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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Rights of the People Have Nowhere to Stand, 19 Dec 2013
This review is from: Cromwell, Our Chief Of Men (Paperback)
Antonia Fraser goes by the feudal title of "Lady Antonia Fraser". So it is perhaps not surprising that in her biography of Cromwell she shows sympathy both for a king and for a man who became something of a king. She is less sympathetic towards the common people and those who reached towards democracy in a feudal age. Her account of Cromwell's life was so irritating for this reader with a democratic spirit that the flow of her narrative was repeatedly interrupted as I put down the book in exasperation.

Ms. Fraser's sympathies are with Charles Stewart, the hereditary ruler of Scotland and England as much as they are with Cromwell, who led his overthrow and execution. She seems to believe that the trial of King Charles was improper because it was not possible for him to be tried by a jury of his peers. But this notion that one is entitled to a jury composed only of those with an equal status in a class hierarchy is,of course, absurd. But Fraser goes further and endorses the belief that the king could not properly be tried at all.

Ms. Fraser seems overly concerned with Cromwell's ancestors and descendants just as monarchists are with those of their rulers. One can see why this may obsess monarchists. When Fraser indulges in this concern it seems to confirm her disdain for the people.

Her lack of sympathy for democratic values causes her to question the legitimacy of the Protectorate while defending the claim to legitimacy of monarchy. While she questions the legitimacy of legal proceedings against the king she seems to accept that kingship and the House of Lords had legitimacy. Of course they had formal legitimacy at the time, just as many modern dictatorships have a constitutional foundation. But that did not justify hereditary rule. And in any case this book is about a revolutionary period when those overthrowing oppressors had justice on their side if not formal legitimacy.

Fraser refers to the Lords as being "robbed" of power that was rightly theirs only if one accepts that a feudal order has legitimacy. But she does seem to believe that it did have such legitimacy. When some Lords refused to sit in a new second chamber of Parliament during the Protectorate she writes that the Lords' "own conception of their ancient rights" were "amply backed up by English history".

A "lord" is quoted as authority for, and the only authority for, Fraser's belief that "the actions of the (House of) Commons were not only inimical to the large majority of the population of England - not one in twenty supported it . . .". Fraser does not explain why the reader would want to rely on the word of a "lord". An hereditary legislator is hardly an impartial guide to the beliefs of the people. Perhaps he organised a poll of his servants.

When the author says that the country was "yearning" for the return of the king and that there was little support for the Commonwealth she feels no need to present any evidence for these claims apart from the rumours she reports.

It is clear that there was substantial opposition to the king in the army. But Fraser ignores this in her insistence that the people supported the king, as if the army was not drawn from the people.

She writes of a "universal spirit of withdrawal" following the executive of Charles Stewart but goes on to refer to the "cheerful vigour" of Cromwell and Ireton. So the withdrawal obviously was not universal and it is hardly credible that only two citizens remained outgoing.

But Fraser wants to persuade us that the execution of Charles Stewart was horrible and saddening. This would be more convincing if she wrote in similar terms of the countless Commonwealth soldiers who filled the battlefield ditches, killed by the soldiers of the king and lords she esteems. But it must be admitted that this indifference extends even to the Cromwell she admired. She refers to the restored monarchists' barbaric defilement of his body and the bodies of dead republicans as mere "coarseness".

Being on the side of monarchy Fraser is hostile to those who reject unwarranted privilege.
Once Cromwell seizes power Fraser's sympathies are with him, against the people. Fraser even refers to the people as Cromwell's subjects in all but name without any hint that this was wrong.

A brave woman who accosted Cromwell and asked for "those rights and freedoms of the nation that you promised us" she calls a "harpy". A woman admired by Cromwell is said to have "a brain and education beyond that of most of her sex". Certainly in a feudal society any educated woman or man would have had a better education than most of the population. But there seems to be an implication here that intelligence was exceptional in women.

The execution of three soldier supporters of the so-called Leveller movement is "incommodious" in Fraser's opinion. Those like the Levellers who wanted a more democratic society and government are referred to more than once as "extremists", a perjorative term in current usage.

John Lisburn, a man cited by the United States Supreme Court as a pioneer of the right of free speech is no more than a "bad penny" and "egregious nuisance" for Fraser. She writes that "sadly" not all religious minorities kept their mouths shut as the Jews did under Cromwell's rule.

And this biography does little to help us understand the contribution of the Christian independents to the development of democratic ideas and practices. Fraser even suggests that Cromwell might have been happy to attend a state church.

You may learn something from this book but you will find little appreciation of the importance of the revolutionary currents in seventeenth century England.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 12 Jun 2014 11:55:02 BDT
Pauline K. says:
Interesting that Fraser should be hostile to the insurgents as she herself is a Labour supporter, her father, Lord Longford, was a Labour peer. She is also indirectly related to that High Priestess of equality, Harriet Harman.
I agree with you that there must have been strong support for Cromwell, without which there could not have been a Civil War. As so often happens in nations, the country was divided.
Well-argued review.
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