Reviewed by Michael Mendle (Department of History, University of Alabama)
Published on H-Albion (June, 2004)
One in a series dubbed New Frontiers in History, this volume is projected by its publisher to be purchased more by wholesale than retail. That is, it begs to be adopted--put on a syllabus handed out to twenty, thirty-five, or even sixty students--and duly purchased in like quantities through a university bookstore. It may be wondered why Barry Coward, author of the acclaimed textbook The Stuart Age, now in its third edition, would accept the commission, seemingly having "been there and done that." The answer, clearly, is that Coward has used the occasion to serve his own scholarly agenda as well as his publisher's.
Such a dual-purpose volume needs to be addressed in each of its visages. It is, first, a university-level primer on its topic, replete with a sequence of narrative chapters of a little over one hundred pages, a trio of chapters on "The Impact of the Protectorate" (in Europe, in Ireland and Scotland, and finally in England and Wales), and a batch of documentary sources. On this level, Coward has succeeded in producing a serviceable volume. Coward's general reliability and judiciousness serve the narrative chapters, and his exposition of others' scholarship (especially that of Christopher Durston) is strong and sympathetic. Coward is at his best, though, in the evaluative essays. Chapter 6 argues assuredly against critics of Protectoral foreign policy, finding its "religious ambitions" (p. 121) neither out of touch with the wider world nor unduly indifferent to the harder edges of the national interest. Chapter 7, on relations with Scotland and Ireland, rises to some passion and eloquence, even if it is a little too facile and predictable in its England-bashing. Chapter 8 addresses the sources of opposition to, and failure of, the Protectorate within England and Wales, as well as the measure of acceptance it achieved and the changes it largely unintentionally implemented. A beautifully nuanced view, it puts forth the striking, if not fully absorbed, notion that the national regime's and local governors' impulses to godly reform provoked greater ideological division. The thirty-five pages of selected documents are a sensitive and useful resource for students; some instructors will be distressed to see, however, that the Instrument of Government and the Humble Petition and Advice were omitted, ostensibly because of their availability elsewhere.
Though generally assured, Coward's charting of the 1650s would have been improved by a closer linkage to the 1640s. For example, Coward brings attention to the Instrument of Government's Provision 11, which "remarkably" (p. 28) called upon the Commissioner of the Great Seal to issue writs to summon a parliament if the Protector failed to do so. But this was now constitutional boilerplate. Mutatis mutandis the same provisions entered constitutional planning with the Triennial Act of 1641, which went even further, providing for the freeholders simply to assemble and elect if intervening authorities failed to do their duty. Similarly, Coward's salutary emphasis upon the separation-of-powers logic of the Instrument of Government is vitiated by its lack of contact with the 1640s experience-cum-discourse that gave the separation-of-powers argument its widespread appeal. Levellers and other critics of the perpetual, omnicompetent parliament of the later 1640s revalidated the earlier warnings of the Answer to the XIX Propositions. That Royalist credo addressed the ill consequences to follow when the House of Commons completely absorbed into itself the executive powers of the king and the judicial powers of the Lords. How intensely such language mattered can be seen in the full-dress justification of the Protectorate, The True State of the Case of the Commonwealth (1654), frequently attributed to Marchamont Nedham. Coward appropriately emphasizes the importance of the tract, citing it often in the text, and providing substantial excerpts in the documents, where it is placed first. Yet one would not know from the textual treatment or the excerpts how close and repeatedly The True State adhered to the language of the Answer to the XIX Propositions; nor would one have wind that Oliver himself in 1657 used the Answer's idiom, asserting that the Long Parliament had arrogated to itself "the authority of the three estates that were before," uniting to itself the legislative, judicial, and executive powers.
Some readers may find Coward's account of the vagaries of Protectoral toleration inconsistent and hard to follow. Coward writes, "both the Instrument of Government and the Humble Petition and Advice banned groups like Socinians, Quakers, and Anglicans, as well as Catholics" (p. 181). If this is taken to mean, in particular, that the Instrument of Government "banned" the Quakers, it is flat wrong (and contradicted at least in part by other passages, for example, page 88, which notes the more restrictive provision for religious toleration in the Humble Petition and Advice). Even then, and in other Protectoral anti-Quaker provisions, it was not Quaker belief so much as Quaker conduct--above all their deliberately offensive exhibitionism and their disturbance of others' worship--that elicited the hostile response. A more forthright portrayal would have isolated the competitive principles in play: toleration of private belief versus state regulation of conduct disturbing the public peace and what today might well be classified as "hate speech." No less confusing is the conclusion's comparison of the well-described "religious apartheid" of the Clarendon Code with the supposed "broad Church" of the Protectorate, which was "broad" only in that it excluded Anglicans, Catholics, and a variety of sects (p. 191). The comparison doubly fails, for the Restoration Church's intolerance was no more the fault of Charles II than was the Protectorate's to be imputed to the instincts of the Protector. If anything, the Restoration's anti-tolerationism was the consequence of the relative weakness of Charles II with respect to his parliament as compared to Oliver and his--the result, that is, of parliamentary government.
Both of these reservations necessarily impinge upon Coward's personal agenda in The Cromwellian Protectorate, which is nothing less than a full-dress apologia for Protector and Protectorate, particularly against the charges coming from the Oliver-betrayed-us wing of the republicans and sectaries of the seventeenth century, and the Left of the twentieth. Thus at every turn, Coward denies the monarchist charge--as seen, inter alia, in the downplaying of the overtly monarchical elements of The True State of the Case of the Commonwealth discussed above, and the suppression to the point of invisibility of the successor-naming power granted Oliver in The Humble Petition and Advice. Similarly, the Other House (that is, the closet House of Lords of The Humble Petition and Advice) is treated as if its primary function were to serve the aims of religious toleration, a superb observation if considered as a dressing, but a clear misrepresentation if taken as the meat.
Coward's passion--and his utility--rise highest in defense of Cromwell's religious policy (and, in some respects, the policy of the Protectoral Regime as a whole). In Coward's Protectoral calculus, godly reform (implicitly glossed by the one-size-fits-all buzzword "change," p. 8) and the Protector's own commitment to religious toleration trump all else. At its most tendentious (when it merely echoes Cromwellian self-presentation), this is no worse than the Protector's numerous enemies' caricatures, though certainly no better. At its frequent best, as with the motivations underlying foreign policy and a host of domestic and constitutional confrontations, Coward identifies a fils conducteur of Cromwellian action. To his credit, Coward does not shy away from the contradictions of godly reform--the perpetually perplexing mixture of compulsory, killjoy repression and toleration for some but not all species of sectarianism, or the spiritual egalitarianism that sometimes resisted and sometimes ignored social stratification. But this is also to say that the Protectorate was a work forever in progress, and it is not the least of the book's virtues that it conveys the improvisatory fragility of the regime itself.
. The Triennial Act's auto-summoning provisions were not forgotten, being endorsed by Article I.1 of the Heads of the Proposals. Equally, the merely declaratory Triennial Act of 1664 in thunderous silence lacked these provisions.
. Monarchy asserted, to be the best, most ancient and legall form of government, in a conference had at Whitehall with Oliver late Lord protetctor & a committee of parliament (1660), p. 94. This possibly stenographic account of the discussions surrounding The Humble Petition and Advice is sometimes associated with Bulstrode Whitelocke, himself a shorthand adept.
. The third possibility, neither the old monarchy nor the new republic, but the Augustan alternative to both, is quite unaddressed, as is the entire literary underpropping of the regime discussed by David Norbrook in Writing the English Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), chaps. 6 and 7. Coward's primary treatment of The Humble Petition and Advice never mentions the right of selecting his successor (the power, of course, of the Roman emperors), and he only indirectly alludes to it later. In a book primarily intended for students, this is a perplexing omission.
. It is notable, however, that The True Case of the Commonwealth, written in the wake of the failed Barebones experiment, was distinctly hostile to the notion that godliness led invariably to good governance.
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Michael Mendle. Review of Coward, Barry, The Cromwellian Protectorate.
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