An experienced authority and essayist, both popularising and edifying, but a debut author at book length, Lay makes ruthless structural decisions. He leaps over the civil wars to the execution of the king, then skims over the early years of republican government before Cromwell emerged as the government’s head in name as well as practice. Once within the strictly delineated bounds of the Protectorate itself, Lay allows himself ample time and space to linger on those few confusing years, following a thread that contrives to carry both thematic variety and tragic, narrative force.
Lay offers a vivid, clear and highly engrossing narrative of these fast moving and complicated events. Providence Lost rescues what Milton dismissed as a “scandalous night of interruption” from public neglect, bringing the rich history of the Protectorate to life.
Providence Lost is a book that assails these time-hallowed assumptions with all the vim and elan of a Cromwellian cavalry charge. Far from being a historical dead end, the English Republic, Paul Lay insists, initiated a period of astonishing energy and ambition — in government, in finance and in the world of ideas; and with consequences that were long to outlast the regime that unleashed their creative and sometimes destructive force. ... Briskly paced and elegantly written, Providence Lost provides us with a first-class ticket to this Cromwellian world of achievement, paradox and contradiction.
In telling us what Cromwell believed, Lay helps us to understand the man, but his witty and incisive book is also a reminder why the English, in particular, hate the bossy pieties of a Puritanical elite, and distrust radicalism. Cromwell had often appealed to Providence as justification for his actions. As Lay notes, he could not, however, appeal to precedence. In common with Charles’s period of personal rule, the English Republic offended against England’s deep conservatism. On January 30, 1661 Cromwell’s corpse was dug up and, like Charles I, he lost his head.
Providence Lost is a learned, lucid, wry and compelling narrative of the 1650s as well as a sensitive portrayal of a man unravelled by providence. Lay’s Cromwell is dithering and ambiguous, too slippery to pin down, but almost likable, almost true. He welcomed Jews back to England, even if he aimed to convert them to Christianity (Sigmund Freud named his son Oliver). He regretted, on a personal and procedural level, the Commons’ retrospective judgment of James Nayler, a priapic, lank haired Quaker with messianic pretensions, who was branded for blasphemy and whipped until his back was a sheet of raw flesh. (One MP even mooted the obscure Roman punishment of stitching him into a sack with a dog, a cock, a viper and an ape, and tossing him into the river.)