Providence Lost

Head of Zeus, £30

THE English Civil War was such a cataclysmic event that it’s only natural it would capture the imagination. Less attention is paid to the decade that followed, but the story of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate reveals just as much about 17th-Century England.

Paul Lay’s study of the short-lived regime emphasises the centrality of the concept of providence to Cromwell, whose aims were always more theological than political. For him “the point of Parliament was, ultimately, to make the English godly, to elevate an entire nation to the Elect”.

It was a time when belief in providence “attained a level of intensity unsurpassed before or since”, and Lay finds the Puritan tendency towards anxiety and self-examination summed up by Essex minister Ralph Josselin’s resigned acceptance that the death of one of his children was punishment for his own “unreasonable playing at chess”.

This ideology works most smoothly when God is smiling on you, and for the early part of Cromwell’s military career it seems He was. Later setbacks, like his disastrous attempt to divert Spain’s income from the New World into English coffers, persuaded him to ratchet the moral reformation of the people up a notch. Infamously, the Protectorate clamped down on Catholics, Royalists and many pleasurable pursuits, banning the observance of Christmas along with illicit sex, drunkenness, gambling, dancing, music and theatre.

Lay fills in the fine detail between these broad strokes, bringing out a much more complex picture of 17th-Century England, a land of changeable and subtly-shaded convictions and loyalties as well as influential radical religious groups, from the Baptists, Quakers and Levellers to the now-obscure Fifth Monarchists.

A major thread running through this account is the tension between Puritan Cromwell and the overwhelmingly Presbyterian Parliament over the matter of freedom of conscience. He deals at length with the case of the Quaker James Nayler to illustrate how, while Cromwell counselled tolerance towards non-conformists, Parliament ranked the elimination of heresy higher.

Providence Lost is a superb summary of the ebbs and flows of the Interregnum, a strangely “lost” decade, like a blip before the resumption of normal service. For all that the Protectorate was short-lived, Lay argues, and faded away almost immediately after Cromwell’s death, it was strong and efficient while it lasted. The population craved stability after the Civil War and, despite Parliament’s insistence to the contrary, Royalists never posed any serious danger, Cromwell’s policy of “healing and settling” largely disarming the threat.

As with all authoritarian regimes, though, sleight of hand played a significant role: the major generals Cromwell appointed to enforce his joyless will actually caused little disruption to the local power structures; though, as he concedes, it wouldn’t have felt like that at the time.

If Cromwell himself feels elusive in these pages, perhaps it’s because the crusading theocrat was a slyer politician, and cannier in his public pronouncements, than he liked to let on.