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Cromwell Day Service

6th September 2016

Jonathan Djanogly addresses members of the Cromwell Association on 3rd September to commemorate Oliver Cromwell.


For most British people, Oliver Cromwell would probably be viewed in rather detached and polarised terms. The backbone of the Parliamentary revolution or the great dictator; Lord Protector or Regicide, a victorious military commander or suppressor of the Irish and Scots, the standard bearer for Puritanism or religious fanatic and so forth.

However in Huntingdon, which like Cromwell I have had the honour to represent in Parliament, we have a more personal and local view of the man. He was born there, lived there, came from one of the wealthiest local families and became its MP. After falling on hard times and falling out with the local government of Huntingdon he moved to St. Ives, also in my constituency. It is there that he is supposed to have found faith, lost and gained his fortune, farmed the land and engaged with local issues. It is of course in St. Ives where his rather grand statue now resides.

Accordingly, whilst many see him as a man risen from obscurity, this is not how Cromwell is seen locally; where it is generally understood that he came from landed gentry stock and that his uncle had the huge house (Hinchingbrooke) opposite the train station. In effect in Huntingdonshire he is key to the local historical fabric.

So given all of that you will understand my and local people’s great concern when the County Council decided they no longer wished to fund the Cromwell museum and it came under risk of closure. A protest campaign turned into something very much more positive when the County Council agreed to help in the formation of a new Trust. To their credit, the County Council then gave a significant amount of assistance and project leadership in order to save the museum. To cut a long story short, the building is being transferred to the Huntingdon Town Council and the museum shall be owned and run by the new Trust. I have to say that I had no idea how complicated it was to run a museum.

But we are now up and running having gathered a good and experienced team of trustees, of which I am one, with our able chairman, Peter Johnson and our new curator, Corinne Galloway. We have received great support from Huntingdon Town Council and no less than seventy five volunteer helpers who came forward. We also have a Friends group and individual donors and other help, not least from the Cromwell Association, for which I thank you.

Of course this is only the start of the challenge, both in terms of securing our running costs, raising money to upgrade the quality of the museum and better integrating the Cromwell museum experience with other civil war history offerings in and around the Town. But a good start has been made.

My decision as to what to speak about, followed a recent Commons debate on devolution proposals in the East of England. One of my colleagues suggested that no such proposals had been tried since Boudicca! Which got me thinking along the lines of: But surely there was devolution during the English Civil War; namely the Eastern Association? And so started some very interesting research which had me concluding that almost any debate on Eastern devolution that we are having now, to a greater or lesser extent already happened in the 17th Century. Whether we have learnt the lessons of history however is another matter. Let me elaborate.

My first observation is that the devolution argument in the 17th Century was, as it is now, a product of political fashion and cycles. Even looking at the last thirty years, we have seen Conservative centralisation of power in Whitehall in the 1980s based on fear of left wing councils, followed by Labour’s devolving of regional government and regional spatial strategy proposals followed by their later abolition by the Coalition Government.

Now, we are moving back to devolution with so called Combined Authorities or “regional power houses”; although the latest position in the East is that Peterborough and Cambridgeshire do not wish to join with Norfolk and Suffolk. So we are likely to have two mini powerhouses, with debates still hotly going on as to how these new entities should be governed, how they should be staffed, to whom they should be accountable, what powers they should have from Westminster and where the tax to pay for them should be raised. Now this should all sound fairly familiar to you students and masters of 17th Century English history because all of these questions were of course considered during the Civil War.

The Eastern Association was formed following a parliamentary led review in 1642. It went through a three year process of initial weak devolution based around participating counties’ consent, through to receiving stronger tax raising powers and leadership in the form of the Earl of Manchester (dare I say mayoral-like powers, although Manchester was unelected). The Association then went back to being a weak body as Parliament increasingly took control at the time of Manchester’s political demise and the formation of the New Model Army.

Of course the backdrop then was somewhat different to now. The primary purpose of the Eastern Association was to organise and pay for an army. Furthermore, rebelling against the king and facing being hung, drawn and quartered for one’s principles was rather different than, say being confused nowadays as to which local authority to call up when one’s wheelie bin remains uncollected.

Nonetheless the process of bringing the counties together in the 17th Century was probably more complicated then, than it is now. This was not least because the counties would have been so much more parochial in their nature and effectively controlled by local gentry and nobles, who were wary of both outsiders and also excessive Westminster intrusion. Having said that research does suggest that people also took a keen interest in and were willing to play their part in national affairs. However, it was ultimately the expediency and innovation that war brings that forced required change. Although, even then, it was not a smooth process and the achievement of bringing together the seven counties must count as one of the great successes of the Parliamentary cause.

For a start, not all of the counties’ gentry or Lord Lieutenants were keen on working together, let alone against the king.

Foot dragging was particularly seen in Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, where residual support for the king, together with the opposition of Bishop Wren and Cambridge University held strong. But these countries were also on the front line and more open to attack by vengeful Royalist forces. Indeed Huntingdonshire did not join the Association until April 1643.

Importantly, then as now, the impetus for devolution did not arise locally, but was planned in Westminster and set up by Parliamentary ordinance. Local players in the 17th Century originally saw Norfolk and Suffolk and Essex joining together, whilst Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire considered joining the South Midlands counties.

Whilst in modern times, the mechanism for devolution has been a mix of cajoling by Lord Heseltine and financial sweeteners offered by the Treasury, methods in the Civil War were rather more brutal. An oath of Association was demanded from all county residents – which gave people the uncomfortable decision of calling for Parliament or King. Compliance was enforced by London troops in Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire as it was by Cromwell in March 1643 in Norfolk and Suffolk.

In the early days of the Association, the desire to cooperate was driven locally by general agreement of the local notables, it’s Committee was headquartered in Cambridge and the counties did more or less help each other out. So, for instance, money raised for the fortification of Cambridge also paid for the protection of Huntingdonshire bridges. The Commissioners, of whom Cromwell was one, also shared values and were motivated by their religious faith. The squabbling between Calvinist Covenanters and Independent Puritans didn’t come to a head at this time. Furthermore, there was a general view that they supported the King, but that he had to be put back on the right track.

For all of the constitutional changes during its life and its many weaknesses, the unity and efficiency of the Eastern Association played a decisive role in its effectiveness. Accordingly, the army of the Association was generally funded more efficiently than those of the King, whose troops would be more likely to live off the land.

The unity of the Association meant also that most of its counties were kept out of the war, which provided a stable tax base, opportunities for free trade with the Continent and better troop recruitment facilities. It also made it easier to tax or plunder, depending on your view, royalist families such as those in Lincolnshire, whose “malignants” paid over the most money raised by the Association.

The Eastern Association itself, in its early days, was more of a strategic talking shop than a power base. Interestingly, in the modern proposals the idea is that in the East of England mayors will be directly elected, but will not have much power. Similar, as with the Eastern Association, it is planned for the new mayor today to be a convenor of representatives appointed by the constituent counties. Ultimately, in the 17th Century this convenor role did not work, leading to the Committee of the Association having power increasingly centralised within it and with Manchester standing behind it effectively calling the shots. Importantly; this included tax raising powers, which originally were, as is the proposal for the Combined Authorities now, left in the hands of the individual counties. The first modern powerhouse was recently created in Manchester and it seems as if history is now repeating itself as there are already proposals to devolve more power from Whitehall to Manchester. Will the new proposed Mayors in the East likewise soon have to ask for more powers or look again at expanding the size of their Combined Authorities? The lesson of the 17th Century would indicate yes.

Following the threat of Newcastle’s army from the North and the subsequent legislative strengthening of the Eastern Association in the summer of 1643, each county sent two paid commissioners to its Cambridge Committee. Furthermore, powers were devolved to levy troops and raise taxes centrally by the central Eastern Association Committee rather than by county. However, even with these new powers, the Eastern Association still struggled to pay for its army which was increasingly being requested to fight out of the Eastern area. Many consider that the glue that held the Association together was the personality of the Earl of Manchester. He based himself in Cambridge, but was also quick to support the Association cause in Westminster when necessary.

Perhaps the lesson here is that the personality and ability of the new current proposed Combined Authority mayors will be as great an ingredient for the success of modern devolution as will be the level of powers passed down from Whitehall. The Boris factor, if you like.

By the end of 1644, the Eastern Association revenues were 50 percent too little to support its army; through a mixture of corruption, lower reserves and lack of powers to broaden the tax base. At the same time, and for a variety of reasons, the key local motivator the Earl of Manchester fell out of favour. At this point the Commons reviewed the Association structure once more.

The key problem was that whatever devolved powers were put in place, the main ongoing concern of the counties and of the Cambridge Committee was the protection of the counties and, at best, the Association area as a whole. Rather than participating in battles outside of the Eastern Association area. The best modern equivalent I can think of were the old Regional Development Agencies insistence on opening their own offices in places like Beijing or Brussels, and this leading to diluting the ability of Westminster to sell UK plc as a whole. The problem in 1644 for Westminster was that having the best Parliamentary troops protecting their own homes, from say marauding Newark Royalists, was never going to win the war. The defensive advantages of the Eastern Association no longer sat well with Parliament’s wish to develop an offensive capability. So the wheel of devolution turned and power was recentralised in Westminster, paving the way for the formation of the national New Model Army. Naturally, the Eastern Association didn’t like this and petitioned against it. However, it is interesting to note that by the time the petition was heard in Parliament, three of the best infantry regiments of the Eastern Association had been merged into the New Model Army.

The lesson then as now is clear, whatever devolution may happen, when those in Westminster see differently from the devolved area it is Parliament who will ultimately call the shots. Our new “power house” mayors take note. This is even more marked by the fact that in 1645, the by then powerless counties voted to disband the Eastern Association, but were stopped by the Commons, who wanted it to stay to organise local defence.

And to be fair this it did; at Naseby the New Model Army presented 13,000 troops to the King’s 8,000. But this overlooks the Eastern Association still having a further 15,000 troops in reserve. Indeed in August 1645, with the New Model Army in the West, it was this reserve that chased the King out of the East.

Indeed, I would suggest that the greatest threat to the Eastern Association was not at any point the King, but rather Parliament’s centralisation proposals. But what I think to be very impressive was how, ultimately, Parliament and particularly the Commons were able to allocate the available resources according to democratic principles. Arguments raged in Westminster, for instance, as to whether money should go to the Earl of Manchester or Essex’s armies or more to the Eastern Association than other Associations. These involved lobbying and hard fought debates, but also gave the Parliamentary side a strength and depth of analysis based on democratic principles that was never present on the Royalist side.

Indeed, these processes are essentially the ones that still serve us today and certainly form the basis for the devolution proposals that we are now once again considering.

Jonathan Djanogly MP

Photo: Jonathan Djanogly with Prof. Peter Gaunt, President of the Cromwell Association

Jonathan Djanogly with Prof. Peter Gaunt, President of the Cromwell Association

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