Worden’s ‘Roundhead Reputations’: Every age writes its own history

I’ve just finished reading Blair Worden’s Roundhead Reputations (London, 2001), which had been cautiously recommended to me as more a ‘popular history’ book than a scholarly account. Popular it might be but it does not lack any of the accurate scholarship one is used to find in Worden’s work. Roundhead Reputations tells the fascinating story of three C17th English radicals, Edmund Ludlow, Algernon Sidney and Oliver Cromwell, whose public image has undergone considerable change over the course of the last few centuries. In particular, for most of the first half of the book,Worden is concerned with the work of the ‘Whig history factory’ (p. 147) and its main editor John Toland, who ‘polited’ the writings of regicides and republicans for a post-revolutionary audience after 1689 to promote the cause of political liberty in a typically English non-offensive way. In the process, Ludlow the regicide became a defender of constitutionalism, while the plotter Sidney turned into a politically detached country gentleman.

In the first four chapters Worden pays particular attention to the editorial process of Ludlow’s Memoirs that had been published from his own manuscripts in 1698. Having been taken at face value by scholars since the C18th, the surprise find of part of the original manuscript at Warwick Castle in the 1990s revealed the true extend to which the Memoirs had been doctored. The original manuscript, entitled A Voyce from the Watch-Tower, it turned out was more of a spiritual work, full of religious references and endless digressions, the work of a true Puritan and religious enthusiast. Ludlow’s title itself, Worden explains is an allusion to the Old Testament books of Isaiah (21.5-12) and Habakkuk (2.1), ‘where prophets stand on watch towers in God’s service’ (p. 45).

However, with ‘religious enthusiasm’ and ‘Commonwealth’ becoming dirty words after 1689 the ‘true Whigs’ of the late C17th had something else in mind. Toland’s edition was so secularized that a reader of the Memoirs ‘could be forgiven for wondering whether Ludlow had religious convictions’ at all (pp. 44-5).

As an opponent of Cromwell, who had the Rump (of the Long Parliament) expelled by military force in 1653, Ludlow is presented as a critic of standing armies to back the cause of the Old Whigs after the Peace of Ryswick in 1697. The ardent Puritan who seeks religious refuge in Calvinist Switzerland after the 1660 Restoration, meanwhile, turns into a rational defender of civil religion.

Similarly, Algernon Sidney’s ‘posthumous reputation converted a hot-headed insurrectionist into a plaster saint’ (124). Sidney is turned into a Whig martyr, whose radical Discourses concerning Government (1698) were presented as ‘philosophical reflection’ (p. 131). While Worden claims that less was changed in the Discourses than in Ludlow’s Memoirs (1698), Sidney’s argument is often close to Toland’s own. However, we do not know whether Toland stole extracts from Sidney or inserted his own into Sidney’s text. Overall, however Sidney’s work was less contentious than Ludlow’s because 1688 had ‘altered perceptions of the principle of resistance’ (p. 134). After all, the last Stuart king, James II, had just been replaced by William of Orange and his rule would be legitimised by the Bill of Rights. Moreover, the republicanism of the Discourses was not seen as a challenge to the ancient constitution but as ‘happily compatible with it’ (p. 139) because it praised the ideal mix of ‘monarchy, aristocracy, democracy’ (p. 138). However, Worden suggests that Sidney still secretly aimed for a ‘commonwealth’, even though he professed to believe in moderated monarchy (p. 140).

Over the course of the C18th meanwhile Sidney would be hailed as more of a mainstream ‘patriot’ as his radicalism came to merge with country-party virtues, such as the fight against placemen, venality and corruption (p. 142). The values of ‘The Patriots’, to whom Worden dedicates an entire chapter (7), were embraced by a broad cross-party base that stood for moral virtue long before ‘patriotism’ came to denote an ‘uncritical appellation betokening support, especially in foreign affairs, for one’s country right or wrong’ (p. 204).

From the age of Thomas Paine onwards, however, mixed government was condemned by republicans as a convenient fiction that protected Crown and nobility, and Sidney lost his appeal while C19th radicals came to see the virtues of the unicameral government of the Commonwealth (p. 210).

With the dwindling appeal of Whig patriots, meanwhile, the star of Oliver Cromwell began to rise. Having long been reviled as the power-hungry military leader whose expulsion of the Rump in 1653 set an end to a democratically elected assembly, he came to be seen as the strongman who rescued England from falling apart, while the myth around his person showed him as defender of the poor, his protectorate as a period of prosperity and greatness, and his defense of liberty of conscience as an inspiration for Victorian tolerationists.

C19th Cromwellianism began as an ‘anti-establishment impulse’ (p.243) with a broad social appeal, fed by economic distress and the rise of working-class agitation. There was a ‘middle-class Cromwellianism’ too, which hailed the farmer and the self-made man, who promoted people from all sections of society to high office on merit – a move, Worden explains, that appealed to Victorians campaigning for an introduction of Civil Service exams (p. 248).

Moreover, the rise of Nonconformity during the Victorian era also led to a ‘reassessment of Dissent’s political past’ (p. 252) as the critics of Anglicanism praised Cromwell’s ‘anti-Ritualism’ and hatred of ‘priestcraft’ (p. 253).

The one person to whom the shift in Cromwell’s reputation probably owes most, and to whom Worden devotes his entire chapter 10, however, is Thomas Carlyle. His 1845 edition of Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches boosted the ‘cult of Cromwell’ because it brought out the true man behind the documents and took his religious convictions seriously. Even though the Carlyle of Worden’s account comes across as a nutcase who overidentified with his subject to the extend that he invented the gestures and tone of voice to go with his speeches, Worden also credits Carlyle of bringing out a side of Cromwell that had long remained hidden in a largely secularized Whig historiography. It is to him we owe the concept of the ‘Puritan Revolution’ (p. 270).

Worden’s chapter (11) on the Cromwell Statue finally erected at Westminster in 1899 (p. 309) is probably the most ‘popular’ of his book, exchanging the in-depth historical analysis of previous chapters for a more journalistic style of reporting and including many pictures and political anecdotes. It illustrates nicely the political power of historical myths as well as some of the political infighting over seemingly trivial matter.

The final chapter on ‘The Levellers and the Left’ meanwhile seems more like an afterthought to a largely liberal story from which something has been missing. The Leveller story is brief, not least because the Levellers themselves had long been ignored by historians, were only marginal to C18th patriot ideology, and only became a subject of serious historical enquiry when they were seized by late C19th socialists in the promotion of their cause (p. 332). And then there were Eduard Bernstein, E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill in the C20th. The rest is history.

Overall, Worden’s brilliant account of the changing reputations of three famous roundheads – and a few others besides – shows once again that every age writes its own history, and that every generation produces new work to confirm its own prejudices and promote its own political aims. It is as much a reminder that our claims to objectivity might be at times too bold as a self-analysis of the historian’s mind. With this book Worden winks, if (possibly) unintended, at a postmodern way of doing history. But most of all, he has produced a good read.

Its narrative structure gives the book a logic and coherence often missing from straightforward ‘academic’ publications. Shame though that the footnotes are missing from this well-researched account.



By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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