H. E. Marshall’s Oliver Cromwell

Henriette Elizabeth Marshall is best known as the author of ‘Our Island Story’ (first published in 1905.) Probably the most popular work of British history ever written for children, it became a bestseller all over again when re-issued in 2005. That centenary edition was the product of a campaign by the right-wing think-tank Civitas and the Daily Telegraph, which saw ‘Our Island Story’ as the story as the perfect antidote to the fragmented, Nazi-obsessed history being taught in British schools.

The book has been seen as the epitome of a triumphalist view of British history, focussing on the great deeds of our kings and queens, written while large portions of the globe were still painted pink and with none of those nasty, post-colonial qualms about whether the empire had really been a good thing.

However, as Antonia Fraser noted, this is to misread what is, in fact, a subtly subversive text. It is often forgotten that Marshall wrote Our Island Story when she was living in Melbourne. Her book seems to be far more a product of freer, more democratic, turn of the century Australia than class-ridden Edwardian Britain. Proto-feminists (Australian women had got the vote in 1902) are identified in Boadicea and (the probably mythical) Jenny Geddes. The rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt are praised for securing vital freedoms for the common people. Kings are only commended when, like Alfred the Great, they are seen to have worked for the good of the people. Warmongers like Richard the Lionheart are given short shrift.

The incipient radicalism of Marshall’s work is no better displayed than in her treatment of the civil wars. She praises Cromwell’s troops as ‘splendid soldiers’, disciplined and godly in comparison to the ‘rash’ Royalists. After the war, she tells us that the army treated the King ‘very kindly’ even though Charles had been ‘wicked’ and ‘foolish’. She admits that the King met his death with dignity, but leaves her judgment on the regicide to the equivocal words of Marvell’s ‘Horation Ode.’ As Lord Protector, Marshall tells us that Cromwell was ‘stern and autocratic’ like the Stuarts, but unlike his royal predecessors he ‘really thought of the good of the country.’ Nonetheless, he was a ‘tyrant’ and ‘bitterly hated.’

This picture of Cromwell is ambiguous enough to fit in with a traditional Whig view of history. A Lord Protector who was a ‘good thing’ (in that he challenged the power of kings, established a British Parliament and increased the nation’s reputation abroad) but not a ‘good man.’

However, two years after publishing her classic work, the prolific Marshall produced another book, ‘The Story of Oliver Cromwell’ (in the US given the title, Through Great Britain and Ireland with Oliver Cromwell.) In this narrative of the civil war and interregnum, (which like ‘Our Island Story’ continues to blend myth and history, including the story of how the infant Oliver was stolen from his crib by a monkey), the picture of Cromwell that emerges is far more positive. Though acknowledging that opinion on the Lord Protector remained divided Marshall believed that:

‘if Cromwell did not quite succeed, he showed the way, and we now have much that he tried to give to the people of his time. When you grow older you will be able to see how from Cromwell’s days we date our freedom in many things, our union, our command of the seas, and even the beginnings of Greater Britain. And I hope that … you will learn to love the large soul of this true Englishman who, under his grimness and sternness, hid a tender heart.’

It seems that the members of Civitas and right-wing historians like Andrew Roberts have unwittingly been recommending British schoolchildren read a surreptitiously pacifist, feminist and republican version of ‘Our Island Story.’


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] our children are [now] either taught to put Britain in the dock or they remain in ignorance of our island story, That is morally wrong, culturally self-defeating – and we would put it […]

  2. […] his cot by a monkey and carried onto the roof of Hinchinbrooke House. The same story appears in H. E. Marshall’s children’s history of Cromwell, which I posted about some time […]

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