An event celebrating the the publication of a new edition of The Letters, Writings, and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell was held at Huntingdon Town Hall. Alex Beeton, Research Assistant of our House of Lords 1640-1660 project, discusses the event.
On 6 March 2023, the History of Parliament, in collaboration with Oxford University’s ‘Britain in Revolution Seminar’, helped to organise a roundtable to celebrate the publication of a new edition of The Letters, Writings, and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell. The general editor of the volumes, Professor John Morrill, was joined by four commentators: Professor Ann Hughes, Dr George Southcombe, Dr Grant Tapsell, and Professor Blair Worden. Originally, several members of Professor Morrill’s team were supposed to join him onstage but were unable to come due to reasons of circumstance. Fortunately, one co-editor, Dr Andrew Barclay, was able to attend, but the absence of others from the editing team was regrettable as the new edition is a truly collaborative endeavour. The editorial team includes a number of eminent names in early modern history (not least two current members of the History of Parliament, Dr Barclay and Dr Patrick Little, and a former member, Professor Jason Peacey). In Professor Morrill’s words his team had been ‘loyal to the end: nobody quit; nobody died’. The result of their efforts is a magnificent achievement: three volumes of Cromwell’s words surpassing in scope, academic rigor, and utility previous editions by such luminaries as Thomas Carlyle and Wilbur Cortez Abbott.
In her opening remarks, Sophie Aldred, co-convenor of Oxford University’s Britain in Revolution Seminar, noted that the launch event was dedicated, at Professor Morrill’s request, to the late Dr Clive Holmes, one of the leading historians on seventeenth-century England, with the intention of raising the type of rigorous questions he would have asked. With introductions finished, Morrill delivered the first part of the roundtable. He explained why there was a great need for a new version of Cromwell’s writings and speeches due to the deficiencies of previous editions. He moved on to pay homage to the work of the editing team and explain the division of labour they employed, working in small groups to complete each volume. As Morrill made clear, the desire to make the new edition usable (apart from the printed volumes, there will soon be a digital edition, appearing on the Oxford Scholarly Editions Online platform) was a primary ambition of the project. Doubtless, future students writing essays or scholars ferreting for references will thank the prescience of the editors with each volume containing an index for the entire edition and each document being preceded by an introduction setting out its context. If usability was a key concern, so too was something more ethereal: ‘Cromwell’s voice’. Morrill emphasised that the editors wanted Cromwell’s voice to come through the volumes and, where possible, had also paid attention to the physical appearance of the more personal letters.
Although each of the four panellists gave unique responses, the issue of Cromwell’s voice recurred frequently. Professor Hughes, who spoke after Professor Morrill, praised the new edition, particularly for demonstrating to the reader the editorial process behind it. She also sounded a cautionary note, focusing on the problems inherent in looking for Cromwell’s voice and authoritative texts without recognising dangers, such as issues of collaboration and authorial voice, and the exclusion of certain genres of documents, like routine orders. Failure to engage with such issues, she warned, risked turning the lord protector into the type of isolated, ‘great man’ of history whom Carlyle had described.
Dr Tapsell, who spoke next, also examined the problem of Cromwell’s voice but from a different angle. Tapsell, noting Dr Holmes’ distinguished career as a university tutor at Oxford, wondered how Holmes would have perceived the new edition from the vantage point of a teacher. Tapsell praised the work’s accessibility for students and how it explains the process of editing to its readers, though he did note the occasional prioritization of an academic rather than general audience in the editing of the volumes. Like Hughes, Tapsell raised the question of whether there was a risk in over-focussing on a cluster of handwritten letters by Cromwell in pursuit of his personality and mindset, not least because it had perhaps led to the inclusion of some relatively unilluminating texts and raised an insoluble question of how one can hear Cromwell’s voice through texts.
Dr Southcombe moved the conversation from Cromwell’s voice to his God. Southcombe, inspired by the work and thought of Holmes on Cromwell’s religion and witchcraft, discussed why there had been no mass-scale Cromwellian witch hunts. Southcombe explained how there was little room in Cromwell’s theology for Satan and accordingly little room for witches. Offering a practical example of the new edition’s usability, Southcombe employed its index to demonstrate the curious dearth of references Cromwell made to the devil or Satan and concluded that Cromwell’s view on liberty of conscience was influenced by his belief that men were deluded by their own actions rather than by a demonic force.
Professor Worden closed the commentaries by placing the new edition in the historiographical context of Cromwell’s words and writings. Looking back to Abbott, Carlyle, and beyond, Worden discussed how, unlike past works, the new edition is not intended to be biographical, nor is it intended to be interpretative. Both Carlyle and Morrill, Worden continued, sought to recover Cromwell’s voice through his words. In Carlyle’s case, the mission was driven by a search for artlessness: Carlyle abhorred eloquence of speech as a mark of deviousness and believed that Cromwell’s rhetorical simplicity revealed his sincerity. Morrill’s edition, Worden concluded, does not pursue such an interpretative agenda but instead provides the valuable political content and context of Cromwell’s words which Carlyle had missed.
With the commentaries finished, Professor Morrill offered a few words in response, but time was running short and, after a few questions from the audience, the event concluded. As the breadth and vivacity of discussion over the evening showed, with their magisterial work Morrill and his team have breathed new life into the study of Cromwell and his world.
Note: The roundtable was held at the Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre, Worcester College, Oxford. The organizers are very grateful to Worcester College and its staff for all their help and to both the Trustees of the Reynolds Fund at New College and Oxford University Press for helping to fund the event. For further information about the ‘Britain in Revolution Seminar’ please email email@example.com.
The Letters, Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell ed. John Morrill et al (3 volumes, Oxford, 2022).