A paradox of power: King Charles and Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell dissolves the Long Parliament (after Benjamin West).

Oliver Cromwell dissolves the Long Parliament (after Benjamin West). Source: News Limited

English military and political leader Oliver Cromwell in a 17th Century portrait.

A 17th-century portrait of Cromwell. Source: Supplied

WHEN I studied the English Civil War a lifetime ago, sloppily the reigning authority was Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian and sometime master of Balliol. In his Century of Revolution he began with an epigraph from TS Eliot: "I cannot tell what happened, I can only tell you about events. And people to whom nothing has happened cannot understand the meaninglessness of events."

So spake the great theorist of the sweep and depth of history, and Hill made good his boast by presenting by way of structural principle a 20-page summary of the facts, followed by an analysis of the forces that underlay them. It charted the period from 1603 when James Stuart, James VI of Scotland and the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, succeeded Elizabeth I, the woman who had her executed, to 1688 when his grandson James II was pushed off the throne and William of Orange came swooping in.

Peter Ackroyd, by contrast, is interested in the cut and thrust of what happened and more particularly what people said when it did. Call him a journalist and literary hack if you like but his civil war is full of the rich, resonant, blood-choked voices of one of the most dramatic periods in British history. The one during which the king, Charles I the man who stares at us languid and melancholy from the van Dyck portraits has his head chopped off by the parliament. It is the period of the war between the Puritans and Roundheads (with their cropped hair and tight helmets) and the Cavaliers, who were for the king.

It's the period that sees the establishment of a republic (which was called a commonwealth, the very term we grabbed at the time of Federation) but one dominated by the iron hand of Oliver Cromwell, a man who dismissed parliaments because they had ceased to do any good, slaughtered the Irish as barbarians and said prophetically of Charles Stuart, "We will cut off his head with the crown." The crown, if not the head, came back of course, though with only a shadow of the powers Charles I wanted to arrogate to himself and Cromwell, by a bleak and bewildering paradox, actually wielded with a thundering brilliance. And something happened. In the course of 60 years it went from the age of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, when people roared of absolutes and intensities in what sounds like improvised poetry, to the period of Pepys and Restoration comedy when a quip, and a sidelong glance at the intensity of anything, seemed what the world was worth.

Charles II, the king who never said a foolish thing and never did a wise one, was famous for his mistresses, his desire for tolerance, his irony. When the monarchy was finally restored after rebellion, regicide, dictatorship and a revolution the fun-loving king declared that if he had known he would have enjoyed it so much he might have come back sooner.

The Stuart period begins with James (1566-1625), the man who put his name on the Bible and on that form of tragedy that encompasses the greatest Shakespeare but also, as Ackroyd rightly says, the "extremity" of John Webster in The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, a world where all the diamonds and blood have run together. A messenger, Sir Robert Carey, came to James in Edinburgh with the words, "I bring a blue ring from a fair lady", which was the code by which the Stuart was to know the old queen was dead.

Henri IV of France described James I as "the wisest fool of Christendom", and he was certainly one of the most learned and eccentric figures ever to occupy a throne. He had no love of the populace and when they clamoured for his attention he declared, "God's wounds, I will pull down my breeks and they shall also see my arse." He was exceptionally shrewd, however.

He preached absolutism, saying of his office, "For kings are God's lieutenants … even by God himself they are called gods." But in practice he was constantly aware of the need for compromise and, as he said, "the highest bench is the skiddriest [slipperiest] place to sit". He confronted the greatest lawyer of the day, Sir Edward Cook, about the nature of his power and terrified him when he was told of the limitation to the royal prerogative. "So then I am under the law, it is treason to say that!" Cook threw himself flat on all fours in terror and obeisance at the regal rage.

James was also a man who liked the boys. One 20-year-old favourite was Robert Carr and people were instructed to say to the king that the stars were bright jewels fit for Carr's ears. He was shameless for what he wanted for his favourites. When Lady Raleigh threw herself at his feet, begging to retain a piece of her land, James fell in his passion into his native Scots: "I maun [must] have the land … I maun have it for Carr."

There was also George Villiers (1592-1628), a pretty boy who would rise to become the great duke of Buckingham. In the words of the Puritan aristocrat Lucy Hutchinson, upon no merit than his beauty and prostitution. The king called Villiers "Steenie" (Stevie) because he thought he had the looks of an angel like St Stephen. He wrote James little love notes about "whether you love me now better than at the time … when the beds head could divide the master from his dog."

James I believed in the principle of "no bishop, no king" i.e. the bishops' authority was essential to the maintenance of royal power. He was an orthodox Anglican of a high, anti-Puritan, anti-Presbyterian variety and had no desire to persecute Catholics, so it was extraordinary bad luck that the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 led by Robert Catesby with Guy Fawkes should be a "papist plot". It was intended to blow up the king, parliament, the lot.

Anti-Catholic feeling rose sky high and stayed there for an extraordinary period of time despite the Stuart tendency to get on with the Catholic powers. Buckingham indeed went with Charles (then prince of Wales), seeking for him the hand of the Spanish infanta, which terrified everyone that the country could return to Catholic rule and Spanish influence: an anxiety that issued into one of the most extraordinary plays of the Stuart period, Thomas Middleton's A Game at Chess in which Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador (a real life figure), says, "With pleasant subtlety and bewitching courtship … To many a soul I have let in mortal poison."

So much of the period in the lead-up to the civil war reads like an extraordinary epic drama. How's this for James I's letter to his darling George (Villiers), the Duke of Buckingham, proposing: "That we make at this Christmas a new marriage ever to be kept hereafter: for God so love me as I desire only to live in this world for your sake and that I'd rather live banished in any part of the earth with you than live a sorrowful widow life without you. And so, God bless you my sweet child and wife. And grant that you may ever be a comfort to your dad and husband."

No wonder the Puritans thought the court was a sink of inequity (or iniquity-Editor) the earth should swallow. They objected to plays and boys capering as women, let alone sodomite or pederastic kings. So the magnificent England of Inigo Jones's Palace of Whitehall, of the staggering collection of paintings James I was to buy from the dukes of Gonzaga was just the dark and gold of Satan to them.

James preserved peace and both Charles (1600-1649) and Buckingham, who continued his predominance after James's death in 1625, were high and orthodox in the religion they tried to win for the Protestants at La Rochelle against the French, but failed, so that Buckingham's standard came to sit in Notre Dame. Meanwhile Charles shifted his attention from the Spanish infanta to the French King Louis XIII's sister Henrietta Maria.

Parliament was a nightmare to Charles I because he was a nightmare to it, without any instinctive sense of avoiding or eluding confrontation. The king needed money and the one power the parliament had over him in a period when, the historian Norman Davies says, "the dreaded Star Chamber, the arbitrary judicial panel of the crown, was arguably more powerful than the parliament" was to refuse to grant him the money he wanted.

Imagine this, though, from a parliamentarian, John Glanville, in 1626 to the mighty duke of Buckingham, now the greatest of King Charles's henchmen: "My lord, I can show you a man of greater blood than your lordship, as high in place and power and as deep in favour of the king as you, who hath been hanged for as small a crime as the least of these articles contain."

So refusing the King more than one year's "tonnage and poundage" for his ships was followed by a grand remonstrance (a form of impeachment for Buckingham's dismissal) that led to Charles to say, "I have in a manner lost the love of my subjects." There was a catchphrase that ran up and down the country at the time, "Who rules the kingdom? The king. / Who rules the king? The duke / Who runs the duke? The devil."

With it went a rhyme: "And now, just God, I humbly pray / That thou that will take that slime away."

Charles locked up some of his parliamentary critics which led to the petition of "right" that Lord Macaulay, the great Whig historian, was to describe as "the second great charter of the liberties of England", concerning habeas corpus. The duke of "slime" was dispatched not by parliament but by a discontented soldier in 1628 who plunged a knife in his throat as he was chatting with an officer after breakfast. In a choked voice, Buckingham cried, "Villain!" The assassin said only, "God have mercy on my soul."

Things got worse. The ceremony-loving high churchman William Laud (1573-1645) was made archbishop of Canterbury. The Presbyterian lawyer and publisher, William Prynne (1600-1669), whom Christopher Wren (1632-1723) the great architect of St Paul's said he had the face of a witch, had both his ears cut off in 1634 for the offence of attacking the theatre (and by association, the Queen).

Laud wrote to Thomas Wentworth, Charles's strongarm man who would soon become the Earl of Strafford (in 1640), "There is more expected of me than the craziness [the anxiety] of these times will give me leave to do." You get the strongest of people of some sensitivity and fineness caught in a quasi-barbaric mechanism that, in the shorter term at least, can have nothing but a tragic upshot. Strafford, a man of extraordinary personal magnetism was indicted by the parliament in a deadly breakneck game between king and Commons in November 1640. He was accused of high treason on the basis of words he had said about Ireland, "You have an army (in Ireland) you may use here to reduce this kingdom", which the parliament was eager to see as evidence of the iniquity of "Black Tom Tyrant", as they called Strafford.

He, dressed in black, defended himself with great forensic power and grace. "Opinions," he said, "may make a heretic, but that they make a traitor I never heard till now." Despite this, and with extraordinary swiftness from the parliamentary leader, the grand remonstrance (impeachment) and the bill of attainder (granting it) were passed against Strafford, and the king who had given an absolute guarantee of Strafford's honour and innocence found he had to sign it. His antagonist John Pym was dazzled. "Has he given us the head of Strafford? Then he will refuse us nothing!"

On the scaffold in May 1641, Strafford, self-possessed as ever, said: "I wish that every man would lay his hand on his heart and consider seriously whether the beginning of the people's happiness should be written in letters of blood."

Laud, his ally, who would in a similar way die himself, said of the king that he was "a mild and gracious prince who knew not how to be, or to be made, great". At the end of 1641 Charles I rushed to the parliament with a guard of 300 men to arrest the parliamentary ringleaders, who had already fled.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I see the birds are flown."

The beginning of the end came, back in 1637, with the attempt to impose a prayer book and liturgy on the Scots, who rose up and achieved the first victory against the English for hundreds of years. No one wanted civil war but it came inevitably with the high churches and the Catholics, the universities and the cathedral towns for the king, and the southeast, especially London, for the parliament.

It wasn't a short hair v long hair conflict the parliamentary leaders had long hair too, it was a class thing not simply a religious one, though the Puritan v Episcopal and Catholic divide was real.

There is a letter from Sir William Waller, the parliamentary commander in the West, to his royalist opposite number, Sir Ralph Hopton, that indicates the tragedy and the grace with which some held to their sense of honour: "…my affections to you are so unchangeable that hostility cannot violate my friendship to your person; but I must be true to the cause wherein I serve … I look upon it opus domini [the work of the Lord] … We are both on the stage and we must act such parts as are assigned to us in this tragedy. Let us do it in a way of honour and without personal animosities."

Elsewhere there was every kind of outrage as brother fought brother. The great battles: Edgehill in 1642 (after which Charles had his last best chance to take London but squibbed it), Marston Moor in 1644, Naseby in 1645, pass like dreams of horror and grandeur.

It was after Marston Moor that Cromwell said, "God made them stubble for our swords." When old archbishop Laud was hauled off to execution (in January 1645), asking that his killers be given the "grace of repentance", the earl of Essex, the great parliamentary leader, exclaimed, "Is this the liberty which we promised to maintain with our blood?"

After the decisive Battle of Naseby. Cromwell said, "Is this not to see the face of God?"

And so to the face of the king, or rather his head, held aloft. When Charles I was arraigned at St James Palace in 1649, Sir Thomas Fairfax, who had commanded the parliamentary forces, was nowhere to be seen. A voice was heard in answer to the question of his whereabouts. "He has more wit than to be here." It was the voice of his wife.

When the king walked into the court, he dropped his cane and the silver tip came off. He paused for a moment, so unused to stooping, and then picked it up.

He was asked if he acknowledged the authority of the court and he said he perceived he was before a power. "I would know," he said, "by what power I am called hither. There are many unlawful authorities in the world: there are robbers and highwaymen."

When the prosecutor, Cook, said he was charged with being "a tyrant and a traitor", the king laughed aloud. They tried to stop him from speaking and his reply still reverberates.

"I am not suffered to speak? Expect what justice other people will have … It is the liberty of the people of England I stand for."

He had been a stubborn, frail man but he was very brave at the end. The Dutch ambassadors pleaded for him. The prince of Wales sent a blank sheet of paper, signed and sealed, so the parliament could make its own terms. They rejected it.

The great epitaph is by Andrew Marvell, who supported the parliament but whose style was shaped by the great metaphysical tradition:

He nothing common did or mean

Upon that memorable scene;

But with his keener eye

The axe's edge did try;

Nor called the gods, with vulgar spite,

To vindicate his helpless right;

But bowed his comely head

Down, as upon a bed.

His An Horatian Ode is, despite this, a celebration of Cromwell (1599-1658), as mighty a figure as English history holds. He said, "It matters not who is our commander-in-chief if God be so." When he slaughtered 3000 at Drogheda in Ireland in 1649, a massacre that will haunt the Irish memory forever (and every part of the sense of justice of the English-speaking peoples), he said: "I am persuaded this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches."

When he dismissed parliament in 1653, he raged: "It is you who have forced me to do this … you are no parliament, I will put an end to this sitting." His enemy Clarendon, the historian of the rebellion, acknowledged his greatness and said he spurned the name of king but exercised "a greater authority than had ever been exercised or claimed by any king".

But, no, he did not want the name of king. "I would not want to set up what providence hath destroyed or laid in the dust and I could not build Jericho again."

At the same time he knew, "Persons elected shall not have power to alter the government."

The odd thing about the English Civil War is that although one part of any human soul cheers for the parliament because it is such a flaming cross of human liberty, they were also authoritarians and men of blood and their resistance was an ugly bonfire on occasion. And the prerogative of the crown in a strange way was the progressive necessity. The greatest philosopher of the day, Thomas Hobbes, pointed towards the master figure of government, of which Cromwell was a kind of embodiment, in his book Leviathan. Cromwell, at the very least, was one of the greatest dictators the world has known. Greater perhaps than Napoleon if it's true that Napoleon was as great as a man could be without virtue.

But you do capture here and there amid the blood and thunder and the fine tension between the Puritan feeling for liberty and the Puritan horror of licence a touch of tragedy in this man of blood and iron, this great man.

At the end of his life, he asked a Puritan divine, "Is it possible to fall from grace?" And the man of God replied to the righteous man of war and politics, "It is not possible." He was reassured. "Then I am safe, for I know I was once in grace."

Marvell, who was nobody's fool, said that Cromwell had eyes of piercing sweetness. Great men are always standard-bearers and figureheads but it is a sobering thing to think that without this Puritan tyrant, this country gentleman turned behemoth, we should not have constitutional monarchy as we know it, or the Commonwealth of Australia.

Cromwell, of course, was a one-man band. They had to turn back to the crown, though Charles II (1630-1685) inherited a monarchy in 1660 that was diminished in power and with a necessary respect for power.

They stopped him when they could from showing tolerance, though this sceptical man died one. His brother James II (1633-1701) also converted and the nation, like a lunatic, filled itself with perturbation at the thought of papists, to the extent of believing the mad, hysterical libels of Titus Oates.

For hundreds of years the people of Britain were terrified at the prospect of Catholicism, perhaps because Henry VIII had forced them to repudiate it with nothing but bad faith, so that they had concocted a monster.

At one point when Charles II is having an affair with a French Catholic duchess, poor Nell Gwyn, his most famous mistress (of whom he said, dying, "Let not poor Nellie starve") found her coach being attacked by an anti-Catholic mob so that she was forced to call out, "I am the Protestant whore."

Ackroyd has done the world a great service by presenting the 17th century with such vividness through the clamour and poetry, the fanaticism and wit of its own voices.

This is the heroic period of the history of the English-speaking peoples, or rather it is the period in which it goes from the glories of the Spanish Armada, of Gloriana or Good Queen Bess and the prospect of Shakespeare, to the realisations that the tensions that lie at the back of the incomparable Jacobean literature (which encompasses the mature Shakespeare and the Bible of maximum grandeur and looks forward to Milton's Paradise Lost) will have to blow up and break down and issue with the touch of sunlight and irony and silliness into a civilisation a little less complicit with its own barbarism, a little more like the face of our modern world.

But it is the signal achievement of Ackroyd to hear the music of the great moment, its introspection and its mad intelligence at the back of the tumult so central to our constitutional history.

How right he is to quote that great churchman who was also a great poet, John Donne, speaking with dramatic persona and introspective depth in one of the sermons the Puritans would have abhorred.

"They tell me it is my melancholy; did I infuse, did I drink in melancholy into myself? It is my thoughtfulness; was I not made to think? It is my study; doth not my calling call for that?"

Peter Craven was founding editor of Quarterly Essay.

The History of England, Volume III: Civil War

By Peter Ackroyd

Macmillan, 500pp, $34.99