The Cromwellian Protectorate by Barry Coward

Cato the Elder
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A few months ago I completed The Cromwellian Protectorate by the late historian of Early Modern England, Barry Coward. Not only did it help me extremely with my coursework, but it is a fascinating insight into the workings of government during this turbulent era, when all the British Isles was captained by one, unassuming individual, raised from obscurity to riches and power, in concert with his councillors and his rambunctious and not always cooperative parliaments.

Coward presents evidence which does away with the argument previously made by historians that the regime represented a "retreat from revolution", demonstrating that the regime did in fact maintain a passionate idealism to the very end, a determination to remake England into a godly nation, and see through a "reformation of manners" that would return the peoples of the British Isles, their hearts long turned from God, to the right path. Cromwell and his zealous Puritans faced opposition in their religious aims, however. On the one hand there were the royalist Anglicans who resisted the imposition of the new, decentralised, less formal style of worship. On the other there were the Presbyterians, who were dominant in Parliament and who disliked the idea of extending toleration to the sectaries championed by Cromwell, fearing religious disorder. Compromise was reached, whereby certain sects such as the Quakers were excluded from toleration, but otherwise a broad church of many sects was effected. The high point of Nonconformism in British history had been reached.

Cromwell scored short-term successes in domestic policy, bringing all the British Isles under his sway and persuading the traditional rulers of the country that cooperation with the regime as opposed to opposition was preferable. This settlement held until Cromwell's death and the turbulent events of 1659, in which division, mismanagement and incompetence on the part of Richard Cromwell all played their part in the Protectorate's sudden collapse and the reestablishment of monarchical rule.

In foreign policy, Cromwell subdued first the Dutch, then the Spanish and later the Baltic powers, and, in the words of the Venetian ambassador, made England the "third power" in Europe, sitting astride the rising power of France and the declining one of Spain. Cromwell's governorship gave Britain its first real taste of continental power. There were failures - such as the humiliating defeat suffered by the New Model Army in 1655 at the hands of the Spanish in Hispaniola (modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic) but also great successes, as in 1658 when the New Model Army, alongside Marshal Turenne of France, decisively defeated an Austro-Spanish army outside Dunkirk in the Battle of the Dunes. When Cromwell's foreign policy is compared to the ruinous foreign policy of Charles II, the Protectorate rises still higher in one's esteem.

There were highs and lows, but overall I would undoubtedly say that Cromwell's regime was good for England. There were negatives - high taxation, religious unrest, military rule - but also positives - national greatness, empire-building, religious toleration, most famously including the re-admittance of the Jews in 1656. All in all we I would definitely say that the Protectorate marked a golden age in British history.

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