Cromwell and Australia

The blog was asked to write a piece for the Protector’s Pen the magazine of the Cromwell Association of which the blog is a Life Member – not of course because of any eminence in 17th Century history but because it was easier than transferring money to the UK in the decades ago when the blog joined. As few  blog readers probably read the magazine and some might be interested here ’tis…….

In 1891 when the delegates of the six Australian colonies were negotiating a constitution for the new national Australian Government there was considerable discussion about what the new nation would be called.

Candidates included The Federated States of Australia, the Australian Dominion and assorted other things. Sir Henry Parkes, the NSW Premier and a man considered ‘The Father of Federation’, suggested the term ‘Commonwealth’ derived from common weal or wealth and signifying common well-being or common good. A substantial majority supported the name although a few delegates objected because it was “suggestive of republicanism, owing to its association with the Commonwealth of England, under Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate.

Before and after that there was little discussion of Cromwell and the Civil Wars in Australia although there was intermittent interest by military scholars and odd unexplained things such as a WWI artilleryman from a NSW farming family who was named Oliver Cromwell Lowrey and a long-lived Oliver Cromwell Davis also from NSW. In 1820 a Talbot family (which had been dislodged from Malahide by the regicide Myles Corbet) member sought to recreate Malahide in Tasmania. The building burnt down in 1835 although the property continues as a sheep farm under new owners using the old Malahide name.

There were a variety of reasons for limited interest in Cromwell. British history is now not much taught in Australia. My generation saw large maps of the world covered in pink prominent in classrooms but I didn’t study British history seriously until the final year of secondary school (then it was 18th century politics) and in first year Law when there were compulsory subjects on 17th Century history and legal history. Moreover, in a largely multicultural society there are now vastly different community-forming narratives than 50 years ago – except for an interesting controversy of which more later.

Australian was also for decades a staunchly monarchist society with people standing up for God Save the Queen in cinemas. The 1999 defeat of the republican referendum has set that cause back although there is still a strong republican movement and high profile supporters in politics and elsewhere.

Significant Irish immigration to Australia (with some among the convicts transported in the 1788 First Fleet) entrenched a dark legendary view of Cromwell in much of the Australian Labor Party and among Irish descendants generally. I still experience some hostility (including being kicked once) from people of Irish heritage when Cromwell’s name is raised.

On the other hand Australian military studies, while nowadays probably more US than UK-focussed, have encompassed Cromwell’s military record. For instance in a 1968 issue of the Australian Army Journal (a publication for theoretical, historical and strategic issues) Lt-Col A.E.Limburg CVO contributed a major piece on Cromwell as General. Limburg canvassed Cromwell’s life and political career but mainly focussed on his military record. While less than enthusiastic about executing monarchs Limburg concluded: “This (the Standing Army), possibly the most remarkable one the world has seen, was chiefly made by Cromwell. He had shown how to train a troop, then a regiment, then many regiments and finally an army, and effectively to use these forces against the enemy.”

But the most sustained Australian political and media debate about Cromwell was started in 2011 as part of our ongoing culture and education wars. The Institute of Public Affairs, a right-wing think tank, published a book, The National Curriculum: A Critique , which was launched by the then Shadow Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, who warned that there will “come a day when an entire generation of Australians will never have heard of Charles I or Oliver Cromwell.” The book was designed as a repudiation of the Rudd-Gillard Government’s new National Curriculum which sought to widen the range of choices available to students and embrace both a more global view of history and one more inclusive of indigenous history and culture.

One of the National Curriculum developers, Professor Tony Taylor, made some compelling arguments for the Curriculum but sadly responded to the Civil Wars’ reference by saying “(it) is arguably just a series of confused and confusing localised squabbles that may have special significance for UK history but not for anybody else (unless they like dressing in period costume).”

Pyne, by the way, liked the Civil War allusions and in February 2012 channelled Cromwell when moving a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard shouting: “you have sat too long here for any good you have been doing”. Gillard lasted another year although there is no record of Pyne quoting or mentioning Cromwell again. At the time one of the IPA staff remarked to me that the Civil Wars would be the next big issue in education and a new Liberal Government. He doesn’t seem to have mentioned it since either.

Nevertheless Pyne, as Education Minister in the new Liberal (read Conservative) Government, did announce a review in 2014 of the Curriculum by a hand-picked panel, including a former party staffer who had attacked the curriculum because it “undervalues Western civilisation and the significance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and way of life.”

However, there are some lasting sources for the Civil Wars in Australian institutions. The National Library of Australia in Canberra has 83 books, documents and pictures relating to Cromwell and seemingly everything written by S.R. Gardiner. The University of Melbourne Baillieu Library catalogue lists works by Jane A. Mills, Peter Gaunt, Tom Reilly and Ivan Roots and there is even a solitary issue of Cromwelliana, an annual Association collection of essays which includes an excellent bibliography of recent relevant books and academic papers.

The State Library of Victoria contains the John Emmerson Collection which emphasises the reign of Charles I and the Civil War. The SLV describes it as: “The only comparable collections belong to the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian.”

The collection of rare books includes more than 5000 items bound in 3500 volumes featuring books and pamphlets from the 15th to the 18th centuries. It was amassed over 40 years by bibliophile, John McLaren Emmerson QC (1938-2014), who had careers as both an Oxford physicist and Melbourne barrister. His family donated the collection to the SLV in 2015.

The collection includes a bound volume of Mercurius Civicus London’s Intelligencer covering 1643 to 1646; a vast number of pamphlets and tracts printed and circulated during the 1640s; and, an early edition of Paradise Lost.

And as John Goldsmith, Cromwell Association Chair, reminded me recently the nearest to a direct descendant of Cromwell, and the owner of the significant Cromwell-Bush collection is an Australian citizen.