Thursday, January 08, 2009

Cromwell book review

Oliver Cromwell

Headless story
Dec 30th 2008
From The Economist print edition

Cromwell's Head
By Jonathan Fitzgibbons

BEHEADED posthumously, as punishment for his part in the execution of Charles I in 1649, Oliver Cromwell’s fate after death matches his grippingly controversial life. Was it really his body that was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1658, with jarring pomp and ceremony? Was the same corpse exhumed and mutilated after Charles II came to the throne, ending Britain’s brief experiment with republicanism and military rule? Was it really the Lord Protector’s head that was rammed on a pike in Whitehall, to discourage regicides, only to be blown down in a gale and swiped by a soldier? And was it really that same head, battered and worm-eaten, with an iron spike still rammed through the skull, that became a souvenir, a vulgar curiosity, a treasured relic and was finally in 1960 secretly laid to rest in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where the young Cromwell briefly studied?

Jonathan Fitzgibbons answers these questions ably. The head is indubitably Cromwell’s: though the provenance is a little cloudy in the early 18th century, it beggars belief that a fraudster of that era would be able to fool forensic science many years later. The body was embalmed before it was beheaded; and the skull measurements correspond almost exactly with extant portraits of the Lord Protector.

The interesting historical detective work, and some neat demolition of myths and conspiracy theories, bring Mr Fitzgibbons half-way through a short book. After that comes a potted history of the aftermath of the English civil war, starting with the botched scheming that led the maddeningly duplicitous Charles I to lose not only the military conflict but also his head.

The regime that succeeded him was an uneasy tussle between idealists and a would-be military junta. Cromwell himself, that walking paradox, was neither as austere nor as principled as portrayed in most textbooks. His behaviour was marked by an oddly prankish streak and outbursts of genuine jollity. His refusal of the crown was both his greatest achievement and his biggest mistake. The author sums up his subject’s gravest weakness as “nihilistic overconfidence”. Like so many other revolutionaries, his regime became tyrannical and collapsed when he died.

This work is part of a venture into the book trade by Britain’s National Archives. Unlike stingy private-sector publishers these days, they have indulged in such rarities as a proper index, footnotes, bibliography and colour plates. It is a pity that they seem to have skipped the copy-editing. Cromwell appears chattily as “Oliver”. “May” and “might” are used interchangeably. An Oxford anatomy professor is said to have been “pouring” over documents in 1875 to expose a fake. Britain’s republican hero deserves better.

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