RONALD HUTTON is a respected and prolific historian of early modern England who, unusually in such a specialist profession, ranges across the divides of political, military, cultural, and social history with books covering topics as diverse as the Royalist war effort, high politics, and the social history of witchcraft and paganism.
After a long career writing about the period in all its diversity, he has now turned his attention to the single figure who, more than any other, dominates the 17th century, the only commoner ever to rule England and Wales, who exercised unparalleled power in Ireland and Scotland: Oliver Cromwell.
Hutton is disarmingly honest about the size of the task facing any biographer of Cromwell, not least the vast number of previous attempts to scale this particular mountain. There have been no less than five full-length academic studies alone since 1990. What more can be said, one might ask; but here size matters: Hutton is embarking on an impressively ambitious three-volume biography.
As in the superhero film genre (to which this reviewer is unashamedly attached), Making maps out for us Cromwell’s origins from obscure, godly, and financially challenged Huntingdonshire gentleman and MP, with no military experience to speak of, to his transformation into a highly successful action-hero general in the New Model Army. A string of military victories ensure his place as a major political and religious deal-maker by the time King Charles I is captured in 1646.
© Charles O’Brien The school of Oliver Cromwell: the old Huntingdon Grammar (Free) School, now the Cromwell Museum, in a photo from the book
Hutton does not gloss over the warts of this complicated man, both devout and devious, brave and brutal. Behind his readable, pacey prose, which should keep the non-specialist engaged (though there is a great deal of detail about military campaigns, which left me flagging a bit) is a lifetime of scholarly endeavour in this most violent period of the history of the British Isles. At the end of Making, we leave Oliver on the threshold of becoming the theocratic and military autocrat who would govern with a degree of absolutism which Charles I could have only dreamt about.
We also leave Cromwell before his bloody — and, in his mind, utterly divinely sanctioned — military interventions in Ireland and Scotland; no doubt this will come with the subsequent volumes. But I find it is hard to assess Cromwell without them. He is at the centre of those tragic events that still resonate today in the relations of the peoples of these isles and our ever growing uncertainty about the future of “the Union”.
Canon Judith Maltby is Chaplain and Fellow of Corpus Christi College and Reader in Church History in the University of Oxford.
The Making of Oliver Cromwell
Church Times Bookshop £22.50