In my new historical novel, ‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover,’ the soldier is Oliver Cromwell, a man who divides people. Some call him the father of democracy and others, a power-crazed tyrant.
As for his wife Elizabeth, she wrote to him on the battlefield of Marston Moor to say ‘Truly my life is but half a life in your absence.’
He is remembered as head strong and a bully. Though in an age of aggressive certainties, Oliver was strangely uncertain for much of the time, wondering which star to follow.
Parliament and the army had defeated the king in the civil war; but as the three parties wrestled for power, Cromwell’s allegiances shifted. He tried to ride all three horses, which at times led him to being trusted by no one.
It’s ironic that such a divisive figure always wanted unity, wished everyone to agree. ‘Let us be doing but let us be united in our doing!’ he pleaded at the Putney debates.
But no one else was for agreement. In the end, Cromwell had to choose one horse to ride... and that horse was the army.
And he loved his wife, Elizabeth; they sent sweet messages to each other as he marched from one battlefield to another. After the blood and guts of Dunbar in 1650, he wrote to her: ‘Thou are dearer to me than any creature.’
Though she did chide him that she wrote three letters to his one; and her love for the king created an atmosphere at home as his trial approached.
Cromwell was a force of nature when roused. A gentleman farmer from the Fens, yet somehow he created a formidable army built on prayer and discipline. ‘Keep your faith in God and your powder dry,’ he advised his soldiers.
He could be supremely decisive; you didn’t want your left flank hit by his cavalry. But he could also drift into depression and paralysis of spirit when he lost a sense of God’s guidance.
And increasingly, he faced the awful dilemma: ‘To kill a king or not to kill a king?’
To echo Lord Palmerston, Cromwell had no permanent alliances, only permanent interests. And the abiding interest of his career was liberty of conscience for all, which included Jews but did not include Roman Catholics...tolerance only went so far.
Yet he also wanted control, this shaped all his political moves... which led to accusations of gross hypocrisy. He fought for parliament – but he could actually never tolerate a parliament.
I think of him in many ways...I think of him sipping sherry and smoking his pipe in his home in London’s Drury Lane...I think of him taking on the army mutineers single-handed at Corkbush Fields, thundering towards them on his horse...I think of him naively believing Charles wanted an agreement, a commoner seduced by a king...I see him dithering in Yorkshire beneath the Pontefract skies, in despair for lack of guidance...I see him haranguing parliament, his sword rattling as he speaks...I see him cushion-fighting with the Republican Edmund Ludlow; playfully flicking ink at Henry Marten as they both signed the king’s death warrant...I see him writing love letters from the battlefield...