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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

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