Tom Reilly: Cromwell, My Declaration of War

Below, Tom Reilly, author of Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy throws down a challenge to Irish historians over their treatment of Cromwell. Over here, you can listen to Tom on RTE 1’s Ryan Tubridy show, debating whether the Lord Protector was hero or villain with Professor Ciaran Brady.

I would like to declare open warfare on the seventeenth century experts of Ireland please, or perhaps even challenge them to a duel. Cheers. Thanks

Please allow me to explain. A primary school teacher somewhere in Ireland faces a classroom full of eleven-year-olds. The teacher reaches for the textbook Earthlink 5th Class published by Folens in 2004. (Earthlink is a textbook series from junior infants to sixth class that incorporates the integrated approach outlined by the primary school syllabus on the Irish school curriculum.) On page 87 the following words are printed: ‘Cromwell captured Drogheda. About 3,000 men, women and children were killed.’

That’s the reason for my declaration of war. There’s no other. Just that.

Cromwell has remained the historian’s Hamlet, to be re-interpreted by each succeeding generation, as the founder of liberty or military dictator, the scourge of tyrants, or tyrant himself, the champion of parliament or its betrayer, God’s executioner or God’s reformer.

In Ireland the very name Cromwell has become shorthand for a complex set of attitudes, all resting not so much on the man himself, but on him being symbolic of a defining moment of Irish history. In the demonology of that history, pride of place, without a shadow of a doubt, goes to Cromwell. Because he left such a bitterly divisive legacy, he also left an equally divisive historiography.

Primarily as a result of the work of nineteenth century nationalists (notably John Prendergast and Fr Denis Murphy), Cromwell has for most Irish people become the personification of barbarity, religious intolerance and English conquest. He has been accused of being a war criminal and of being an early ethnic cleanser. They recount tales of thousands of defenceless Irish citizens, men, women and children, all put to the sword at the hands of “Old Ironsides” and his men during their scorched earth campaign.

In actual fact Cromwell was framed.

Cromwell – An Honourable Enemy first saw the light of day in 1999 and has been largely dismissed by most scholars. Although some academics welcomed it with a certain ambivalence, it has certainly not been adopted by many – although it has been received more generously outside Ireland. Yet – and this is most remarkable – it has never been seriously challenged by any historian anywhere.

Michael O Siochru leads the charge of protesters. Yet his recently published God’s Executioner falls abysmally short of presenting a serious challenge to Honourable Enemy. Amazingly he engages in wild speculation. I’m still shocked by his incredible assertions on this matter, with nothing solid whatsoever to back it up. The facts are there for all to see. This is not rocket science.

In fact one wonders at the erudite author’s motivation in making such assiduous efforts to interpret the well-known and oft-quoted contemporary sources in such an inequitable, some might say biased, way. Instead, Ó Siochrú and his ilk should be running to the printing presses to (at least) temper the school textbooks in order that they promulgate a balanced view of the events.

The promotional literature accompanying the book highlights the fact that the same author has scripted the two-part documentary series on Irish television station RTE this September about Cromwell in Ireland.

In this book he has gone out on a limb, put his reputation on the line so to speak, and if this is the best shot he can take to justify a civilian massacre on a large scale, it looks like he will live to regret it. Several experts of the period come to mind who might be inclined to take a different, more even-handed, view of the available evidence.

Of course civilians could have got caught in the crossfire in Drogheda and Wexford, killed as a result of collateral damage, etc. etc. etc. Well, duh! But there was no policy to kill the innocent, nor is there any concrete evidence that suggests such a thing occurred.

Historians have taken a wide birth of my book because I have entered their world and proved them (generations of academics) wrong. I have in fact taught my granny how to suck eggs. First they castigated me, then they dismissed me, then some of them (Taidgh O Hannrachain) even said they said that they knew this all along – it was nothing new!!!.

If they knew this all along, then why in the name of all that is holy are we still delivering nineteenth century propaganda to children in the 21st century?

The historian James Graham Leyburn has said of Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland: ‘What Cromwell did deserves to be ranked with the horrors perpetrated by Gengis Khan. His pacification of Ireland has left scars on that country which have never been forgotten or forgiven.’

Oliver Cromwell is completely innocent of killing the ordinary unarmed people of Ireland and I defy anyone to prove otherwise.

But before I finish, here’s the thing…ask yourself this question…if the facts are open to interpretation (which at the very least they most certainly are) then why do people like O’Siochru, Jason McElligott, Padraig Lenehan etc not take a balanced view?

Contrast this with John Morrill who agrees with me that no civilians died in cold blood at Drogheda but believes some may well have got caught in the crossfire.

And the difference? He’s English. No inherent bias. I rest my case.

Tom Reilly


Good grief, yet, yet more Cromwell 350th anniversary fun

It seems the world cannot get enough of Oliver Cromwell. This morning, Today filled their ‘and finally slot’ with a brief discussion between Martyn Bennett and Michael O’ Siochru over Cromwell in Ireland. Martyn Bennett’s staff page also reveals that he has been advising an exhibition based around the theme of Cromwell’s head at the Musee des Beaux Artes in Nimes. (I’ve only been the Musee Carre d’Art – which has a very nice rooftop cafe were overhead pipes blow little jets of cool mist at you.)

Hampton Court Palace and Sidney Sussex, Cambridge (home of Cromwell’s head) both host Cromwell-themed visitor days next month.

Finally, you’ll all be relieved to hear that Hamo Thornycroft‘s statue of Cromwell outside of Parliament has been given a good wax, polish and buff in preparation for the anniversary.

Cromwell 350 cursed – Yet more things noted

Phew! The fun just doesn’t stop. This coming weekend those with an interest in the life of Oliver Cromwell are literally spoilt for choice with 350th anniversary events. Over at Basing House, (or what’s left of it after Oliver’s notorious 1645 assault) there will be a series of talks on Cromwell’s military career. £2 for adults, £1 for children.

Over at the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon, there’s a new exhibition on his life and an accompanying programme of events, including various historical re-enactments, some of which involve leeches.

And at Oliver Cromwell’s House, Ely, there is a special lecture on Cromwell’s life tomorrow (3rd Sept) and on Saturday, a civil war re-enactment which promises a guest appearance from the man himself on horseback. Remember to bring a brolly though. Local white witch Kevin Carylon has hexed the event in protest at Cromwell’s persecution of pagans during the 1640s.

Published in: on September 2, 2008 at 9:43 am  Comments (1)  
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Cromwell 350 – even more things noted

Some late entrants into the blog carnival. Over at Mercurius Politicus, Nick offers a post, analysing a letter from Cromwell to his son Richard, which unpicks the providential and pragmatic strains within the future Lord Protector’s thought.

BBC Radio 4 is offering a programme on ‘The Strange Case of Oliver Cromwell’s Head’ tomorrow (Sept 3.) at 11am.

More Cromwell fun as and when it comes to my attention.

The 350th anniversary of Cromwell’s death mini-blog carnival!

As Gavin points out at Investigations of a Dog, strictly speaking we are getting ahead of ourselves here, but this Wednesday it will (sort of) be the 350th anniversary of Cromwell’s death.

To commemorate that fact, I’ve trawled the darkest recesses of the web to bring you news of, amongst other things, Oliver Cromwell’s brush with Dr. Who.

I’ve also looked at the celebrated Edwardian children’s writer, H. E. Marshall’s presentation of Cromwell, arguing that the political outlook of her books was far less conservative than is usually assumed.

Over at Investigations of a Dog, Gavin offers a comparison between the careers of Sir William Balfour and Oliver Cromwell, concluding that the latter’s supposed brilliance as a cavalry officer looks less remarkable when viewed next to the achievements of the less well-known Balfour.

And over at Mercurius Politicus, Nick gives us his opinion of two new books on the Cromwellian Protectorate and its parliaments.

A couple more posts are promised shortly.

Thanks for looking and send in those links if you think I’ve missed something!

Cromwell 350 – Things Noted

A quick trawl of the web reveals the following products/events produced to tie-in with the 350th anniversary of Cromwell’s death.

A number of books are forthcoming or just out on Cromwell. Over at the Guardian, Fintan O’Toole reviews Micháel O Siochrú’s God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland. Also ‘reviewed’ over here by John Carey in the Sunday Times, but with only one paragraph actually discussing the book. Infuriating. A much more engaged and engaging review is offered by Tom Reilly here: mail-on-sunday-review, a word-doc version of a piece which appeared in the Irish Mail on Sunday.

Some other Cromwellian offerings:

My personal favourite was finding this Dr. Who audio series , ‘The Settling’, featuring Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor and Clive Mantle as, you guessed it, Oliver Cromwell, in an adventure set in Ireland in 1649.

As the author, Simon Guerrier says

While The Settling takes some liberties with historical facts as we know them (adding a time-travelling alien, say), I’ve endeavoured to base it as much on real history as possible.

Over here, the Historical Association is advertising a talk by Dr. David Smith on Cromwell ‘350 years after.’ If you fancy Grimsby in January, toddle along. It’s free for HA members.

Over at the Cromwell Association’s website, there is an article by Patrick Little on Cromwell’s funeral (downloadable as a word-document, as he notes, featuring exactly 1658 words!)

Also, can anyone help with this question, posted over at Yahoo! answers?

And finally, of course, over here I asked ‘Just How Evil Was Oliver Cromwell?’

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.’

Cromwell 350th Carnival

A quick reminder about the above – which I will be posting up a day or two before the anniversary itself (3rd Sept folks.) if you have a blog please just send me the link. If you don’t have one but have something you would like to post, please e-mail it to me before the end of this month (for my address, see the ‘about me’ page.)


Published in: on August 23, 2008 at 12:10 pm  Comments (3)  
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Cromwell carnival anyone?

As I’m sure everyone knows, it’s the 350th anniversary of Cromwell’s death this year. I’ve been thinking about organising a mini-blog carnival on Cromwell (assuming nobody else has got there first) so drop me a line if you are interested in contributing. I’ve been in touch with a few Cromwell scholars, including Tom Reilly, author of Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy which caused quite a stir when it was originally published and is being re-issued this year. I’m hoping to put a up a few short articles on Cromwell by people like Tom here to get debate going.

I’m not going to suggest themes – let your imagination run riot.