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God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell And the English Revolution (Pelican) Paperback – 26 Oct 2000
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About the Author
Dr Hill is the finest living historian of the seventeenth century English Revolution
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Hill doesn't by any stretch of the imagination present the reader with an orthodox biography of Cromwell. Those looking for a collection of the small details, events, and developments that together form a life would be better served elsewhere. What "God's Englishman" does is narrate the history of England in parallel with that of Cromwell (with the emphasis on the developments in England) until the two come together during the tumultuous times of the 1640's and 50's. These weren't ordinary times by any standard: a civil war ensued, the King lost his head, an explosion of pamphleting included many new and novel ideas including those of the lower orders, Britain was a Republic, and the foundations of the British Empire and Britain's eventual industrial development were considerably firmed up.
If, to paraphrase the quote of Cromwell that leads this review: there are narrative histories that are gripping and exciting reads, there are also histories that delve into those areas where the life and power of events lie (the intellectual, religious, social and economic spheres) that can be just as exhilarating. Christopher Hill has written one such history.
If one is not familiar with the era perhaps Hills The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714 is the best place to start. "God's Englishman" is a thorough look at the times, and on occasions is dense with information and argument that may overwhelm a reader in unfamiliar territory. I'd also recommend a good dictionary, or google, for definition of some of the terminology, without which a full appreciation of the book will elude the reader. The effort is well worth it.
The book has been fairly described - by Martin Kettle - as 'the bestselling (but not adulatory) biography'. Certainly it presents a captivating picture of a human Cromwell surrounded by the forces of God, providence, and Revolution. As such, and as a piece of writing of its time, it remains an essential volume. Nevertheless it does have significant weaknesses. Perhaps the most obvious is the lack of detail on Cromwell the soldier, and in particular on Cromwell's crucial role in the Second Civil War of 1648. As in many retrospective views of Cromwell Sir Thomas Fairfax is also reduced to relative insignificance.
Nevertheless an important and a highly recommended work which should now be supplemented by more recent studies for sake of completeness.
There follows a series of tightly written chapters breaking down Cromwell's life into different parts: fenland farmer and humble backbencher; stalwart of the good old cause and the New Model Army; key figure of the Commonwealth; and finally Lord Protector. Hill's knowledge of the sources is first rate and exhaustive - after multiple readings the only error I have come across is a misrepresentation of Cromwell's school teacher, Thomas Beard, who was hardly the devout puritan Hill makes out. What really brings these chapters alive is the skilful way in which Hill interlaces analysis with Cromwell's own letters and speeches. He is particularly good on Cromwell's troubled conscience as the Commonwealth turned into a Protectorship.
However, Hill's best is saved until last. In two phenomenal chapters Hill brings all his considerable knowledge of the period to bear on the relationships God's Englishman had with God and England. A detailed understanding of the workings of providence is vital to understanding Cromwell; only John Morrill and Blair Worden have really followed Hill's lead on this. Cromwell's sense of nation too, of England as a new Israel, underlies all of his most important speeches to parliament, and occurs many times in his surviving letters. Hill's survey is spot on.
To conclude, I cannot recommend this book enough. For the student fresh to the period it is an ideal place to start; for the more knowledgeable reader it is a treasure trove of insight and quotations. ANyone with a serious interest in the Lord Protector will certainly already own a copy of this book.
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