Marcus Nevitt

Oliver Cromwell: ruthless in battle – but nice to his men

As a military history of the English Civil War this book is unlikely to be surpassed

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker, 1649. Credit: Bridgeman Images

One of the first retrospective accounts of Oliver Cromwell’s early career, Andrew Marvell’s ‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’ (1650), maintained that its subject was difficult to capture. Perhaps the finest political poem in the English language, it was written shortly after Cromwell’s return from a brutally successful military campaign overseas, which witnessed infamous atrocities at Drogheda and Wexford. It celebrates Cromwell as a victorious military commander, a supernatural epic hero who burns through the air, destroying all who block his path to establishing England as the greatest nation on Earth.

But for all its praise and hyperbole, the abiding impression of the poem is that there is something elusive, frightening and disquietingly off about Cromwell. Not the least of this is his sudden emergence from rural obscurity in East Anglia, from his ‘private gardens, where/ He lived reserved and austere’, through bloody civil war and on to the international political stage. Marvell captured the breathtaking rapidity and violence of this rise in an image of Cromwell as an electrical storm:

And like the three-forked lightning, first Breaking through the clouds where it was nursed, Did through his own side His fiery way divide.

It’s impossible to determine whether those lines are, finally, celebration or warning; they’re delicately, evasively both, and Marvell’s unusual use of those longer and shorter couplets, alternating tetrameter and trimeter throughout the poem, suggests that there’s no single expected pattern that Cromwell conforms to, but only differing ways of reading him. He is at once awe-inspiring and terrifying, spectacular and divisive.

Ronald Hutton’s excellent new biography also charts Cromwell’s movement from obscurity to early celebrity, and echoes Marvell’s assessment of him as ambiguity or paradox. The book is the first instalment of a multi-volume study; it ends in 1647, shortly after parliamentary forces had defeated the royalist supporters of Charles I in the English Civil War.

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