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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

“Cromwell: The Lord Protector”, by Antonia Fraser

797 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0394470344

Cromwell: The Lord Protector by Antonia Fraser is a diligent and conscientious look at the life of Oliver Cromwell from his modest beginnings as a small landowner, his spiritual evolution into a devout (but self-righteous) Puritan, to his election to the English parliament, followed by his role as the chief protagonist in the English civil war in the 1640’s which culminated in the beheading of Charles I (1649). The events leading up to the dismissal of the Rump Parliament in 1652 and the establishment of the protectorate (essentially, Cromwell’s dictatorship) are also narrated ably. All of the important battles (Edgehill, Naseby, etc.) are sketched in detail.

Antonia Fraser does a pretty good job collating and narrating all the major events in Cromwell’s life, but what's missing from this book is life. It is an OK history but a fairly mediocre biography of one of the most important and transformative personalities ever to rule Britain. For instance, Cromwell is widely regarded as the man who galvanized the energies of 17th Century England (by getting rid of an effete monarch and massively building up the navy) and for effectively laying down the foundations of the subsequent British Empire, but this book gives the reader very little sense of that. Considering that Cromwell’s contemporaries included figures like Cardinal Mazarin, Milton, William Harvey, Francis Bacon, and the birth of Newton, Fraser does a fairly poor job of giving us a “feel” for the post-Elizabethan England and the dynamic energy that must have characterized it.

Cromwell is perhaps the single most controversial figure in English history. Only King John and Richard III have attracted as much venom as he has, and there are still people alive today who hate him. Naturally, the truth is complicated, and Fraser lays out a good deal of detail in support of her case, which is that Cromwell was much maligned and was, on the whole, a good and religious man trying hard to do what he thought was right. However, a good biography is more than just a day-to-day narrative of the subject’s life, and this is quite a leaden and turgid book. I finished it more out of a sense of obligation than pure reading pleasure.

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