David Farr. John Lambert, Parliamentary Soldier and Cromwellian Major-General, 1619-1684. Woodbridge and Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2003. x + 268 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84383-004-7.
Reviewed by Barry Coward (School of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2004)
One of the biggest gaps in the historiography of the political and military history of Britain in the mid-seventeenth century is the lack of good scholarly studies of many of the key figures of the Cromwellian Protectorate of the 1650s apart from Oliver Cromwell. Charles Fleetwood and John Desborough, for example, remain fairly shadowy figures in comparison with Cromwell, as does John Lambert, who was without doubt the second most important man in the regime until 1657. A biography of Lambert was published in 1938 written by W. H. Dawson, but even when it first appeared Cromwell's Understudy was never considered to be a completely satisfactory study of the man, and the advance of historical research on the mid-seventeenth century since then has rendered it more inadequate than ever. Consequently David Farr's book is very welcome. Like the 1996 Cambridge University doctoral thesis from which it originated, it is not as fully rounded a portrait of Lambert's political career as one would like, but it certainly sheds much new light on the man.
Farr's major contribution to our understanding of Lambert is to uncover the details of his family and kinship circle and to show how "kinship had clearly been a key determinant in Lambert's career" (p. 227). He has done this by impressive research on sources not used by Dawson. Farr makes excellent use of what must have been long hours of study in archives, squeezing information out of difficult, mainly legal, records. The result is that Farr brings to light a great deal about Lambert's family history. When Lambert was born in 1619, his father, Josiah, was in serious financial difficulties that threatened to imperil the Lambert's standing as a solid Yorkshire gentry family. In painstaking detail Farr shows not only how this crisis worsened and deepened in the 1620s and early 1630s, but also how Josiah cleverly reacted to it. In order to protect his family he established close connections of dependency with other Yorkshire gentry families, principally the Fairfaxes, Listers, and Belasyses, which outlived his death in 1632. In 1638 his son John Lambert married Frances, the daughter of John Lister, and Farr is at his most persuasive when he argues that these personal and kinship networks were enormously influential in shaping the public career of John Lambert. The best chapters of this book are those that demonstrate that connection. Chapter 1 explains how Lambert's dependence, in his early life, on godly families like the Fairfaxes and Listers contributed greatly to his decision to take the parliamentarian side when England slid into civil war in the early 1640s. In later chapters, Farr shows that Lambert never severed his ties with those families with whom he was associated in the early part of his life, but who became royalists in the English Civil War. The theme of chapter 8 (set in the 1650s) shows how Lambert, who by then had become a major figure in the English republic, "worked to protect the fortunes of his defeated Catholic and Cavalier kin" like the Belasyses, a continuing association, along with Quaker contacts, that Farr argues helps to account for Lambert's "general ecumenical outlook" in religion (p. 154). In chapter 11, long-established ties with kin and friends are also convincingly positioned as an important part of the story of Lambert's sad life after the Restoration. "Without their aid," writes Farr, "Lambert's twenty-four years in prison would have been even more unbearable" (p. 226).
Farr also puts ties of clientage and patronage at the heart of his analysis of the fluctuations of Lambert's political career in the 1650s. Chapter 5 details how Lambert, who by now had acquired enough wealth to buy a great house and garden at Wimbledon, established (interestingly with his wife Frances playing a key role) a patronage network of agents, like Adam Baynes, whom he had met during his military career and who were dependent on him. In subsequent chapters, Farr shows how this gave Lambert some independence in the Cromwellian Protectorate, since, unlike many other influential figures in that regime, he was able to remain aloof from close ties of dependence on Oliver Cromwell. But Farr is clear that it was also a source of Lambert's eventual "political failure," since Lambert's clientage and kinship network was too narrow (p. 213). Unlike Oliver Cromwell, Lambert formed few connections with powerful civilian interests in the Protectorate (he and Roger Boyle Lord Broghill clearly hated each other), and was thus sidelined in the politics of the Oliver Cromwellian Protectorate in its last years. It also meant that during and after the Richard Cromwellian Protectorate he had little option but to align himself closely with radical elements in the army, which helped his enemies depict him (unfairly) as a dangerous threat to social and political order and to strengthen the drift of events towards both the collapse of the English Republic and his own fate as a long term political prisoner.
Farr's re-assessment of Lambert the soldier is as novel as the new light he throws on Lambert the politician. This book is a good antidote to accounts of this period that exaggerate Oliver Cromwell's military contribution to the success of English parliamentarian armies in England and Scotland in the 1640s and 1650s. Farr's book is especially valuable in this respect through its accounts of Lambert's military contribution to the English defeat of the Scots both in the Second Civil War in northern England in 1648 and in the post-Dunbar military campaigns of 1650-51.
Farr's book is without doubt the best account to date of the personal, political, and military career of John Lambert. But it is not beyond criticism. To be fair to the author, he makes it explicitly clear that his book is not meant to be "definitive" (p. 6). But given the book's title, readers will be justified in expecting a fuller, more rounded assessment of Lambert's political career. The best accounts of this are the sections devoted to Lambert's role in the politicization of the New Model Army in 1647 and in the collapse of the Cromwellian Protectorate and English Republic in 1659-60. However, the sections on Lambert's role in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Rump Parliament and the making of the Instrument of Government in 1653 are very skimpy and disappointing, and much the same can be said about Lambert's role in political affairs between 1653 and 1657. Readers relatively unfamiliar with the period might find some parts of the book puzzling, since Farr too often refers to crucial events without adequate background information that is essential to understanding his account of them. The James Nayler episode is a case in point. It is first referred to on page 140, but no explanation is offered until page 178, and even then readers are not told basic information, such as the nature of Nayler's "crime." The book is also marred by some ill-supported or debatable assertions. Farr's attempt to prove that it was Lambert's decisions, and not those of Oliver Cromwell, that were decisive in bringing about the Scottish army's defeat at Dunbar in 1650 comes into the first category. His statement (on the first page of the book) that "Lambert ... stopped him [Oliver Cromwell] from becoming King in 1657" is an example of the second; it receives no support in the body of the book. Finally, there are many examples of errors that perhaps derive from over-hasty or sloppy transformation of this book from a doctoral thesis. There is space for just two examples. The first is the unexplained, unfootnoted reference to "Smith" on page 140 (presumably a reference to a work by Dr. David Smith), and the second is the repetition of the same text about Lambert's purchase of Wimbledon House (pp. 154-155, 198-199).
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Barry Coward. Review of Farr, David, John Lambert, Parliamentary Soldier and Cromwellian Major-General, 1619-1684.
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