Friday, May 18, 2018

Hilaire Belloc on Oliver Cromwell

Hilaire Belloc’s brief biography of Oliver Cromwell appeared in 1927. It would be more accurate to describe his Oliver Cromwell as a biographical sketch, or a biographical impression.

Belloc stresses Cromwell’s position as a member of the wealthy classes who had enriched themselves at the expense of the Church in the wake of the Reformation. That class certainly had a very powerful reason for fearing a restoration of Catholicism - they wished to hold on to their ill-gotten gains. Which may be a partial explanation for Cromwell’s fanatical and rabid hatred for Catholicism. Belloc makes the important point that a Catholic restoration was by no means an impossibility in mid-17th century England so the anti-Catholic paranoia of men like Cromwell was not entirely ridiculous.

The Cromwell that emerges in Belloc’s sketch was a man who stumbled into absolute power and proved to be entirely unfitted for it, having no coherent plan or vision. He gradually accumulated power and his own interests and his own survival meant that he could never relinquish such power. He was a kind of prisoner of his own success in the art of political intrigue.

Belloc notes that Cromwell had been regarded as a great villain for many years after the Civil War and in the 19th century was seen as a great hero but in reality he was neither, lacking the stature to be either a true villain or a true hero. He was on the whole a mediocrity who happened to be an outstanding cavalry commander and to be a remarkably adept intriguer and manipulator. His narrowness was the crucial factor. He may have been the greatest cavalry commander of all time but in the military sphere that’s all he was - he was too limited to be a genuinely great general. As a politician he was cunning and extraordinarily skilful but he was no more than an opportunist. His political career was ultimately an exercise in futility.

Cromwell was a disaster but you don’t need to be actively evil to be a political disaster, and Belloc does not see Cromwell as evil.

The book is what you expect from Belloc - eccentric, opinionated, provocative and fascinating.

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