Oliver Who?

Apparently there was an ‘American vs British’ hashtag on Twitter recently. I missed the ‘debate’ itself – too many things to do, such as having a life – but according to a summary that I came across, this developed along depressingly predictable lines (guns! teeth! healthcare!). Fortunately, though, there do seem to have been a few vaguely historical contributions, such as those involving throwing tea into harbours and turning up late for wars, but I particularly liked the one from a Brit who observed that her house was significantly older than the USA. True, this is a claim that many others on this side of the pond could make; although our house is no older than the mid-20th century, the church up the road was there, pretty much exactly as it is now, long before Christopher Columbus was born. Now, a transatlantic Twitter hashtag spat isn’t exactly the best place to find penetrating analysis and subtle reflection. For example, it occurred to me that British pride in the length of our history is often matched by a casual, even dismissive, attitude to it which isn’t necessarily the case in the States. It might be too simplistic to say that having less history actually makes Americans venerate it more, and be more knowledgeable about it, but let me present you with a hypothesis. Let’s say it was suddenly announced that the museum to Abraham Lincoln in his home town of Springfield, Illinois, was to be closed by budget cuts. Maybe my friends in the States will correct me if I’m exaggerating here, but I imagine that this would be front page news across the entire country, would dominate all the TV networks at the top of the hour, would trigger countless earnest broadcasts and petitions from Hollywood celebs, and might even culminate in debates and votes in Congress.

Contrast that with the recent announcement that the museum to Oliver Cromwell – arguably, the nearest equivalent to Lincoln in British history – in his home town of Huntingdon is to close by 2018 unless Cambridgeshire County Council can offload it on to some other organisation. Faced with needing to make cuts of £149 million over five years, the council has evidently decided that the museum is an obvious target for savings. After all, its running costs are a massive £30,000 a year –

Yes, that’s right. £30,000. £149 million. You do the math, as the saying goes. So we had the usual spectacle of po-faced nonentities being placed in front of the local TV cameras to trot out the usual meaningless platitudes about ‘difficult choices’ and ‘protecting front line services’, as if there is a direct equivalence between, say, a day care centre and a museum, especially one dedicated to the man who is probably the most important figure ever born in the area, and who was once voted the tenth greatest Briton of all time. I’ll return to that point about equivalence later.

Note, though: I specified ‘local’ TV cameras. To the best of my knowledge, there’s been no coverage of this on national TV at all, although I’d be delighted if somebody would correct me. A quick scan of the websites of three broadsheets, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Independent, shows that none of them have deigned even to mention it. No questions have been asked in Parliament, despite the fact that a very large statue of Oliver Cromwell stands proudly outside it – but then, every single MP for Cambridgeshire belongs to the government that imposed the cuts on the county in the first place. And at the end of the day, as far as county councillors and MPs of all political hues are concerned, there are, sadly, hardly any votes in history and heritage.

I have a soft spot for the Cromwell Museum, partly because it featured in the sordid saga of my memorable field trip to Naseby, partly because it’s housed in the former grammar school building where Samuel Pepys, too, went to school, and as many of you know, Pepys has dominated many aspects of my professional life for the past thirty years. Perhaps all will be well, and another organisation will ultimately come forward to run the museum; but that’s not entirely the point. It’s curious, for example, that both the current and historic royal palaces are promoted as national treasures, but the one, very small, relatively inexpensive, building dedicated to the first non-royal to be head of state in the British Isles is perceived as a purely local attraction, and is evidently regarded by some on Cambridgeshire County Council as insignificant and dispensable, rather than something that should be a sacrosanct flagship for the county’s heritage. Perhaps some of those responsible for this decision are genuinely unaware of Cromwell’s importance; the seventeenth century is often shamefully neglected in British schools, so it’s not inconceivable that there are people working in local government who actually have little idea of who he was (or else think that he might be the central character of some book by Hilary somebody). So to be clear: as well as being the first commoner to be head of state, Oliver Cromwell introduced a measure of religious toleration, for debatably the first time in British history. He had the Jews re-admitted to England. The very fact that his statue stands outside Parliament indicates that, for all his divisiveness (for example, his role in the execution of King Charles I and his campaigns in Ireland*), he played a key role in the process that gradually established parliamentary sovereignty. Thus closing the only museum dedicated to him is not, and never will be, exactly equivalent to closing down a day centre, withdrawing a grant to an avant-garde theatre group, or even closing museums dedicated to, say, clothing or maritime history, to give but two examples from other parts of the country. Unfortunately, though, we live in an age where knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing seems to be regarded as good and prudent government, not a gross dereliction of what government should be about.

A campaign has been set up to save the museum, and this has established a website, an e-petition and a Twitter account. But at the time of writing, the latter has only 116 followers, and the petition (strictly speaking, two petitions) urgently needs more signatures. So I’ll conclude this part of the post by making a plea to all readers of this blog to sign up, to follow the Twitter account, and to ensure that the Cromwell Museum survives.


* Cromwell’s divisiveness is also apparent in naval history. On two occasions in 1911-12, the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, attempted to allocate the name Oliver Cromwell to a new battleship, but on both occasions, King George V rejected it, apparently unwillingly to glorify the man behind the execution of one of his predecessors – although to be fair to the king, he also seems to have been concerned about possible negative reactions in Ireland, which was then pushing hard for Home Rule. A document at the National Archives, Kew (ADM116/1113) shows that in 1911, the four names originally put forward for the new battleships of that year’s programme were Warspite, Hero, Marlborough and Repulse. In his own hand, Churchill wrote Oliver Cromwell into the margin, replacing Repulse. But the final note at the end of the document states that in March 1912, the King approved the names Iron Duke, Benbow, Marlborough and Delhi, although in the event, the latter was finally named Emperor of India. So it’s clear that George V didn’t only reject Oliver Cromwell, he also rejected Warspite and Repulse, although these two names were used soon afterwards, and Hero, which wasn’t. The initial selection of Hero, and its subsequent rejection, raises questions that are just as intriguing as those surrounding the quarrel over Oliver Cromwell. By 1911, the name was best known for its appearance in the branding of John Player cigarettes (as Antoine Vanner’s excellent blog demonstrates), so was the original choice an attempt by the Admiralty to jump on this marketing bandwagon, and the rejection due to concerns about the association with one particular brand? Whatever the reason, the name of HMS Hero was discarded for over twenty years, and then only used for a destroyer; but it was also used as the name of the fictional Leander-class frigate in the BBC TV series Warship, which was some of my favourite viewing in the 1970s. Eventually, though, the navy did get a HMS Cromwell, a destroyer – for precisely one month in 1946, before she was sold to the Norwegian Navy.


  1. Yes re great parts and leading the winning side; also the whole thing about becoming head of state from humble(ish) beginnings, plus arguably the introduction of important freedoms despite each’s personal doubts about some aspects of them.


  2. Grant says:

    As I’ve said on the Wolfe, our national mixed feelings towards Cromwell fascinates me. Although ships may have been denied the Cromwell name, he did get a World War 2 cruiser tank- assuming of course that it wasn’t named after Thomas.

    The throw away line that he is “the nearest equivalent to Lincoln in British history” is an intriguing one though. Although I don’t disagree, I wonder why? Because he was a man of great parts? Because he led the winning side in a civil war? Arguably the most significant figure in each nation’s history?

    I spent a year in the States, and was impressed at the respect they paid to their history, although I was amused at their need for things to be the “oldest”, even if this required some obscure qualifications. An attraction was advertised as “the third oldest, continuously occupied Governor’s residence in the USA”, whilst they insisted that the (wonderful) USS Constitution is “the oldest, continuously commissioned warship afloat”, the Naval guide adding, rather sulkily, that the Victory might be older, but she was in dry dock.

    I will register my protest about the museum.


%d bloggers like this: