Providence Lost by Paul Lay
England’s brief experiment with republicanism in the 17th century is often depicted as a “weird aberration”, said John Adamson in The Sunday Times. Under Oliver Cromwell, “Christmas was banned, theatres were closed”, and Puritan “godliness” was thrust upon the nation. But as Paul Lay shows in his elegant history of Cromwell’s Protectorate, such “time-hallowed assumptions” are mostly false. Far from being a “historical dead end”, the republic was a place of “astonishing energy and ambition”. Trade boomed and government was modernised; architecture and opera flourished, and John Milton, Cromwell’s Latin secretary, emerged as a major poet. Nor was Cromwell quite the “pious killjoy” of repute: Lay shows that the Lord Protector was a lover of art and music whose private apartment was decorated with “erotically themed pictures”.
At the heart of the Puritan worldview was the concept of “Providence” – the belief that “God in his mystery had a hand in all things”, said Jessie Childs in The Guardian. Lay’s “immensely stimulating” book shows how this doctrine was transformed into an instrument of worldly power. Each battlefield victory ratcheted up by the New Model Army was taken as a sign of divine approval. “Providence justified the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords” – and eventually provided grounds for the dissolution of Parliament. “I speak for God and not for men,” Cromwell told MPs in 1654. In doing so, he sounded “a lot like Charles I” – the monarch he’d executed five years earlier.
Eventually, however, God “withdrew His hand”, said Leanda de Lisle in The Times. In 1655, Cromwell launched a mission to capture the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which had been held by the Spanish since 1492. Poor planning led to a catastrophic defeat; a “crushed” Cromwell concluded that a campaign of “moral reformation” was required to regain God’s favour, and so launched his “Rule of the Major-Generals” – a 17th century version of “woke” culture that involved morals being policed by uniformed officials. By this point, English Puritanism was increasingly becoming caught between “the desire for religious liberty and the desire for moral regulation”, said Ted Vallance in the FT. The popularity of the Protectorate waned, and in 1660, two years after Cromwell’s death, the “exiled house of Stuart” was recalled to the throne. “Vivid, clear and highly engrossing”, Providence Lost is a long-overdue study of a period of “high drama and enduring historical significance”.