The Corner

re: Cromwell

Rich, I’m no fan of the Major-Generals, and Cromwell remains a highly controversial figure (not least because of his Irish campaigns), but I think it’s important to remember that Cromwell’s dissolution of parliament was in fact designed to curb the theocratic (and generally otherwise loopy) excesses of the Barebones parliament. While he himself was certainly no secularist (very, very far from it), he was better than that particular alternative. It also should be noted that it was the army that brought back the monarchy after Cromwell’s death. It’s certainly true that England has a tradition of hostility to standing armies. It’s also true that that tradition was reinforced by memories of the Major-Generals, but the word is reinforced. It was an attitude that predated the Protectorate by quite some time, and which reflects that distrust of centralized authority that was, in fact, one of the causes of the English revolution.

When we come to the question of religious toleration, it’s certainly true that “Popery” and “Prelacy” were not exactly encouraged (to put it mildly), but your correspondent is right to point out that as theocracies go, Cromwell’s England was more tolerant than most. Remember that ‘Prelacy’ was an ideology closely associated with the losing side in a recently concluded civil war, while ’Popery’ was the creed associated with the savage persecution of Cromwell’s co-religionists in Europe and was, of course, the religion of France and Spain, England’s principal enemies. To say that Cromwell was a paragon of tolerance would be nonsense, but a little historical context is helpful. For what it’s worth, it also should be remembered that it was Cromwell who sanctioned the return of Jews to England in the face of overwhelming clerical opposition. An Ayatollah he wasn’t.

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