In his highly enjoyable new history of the Protectorate, which collapsed nine months after Cromwell’s death, Paul Lay is bracing and undeceived in his judgments. He is the editor of History Today, and he writes in the best tradition of that magazine, accessible but sound in detail, with an alert eye for the significant details academic historians sometimes slide over. By holding up for our inspection this bleeding hunk of five years from the history of the Civil Wars, he gives us a heightened sense of the oddity of the whole thing, of how far all three kingdoms – England, Scotland and Ireland – had come in a mere decade and a half and yet how far from settlement they still were, and above all of the sheer strangeness of the Protector himself.
Lay’s narrative moves back and forth through time and switches between themes, without ever losing the reader’s attention. Much more than a history of ideas, it constantly reminds us that history is made by individuals, not by movements. Take, for example, the case of poor James Nayler. In October 1656, Nayler, a Quaker whose pathological earnestness bordered on madness, rode into Bristol with a small band of followers in an apparent attempt to imitate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. He was arrested and taken to London, where he was brought before a parliamentary committee and charged with blasphemy. It was not at all clear that Parliament had any right to try Nayler; and in any case, the 1650 Blasphemy Act stated that first-time offenders were liable to no more than six months in jail.
Lay is quite properly sparing with contemporary lessons to be learned, but reading this at the beginning of 2020 does give one a few things to think about. Representative parliamentary government may be a thorough nuisance to a hyperactive executive, but it is one way of securing the voice of minorities somewhere in the national decision-making process and is a necessary source of legitimacy for allocating national resources. At its simplest – as the Commonwealth experience rather shows – it is a check to the politics of mere force, whether military or populist.
This is not a work of path-breaking new research. Rather, it’s a book for the general reader, based on a thorough knowledge of the sources, and written with perceptiveness as well as narrative zest – a lively, attention-holding account of what is surely the strangest decade in British history.
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.)