- Perceptions of a Monarchy without a King: Reactions to Oliver Cromwell’s Power by Benjamin Woodford
On 23 February 1657 the Second Protectoral Parliament presented Oliver Cromwell with proposals for a new constitutional settlement. The first and most important of the provisions in this “Humble Address and Remonstrance” was that Cromwell, who had been Lord Protector since 1653, should become King. Six weeks later Cromwell rejected the Remonstrance on the grounds that he could not accept the royal title. Eventually, however, on 25 May he agreed to the compromise whereby he accepted the revised version of the proposals, the Humble Petition and Advice, which instead continued his existing title of Lord Protector.
These disagreements have rightly been viewed as the climatic moment for the Cromwellian Protectorate. As all those involved recognized, the issues were ones of fundamental constitutional principle. Was Britain to be a monarchy or a republic? And what sort of monarchy or what sort of republic? It is obvious enough that the 1650s saw the most radical political experiment in the whole course of English and British history. But just how radical was that experiment to be? Many of those in power at the time, including Cromwell, were not themselves entirely sure.
Historians have therefore not neglected these events. On the contrary, they have devoted much attention to Parliament’s decision to offer the crown and to Cromwell’s decision to refuse it. There has been much about which to disagree. It does not help that the major sources recording what was said in Parliament and by Cromwell on the subject are all highly problematic. Those, however, are not the main focus of this book. Benjamin Woodford could perhaps have made more of the (very patchy) [End Page 336] parliamentary records, but his discussion of Cromwell’s speeches is concise and well judged.
It is instead Woodford’s contention that previous historians have given insufficient attention to the wider debates in print on the issues raised by the kingship controversy. There is perhaps a touch of overstatement in such a claim. The views of Milton, Marvell, James Harrington, Edmund Waller, and Marchamont Nedham can hardly be said to have been overlooked. But there is nevertheless much to be gained by considering them together, as well as alongside those of much more minor figures, such as George Wither, Michael Hawke, Mary Howgill, and John Spittlehouse.
Woodford’s aim is to show the sheer range of opinions the controversy generated. In that he fully succeeds. Everywhere there were disagreements over basic issues. There was certainly no official line that those who held government positions (Milton, Marvell, Waller, and Wither) were expected to take. As Cromwell’s rule became more monarchical, some became even more enthusiastic, while others became correspondingly more hostile. Attitudes toward the religious radicals were also sharply divided. Was Cromwell being too favourable toward them or not favourable enough? Would an increase in Cromwell’s powers promote political stability or be a step toward tyranny? Even royalist writers disagreed among themselves. Viewing Cromwell as a usurper did not mean that one could not also see him as a possible substitute for the Stuarts.
The greatest irony of all involved the sects. Displaying greater unanimity than many of their critics, the religious radicals mostly convinced themselves that a more powerful Cromwell would be a greater threat. Even before 1657 they were disillusioned with him, and they tended to disapprove of monarchy on principle anyway. Yet, as Woodford points out, there was much in common between their ideas and Cromwell’s thoughts about those same issues. The reasons Cromwell refused the crown were indeed not so very different from those that made the sects so antagonistic toward him. To be fair, the sects did not really know why Cromwell had refused the crown, because, as Woodford also carefully demonstrates, his reasons for doing so had been very carefully censored. Once again, the kingship issue cut across natural alliances, creating disagreement and confusion. The overall conclusion must therefore be a bit depressing. What...