*** DEBUG END ***

Providence Lost: The rise and fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate, by Paul Lay

04 September 2020

This is a first-rate study of a neglected decade, says Judith Maltby

HILARY MANTEL, the author of the highly successful trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell, relates that, early on in the project, she often received the comment “surely you mean Oliver”. Oliver, not Thomas, is a main subject in Paul Lay’s engaging study of a much overlooked (despite Mantel’s comment) period of Britain’s history: the Protectorate. In the 1650s, this country had its brief experiment with republicanism — giving way to a “Protectorate” that functioned awfully like a monarchy, at times, too, looking and sounding like one, turbo-charged by belief in “divine right”. The comparison was not lost on contemporaries.

Rightly, religious drivers are given due importance in Lay’s narrative, both for Cromwell and more widely. From the late 1630s, Charles’ Three Kingdoms had embarked on the most deadly and brutal series of conflicts to take place in the British Isles. The “providence” of the title reveals a traumatised society infused with the notion that God’s hand was behind everything: all that sacrificial and atoning blood-letting must have been for a purpose.

No wonder Lay notes that one of the most significant texts of the 1650s was Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler: superficially an amiable book about fishing, but, in reality, a psychological and spiritual survival guide, schooling its reader in the “quiet” necessary in a world turned religiously and politically upside down.

public domainPeter Lely’s portrait (1665-66) of Sir William Penn (father of the founder of Pennsylvania). He was imprisoned in the Tower after returning in disgrace from Cromwell’s colonial adventure in the Caribbean (the Western Design). He was naval commissioner after the Restoration and is often mentioned by Pepys. From the book

Timely is Lay’s fascinating discussion of the doomed colonial aspirations of the Protectorate, reaching far beyond Ireland to the Caribbean and hinting at grimmer things to come. This is “Providence” at work, too, reminding white people of faith that we cannot absolve ourselves of our colonial inheritance by blaming it simply on economics and not on our spiritual impulses.

Lay is the editor of History Today, a publication that has done a great deal to bring first-rate history to a non-specialist readership. This highly readable and yet scholarly study of a deeply significant but strangely passed-over period in British history delivers the best of both.


Canon Judith Maltby is Reader in Church History in the University of Oxford and Chaplain, Fellow and Dean of Welfare at Corpus Christi College.


Providence Lost: The rise and fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate
Paul Lay
Head of Zeus £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)