Venus & Aphrodite: History of a Goddess
by Bettany Hughes (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 288 pages, £12.99)
Catherine Nixey applauds a marvellous biography of a goddess that delves beneath her passive modern image
On 10 March 1914, a woman named Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery in London carrying a meat cleaver. The suffragette walked up to Velázquez’s famous Rokeby Venus, which shows Venus’s naked back as she gazes into a mirror, and plunged the meat cleaver straight through Venus’s bottom. “I couldn’t stand,” Richardson stated later, “the way men gawped at it all day long.”
The world was appalled. Read Bettany Hughes’s marvellous new book, Venus & Aphrodite, and you suspect that Aphrodite herself would probably have rather approved. Picture Aphrodite today and you tend to imagine a typical pre-Raphaelite pretty: plump, pink, passive. Don’t be fooled. That might be how the Edwardians and Victorians imagined her, but Hughes argues this goddess is “a barometer” of our lust. And she wasn’t always such a sap.
Take Inanna, Aphrodite’s Sumerian forebear. From the third millennium BC, this goddess presided over lives of the nasty, brutish and short variety. This was a time when women were “mothers at 12, grandmothers at 24, dead by 30”. Aphrodites of more refined eras might have enjoyed being coy, but this age had no time for such nonsense – and it shows. “Who will plough my vulva?” Inanna demands in a contemporary poem. “Who will plough my wet ground?”
Darwinian selection pressures apply to gods as much as animals, and Hughes’s account of Aphrodite’s early evolution forms the most fascinating sections of this superb book. As women became more passive, so the bellicose goddess’s weapons (and clothes) were gradually stripped from her. Increasing coyness and Christianity took their toll until finally the only weapon she held was a mirror. In the case of the Venus de Milo, she couldn’t even manage that. The goddess had been disarmed in the most final way possible.
One might think that such a goddess would have little to say to our own age. On the contrary, says Hughes. Not only is Aphrodite a past master of sexual fluidity (her child with Hermes was the original ‘Herm-aphrodite’) but her influence is everywhere still. Walk into a toilet and the sign you see on the door – that circle with a cross beneath – is the ancient astrological sign for Venus, thought perhaps to represent the goddess’s looking glass. Even now, Aphrodite holds a mirror up to us all.
Catherine Nixey is the author of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (Macmillan, 2017). This review appeared in the January 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine
Priests de la Resistance! The Loose Canons who Fought Fascism in the Twentieth Century
by Fergus Butler-Gallie (Oneworld, 256 pages, £12.99)
Nigel Jones enjoys a collection of stories of courageous religious figures risking their lives to resist fascism
At a time when Christianity is under attack worldwide, it is refreshing to read an unashamedly admiring study of priests and ministers who have put their lives on the line – and often lost them – fighting for their values against evil.
Written by an Anglican curate, this book contains the potted biographies of 15 men and women from various countries and all three major Christian denominations – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox – who were united in their struggle against Nazism and fascism in the Second World War.
Some of the stories Butler-Gallie recounts are already well known – like those of the German Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hanged for conspiring against Hitler, or the Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe, canonised for sacrificing himself in order to save the life of another prisoner in the hell of Auschwitz. Others, less familiar, are just as aweinspiring.
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One of the most extraordinary is the tale of Canon Félix Kir, a worldly, bibulous French priest (he invented the drink known as Kir) who, with a cocktail of courage and sheer chutzpah, spirited hundreds of captives away from certain death at Nazi hands. Or the Orthodox archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, who saved thousands of Greek Jews from extermination by issuing them with false Christian IDs.
Another Greek, the nun Princess Alice, mother of Britain’s Prince Philip, risked her life by hiding Jews under the Nazis’ noses; while Jane Haining, a Presbyterian Scottish missionary, died in Auschwitz rather than abandon the Hungarian Jewish children she had travelled to Budapest to help.
My only quibble with this readable and moving book is its bright and breezy style. Butler-Gallie sometimes gives the impression that fighting fascism was akin to a jolly Sunday school outing. And he should at least have mentioned that for every Christian rightly praised here there were others – not least in the heart of the Vatican – who actively helped the Nazis achieve their evil ends.
Nigel Jones is a historian and author specialising in the world wars. This review appeared in the January 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine
The Slow Moon Climbs: The Science, History and Meaning of Menopause
by Susan P Mattern (Princeton University Press, 480 pages, £25)
Joanna Bourke savours an encyclopedic study of the menopause, showing how it has grown in our understanding from ‘partial death’ to biologically essential adaptation
There comes a time in women’s lives when, often unexpectedly, they start fanning themselves over their morning coffees, worrying about forgetting people’s names, and, once the shock has worn off, calculating how much money they are saving through not having to buy what are euphemistically called ‘sanitary products’.
The menopause is a predictable physiological process, but it is also fundamentally cultural. Unfortunately, even in fairly modern times, it has been pathologised. In The Psychology of Women, published in 1944, the Polish-American psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch argued that post-menopausal women who were happy were deviant and unfeminine. She likened the menopause to a “partial death”; it made women “deranged”. In Feminine Forever (1966), Robert Wilson similarly described women who had been through the menopause as sexually neutered and unfeminine. According to him, oestrogen deficiency was analogous to castration. Of course, he had a stake in making these arguments. Wilson was an eminent Brooklyn gynaecologist and head of the Wilson Foundation, which was supported by millions of dollars in grants from the pharmaceutical industry. Among other products, his foundation produced hormone replacement therapy, the main ‘treatment’ for menopause symptoms.
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It was therefore a relief to turn to Susan P Mattern’s new book. She is celebratory. Mattern is a firm believer in evolutionary biology, arguing that there are good reasons why human women stop bearing children in midlife. She even contends that humanity itself was built on the labour of women who were no longer physically engaged in childbearing themselves. She provides evidence that the menopause is adaptive, in an evolutionary sense.
However, Mattern is equally clear that the way women experience the transition is cultural and rooted in specific beliefs, values and institutions, which in the modern period have been fundamentally influenced by the medical and pharmaceutical professions. Not all societies had a notion of what we today call ‘menopause’. The word was invented in 1816 by Charles de Gardanne, a French writer who introduced the word ‘ménespausie’ in order to replace previous concepts such as ‘green old age’ or ‘women’s hell’. Traditional societies often acknowledged the ways in which women’s roles changed in response to ageing or shifts in familial structures (such as the birth of grandchildren), but this is a wholly different phenomenon to the medicalised model that developed from the 18th century and dominates ideas and practices today.
The book is not without flaws. There are lengthy digressions that subject readers to intricate discussions of historical and demographic contexts. I found myself asking: does this have anything to do with the menopause? It does, of course. But it would have helped to be reminded more often.
This is a minor criticism, though. Mattern is an accomplished historian; she has an encyclopedic understanding of the history, meaning and physiological implications of the menopause. Although she wants to change the way it is discussed in our society, she retains a cold, scholarly eye. This is a book to be savoured, slowly and with care.
Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck and author of The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers (OUP, 2014). This review appeared in the February 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine
Strange Antics: A History of Seduction
by Clement Knox (William Collins, 528 pages, £25)
Eleanor Janega applauds a history of seduction that explores what this phenomenon reveals about power dynamics between the sexes in the western world
In Strange Antics, Clement Knox sets out to discuss the history of seduction as a post-Enlightenment and “modern” phenomenon that “serves as vehicle for the exploration of modern values, modern experiences, and modern concerns”. In this context, seduction is a specific action where perpetrators extract consent for sex from the women (and specifically women) they desire in a way that degrades the seduced.
Knox does this by tracing a narrative that begins in the late 17th century with the infamous sexual provocateur and criminal Colonel Francis Charteris in London. He then crosses the continent to find Casanova in Italy, follows Lord Byron to the fabled Villa Diodati where Mary Shelley composed her masterpiece Frankenstein, and skips across the Atlantic to follow the boxing and sexual careers of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
During the course of this journey, Knox hits on some points that are particularly relevant now. His discussion of the panic about a European slave trade in English girls in late 19th-century London, for example, closely mirrors current concerns about sex trafficking. Similarly, Knox’s discussion of America’s miscegenation laws and the brutal treatment of Johnson for transgressing racial sexual barriers seems timely given the return of eugenic belief and false racial prejudices masquerading as science that we have recently seen. Underlying both these issues is modern society’s obsession with protecting the theoretical sexual purity of the ‘right’ kind of woman. In Knox’s words, “[All] men could be seducers; only certain types of women could be seduced.” Knox is able to deftly show here that the ‘right’ woman is to be understood as white, middle class and sexually disinterested.
At moments, Knox’s focus on modern seduction narratives does his book a disservice. His discussion of the ciscisbeo culture in 19th-century Italy (a sort of official live-in valet-cum-lover for upper-class young Italian brides) treats the phenomenon as an oddity rather than a holdover from medieval courtly love culture. Indeed, Byron’s chafing under the strictures of his time as a ciscisbeismo would be perfectly framed as a modern man’s rejection of a medieval sexual dynamic.
At times, Knox also seems to forget the terms of his own carefully argued framework for concepts of seduction and sexuality as a societal construct. He asserts, for example, in his discussion of Mary Wollstonecraft’s societal rejection for her attempts to practise ‘free love’ that she was “forced… to confront some basic truths about human relationships”. How are we to accept a societal construct is a “basic truth”, especially when Knox has just reminded us of the sexually permissive culture that existed in Tahiti prior to European colonial intervention? (If Tahitian women could enjoy sex free from the bonds of shame and monogamous strictures, then it is clear that no universal ‘truth’ exists.)
But these are the quibbles of the salon and overall Knox has written a diverting work. His prose is elegant, even if he is overly fond of the word ‘chimerical’. Readers interested in sexual history will find Strange Antics a pleasurable and absorbing book.
Eleanor Janega is a medieval historian at LSE specialising in sex and society, and the author of the Going Medieval blog. This review appeared in the April 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine
Crossing the Rubicon: Caesar’s Decision and the Fate of Rome
by Luca Fezzi (Yale University Press, 384 pages, £25)
Kathryn Tempest is impressed by an account of a crucial turning point in Roman history, as Caesar’s troops marched on the capital and the Republic descended into civil war
In early January 49 BC, Rome’s fate hung in the balance. Caesar’s long war with Gaul was over. The pressing question now was what would happen next? For his part, Caesar wanted to lead his army in triumph through the city, and from there to embark immediately upon a second consulship – the most powerful political post in Rome. This seamless transition from military command to consulship would render Caesar untouchable: holders of imperium were uniquely immune to prosecution.
But his enemies had other plans: they demanded that he give up his command and return to Rome as a private citizen. Realising that to do so would spell doom for his career, if not his life, Caesar took a bold decision and crossed the Rubicon – the small river that separated Italian Gaul from Italy proper. To lead an army onto Italian soil was an act of aggression, as Caesar well knew. His biographer Suetonius tells us Caesar shouted to his men: “Let’s go to where the signs of the gods and the injustice of the enemy summon us. The die is cast.” What followed was four years of civil war, the collapse of republican government and the rise of one-man rule.
However, as Luca Fezzi makes clear in this impressive new study, the fate of Rome did not rest on Caesar’s decision alone. The first seven chapters set the scene with a broad sweep of key moments when the Republic came under challenge. From the historic threat of Gaul to the factional in-fighting of the Senate, revolutionary plots and religious scandals, Fezzi charts the circumstances that led to the initial co-operation of Pompey and Caesar, before looking at the seeds that gave rise to the two men’s bitter conflict.
Caesar emerges from the pages as brave but potentially reckless in the pursuit of his goals, a man who put great stock in the fundamental rights of citizens yet was ruthless in his treatment of others. Caesar knew the importance of winning over the Roman mob and would use the threat of an external enemy to galvanise his own position. He was a master of what today we would call political propaganda, and a man who would infringe the rules to secure success.
Yet Pompey was a “teenage butcher” and a man of dangerous ambition. As an autocrat, he was too fearful of assassination and unpopularity. One might even venture to call him “weak”. Fezzi goes on to argue that it was ultimately the actions of Pompey that were responsible for so much of what happened. According to this reconstruction of events, the most fateful day for Rome was 17 January 49 BC, when Pompey ordered the Senate to follow him out of Rome. Had he put up a good defence of the city, he could have avoided the “domino effect” that followed.
One might object, as Fezzi admits, that Pompey’s comeback was remarkable. In moving the conflict from Italy to Greece, Pompey took control over the war in an arena where he had better access to resources. By the time Caesar arrived on the scene, Pompey had amassed an enormous army, great wealth and provisions of every kind – and his strategy almost worked. But that is not the point: accounts of Pompey’s escape are unequivocal about the chaos and confusion it triggered, and the focus here – and the book’s success – is the weaving of contemporary and other ancient sources into the story.
In so doing, Fezzi provides a fast-paced narrative, scholarly yet accessible, which provocatively asks new questions of the evidence. The result is an engaging and stimulating book, one that empowers the reader to imagine in vivid detail the political crisis and emotional turmoil to which Rome fell during that historic year.
Kathryn Tempest is reader in Latin literature and Roman history at the University of Roehampton. This review appeared in the March 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine
Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness
by Sinclair McKay (Viking, 400 pages, £20)
Roger Moorhouse welcomes a vivid new account of the 1945 bombing of Dresden, which reveals why the Allies targeted the city and conveys the horror they unleashed
In mid-February 1945, British and American air forces bombed the German city of Dresden. Over the course of three days – with the main raid occurring on the night of 13 February – they dropped around 4,000 tons of explosives and incendiaries on a city that had previously been renowned for its beauty and cultural importance. Dresden was all but destroyed, engulfed in a hellish firestorm in which an estimated 25,000 people were killed.
The bombing of Dresden has long been controversial and has long been exploited by those with an axe to grind. Its death toll has been mendaciously inflated by apologists for the Nazi regime. Its significance has been both exaggerated by polemicists and mused upon by philosophers. As one of the comparatively few British bombing raids – along with that on Hamburg in July 1943 – that registers with the British public, this is perhaps inevitable, but Dresden has become a hook for a good deal of, usually uninformed, retrospective moral agony. In such circumstances, any serious new examination of the subject should be welcomed.
Sinclair McKay’s new book, timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the bombing, is just such a tome. It’s a weighty and considered investigation of events, using extensive first-hand testimony and archival resources to give a searing immediacy to the narrative.
The story of the raid is told primarily from the perspective of those on the ground, the ordinary Dresdeners and others who bore the brunt of the attacks. Among them are some familiar names like Victor Klemperer, the Jewish academic whose diaries were published to great acclaim, and Kurt Vonnegut, an American PoW, whose reminiscences of the raid would inspire his bestselling novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
Other voices, those of ordinary people, are less familiar: workers, schoolchildren and housewives whose memories of that fateful night and its aftermath were preserved in the city’s archive. Their accounts bring an urgent and sympathetic human aspect to McKay’s retelling.
The story they tell will not be unfamiliar to those already versed in the horrors of the air war, but its capacity to shock is nonetheless undimmed: the fires as bright as day, the melting asphalt, the charred bodyparts littering the streets, the corpses of those baked alive in their cellars. In one memorable passage, McKay relates an eyewitness account of a soldier cycling down the street who is caught by the blast of a high-explosive bomb and blown from his bicycle. In a moment, the man is not only stripped of his clothing by the detonation, he is neatly dissected, his naked and limbless torso coming to rest on the roadside.
Once the fires had abated, Dresden lay in ruins, a vision of hell. Amid the rubble of the city centre, around the ruined Frauenkirche, the central station and the Semper Opera, bewildered survivors wandered, looking for their loved ones, or struggling to take in the enormity of the city’s devastation. In the aftermath, funeral pyres for the dead – corpses stacked high interspersed with railway sleepers – would burn for days. Returning to his benighted hometown, the novelist Erich Kästner would write: “Dresden was a wonderful city… [but] you have to take my word for it… the city of Dresden is no more.”
Importantly, McKay also includes the experiences of the aircrew in his account. He explains the run-up to the raid, the developing science and rationale of aerial bombing and, crucially, the progress of the attacks themselves – the long perilous approach, the ghostly glow of the target indicator flares, the sea of flames below and the turn for home.
For some of the airmen, he reminds us, the ethical considerations of the bombing were present at the time. One pilot recalled: “We all knew it was a lovely city,” and that Dresden was full of refugees and art treasures. But, the airmen were told, the city’s strategic importance trumped such concerns.
And we should not forget that Dresden was strategically highly significant in 1945. As a major communications node close to Germany’s eastern front, its marshalling yards were crucial in the supply of German troops, not least those defending the “fortress city” of Breslau, some 140 miles to the east, which was besieged by the Red Army that same week.
McKay negotiates these treacherous moral waters deftly. Resisting the temptation to read history backwards, he eschews the modish conclusion that the war was so close to ending that February that the bombing was a wanton act of vandalism rather than a considered target.
Instead, he reminds the reader, obliquely at least, that Nazi Germany was still very much capable of expressing its most barbaric impulses in February 1945. In the aftermath of the first raid, for instance, Victor Klemperer had the presence of mind to cover up his yellow star to avoid any potential repercussions. Likewise, the city’s Nazi supremo – the odious Gauleiter Martin Mutschmann – did not hesitate to order the public hanging of “defeatists”, “saboteurs” and all those who questioned the continuation of the fight.
Even that late in the war, we should remember that Jews were still being deported and murdered, forced labourers were still being worked to death, and the slaughter on the military fronts was accelerating rather than abating.
To a large extent, McKay sidesteps the question of the bombing of Dresden as a war crime, asking – rightly perhaps – whether anything of value can be gained by such a discussion. Instead of engaging in post-facto moralising, he prefers to tell the story of the raid – and does so quite brilliantly.
Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness is an excellent book. It does for its subject what Keith Lowe’s Inferno did for the bombing of Hamburg, providing a reliable, engaging, informative and, above all, sober narrative of events. The book will enable readers to make up their own minds – should they so desire – on the rights and wrongs of the matter. It is highly recommended.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of several books on the Second World War. His latest is First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 (Bodley Head, 2019). This review appeared in the March 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume Three: Herself Alone
by Charles Moore (Allen Lane, 1,072 pages, £35)
Alwyn W Turner applauds the final volume in a monumental trilogy charting the life of Margaret Thatcher
One of the less obvious contributions to the 1982 Falklands War was made by the British Antarctic Survey, which provided detailed knowledge of the terrain the British Task Force would encounter. Margaret Thatcher didn’t forget her friends and in future years ensured the organisation was properly funded. The prime minister also took a keen interest in its research and, as a trained scientist, recognised the importance of its warnings about climate change and the depletion of the ozone layer. Without her, the world would have been even slower to react.
Her work in forcing global environmental concerns onto the political agenda may well prove to be Thatcher’s greatest achievement, but there was a personal cost. “Do you find,” she lamented, “that ever since we banned those ozone depleters, it’s been impossible to find hair lacquers that work?”
The third, final and best volume in Charles Moore’s epic biography is full of such wonderful detail. The book starts with Margaret Thatcher on the day after her third consecutive election triumph in 1987, the victor in battles both political and economic, a politician at the absolute peak of her authority. It was not to last. Within two years, sworn enemies and faint-hearted friends were conspiring to dethrone her. In 1990, they succeeded, leaving her out of power, alone and confused, “with an empty diary and a broken heart”.
Europe, the issue that tore apart the triple-axis of Thatcher, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, is inevitably at the core of the book. It produced bitterness that continued to eat away at the Conservative party, causing problems for every subsequent leader, and drove members out to both left and right.
Thatcher herself was responsible for much of the poison, with her post-premiership attacks on John Major, but Moore rightly gives equal weight to her status as a global figure in this period. However much she divided the British people, she was acclaimed abroad as a doughty fighter for freedom, and remained committed to driving the debate on Russia, the Balkans and Hong Kong.
This final section of the book is the strongest of all. Stripped of office and with her mental powers waning, a frailer but still formidable Thatcher emerges.
In her final years, as her carers ensured that her hair, make-up and clothes remained as perfect as ever, she resembled nothing so much as a faded screen actress, still big even if politics had got small without her. But then, she always was a theatrical trouper, as those gleeful photo-opportunities with calves, tanks and litter demonstrated.
The best stories in the book are from this post-Downing Street period. There’s Thatcher at Ascot, backing a string of winners and exclaiming: “I’m not sure the Methodists were right about this gambling stuff!” Better yet, there’s a septuagenarian Thatcher telling a bedtime story to her six-year-old granddaughter and drifting off into a detailed account of the Falklands War.
The length may deter a general reader, but now that it is complete, it’s clear Moore’s mighty work is the biography Thatcher deserved and history requires.
Alwyn W Turner’s books include Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s (Aurum, 2010) and A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s (Aurum, 2013). This review appeared in the March 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine
Victory in the Kitchen: The Life of Churchill’s Cook
by Annie Gray (Profile, 400 pages, £16.99)
Rachel Duffett enjoys a book profiling the life and times of Georgina Landemare, Winston Churchill’s family cook
On 30 May 1940, Winston Churchill’s daughter Mary recorded in her diary: “The evacuation of Dunkirk. Dinner with Shirley.” That diary entry isn’t a bad summary of the organising principle of this book: the juxtaposition of momentous national events with the domestic particulars of eating. Gray has used the life of Georgina Landemare, the Churchills’ cook from 1940 to 1954, as a lens through which the wider histories of food, dining, war, gender and class might be examined.
Landemare wrote a memoir recounting her long career in the service of others, but sadly destroyed most of it, leaving only a fragment covering her early life for posterity. This means that Georgina herself is one of the less vivid characters in the book. Her personality and spirit are somewhat overshadowed by the Churchills, whose wealth of remaining diaries, letters and accounts ensure that we are in no doubt of what they felt, did and, indeed, ate. Landemare may not figure as the leading light in this wide-ranging social history, but Gray does convey a powerful sense of the thousands of ‘Georginas’ who toiled away in the great houses of the wealthy, and whose lives and experiences have attracted relatively little attention.
The title of the book is suggestive of a narrower focus than the actual narrative, which covers matters from the hunger of a Paris besieged by the Prussians in 1870–71 to the luxurious, American-influenced recipes of the 1930s included in Georgina’s own cookery book. The latter period’s ‘Southern Gumbo’ and ‘Waldorf Salad’ sound far more appetising than the rat salami and elephant steaks – “tough, coarse and oily” – consumed during the former.
Georgina married a Parisian chef and the exploration of the comparative commercial opportunities for their skills in the early 20th century is fascinating: Georgina’s sex and nationality counted against her in the world where French men were the epitome of desirability in the kitchen.
Gray has wonderful detail on the shifting fashions in fine dining, including descriptions of trompe d’œil sweet entremets such as potatoes made from Genoese sponge, filled with custard and rolled in chocolate – complete with fake eyes. Such excesses mostly ended with the Second World War, when wartime economies began to take their toll across society, even on those at No 10. Despite the continued supply of delicacies such as Churchill’s favourite Stilton, underwhelming utility meals were commonplace and delights such as “sea kale and jugged hare” were generally unappreciated by their consumers.
The book represents an ambitious project, covering everything from straw-plaiting in Tring to the Churchills’ alcohol bills via a whistlestop tour of the histories of eating, women’s employment, poverty, industrialisation and urbanisation. The breadth of the content means that, in places, the book reads more as an assemblage of fascinating facts rather than a gripping biography or detailed food history. The extent and diversity of Gray’s research, however, sustains the reader’s interest, even if the book can feel rather more like an appetising display of hors d’oeuvres than the full entrée.
Rachel Duffett is author of The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War (Manchester University Press, 2012). This review appeared in the April 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine
Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate
by Paul Lay (Head of Zeus, 352 pages, £30)
Mark Stoyle applauds an absorbing account of the Puritans’ furthest outpost in the Caribbean – and Cromwell’s ill-starred campaign to snatch the Spanish New World
Few would expect a history of the Cromwellian protectorate to begin on a small island off the coast of present-day Nicaragua. But that is precisely where Paul Lay, editor of History Today magazine, transports his readers in the opening pages of this absorbing and beautifully written book.
The island in question was Providence: a rocky but verdant outcrop, just a few miles square, which had been reached by a party of English folk in 1629. As Lay observes, this would be “the furthest outpost of English puritanism” for the next decade. ‘Providence’ was understood by English Protestants at this time to mean divine direction or guidance – and it was among the most zealous Protestants, or ‘Puritans’, that a tendency to see God’s hand in almost everything that happened on Earth was especially marked. By choosing to re-christen the island – hitherto known to the Spanish (then the dominant power in the Caribbean) as ‘Catalina’ – the settlers were making a powerful statement about their own sense of mission and religious faith.
As Lay explains, King Charles I disliked the godly strain of Protestantism to which both the settlers and their powerful backers at home adhered. Nevertheless, like them, he could see the potential advantages of establishing an English foothold so close to the Spanish Main, from which the riches of the New World flowed yearly to Seville in the fabled treasure fleets. So in 1630, the king issued a formal patent for the establishment of a “Company of Adventurers… for the Plantation of the Island of Providence” – better known to history as ‘the Providence Island Company’.
Charles was to reap little reward from his grant. On the contrary, the wealthy Puritan investors in England who governed the company’s affairs used their meetings as an opportunity to conspire against the king’s own government. By 1641, Charles I and his leading critics in parliament – including John Pym, the treasurer of the company – were locked in a bitter struggle for political control.
Meanwhile back in the Caribbean, the Spaniards – resentful of the English interlopers – were preparing to pounce. In May they attacked the fledgling plantation, capturing the settlers and shipping them back to Europe. Providence was lost. As England itself slid into a catastrophic Civil War between king and parliament during the following year – a war that would eventually result in the defeat of the royalists, the execution of Charles I and the establishment of an English republic – it would have been easy to assume this thwarted attempt to set up an English outpost “in the heart of the Indies and the mouth of the Spaniards” would soon be entirely forgotten.
Easy, but wrong. For, as Lay goes on to show, once Oliver Cromwell had emerged as the leading figure in the parliamentarian camp and had crushed all resistance to godly Puritan rule (not only in England, but in Scotland and Ireland too), the man who had accepted the title of lord protector in 1653 found his thoughts turning towards wider conquests still. Astonishingly, at the time Cromwell reached that exalted position, he had never lost a battle: a record of continual triumph that, as Lay stresses, Cromwell ascribed to God’s own providence. Now, he decided, God wished him to take the fight to His enemies abroad. And who could be a greater enemy to God, the gospel and all true-hearted Englishmen than Philip IV of Spain: champion of the Catholic faith and the man whose servants had humiliated the English in the Caribbean back in 1641?
Inspired partly by a desire for revenge, and partly by the memory of his Elizabethan forebears – but above all by the vision of destroying Spanish imperium by snatching away the New World territories that bankrolled Philip’s armies – Cromwell now resolved on a great expedition to conquer the Spanish West Indies. Some 40 ships and 2,500 men were assembled to take part in this operation, which came to be known as ‘the Western Design’. On Christmas Day 1654, the fleet set sail from Spithead. Unfortunately for Cromwell, the expedition proved an utter failure. An attack on the island of Hispaniola was beaten off with heavy losses: 1,500 men died as a result of wounds and disease, and the English had to be content with the capture of Jamaica, then seen as very much a consolation prize. Lay argues that Cromwell was crushed by the failure of the Western Design, believing that “after years of victory… God… had withdrawn his hand”. In a pivotal sentence, he adds that Cromwell now decided that, since “divine providence had been lost it must be regained”.
This sets the tone for the second half of the book, in which Lay goes on to explore how Cromwell – convinced that his apparent desertion by God could only be explained through divine displeasure at his own failure to bring about a thoroughgoing moral reformation in England – attempted to achieve that elusive goal through the appointment of a group of godly major generals to rule over a cantonised kingdom. Yet the cultural battles against immorality and popular festivity on which the major generals promptly embarked were “wars unwinnable”, Lay rightly insists. The new system that Cromwell had instituted was also deeply unpopular, affronting as it did the deep-rooted English distaste for all forms of military government.
Having sustained a humiliating defeat in the Caribbean, Cromwell now found himself locked in an impossible struggle against the forces of religious and cultural conservatism at home, and following the lord protector’s death in 1658, the English republic rapidly fell apart. By this time, as Lay elegantly implies in his final chapter (aptly titled ‘Full Circle’), it had become apparent to most contemporary observers that – like the faraway island that bore its name – divine providence, once lost, would not be so easily regained by godly English folk.
Mark Stoyle is professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton, specialising in the 17th century and the Civil War. This review appeared in the February 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine