of the soldiers actually arrived with copies of the Agreementand the pertinent motto ‘England’s freedom! Soldiers’ right!’ stuck into their hats. It was hardly the sort of situation which any General who believed in discipline was likely to tolerate; Cromwell reacted in a fury not only to the audacious headgear but also to the straightforward disobedience of the unbidden regiments in making an appearance in the first place. When the men refused to remove their favours, he drew his sword on them with zest. The four ringleaders were seized, and after casting lots, one was shot as an example to the rest. After such Ironsided tactics, it is hardly surprising that the other two rendezvous took place considerably more calmly.

However on 19 November Cromwell made a dramatically different speech in the Commons which showed how much he had learnt from Rainsborough and the other fanatical critics of the ‘Norman yoke’ during those long autumn sessions in Putney church. For although he reported thankfully that the Army were now unanimous and reduced to better discipline, he went on to tell the House that since the soldiers had undoubtedly conquered the kingdom, they, like William the Conqueror, had the right to give the kingdom laws, quite apart from preserving their own liberty.* When John Swynfen, the member for Stafford, questioned this astonishingly unparliamentary point of view, Cromwell did then grant that all such representation should be with the submission and acquiescence of the soldiers to the will of Parliament. But he in turn criticized Swynfen for denying the soldiers their rights as Englishmen, and only allowing them (in Boys’s vivid if mongrel phrase) ‘tantum come subjects’.24 Such an attitude would arouse much apprehension among the soldiers who believed that they had a right to petition the House as Englishmen.

An order was then made that Cromwell should tell the Army that the House was ready to receive their addresses, if made in a Parliamentary way. But four days later, once more addressing the House, Cromwell seemed to swing the other way in his perpetual balancing act between the various powers in the kingdom. No longer did he put forward the point of view of the conquering military. When the soldiers were generally condemned in the House Cromwell hastened to disassociate himself from all ‘this drive at a levelling and parity, etc.’. He perceived that it was the soldiers’ intention to exclude servants and children, only to include vast quantities of their own number: it was this sort of behaviour which had brought much obloquy on the officers and himself.

The balancing act could not go on for ever. It was towards the end of November, probably about the 23rd or 24th, that the seesaw came down finally with all Cromwell’s weight and authority thrown against the King. The decision was on the surface at least a sudden one: the many and various attempts of Cromwell and Ireton to reach some sort of settlement with Charles from July onwards have been noted. But on 26 November when Berkeley arrived with letters from the King asking for the officers’ support in re-establishing him on the throne, he learnt that only the day before Cromwell and Ireton had spoken out fiercely against Charles in the Army Council. This unwelcome news was accompanied by the further sinister report that Cromwell had also spoken with unaccustomed warmth of the Levellers – ‘If we cannot bring the Army to our sense, we must go to theirs.’25 Equally indicative of Cromwell’s altered mood was his message to Berkeley: he dared not see him, since he, Cromwell, could hardly be expected to perish for the King’s sake.

What inspiration, what intelligence, what discovery even, had brought about this astonishing volte face in the man who for the last four or five months had been, at any rate in the opinion of his own men, far too favourably inclined towards the King’s cause? The case, although equally mysterious, differs from that of the flight to Carisbrooke, in that for once Cromwell actually provided his own explanation. Two years later Lord Broghill asked Cromwell straight out why the Army at this point had given up trying to come to terms with Charles. In reply Cromwell – most uncharacteristically – had unwoven a tale quite worthy of the novels of Alexandre Dumas. His remarkable revelations were then repeated by Broghill to his own chaplain and biographer Thomas Morrice, and by him handed down to posterity as the incident of the ‘Saddle Letter’. The story Cromwell told was as follows: in the autumn of 1647 he and his faction would have very willingly ‘closed with the King’ for the simple reason that the Scots and English Presbyterians together would have proved too powerful for them, and their whole cause might have been undone. But even while such thoughts of a royal settlement preoccupied them, they were tipped off by ‘a spy in the King’s chamber’ (name never given) that for all their efforts their ‘final doom’ was actually decreed. They would discover for themselves the truth of the King’s falsity by finding a certain letter sewn up in the skirt of a saddle. The bearer of this vital letter would come to the Blue Boar Inn at Holborn about ten o’clock that night, and could be known by the fact that he would be bearing his saddle on his head. From Holborn he would be riding on to Dover where, although he himself was innocent as to its contents, there were men waiting who understood the saddle’s significance.

On receipt of this dramatic information, Cromwell himself seems to have taken on the mantle of one of Dumas’s dashing musketeers. Cromwell and Ireton were then at Windsor; they now dressed up in the habits of two ordinary troopers and taking only one ‘trusty fellow’ with them, set out immediately for the Holborn inn. Here they had their man keep watch outside, while they themselves drank cans* of beer inside ‘in the disguise of common troopers’. It was indeed ten o’clock when their man outside tipped them off of the arrival of the saddle-bearer. Rushing out, the two disguised Army leaders threatened the emissary with their swords; finding him however to be an ignorant and therefore honest man, they merely slit up the saddle skirt, and there duly found a letter. This communication was quite as deadly as the spy had predicted. Here was the King, the man they had been backing, telling the Queen that both factions, Scottish Presbyterians and Army, were now bidding for him ‘but he thought he should close with the Scots sooner than the others’. And so the two adventurers rode back to Windsor and in Cromwell’s own reported words ‘finding we were not likely to have any tolerable terms from the King, we immediately, from that time forward, resolved his ruin’.26

Now this strange story, coming admittedly at second hand and only made public long after the event, might at first sight seem too far-fetched to be given much credit outside the pages of romantic fiction. Yet as it happens there are various other confirmations, including the account of Sir William Dugdale – although he actually mentions a letter in reverse, from the Queen to Charles – which do give substance to the tale, even if some of its details have become inevitably blurred or exaggerated in the telling.28 Some dramatic and radical explanation is surely needed to explain what was after all a dramatic and radical change of policy. If then we do not place too much emphasis on the precise course of the story – the ‘spy’ in the King’s chamber was for instance more likely to be a gentlemen-in-waiting placed there by Hammond – and accept that the letter could have been sent equally well from Charles to Henrietta Maria or vice versa, or even both (a treacherous correspondence), we are still left with some specific proof of Charles’s essentially untrustworthy nature. This proof, whatever its nature, falling into the hands of Cromwell and Ireton in late November at a most delicate moment in their political negotiations, threatened by both Scots and Army radicals, caused them to make a total reassessment of the character of the King. As to the doubt whether one single episode could have caused such a swift change of mind in a man of Cromwell’s calibre, one should recall not only the many trailers of his unreliable nature already provided publicly by Charles, but also the personal attention Cromwell himself always paid to the indications of Providence. The Saddle Letter could well have been the sign that he sought, that further negotiations with Charles would not have divine approval.

Two days after Cromwell’s conversion in the Army Council, on 27 November, the new climate of opinion in Parliament was made clear when certain propositions, known as the Four Bills, were put forward as preconditions to any settlement with the King. All past declarations against Parliament were to be annulled; the militia was to be controlled by Parliament for the next twenty years; royal honours granted since 1642 were to be revoked, and Parliament was to have the acknowledged right to meet wheresoever it pleased. There were those Royalists who considered Cromwell’s and Ireton’s defection from the King’s cause in the Council at this point to be treacherous. But Ludlow repeats a story which did much damage at the time, by which Charles had been seen at Carisbrooke throwing a bone between two spaniels, and laughing happily as he watched them quarrelling over it.29 At any rate in the meantime Charles had not been idle in his talks with the Scots; by 15 December these were sufficiently advanced for Charles to make out a draft of the document later known as the Engagement, by which not only would a Scottish army descend into England, but also in the ensuing religious settlement a whole list of sects was to be suppressed including not only Anabaptists and Brownists but also Independents. The text of the Engagement, once agreed, was kept secret and the document having been wrapped in lead, was buried deep in the garden at Carisbrooke for the day of triumphant release when it should be wanted again. But the existence of such provisions, even if as yet only guessed at by the Army, did make the tenor of their own meeting at Windsor on 21 December more understandable; it also makes it more difficult to accuse Cromwell and Ireton of betraying the King publicly when he was hard at work betraying them in private.

This particular meeting of the Army Council was marked by unlooked-for fraternization between Cromwell and the Levellers. At the usual prayer-meetings which accompanied the discussions there was, wrote one observer, ‘such sweet music as the heavens never before knew’. It was significant that Colonel Rainsborough was now actually nominated for the post of Vice-Admiral which he had coveted in vain in September. Most ominous of all from the point of view of the King was the suggestion made at the conference that Charles should be tried for his life ‘as a criminal person’. The news was immediately passed on to the King himself by Watson the Quartermaster-General of the Army, who warned him in confidence of what was brewing, since it was intended to keep the existence of the vital resolution dark until, as Clarendon wrote afterwards, Parliament could be ‘cozened by degrees to do what they never intended’. Charles’s plans with the Scots were as yet uncompleted: they were demanding two additional articles to the Engagementgiving equality of opportunity to Scots in the public service, and providing for the residence of the King or the Prince of Wales in Scotland whenever possible. Charles needed time for these plans to mature, although it was admittedly time which would best be spent at liberty. Therefore on 28 December he rejected Parliament’s Four Bills out of hand, and asked once more for a form of personal treaty. On the same day he had already hoped to escape to Jersey, although his plans were effectively frustrated by Hammond who suddenly dismissed Ashburnham, Berkeley and Legge from the Isle of Wight. The rapidity of the move probably owed something to the warning delivered by Cromwell to his cousin Hammond about this time, giving details of a possible Jersey escape plan: ‘You have warrant now to turn out such servants as you suspect; do it suddenly for fear of danger. You see how God hath honoured and blessed every resolute action of those for Him; doubt not but He will do so still.’30

On 3 January 1648 a great debate took place in the House of Commons on the subject of ‘No Addresses’, whether any further approaches should be made to the King, or whether he was to be regarded as a hopeless cause. There are three sources still extant for the course the speeches took: Clarendon, a contemporary pamphlet, and John Boys’s diary. From the point of view of Cromwell’s own intervention, the most striking aspect on which all three sources concur is the profound change which had occurred in his public attitude to Charles since the summer. From being the most honest and conscientious man in the kingdom, as Cromwell once told Berkeley, Charles had turned into ‘so great a dissembler and so false a man that he was not to be trusted’, or in another version ‘an obstinate man, whose heart God had hardened’. Nevertheless it is important at this point to distinguish, as Cromwell did then, between the man and the office. Cromwell’s words on Charles were harsh, but at no point in this debate did he join in boldly with those who were calling loudly for the actual end to the monarchy as an institution. The MP Thomas Wroth waxed angry over the need for the destruction of the monarchy – ‘From divells and Kings Good Lord deliver me. Its now high time, up and be doing, I desire any government rather than that of the King.’ Cromwell however was still to a large extent conciliatory.

‘Truly, we declared our intentions for Monarchy, and they still are so, unless necessity force an alteration,’ he declared at one point; it was the old argument based on the practicalities of the situation. His main concern was to display once more, in a striking passage at once resolute and appealing which compels admiration, all his former sympathy for the plight of the men who had actually won the war for them. How fatal it would be if Parliament allowed itself to become alienated from such men: ‘Look on the people you represent, and break not your trust and expose not the honest party of the Kingdom, who have bled for you, and suffer not misery to fall upon them, for want of courage and resolution in you, else the honest people may take such courses as nature dictates to them.’ Or, as another version had it, supposing such men despaired at finding themselves betrayed to the Scots? Despair might ‘teach them to seek their safety by some other means than adhering to you, who will not stick to yourselves. How destructive such a resolution in them will be to you all, I tremble to think and leave you to judge.’ It was in this context that there must be no more dealings with Charles. In a speech that was said afterwards to have made much impression, perhaps because Cromwell put his hand on his sword at the end of it, he quoted the Scriptures to persuade the House that they should now negotiate without the King: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a hypocrite to reign.’31 And at the end of it the vote was carried by a large majority that no more addresses should be made to the King, nor messages received from him.

It was a further sign of the times that the old Committee of Safety had to be revived, and even more significant that its name had to be changed to the Derby House Committee after its place of session – the Two Kingdoms of the previous titles were of course shortly expected to be fighting one another. And if proof were needed that Cromwell was taking his stand on the unsatisfactory personal nature of the King, there was his own letter to Hammond in the Isle of Wight, written on the same day of the debate, to report the vote in triumph and headed ‘Haste, post haste’. ‘A mighty providence to this poor Kingdom, and to us all … The House of Commons is very sensible of the King’s dealings, and of our brethren’s, in this late transaction. You should do well if you have anything that may discover juggling, to search it out, and let us know it …’32

It was perhaps poetic justice that at the same time as Cromwell was asking Hammond for some additional proofs of the King’s trickery in order to blacken his name further in conclave, Cromwell himself was being subjected to the full malevolent fury of the Royalist satirists. One particularly venomous attack, dating from about this time, gives what may well be the first public hint of that reproach subsequently so often hurled at his head – that he himself intended to replace Charles on the throne. Known as O Brave Oliver, the most trenchant lines read:

You shall have a King but whom? …

Was ever King served so?

To make room for Oliver, O fine Oliver, O brave, O rare Oliver O

Dainty Oliver, O gallant Oliver O

Now Oliver must be he

Now Oliver must be he

For Oliver’s nose

Is the Lancaster rose

And then comes his sovereignty …

With such unpopularity with a quick-witted section of the community came inevitably the attacks on ‘brave Oliver’s’ personal appearance. The above reference to Oliver’s ‘Lancaster rose’ is in fact one of the milder references to this prominent feature of his physiognomy, much and happily celebrated by the satirists; the pamphlet of the 3 January debate spoke less romantically of ‘the glow-worm glistening in his beak’. It was seldom in any hostile description of his appearance that either the size of his nose or its colour escaped comment, and even his colleague Sir Arthur Haselrig was sufficiently obsessed by it to observe a few weeks earlier on the subject of Cromwell’s integrity that, if he was not honest, he would never trust a man with a big nose again. The Royalists of course persisted in the view that Cromwell was hideously ugly – ‘so perfect a hater of images’, as Cleveland neatly put it in a reference to Puritan iconoclasm, ‘that he has defaced God’s in his own countenance’.33 Favourite nicknames for him were Nose, Copper Nose, Nose Almighty, Ruby Nose – from all of which, backed up perhaps by Baxter’s mention of a sanguine complexion, one can deduce at least that Cromwell had some sort of disability in this direction, without fear of seeming over-susceptible to Royalist propaganda. From this of course it was only a light-footed step away to linking the colour of his nose with over-indulgence in drink; and from there only another short step to the coming scandal, first mentioned a year later, that he was a former brewer.

Big nose or not, Cromwell was a man of authority and that authority had been won by his own efforts. That of the man he now opposed, King Charles Stuart, had been inherited down history and for that very reason seemed likely to be ineradicable in the hearts of many of his subjects. For all the vehemence of the debate of 3 January, for all the open republicanism of men like Thomas Wroth, political events thereafter still consisted of rambling conferences inspired by general indecision as to the best course for the future. The removal of Charles was in no way necessarily identified with the abolition of the monarchy, and Cromwell in particular, who had always shown some partiality for the scheme of rule by another younger member of the Royal Family, was now among those who explored this possibility. Many of the ‘middle group’ of MPs, including Vane and St John, were now involved in such discussions, which in the spring of 1648 seem to have centred on the idea of a regency in favour of one royal prince or another. The Prince of Wales himself seems to have been averse to the idea, but after all that still left the sixteen-year-old James Duke of York and the twelve-year-old Henry Duke of Gloucester, both of whom, unlike their elder brother, were still in Parliamentary hands.

Lilburne, brought before the House of Commons for his trial, reflected this fresh examination of the further possibilities of monarchy by repeating that old piece of gossip from the autumn, that Cromwell would shortly be made Earl of Essex. Another rumour spoke of ‘fresh trinketings’ with the King. Turning from side to side for a solution, it does seem certain that Cromwell did at least try in vain for a reconciliation with the republican Marten. In general, a description by Ludlow of a dinner-party given by Cromwell at his King Street house for ‘Army and Commonwealth’ men as well as grandees of the House of Commons, deliberately intended to bring them together, shows how extremely protean all shades of public opinion were at the time.

It is true that the next day Cromwell did tell Ludlow with regard to republicanism that he was convinced of ‘the desirableness of what was posed, but not the feasibleness of it’. It was also true that Cromwell was reported to have delivered ‘a severe invective against monarchical government’ in the House of Commons on 11 February when the Declaration upholding the Vote of No Addresses was passed. But at the dinner-party itself the grandees, including Cromwell, were to Ludlow’s mind irritatingly vague about what they now wanted: they ‘kept themselves in the clouds, and would not declare their judgements, either for a monarchical, aristocratical or democratical government, maintaining that any of them might be good in themselves, or for us, according as providence should direct us’.34 At the end of it all Oliver was seized with one of those extraordinary fits of humour, surely manic in origin, which had endeared him to his soldiers, and in this case took the surprising form of a pillow-fight. Grabbing a cushion, he broke up the discussion by hurling it at Ludlow’s head, himself springing away down the stairs away from Ludlow’s vengeance. But Ludlow managed to overtake him, armed with another cushion, and as he himself boasted, force his descent to become a great deal more rapid than he had expected. This surprising outbreak of horseplay reflected no doubt the nervous tension of the situation, with so much at stake, so little ultimately decided.

While Oliver and his cronies thus waited for Providence – or perhaps the Scots – to dictate a suitable form of government, the condition of the rest of the country was both disordered and discontented, a perilous combination. Peace, that desirable condition, seemed to have brought with it only high prices and bad harvest. The old order of society was sadly missing, while the country gentry much resented their increasing alienation from the processes of government, as functions formally controlled locally, such as those of the militia or the Justices of the Peace, were usurped by the centre. Not only the gentry but the lower orders pined for the return of the regional proprieties. There were food riots at Warminster in Wiltshire; in the south-east on Christmas Day 1647 a football match in Kent developed into a brawl which proved to be merely a foretaste of more serious disturbances to follow in that area.35

Sport in this troublesome era did seem to lead uncomfortably often to riot rather than good fellowship – a fact which should be borne in mind when considering the later Protectoral condemnations of sporting gatherings: even a hurling-match in the West Country now developed into a series of demonstrations. In other ways the temper of the country resolutely refused to conform to the Puritan ideal, resistance being on many different levels. The Parliamentary ordinances against the theatres, for example, had proved surprisingly ineffective; in May 1647 there were still plays performed at suburban Knightsbridge, either at the Inn of the Rose and Crown or at Holland House (used for the same purposes under the Commonwealth). ‘Whither go we!’ exclaimed a Roundhead newsletter angrily.36 When the new order passed for six months from July 1647, forbidding bear-baitings and dancings on the rope as well as theatres, ran out in January, the result was a happy outbreak of theatre-going. So that in February 1648, so obstinate was the English spirit in pursuit of its pleasures, it was found necessary to issue still stronger ordinances against playhouses (to be pulled down), actors and spectators (to pay forfeits of 5s. a head). Yet still the plays persisted.

27 March, the Accession Day of Charles I and a traditional feast of celebration, saw the outburst of numbers of loyal demonstrations in his favour. Wayfarers in the streets of London were compelled to drink his health, and the butchers were overheard threatening to chop up his jailer Hammond in much the same manner as they cut up their own meat. There was no question but that there was a reaction in favour of the Crown, that dreamt-of symbol of lost pre-war order and security; that too meant that political compromise was once more in the air, particularly as many of the middle-group MPs had solid monarchical convictions which would probably always prevent them agreeing to any proper settlement which permanently excluded the King. Oliver himself took a step backwards into private life. He spent Accession Day on a family errand, although a current rumour to explain his absence, that he had gone off to the Isle of Wight to see Charles, showed how long-lasting were the potent suspicions of Cromwell’s relations with the King.

It was true that Oliver had gone in the general direction of the south, but his journey stopped short at Winchester where he intended to have some helpful talks with one Richard Mayor at the Great Lodge of Merdon on the subject of a match between Mayor’s daughter Dorothy and Cromwell’s twenty-one-year-old son Richard. Colonel Norton, a good friend of Cromwell’s who had formerly been in Manchester’s army and was now MP for Hampshire, had been acting as go-between in the rather protracted financial negotiations which had been accompanying the affair. In the serious duty of the Puritan father to marry off his children into godly matrimony, Oliver took his responsibilities towards his sons quite as heavily as those towards his daughters. There had been some other more worldly possible match for Richard – ‘a very great proposition’ – but for all Oliver’s political position which might have tempted another father to seek connexions through his son, he was personally much inclined towards the more modest Dorothy: ‘because although the other be very greater yet I see difficulties, and not that assurance of godliness … If God please to bring it about, the consideration of piety in the [Mayor] parents, and such hopes of the gentlewoman in that respect, make the business to me a great mercy.’

But Richard Mayor, for all his comparatively obscure position as a Hampshire squire, had his doubts too. Oliver told Norton afterwards that he had been obliged to allay certain fears in the mind of his son’s future father-in-law concerning his own currently equivocal position in the public mind: ‘Some things of common fame did a little stick: I gladly heard his doubts and gave such answer as was next at hand, I believe, to some satisfaction.’ However Oliver did not neglect Dorothy’s earthly dowry altogether in considering her heavenly crown: a few days later Oliver embarked on a long and detailed letter to Norton on the business side of the match – he was particularly anxious that Mayor should settle his manor on the young couple if he himself left no son – urging Norton to move fast since he, Oliver, might soon be otherwise employed: ‘I know thou art an idle fellow, but prithee neglect me not now.’37

Oliver’s hunch that he might soon be busy in quite a different direction needed no special shrewdness in view of the hectic rumours of imminent attack which were now filtering down from Scotland. There were further plots to rescue the King: Cromwell warned Hammond of one on 6 April. Three days later, the apprentices in the City rioted and ran down Whitehall crying ‘Now for King Charles!’ They had to be held back by the cavalry led by Cromwell and Ireton, who killed their leader in the process, and cut about a number of others. Said a newsletter afterwards: ‘This was the abortive issue of the design of the Malignant Party.’ But it should more properly be seen as part of a general pattern of violence angled in favour of the absent monarch, which showed no sign of dispersing. There was more talk of crowning the young Duke of York, and a woman was even said to have borne a secret message on the subject from the Army Council to Charles himself, as a form of threat.38 However on 21 April the young prince himself, with great enterprise, put an end to such conjectures by escaping to the Continent disguised as a girl. With the definite news of a Scottish army under way, everything seemed to be flowing in Charles’s direction once more. On 28 April the vote in the House of Commons, won by one hundred and sixty-five to ninety-nine, in which even Vane voted with the Ayes, was a distinct sign of the times: ‘the fundamental government of the Kingdom’, i.e. the monarchical constitution, was not to be altered. As explosions of rebellion began to sweep the country, the Vote of No Addresses forbidding approaches to Charles was temporarily suspended. At Canterbury the rebels originating from the Christmas football match were actually acquitted. In Kent, Essex and Surrey there were vociferous calls for a personal treaty with the King and disbandment of the Army.

The disgust and dread of the Army at such developments may be imagined. Disbandment had in fact been proceeding, under the presidency of Fairfax. Even Cromwell’s own pay had recently been reduced from £4 a day to £3, although he had demonstrated his own indifference to such values by making a handsome remittance to Parliament of £1500 out of monies owed to him for the prosecution of the war in Ireland; he also offered £1000 a year for five years out of the Worcester estates granted to him. But by the end of April the Army was hardly in a mood to display any sort of tolerance or generosity to those they believed were intending to ruin them. Was it for this that they allowed their progressive diminution, that the Scots should descend on them, that Charles Stuart, that ogre, should plunge the nation into another bloodbath? The meeting of the Army Council at Windsor to consider the Scottish news showed from the first an absolute hostility to Charles as a person, the author of their troubles. On 30 April, about the same time as the English Royalists in the north helped by the Scots seized both Berwick and Carlisle, Cromwell was outlining to the Army Council the three alternatives now before them: a new model Church and State along the lines of the Levellers’ proposals, the restoration of Charles with more limited powers, or his deposition in favour of young Henry Duke of Gloucester and a temporary Protectorate. For what it was worth, a Royalist at the time believed that Cromwell still favoured the third alternative. But any suggestion of compromise was soon to be swept away. The next day, in the midst of the meeting of the Council, came the dramatic news that the Adjutant-General in Wales, Fleming, had been killed in a Royalist uprising which coincided with a mutiny of disbanded Parliamentary malcontents. The whole of South Wales was now up in arms. Fleming had been popular, and tears stood in the officers’ eyes as they resolved instantly to subdue the kingdom once more, and above all to call to account the man who in their estimation was responsible for the renewed horrors of war – Charles Stuart. As Fairfax despatched Lambert to the north and Sir Hardress Waller to Cornwall yet another period of uncertainty in Cromwell’s life had ended in precipitate action. The die of the Second Civil War was fairly cast. To South Wales, with the largest force, went Oliver Cromwell.

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