RONALD HUTTON is a respected and prolific historian of early modern England who, unusual in such a specialized profession, pushes the boundaries of political, military, cultural and social history with books on subjects as diverse as the royalist war effort, high politics, and the social history of witchcraft and paganism.
After a long career in which he wrote about this time in all its diversity, he has now turned to the only figure who like no other the 17th Ireland and Scotland: Oliver Cromwell.
Hutton is disarmingly honest about the size of the task any Cromwell biographer faces, not least the large number of previous attempts to climb that particular mountain. Since 1990 alone there have been no fewer than five full courses. What more can one say, one might ask; But size matters here: Hutton starts with an impressively ambitious three-volume biography.
As in the superhero movie genre (which this reviewer is insolently attached to), Manufacturing Traces Cromwell’s origins from an obscure, godly, and financially challenged gentleman and MP from Huntingdonshire with little military experience to his transformation into a hugely successful action hero general in the New Model Army. A string of military victories secure his place as a major political and religious dealmaker when King Charles I is captured in 1646.
Â© Charles O’Brien Oliver Cromwell’s school: the old Huntingdon Grammar (Free) School, now the Cromwell Museum, in a photograph from the book
Hutton doesn’t gloss over the warts of this complicated man who is both pious and devious, brave and brutal. Behind his readable, fast-paced prose designed to keep the layman engaged (though there are many details about military campaigns that made me a little paralyzed) hides a lifetime of scholarly endeavors during this most violent period in the history of the British Isles. At the end of Manufacturing, let’s leave Oliver on the cusp of becoming a theocratic and military autocrat who would rule with a level of absolutism that Charles I could only dream of.
We are also leaving Cromwell before his bloody – and in his eyes absolutely divinely sanctioned – military interventions in Ireland and Scotland; No doubt this will come with the following volumes. But I find it hard to judge Cromwell without her. He is at the center of these tragic events that still reverberate today in the relations between the peoples of these islands and in our ever-growing uncertainty about the future of “the Union”.
Canon Judith Maltby is a Chaplain and Fellow of Corpus Christi College and Lecturer in Church History at Oxford University.
The Making of Oliver Cromwell
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