Here’s the breaking news from the Cancel Culture Pandemic. Students at Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art have demanded that George Bernard Shaw’s name be removed from the school’s theatre because of his support for eugenics.
Drama students want to cancel the most influential dramatist of the 20th century? Next move? Perhaps cancelling Shakespeare because The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic.
But the myrmidons of Cancel Culture are mere milquetoasts to the English of the 17th century. After nine years of exile while Oliver Cromwell ruled the country as Lord Protector, Charles II was crowned as king in May 1660. Cromwell was not amongst the new king’s favourite people. He had engineered the beheading of his father, Charles I, in 1649 – “that man of blood”, to use Cromwell’s memorable Biblical phrasing.
So, to no one’s surprise, 12 of the commissioners who had condemned his father to death were tried, found guilty of treason, and hanged, drawn and quartered. Cromwell had died two years before. But death could not keep him from justice. Charles’s new Parliament posthumously attainted him and two others for high treason. Their bodies were exhumed and hanged in chains at Tyburn for a day. Then their heads were placed on 20-foot spikes above Westminster Hall. There Cromwell’s skull stayed for 25 years until a gust of wind broke the pole.
Posthumous execution is an extreme of cancel culture which has still to be achieved in these days of statue-toppling.
But it still didn’t succeed.
In the 19th century Cromwell was rehabilitated — which suggests that the cancelling craze may ultimately prove futile anyway. For newly ascendant liberal and progressives in Britain, he was a defender of democracy against tyranny, a military genius, and a stout representative of the greatness of the English character. As a result, in 1899 an imposing bronze statue of the Lord Protector grasping a sword and a Bible was erected outside the House of Commons.
Even at the time, the statue was controversial. The Irish hated it – and with good reason. Cromwell had invaded Ireland in 1649 and put down a rebellion there with the greatest savagery – a kind of 17th century version of ISIS. It was what later generations would call genocide.
In the siege of Drogheda, one of his most notorious engagements, he gave no quarter. In Cromwell’s own words, “In the heat of the action, I forbade them [his soldiers] to spare any that were in arms in the town … and, that night they put to the sword about two thousand men”. He burned down a church with scores of people inside.
Then, after wielding the sword, he opened the Bible. He reported back to Parliament: “I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God on these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands with so much innocent blood”.
There were more sieges and more slaughter. Ireland was left a wasteland. To be a Catholic priest was a capital offense. Tens of thousands of Irish were enslaved and sent to British colonies in the Caribbean; those who remained toiled as serfs for masters professing an alien religion who had stolen their land. It was “the most ruthless process of ethnic cleansing that there has ever been in western European history”, according to a modern historian sympathetic to Cromwell.
There is another side to this story – there always is – but on the numbers Cromwell must be the most hated man in British history.
So I was interested to see whether the Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc had called for Cromwell to be cancelled in his 1930 biography. Surely Belloc, “the most pugnaciously Roman Catholic writer of his generation”, had reason enough to call for Cromwell’s statue be tossed into the Thames. Surely, he would heap coals on the memory of a man who remorselessly slaughtered priests as idolators and devasted Catholic Ireland.
Not so. Despite his fierce Catholicism and detestation of Cromwell, Belloc did his best to see his good points and his bad points.
For Belloc, Cromwell was supremely talented as a soldier: he was energetic and courageous, a tactical genius. He was devoted husband, sincerely religious according to his own lights and tolerant to other creeds – with the exception of Papists. As a politician, he was a disaster and “died worn out, having accomplished nothing permanent, not even the destruction of the Irish people”.
As for his anti-Catholicism – and therefore his cruelty toward the Irish – he was a man of his time, a Puritan who had some – not much, but some – reason to fear a revival of the old religion in England. “When Cromwell died he died envisaging an England in peril from what he and a determining number of his fellow-Englishmen regarded as the forces of Death and Hell,” writes Belloc. “The England that was to be and of which they were themselves the creators was at stake.”
It is tempting to feel contempt for a man who hated everything you love. But Belloc’s aim was not to write “a mass of slander”, as English historians did for 150 years after Cromwell’s death, or “a mass of panegyric”, as they did for the next hundred years. “My object here,” he writes, “is to seek reality; to discover what Cromwell was within the nature of the man’s motives, the quality of his actions as witnesses to the moral truth about himself.”
This is the sort of fairness that we expect from an historian, even one as partisan as Belloc. He tries to understand his opponent’s weaknesses; he tries to learn from his failures. Cancelling a villain, as Charles II did, may even make him a hero to later generations.