Posts Tagged ‘Oliver Cromwell’

A guest post by London Historians member Robin Rowles.


Modern bust of Thos Cromwell, Guildhall.

In September 2016, I was preparing for the annual Sherlock Holmes Society of London annual weekend, when I received an unexpected tweet from publishing firm Pen and Sword. Would I be interested in writing a book about Sherlock Holmes and London? I was very flattered, wow, somebody out there had heard of my Sherlock Holmes walks, but immediately realised this would be a difficult undertaking. Not writing about Sherlock Holmes, that would be relatively easy, but marketing might be trickier, because I knew the market was saturated with books about Sherlock Holmes and London. Not only do I own many of these, I’m also friends with the authors and I know how good their books are. However, thinking quickly, I explained this and said I could write a book about the civil war in London. After some negotiation, the contract was agreed and I got writing.

The book, which was given the working title of A civil war walk around London, was to be an expansion of my walk ‘Civil war connections ‘round St Paul’s and Cheapside’. Like the walk that inspired it, the book is bookended by historical events from the death of Queen Elizabeth to the Restoration. However, as with the walk, it necessarily takes the reader back into the medieval past and forward into the early eighteenth century. As a fellow guide noted, context is important. Similarly, although the book is about London, parts of it step out of London entirely. Namely the chapter describing the evolution of the Trained Bands, the part-time militia, into the London Regiments. After the battles of Edgehill and Turnham Green in the autumn of 1642, London was secured for parliament, politically and militarily. The London Regiments were free to go on campaign. Which they did, to good effect, marching to relieve the Siege of Gloucester in 1643 and buy the embattled parliamentarians a vital breathing space. The royalists were pressing hard and it’s no exaggeration to say the London Regiments saved the day and the parliamentarian war effort.

Returning to London, there was so many stories to tell. The amazing construction of the Lines of Communication, London’s defences, now long dismantled and confined to the history books. The stories of the various City Livery Companies who housed the parliamentarian committees: The Goldsmiths Committee for Compounding Delinquents for instance. This term was originally applied to those who didn’t contribute to the parliamentarian coffers. Later in the war, the Committee expanded its remit and fined captured royalists with property, who ‘compounded’ for release of their estates. The money thus raised helped finance the war-effort. The Guildhall, where the annual elections to Common Council overturned a relatively pro-royalist caucus in December 1641 and voted in parliamentarians. In the wake of this Puritan revolution, it was the City of London that pressed parliament on important matters during the civil war, such as the removal of idolatrous monuments from churches and elsewhere. Possibly the most dramatic example of iconoclasm came in May 1643, when parliament ordered the dismantling of the Cheapside Cross.


Map showing the Lines of Communication, by George Vertue, 1738.

16156Writing this book was almost like learning to guide again. Every fact was checked several times over, and then rechecked. I am indebted to the curators of British History Online, who kindly gave me permission to quote from various sources, including the Calendar of State Papers, House of Commons Journal, and the House of Lords’ Journal. The City of London generously allowed me to use photos taken in and around Guildhall Yard and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries very kindly gave permission to use an amusing photo of a bust of Charles I, by a ‘No Smoking’ sign. Charles’ father James was seriously anti-smoking and hiked the tobacco duty by 1,000 percent – although he didn’t mind spending the revenue! Quirky anecdotes like this are bread-and-butter for guides building a walk, but when writing a book, I had to dig a little deeper, look a little further, and work a lot harder. Two or three nights and Saturday in the library, quickly morphed into three to four nights, plus Saturday and Sunday. Fifty thousand words, over eight chapters in nine months. However, with a more than a little help from many friends I got there. The Civil War in London: Voices from the City is published by Pen and Sword.

Robin Rowles is a qualified City of London guide lecturer and a long-standing member of London Historians. 


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Review: 55 Days, Hampstead Theatre.

55 days hamsptead theatreThe 55 days are those between the establishment of the Rump Parliament and the regicide of Charles I on 30 January 1649. As far as I can tell, apart from the meeting between Cromwell and Charles I on the eve of his trial (acknowledged as being fictitious in the programme), most of the history stacks up, so metaphorical liberties have not been taken. Not only that, the production deftly explains the issues and the dilemmas facing the king’s enemies without being overtly didactic or preachy.  Hence, if you’re a bit vague on how it was we came to overthrow and execute our king, this is a very entertaining way to find out.

The play takes a conventional pro-Parliament position, and Cromwell’s part is extremely sympathetic. But unless you’re a fervent Charles-as-martyr advocate, it’s not much the worse for that. The leading players in the drama are also characterised conventionally. And they’ve been cleverly chosen in a way so as to demonstrate the various positions and potential courses of actions by Parliamentary factions. Charles Stuart the king is narrow-minded, aloof, sneaky, intransigent. John Lilburne is a dyed-in-the-wool, goggle-eyed, dangerous extremist; Thomas Fairfax is avuncular, kindly and moderate. And Cromwell, as mentioned, is portrayed as a sort of wise super-hero with the world on his shoulders and everybody else’s problems to solve. This is the only real criticism I have. As we know, like most of his colleagues, he was no democrat, but this was only hinted at. His faults need to be writ large too in order to counterbalance Charles, to prevent him descending into panto-villainy. But on the plus side, Cromwell was shown not to be a prig either which, as far as I know, has substance.

The second half of the production is mainly dedicated to the trial. 18 “commissioners” cobbled together to stand judgement over the king. Illegally. And yes, the play did acknowledge this quite clearly, mainly from the lips of the king himself. Charles is somewhat transformed from the delusional, dismissive dandy of Act 1 into an imperious, courtroom tough and not entirely without a case, a case he presented strongly, putting his enemies into a bit of a lather, albeit temporarily. Drama, eh.

55 days hampstead theatre

Mark Gatiss as Charles I

All the actors are superb and totally believable. I especially like the way Mark Gatiss plays Charles with a slight Scottish burr.

The auditorium for this production is configured so the stage is in the middle with seating either side. This works well, drawing the audience into the action. Costumes and props are firmly mid-20th Century. The Parliamentarians when on military duty are dressed in IRA chic, but when in civvies they don demob suits and sober ties, so the dull Puritan look is fully maintained. The exception to all of this is Charles Stuart himself, who throughout is dressed in contemporary kingly robes. It would have been nice to have seen him in a fabulous hat with an impossibly huge plume, but all the action is indoors. This mis-match of eras doesn’t jar at all, in fact it helps to emphasise the contrast between the two sides, the two positions, the fact that Parliament is the future and Absolute Monarchy is the past.

The production is pacy and highly-charged throughout. I can be a bit of a nodder-off at the theatre, but 55 Days owned my full attention from start to finish. Excellent.

55 Days is written by Howard Brenton and directed by Howard Davies. It runs from today until 24 November, that is to say not for terribly long, do don’t miss out.  More info and booking here.

55 Days Hampstead Theatre

Mark Gatiss (Charles Stuart) and Douglas Henshall (Oliver Cromwell) at rehearsal. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

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oliver cromwellOn the 20th April 1653, Cromwell dismissed the Rump Parliament and locked the doors of the Commons. Before doing so, he angrily berated the MPs, marching up and down the chamber in a bate. The apocryphal report of his diatribe, written some good 70 years later, goes like this:

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt for all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage… Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your god; which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes?… Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; ye were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, and are yourselves gone… In the name of God, go!

And there are variations of the same. But we love it because it is such a great piece of rhetoric: powerful, insulting and amusing. More than this, one can apply it to the Commons at virtually any point in history since.

There is a good article on the accuracy of both the quote and accounts of the dissolution here.

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