Historians ignore the human element at their peril

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To read this month’s article about Oliver Cromwell is to be reminded of one of the most extraordinary individual stories in our history. “I was by birth a gentleman,” Cromwell once said, “living neither in considerable height, nor yet in obscurity.”

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Yet for the first four decades of his life, nobody would have expected him to bestride British history like a colossus. Indeed, in his early thirties he was forced to sell his properties in Huntingdon and move to a farmstead in St Ives, which represented a major step down. If Cromwell’s friends had been told then that one day he would be lord protector of the Commonwealth, they would never have believed it.

Afterwards, not even Cromwell’s fiercest critics denied that he was a great man, or as the Royalist politician Lord Clarendon put it, “a brave bad man”. Indeed, Cromwell still finished tenth in the BBC’s Greatest Britons poll in 2002, not a bad finish for someone who still suffers from undeserved criticism for his vigorous approach to Anglo-Irish relations. 

He still has the capacity to inspire extraordinary loyalty from his modern admirers, from my old school history teacher Mr Gauci to the former Labour leader Michael Foot, who served as vice-president of the Cromwell Association and used to write angry letters to newspapers whenever his hero’s record was criticised.

For me, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Cromwell’s story is the tight entanglement of the individual and the impersonal. In happier times, he would presumably have settled down as a reasonably anonymous and intensely pious Huntingdonshire gentleman. In one sense, greatness was thrust upon him by the turbulent events of the 1640s, and indeed Cromwell himself thought that he was merely the tool of Providence.

And yet deep historical patterns do not explain why it was Cromwell, rather than any of the other parliamentary commanders, who emerged at the top of the tree. Without his personal qualities – his seriousness, his conviction, his sheer political genius – he would fallen by the wayside, and our history would have been very different.

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To scour the latest scholarly journals often means ploughing through pages of detailed analysis in which the human element is almost entirely absent. All too often, historians underestimate the personal and elevate the general: as the excellent medieval historian Ian Mortimer once pointed out, it is bizarre to read a monograph on Henry IV in which the death of his wife – presumably one of the central and most affecting moments in the king’s life – was dismissed in eight words.

Indeed, many academics have long believed that the individual has no place in serious scholarship. “Biography?” the late Geoffrey Elton once exploded when his pupil David Starkey mentioned that he fancied writing a life of Henry VIII. “Biography? Leave it to the women!”

In many ways this is merely another example of the yawning divide between ‘academic’ and ‘popular’ scholarship. As academics abandon the human story for yet another thrilling discussion of the trans-gendering of public space in a Staffordshire village, so it falls to the likes of William Hague and Roy Hattersley to give us their thoughts on William Pitt or the Edwardians.

A few brave souls have ventured out from the ivory tower to embark on major biographies: Sir Ian Kershaw’s two-volume Hitler springs to mind. By and large, however, young scholars are discouraged from the biographical approach. When one eminent American historian discovered that I was writing my PhD on an individual politician, Senator Eugene McCarthy, he turned pale with shock, quite a sight given that he was rather florid.

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And yet the truth is history books only last if they reconcile the individual and the general. Painful though it may be for some academics to admit, history is nothing more than the sum of countless individual decisions, most of them now lost forever. Even Christopher Hill, one of the greatest Marxist historians of all, recognised the importance of the human element, which is why his book on Cromwell, God’s Englishman, is such a splendid read. And for all Hill’s awareness of the great forces that shaped early modern history, it is his sensitivity to Cromwell’s personality – “all-too-human”, he calls it – that lingers longest in the memory, and that explains why his book will still be read when countless others are gathering dust in the shelves.