This article was first published in the February 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine


Oliver Cromwell's words have been scrutinised and debated, dissected and plagiarised, rubbished and celebrated almost as much as any figure in British history. His speeches have been used by historians down the centuries to portray him as everything from the greatest Englishman who ever lived, to the embodiment of evil. This is, of course, only to be expected of one of history’s biggest hitters – but how can we be sure that such historians are working with a faithful record of the words actually uttered by the lord protector 350 years ago?

The short answer is we can’t. Inconsistencies, propaganda, duplications, omissions and mis-transcriptions have all dogged attempts to record Cromwell’s voice with any accuracy. And it’s for this very reason that Oxford University Press has commissioned a team of eight scholars from Britain, Ireland and the USA (including myself) to produce a new edition of Cromwell’s words, both written and spoken.

The obstacles facing historians attempting to present an authentic record of Cromwell's words are crystallised in the existence of two modern – and subtly different – editions of a speech he made to his Nominated Assembly (what history knows as Barebone's Parliament). When he reached the peroration of his address to the 140 godliest gentlemen, merchants and other civic worthies that he had been able to summon, did Cromwell say: "you manifest this is… to be a day of the power of Christ"? Or did he utter, "you manifest this is… to be the day of the power of Christ"?

To historians of Cromwell, it's an important question. Why? Well, such "a day" marked 4 July 1653 as a day which Cromwell hoped would inaugurate a reforming programme that would enable the English people to lead lives of liberty, which had been made possible by the overthrow of tyranny in all its forms in the previous years. (Cromwell's idea of tyranny was the House of Stuart, an oppressive church ruined by the dregs of popery, and a legal system that favoured the rich and discriminated against the poor.)

However, subscribing to "the day of the power of Christ" transcription brings Cromwell much closer to the ideas of Thomas Harrison – a senior colleague in the New Model Army and a Fifth Monarchist – who was a believer in the thousand-year rule of the saints, which the book of Daniel in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation predicted would anticipate the Second Coming. Harrison had been the principal architect of a Sanhedrin of Saints (ie a Nominated Assembly) to prepare the way of the Lord.

The two existing modern editions of this speech take different sides on which version to publish – and neither explains why. How can we decide which is the more accurate?

Here's another example. In one of his best-known letters, Cromwell is recorded as having written passionately to the county committee of Suffolk in September 1643, pleading with them to look beyond social standing in the selection of cavalry officers and to look for zeal. "I had rather a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else," he is recorded as saying. "I honour a gentleman who is so indeed".

Zeal first, social standing second. But a much greater social radicalism is present if what Cromwell actually wrote is: "I honour a gentleman who is so in deed". Here, he only honours a gentleman if he has fire in his belly.

All existing versions print the first of these versions. But there is another version where ‘in deed’ is two words, not one.

Early in 1650, Cromwell was in Ireland in the midst of his extraordinary and spasmodically deeply brutal conquest, a conquest that remains the most contested and divisive episode in his career. By his own admission, he killed 2,800 soldiers in hot and in cold blood at Drogheda and several hundred civilians in hot blood. Some historians think that he killed no civilians, or that he killed many unarmed civilians in cold blood. I simply state what he himself admits to.

On 4 December, the Irish Catholic bishops and other leading clergy met at one of Ireland's holiest sites, the ruined abbey at Clonmacnoise, on a hillside overlooking the Shannon, and they called for a levee en masse of the Catholic people of Ireland to drive out the invader who had come to "extirpate" the Irish people and the Catholic religion.

Cromwell published a scornful and haughty rejection of their claims. It was published in Cork and then in Dublin, his words in those Irish printings of the pamphlet following the words of the Irish clergy. "Yours", he told them, "is a covenant with death and hell". A version of this pamphlet, detached from the clerical decrees, was then published in London under the title A Declaration of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland for the Undeceiving of Deluded and Seduced People.

Only one copy of the Irish edition is known to have survived, and it is in the Beinecke Library at Yale University. For reasons which are themselves extraordinary, this does not appear in the great edition of Early English Books Online, the amazing resource which claims to reproduce electronically everything published in the English language before 1700, now expensively available at all the world's great research libraries. No existing version of Cromwell's writings and speeches has noted the existence of this Irish version, and each of them reproduces the London edition, blissfully unaware of the significance changes that that London edition introduces, which begin on the title page itself.

These are just three of the many thousands of reasons why we need a new edition of the words of Oliver Cromwell whether written or spoken. Cromwell is so central to our understanding of the English Revolution (or the British Revolution, or is it the Puritan Revolution?) of the mid-17th century that we really need a reliable edition of his several hundred letters and 25 speeches (available in what purport to be verbatim transcripts) he made as lord protector. Every biography of Oliver Cromwell – and there are dozens of them published over the past 50 years and in print – has relied on one or other of two versions of his letters and three versions of his speeches. And all are radically unfit for purpose.

More like this

Thomas Carlyle's Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (1845) was one of the publishing sensations of the 19th century, and it remained in print for over a hundred years. Carlyle made little effort to edit accurately, and it certainly never occurred to him to compare different versions of the same letter or speech. He just took the most readily available, tidied up the spelling and punctuation (and sometimes the syntax) and printed it. At the beginning of the 20th century, the great historian of the Revolution, CH Firth, supervised an excellent scholar, Mrs SC Lomas, in a tidying up of Carlyle's edition. This improved the quality of the text Carlyle had selected, and it added a lot of letters and speeches he had not known about. However, comparison of variant texts was a low priority, and the use of source criticism to determine 'best' readings was, to put it politely, rudimentary.

Simultaneously with the efforts of Mrs Lomas, another Oxford graduate, CL Stainer, again with the encouragement of Firth, set out to produce a new edition of Cromwell’s speeches of the 1650s. He worked hard to find all known versions of every speech, and the notes to his edition tell us as much as is still known about them. His transcriptions were careful and accurate. But alas, he panicked in the face of the scale of the differences between the various accounts of the same speech.

Cromwell spoke seven times to parliament or to a committee of MPs in the spring of 1657, when he was being urged to take the title of king. There are a number of manuscript accounts of these speeches and two-way discussions, plus there is a version of all of them, published mysteriously in 1660 and attributed (on the basis of attributions hand-written onto surviving copies) by both Bulstrode Whitlocke and Nathaniel Fiennes, erstwhile supporters of both the protectorate and King Oliver.

Faced by these choices, Stainer opted, without explanation, sometimes to base his edition on a manuscript version and sometimes on Monarchy Asserted, the 1660 pamphlet. We could be charitable and hope that this was a considered but unexplained choice; except that with respect to the important speech to Barebone's Parliament in 1653 he splices together the first half of one version with the second half of another. This Stainer edition is the one recycled in the popular paperback version of Cromwell's speeches edited by Ivan Roots, which is the only version currently in print. It's better than the others, but without scholarly apparatus.

The defects of all previous editions was all too plain to Wilbur Cortez Abbott, an Anglophile Harvard professor who set out in the 1920s to replace all previous editions. He spent many years hunting down everything he could about Cromwell. In 1929, he published a bibliography of Oliver Cromwell, which lists several thousand books and essays with strong Cromwellian interest; and over the period 1937–47, he published an exhaustive edition of Cromwell’s recorded words in four large volumes. It contains 1,250 ‘texts’, as against just over 500 in the revised Carlyle edition – although a huge proportion are warrants, orders, passes, or form-letters, or texts which Oliver signed but did not write as lord protector. Unhappily, it is almost impossible to use this edition because there is neither a list of contents nor running heads to guide the reader to what s/he wants. Worse still, its running commentary is distorted by Abbott’s increasing obsession with showing that Cromwell prefigured the great dictators of the 1940s.

It is plain that Abbott had to privilege what he had on hand in Harvard. He was, reasonably enough, not going to run the gauntlet of German U-boats to cross the Atlantic to see if the manuscripts he needed to see were in deep storage for the war years or not. Yet what wasn’t reasonable enough was his decision to produce his own hybrids when editing, blending together, sentence by sentence, what he (without explanation) thought a clear, readable text.

All this is by way of prelude to saying: we need a new edition of Cromwell’s words as written and spoken that meet the challenges head on – which brings me back to the team of scholars commissioned by Oxford University Press.

So far they have raised money from research councils in Britain and Ireland and from within Trinity College Dublin for a pilot study that critically assesses all known versions of Cromwell’s 78 letters and proclamations while he was in Ireland. The money is also funding a series of workshops of 15 to 20 leading scholars looking in detail at the editorial challenges posed by: those Irish letters and proclamations; Cromwell’s speeches as lord protector; the summary accounts of his speeches in the Long Parliament; and the shorthand accounts of his speeches in the Putney Debates and other army council meetings 1647–9.

These have been lively and indeed exhilarating gatherings and on the whole reassuring. It has proved possible to find effective ways of tackling most of the problems. For example, if serious attention is given to the provenance and transmission history of manuscript transcripts, it is often possible to decide which is the closest to what Cromwell wrote. Meanwhile, modern knowledge of printers and publishers allows us to see which of various newsbook or pamphlet versions were most likely to be ‘authorised versions’.

A great deal of work has been done in recent works to understand how 17th-century shorthand worked and how accurately stenographers could take down what they heard. This will allow us to produce a far better edition of Cromwell’s contributions at the Putney Debates – where for the first time he meditated on the possible, even probable need for Charles I to be deposed – than has been available before. This is especially the case, given that both of the existing editions of the Putney Debates are so flawed: Sir Charles Firth rearranging phrases, even sentence order, to make more ‘sense’; and ASP Woodhouse producing some disastrous mis-transcriptions that massively change the meaning of what Cromwell said.

So far, the workshops have suggested that it will almost always be possible to identify a ‘best’ text using consistent and clear principles, with major discrepancies being indicated in footnotes, but there will be scope within the edition for parallel text versions where there are no good grounds for privileging one over another. There will be three volumes containing ‘Cromwell’s voice’ and such annotation as is necessary to stabilise texts. There will also be one or possibly two companion volumes of extended discussion of the texts and what they have to teach us.

This process will take several years, and there is real excitement among the editorial team and its advisory board about the way that Cromwell will come alive in much the same way as a Great Master painting takes on a new and different life when it is cleaned and restored. My own feeling is that Cromwell will come across as more radical and more devious than in most modern biographies (my own included). He may become even more controversial. If so, all the better.

Lost in transcription

Here is Cromwell in full flow on 4 July 1653, as given in a 1654 and in an 18th-century printing of what was claimed to be a manuscript in the possession of John Milton. This was in his capacity as secretary for Latin tongues – or chief propagandist for the regime in addressing foreign audiences.

1654: "I confess I never looked to see such a day as this – it may not be nor you neither – when Jesus Christ should be so owned as He is, at this day, and in this work. Jesus Christ is owned this day by your call, and you own Him by your willingness to appear for Him; and you manifest this, as far as poor creatures can, to the day of the power of Christ."

18th century: "I confess I never looked to see such a day as this – it may not be nor you neither – when Jesus Christ should be so owned as He is, at this day, and in this world. Jesus Christ is owned this day by you all, and you own Him by your willingness to appear here; and you manifest this, as far as poor creatures can, to a day of the power of Christ."

Here is a short of examples from Cromwell's speech on 13 April 1657 in which he agonised over the title of king: one from Monarchy Asserted (the 1660 compilation of speeches); the other from a later copy of a (lost) original. There are 49 small and large differences in the first four pages alone (plus variant spellings and punctuation):

"I think I have a very hard task upon my head…" or

"I think I have a very hard task upon my hand…"

"the people have been always by their representatives in Parliament willing to vary names" or

"the people have been always by their representatives in Parliament unwilling to vary names".

Old-school shorthand

Thanks to Frances Henderson, who has worked on the manuscripts of William Clarke, secretary to the New Model Army, we know a great deal about 17th-century shorthand. Clarke himself used Thomas Shelton's Tachygrophy, published by Cambridge University Press in 1635 "approved by both universities". Like the many rival systems it used short-form alphabets (as in modern text-messaging) and systems of symbols to allow the user to keep pace with the slower speakers – and importantly one contemporary tells us that Cromwell spoke "slowly and distinctly".

Tachygrophy was developed to help students take notes at lectures, the godly to take notes at sermons, and law reporters to take down the judgements of judges (the only authorised way they were recorded for posterity). Frances Henderson has been able to show that the 700 underlinings in the surviving long-hand version of the Putney debates all relate to words which use symbols that are ambiguous or represent more than one word or phrase; that there must have been a team of ‘tachygraphers’ at Putney; and that Clarke’s longhand edition is an amalgam of their efforts. Henderson has also demonstrated that one of Cromwell’s speeches in 1658 was reconstructed by a collation of the shorthand notes taken by Thomas Burton, John Smyth (clerk of the parliament) and John Thurloe, Cromwell’s secretary of state.

Medicine man

Mark Blackmore looks at a new BBC project in which Cromwell plays a role

Oliver Cromwell, born in Huntingdon in 1599 and lord protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1653–58, is one of our most fascinating and controversial historical figures. Hardly surprising when the man led a British republic, was one of the signatories on the death warrant of Charles I and treated Irish Catholics with such severity that “The curse of Cromwell upon you” became a common expression of Irish hatred.

An intriguing figure then, and one that the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon hopes to throw a little more light on with its special exhibition of Cromwell’s medicine chest, on loan from his descendants. Both the chest itself and its contents are of extremely high quality.

Current thinking is that the chest was a gift from the continent – a gift that reflected Cromwell’s importance as a political player on the European stage. There are in fact only a small number of similar chests known to be in existence, all of which were made in Bavaria in the early 17th century. The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg has one of them – the travelling medicine chest of Peter the Great, which is illustrated in the Huntingdon exhibition.

Cromwell's chest is one of the featured objects from BBC Cambridgeshire for the BBC's History of the World in 100 Objects campaign. It contains 40 different items, each impressive in its own right. There are silver-mounted glass bottles which would have contained various medicines. The bottom drawer held medical implements, though the uses of some of those are still a mystery. The wooden chest itself is made of ebony and oak and stamped with the mark of the Ebony Workers Guild to guarantee its authenticity.

The chest is at the Cromwell Museum until 4 April 2010.

Regions of history

Cromwell's medicine chest is just one of the pieces showcased in museums to coincide with the launch of the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects. The 45 BBC local websites across the English regions have partnered with the museums in their area to produce a list of ten objects each, the aim being to tell the story of the area's history. In addition, 11 specially commissioned half-hour regional films for BBC One will each highlight and reflect a period of great historical change in the region.

BBC local radio and regional television will also broadcast features and interviews telling the stories behind the chosen ten objects. Listeners and viewers will be asked to suggest further objects and can upload images of their own objects that have a local or global appeal. Eventually each BBC local website will have an additional ‘People’s Ten Objects’, telling the history of their region. Seamus Boyd, project manager for Nations and English Regions, said: “A truly fascinating range of objects have been chosen. This initial collection is just the blueprint to which we hope viewers and listeners will add their own objects and help to create a truly unique and vibrant tapestry of the past.”

John Morrill FBA is professor of British and Irish history in Cambridge – and one of the world's leading authorities on Oliver Cromwell

BOOKS:Oliver Cromwell (from Oxford University Press's Very Interesting People series) by John Morrill (OUP, 2007)


PLACE TO VISIT: The Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire is open Tuesday–Sunday 1.30–4pm and also on Saturdays from 10.30-12.30. Admission is free.