Why and how Oliver Cromwell’s reputation has evolved

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Stuart Orme is curator at the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon. He sat down with Miriam Tomusk to discuss the shifting legacy of Oliver Cromwell, his relevance today, the work of the Museum, and working with schools and teachers.


Thank you so much Stuart for joining me to discuss the contested legacy of Oliver Cromwell. What do you think are the main areas of controversy surrounding him?

Those have changed over the centuries. He’s obviously had a colossal legacy in one way or another; he’s one of the most significant figures in British History. But if you asked different people at different times over the last 300 years, they probably would have picked out different things that have been controversial about him. For a long time he was controversial because he was seen as a regicide, a king-killer, which nowadays I think people are less concerned with. There are still some people who still feel very vitriolic against Cromwell because of the death of an anointed monarch, as they see it. So the trial and execution of Charles I is certainly one thing which for some people is controversial.

Since the late 19th century, with the rise of the Irish nationalist movement, Cromwell became at that point of course one of the great bogeyman of Irish history, with some justification obviously. Even today one of the most hotly debated and controversial elements of Cromwell’s legacy is his actions in Ireland, both in terms of his military campaign – the 9 months that he was there in 1649 – and policies carried out by Parliament afterwards, of resettlement and transplantation in Ireland, which has a legacy in terms of Irish landownership even today.

And the third thing that has only become more apparent more recently is the colonial legacy with regard to Cromwell. There was a brief attempt to acquire or expand the beginnings of the British Empire under Cromwell and a campaign, which was actually disastrous, to capture Spanish territories in the West Indies. And although that went horribly wrong, the expeditionary force sent out by Cromwell did conquer Jamaica from the Spanish. Now at the time, nobody quite knew what to do with this, but 20 years later, after the Restoration, suddenly people realise that it has a potential as a colonial possession and of course becomes the centre of the slave trade that follows thereafter. So there is a legacy, in particular regard to the slave trade in terms of Cromwell’s colonial policy. I think it’s the sort of thing that has perhaps only become appreciated more recently.

It’s interesting that you can have someone who has historically been controversial but been controversial in different ways, depending on the lens through which you look at them. I’m interested in the fact that the Cromwell Museum takes such a ‘warts and all’ approach to the legacy of Cromwell, which maybe isn’t always the case when it comes to institutions dedicated to the memory of different historical figures. What does it look like in practice to take this approach to the legacy of Cromwell?

I think the museum, like actually the reputation of Cromwell, has reinvented itself over the years. When it was first established in 1962 it was a bit of a shrine to him. There is a danger with any sort of place that is focused on a specific individual that it will end up becoming like that. We are very careful today to say that we’re not here to be Cromwell’s fan club; we’re here to represent his story honestly and fairly and put it in the context of his times. So we do myth-bust some of the things that people do think about him – he’s one of those characters who gets tagged with all sorts of things because he’s the person we’ve all heard of. So he gets the credit for some things that he didn’t do like ‘he won the Civil War single-handedly’, and he also gets the blame for some things he didn’t do. He had no involvement particularly with the banning of Christmas, for example, which is the one thing everyone thinks they know about Cromwell.

Otherwise, when we refurbished the museum in 2019, we were very careful to work with a team of academics, so taking the best knowledge and the best current thinking about Cromwell and representing all of those stories by our abiding line (which may or may not have been invented by the man himself) to tell his story ‘warts and all’. Where there are elements that are controversial what we’ll do is we’ll put there the different arguments, and our job is then to let the visitor make their own mind up about it. There’s a danger as well I think that some museums tend to go the other way, where there’s sometimes an element of wanting to project onto people moral ideas from today. Actually I think it’s very much in the mind of the visitor to make their own mind up based on the evidence and multiple interpretations and viewpoints that we present to them.

That’s quite similar to the Parallel Histories approach of presenting the arguments and letting students decide.

Yes and I think that’s because Cromwell is a character who is so reinvented. He’s seen as a king-killer throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and then in the 19th century he becomes the great Victorian hero because they project onto him a lot of ideas they have themselves, about the way they see themselves, as imperialists and upright religious figures. In the 1930s he’s seen as a dictator (you can probably work out why in the 1930s people had a bit of an obsession with dictators). In the 1960s when there’s an interest in all this sort of thing he’s seen as a great socialist hero. And today lots of historians are looking after his motivations due to his religious beliefs, in an age of religious fundamentalism and so on; we can see again why that might be. He’s very much a character that people tend to project the preconceptions of their own generations and their own times onto, because he said so much that generally speaking you can find something that chimes with what he said and did.


How should we teach Oliver Cromwell today?


That leads me onto my question of: Where do you think Cromwell is relevant today, in our political landscape, or within schools and education?

I think this whole period that Cromwell sits against has become in recent years, certainly in terms of popular history where there’s an obsession with things like the Tudors or World War 2 – you look at television documentaries and it’s all about that. I think the 17th century is starting to have its day. It’s becoming seen to be so relevant in the moment because it’s a period that raised questions about the nature of freedom, democracy, monarchy, religious toleration, freedom of the press, the role of women, relations with Ireland, relations with Europe, colonialism, all of which we are still wrestling with in 2023. These are all issues which still seem very alive at the moment. And you’ve only got to look at recent politics, so for example the prorogation of Parliament a couple of years ago. Who knew what prorogation was? Of course everyone who was interested in 17th century history went ‘Oh! We know what that is.’ If you want to understand the present and a lot of ideas about where our modern politics has come from, why these issues are so important, then I think looking back to the 17th century provides many of those answers.

It is still unfortunately a little bit of a forgotten century in a way really, and it is actually more relevant than ever. There are so many sources and so many interesting, fascinating directions you can go off down as well: pamphlets were used in this period which give a window into early fake news, and there were discussions that wouldn’t seem out of place on Twitter and social media today. It seems like such an interesting period to get students involved with and it’s why I think it’s starting to have a more popular purchase as well, in popular histories, documentaries and films and so on.

I remember studying Early Modern History at university and being struck by just how significant the 17th century was. I found it bizarre that I hadn’t really studied the Civil War at school. I feel like lots of people look back on History and they remember WW2 and they remember the Tudors and they don’t remember much about the 17th century. But so you think that gap is now being filled?

I think it gradually is changing yes. It is a period around which there is a huge amount of popular misconceptions about everything from black-clad Puritans, which is a Victorian stereotype, to Cavaliers with floppy hats and feathers. But it was a period in which all sorts of things tie in with our modern debates today about constitutional history. Under Cromwell we have the world’s first written constitution, the ‘Instrument of Government’, from which a lot of ideas found their way into the American Constitution a century later.

I think what puts people off sometimes, or I’ve heard it argued, is that people get put off the 17th century because it’s too complicated and it’s too focused around religion. I think the argument about being complicated doesn’t really hold much water because I think if you look at it, it’s so fascinating that it draws people in. You’ve only got to see that one of the most popular TV dramas in recent years has been ‘Game of Thrones’ with a cast of thousands and labyrinthine plots. If people can cope with 8 series of Game of Thrones, then they can cope with the Civil Wars in the 17th century! The second thing is, yes there is religion involved, but so is there in the Tudor period. So I don’t think that’s necessarily a turn-off so long as you can put it in ways that can engage people and get them excited and interested in it.

And so how do you, with the resources and the work you do at the Cromwell Museum, engage with bringing that education into schools? Are there any particular ways that you have found really help schools engage with this?

It really depends on the level we’re talking about. We engage with everything from primary schools, coming in primarily to look at Cromwell as a notable historical individual. He’s somebody that they can identify with, particularly from a locality, because they’re studying someone who came from the area where they lived. So there it’s more about storytelling, understanding why Cromwell is important, and starting to introduce that idea that there are different points of view about him.

Once we get into secondary schools and start looking at the sources and the evidence, we’re starting to ask those questions about primary and secondary sources and reliability and so on. By the time we get to Sixth Forms, where quite a lot of schools study Cromwell as part of their A Level History courses, then we’re looking at providing discussion and debate. One of the things we regularly do with our Sixth Form visitors, either in person or online, is we’ll talk to the students and say ‘Right, forget your teacher’s here for the moment. What are the things you want to know? What are the things you’re struggling with? What are the things you want to discuss and debate from this period?’ After the first couple of minutes where they all sit and look a bit self-consciously at each other, actually we then get some really interesting discussions after you get the first couple of questions fired. So it’s about providing a sounding-board and getting students to think more deeply about the period and the sources that are available.

And it’s also about using museums as source material in their own right. It’s not just written sources that provide valuable evidence about the past – portraits and objects can do as well, as can buildings, and sites associated with people. That’s something that I think even too many professional historians sometimes forget; it tends to be too much of a focus on written material rather than the other sorts of evidence that go with them.

I suppose the benefit of being in a museum – because you’re in the school that Cromwell attended – is that you can make use of the material history. I’m curious, when you have these discussions with the students, do the same points of debate around Cromwell come up, that you brought up at the start? Are they immediately drawn to the regicide or to the relationship with colonialism, or do they end up going down completely different routes?

It really does vary. The interesting thing we find, not just with students but in general – and I don’t know whether this is about the way the world is, that we tend to view things as positive and negative – is that the first question people tend to ask is do I think he’s a hero or a villain. To which my answer is usually the hedging the bets one, but I genuinely think this, is I don’t think he’s either. I think there are some things which I find quite admirable about him and some things which I find quite horrific, but he’s very much a man of his time. You look at most individuals throughout history, and it’s actually very difficult to put somebody down as all good or all bad. There are a few exceptions, the Hitlers of this world, for example. And I think therefore it’s more complicated and it’s about nuance and that’s where I find history fascinating. It’s the bits of history where it isn’t easy and it’s murky, it’s difficult and it’s morally complex, and therefore makes it far more interesting, fascinating and actually far more human, and therefore more relatable I suppose in a way, as well.

It’s all about exploring the grey areas, isn’t it?

Absolutely. And I think also the trick is, and this isn’t about humanising Cromwell for the sake of it, but I think you need to remember these were real-life breathing human beings. We always slightly surprise people when we talk about the fact that Cromwell suffered from depression, for example, or the fact that he was devoted to his family, that he liked music, he liked dancing, he had quite a well-developed sense of humour, he was quite fond of practical jokes by all accounts. And these are the things that just don’t occur to people because their popular image of him is based on portraits they’ve seen, or the famous statue outside of the Houses of Parliament, where he is this monolithic character. And people tend to forget that there was a real person behind that.

I wonder whether that’s to do with the time period. I wonder if there is something about going past the modern period in history where we start to turn these people into sort of storybook figures.

I think there is some truth in that, absolutely. We tend to assume that the further back in history you go, the more unlike us that they are. And actually, the fundamentals of humanity haven’t changed. People laugh and cry, they are concerned for their families, they want to know that they’ve got a roof over their head, they want to know where the next meal is going to come from, they want a quality of life and so on. Particularly the Early Modern period, which is a period where people are starting also to ask questions about wider society that’s the beginning of what we would recognise as a society today, and I think therefore again that’s why this is such a relevant historical period.

Very much so. Do you have any advice for teachers teaching on a contested, controversial figure like Cromwell? It’s a very broad question, but just from your experience?

It is a broad question. I think the trick is, and this is always a problem for teachers, having come through the teaching profession myself and knowing the pressures and the demands that are on teachers’ time at the best of times – but as far as possible, just try to read multiple different sources about him. The danger is, particularly with non-history specialists and particularly the further down the schools you get, so once you get to primary schools, there are some teachers who are brilliant but there are some who are under pressure and it’s not their period or even their subject. So you tend to get sometimes, unfortunately, the kind of Wikipedia version of history, which isn’t always very accurate. So I think using multiple sources as far as possible, using as many different resources as possible, and they are out there. We try to provide those as much as possible, to schools and teachers. Make use of places like us with school visits, particularly if it’s not your area and your specialism, as we can try to help with that, supplying that knowledge and providing different perspectives for students. And I think it’s above all about engaging students with the period with good old-fashioned storytelling. Bringing the past to life is fundamentally about stories, but they’re stories which are true to some degree or other and are about real living breathing people who may have made the world that we live in today.