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Paul Lay

Paul Lay: In Conversation

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today and a founder of BBC History Magazine. He is also a specialist in early modern history and, in 2020, published a book on the Cromwellian ProtectorateThe position or period of office of a Protector, especially that of Oliver and Richard Cromwell in England.The position or period of office of a Protector, especially that of Oliver and Richard Cromwell in England. The position or period of office of a Protector, especially that of Oliver and Richard Cromwell in England. The position or period of office of a Protector, especially that of Oliver and Richard Cromwell in England. ProvidenceGod or another spiritual entity's protective care and direction.God or another spiritual entity's protective care and direction.God or another spiritual entity's protective care and direction.God or another spiritual entity's protective care and direction. Lost. We caught up with him at the Chalke Valley History Festival to talk discuss it.

You are here at Chalke Valley today talking about your new book, Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell's Protectorate. Can you summarize it?

It's a book born of frustration, I suppose, because so few know anything about this period, which is a great surprise. It's so dramatic: there are so many extraordinary characters; there are big events - there's a gunpowder plot, assassinations, wars, conquests. And, above all, there's an attempt by the Cromwellian state to take on the Spanish in the New World, which I argue is a turning point for the regime that ultimately ends in their failing. Of all the periods of British history, over the last hundred years this is probably the period that's had the best sustained level of scholarship, and yet very little of it has made it to the public sphere: it's just something that people don't know anything about. The civil wars are quite neglected, but people know they happened, whereas I think most people believe the Protectorate to be a time when everything is banned: puritans are in the ascendant and nothing happens. That's absolutely not true, because so much happens in the decade between Charles I's execution in 1649 and the restorationThe restoration of the monarchy and the return to a pre-civil war form of government in 1660, following the collapse of the Protectorate.The restorationThe restoration of the monarchy and the return to a pre-civil war form of government in 1660, following the collapse of the Protectorate. of the monarchyThe king/queen and royal family of a country, or a form of government with a king/queen at the head. and the return to a pre-civil war form of government in 1660, following the collapse of the Protectorate. The restorationThe restoration of the monarchy and the return to a pre-civil war form of government in 1660, following the collapse of the Protectorate. of the monarchyThe king/queen and royal family of a country, or a form of government with a king/queen at the head. and the return to a pre-civil war form of government in 1660, following the collapse of the Protectorate. The restorationThe restoration of the monarchy and the return to a pre-civil war form of government in 1660, following the collapse of the Protectorate. of the monarchyThe king/queen and royal family of a country, or a form of government with a king/queen at the head. and the return to a pre-civil war form of government in 1660, following the collapse of the Protectorate. of the Stuart monarchyThe king/queen and royal family of a country, or a form of government with a king/queen at the head. in 1660. It's so dramatic and it's so important for the future of Britain, of Britain and Ireland, for Europe and for global politics, because it sees the birth of the British Empire.

Is that what draws you to the period?

Well, that's one reason I wrote the book, but that wasn't what attracted me initially. I was very lucky when I was at university that I had so many excellent teachers and scholars who concentrated on the period. Barry Coward was one, who was Oliver Cromwell's biographer, among other things. There was also Michael Hunter, who's a brilliant historian of that period, Vanessa Harding, Patrick Little, all kinds of people. And so I concentrated on the early modern.

I also became interested in the ideas propounded in this period, which are based on Venetian republicanism. The idea of Venice as the most perfectly run society on earth was something that appealed to classical republicans like John Milton, and particularly to James Harrington, who wrote Oceana (an advice book for Cromwell that laid out a form of governance based upon the Venetian Republic).More infoJohn Milton was an English poet and political polemicist, best known for his poem Paradise Lost. He was a strong supporter of the freedom of speech and the limitation of monarchical powers, and worked for the Cromwellian regime. James Harrington was an intellectual inspired by the political ideas behind ancient constitutions. However, he was also an attendant on Charles I during the king's captivity in 1647, and became personally attached to him. Venice had an elected monarchA king, queen, or emperorA king, queen, or emperorA king, queen, or emperorA king, queen, or emperor, the doge, and various checks and balances. To a certain extent this was something that John Lambert had tried to introduce with the Instrument of GovernmentThis was the first detailed written constitution adopted by the English state. It provided a legal basis for the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the Major Generals between 1653 and 1657.This was the first detailed written constitutionA body of fundamental principles and established precedents by which a state governs itself; or the composition of something. adopted by the English state. It provided a legal basis for the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the Major Generals between 1653 and 1657. This was the first detailed written constitutionA body of fundamental principles and established precedents by which a state governs itself; or the composition of something. adopted by the English state. It provided a legal basis for the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the Major Generals between 1653 and 1657. This was the first detailed written constitutionA body of fundamental principles and established precedents by which a state governs itself; or the composition of something. adopted by the English state. It provided a legal basis for the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the Major Generals between 1653 and 1657. , and which later underpinned the Humble Petition and AdviceThis was a constitutional document that replaced the Instrument of Government, was written by parliamentarians rather than army officers, and that brought the constitution slightly closer to a pre-civil wars state. It ran from 1657 until the end of the Interregnum.This was a constitutional document that replaced the Instrument of Government, was written by parliamentariansPeople supporting parliament in the civil wars; or members of parliament, particularly those who are knowledgeable about politics. rather than army officers, and that brought the constitution slightly closer to a pre-civil wars state. It ran from 1657 until the end of the Interregnum. This was a constitutional document that replaced the Instrument of Government, was written by parliamentariansPeople supporting parliament in the civil wars; or members of parliament, particularly those who are knowledgeable about politics. rather than army officers, and that brought the constitution slightly closer to a pre-civil wars state. It ran from 1657 until the end of the Interregnum. This was a constitutional document that replaced the Instrument of Government, was written by parliamentariansPeople supporting parliament in the civil wars; or members of parliament, particularly those who are knowledgeable about politics. rather than army officers, and that brought the constitution slightly closer to a pre-civil wars state. It ran from 1657 until the end of the Interregnum. .More infoJohn Lambert was a talented soldier who became one of the leading men, and one of the ruling Major-Generals, during the Protectorate.

It was never really followed through because they couldn't decide who would be the leader: whether it should be a king on a hereditary principle, a king who was elected, a protector who was hereditary, or a protector who was elected. Those were the four choices, and by the time Cromwell died in 1658, the decision hadn't been taken. So, what you actually ended up with was a hereditary protector. Whether that was Cromwell's wish or not, no one will ever know, because it was communicated to the council by John Thurloe, his spymaster. It may have been Thurloe's wish; it may have been Cromwell's wish. It may have been Thurloe thinking that it was the council's wish. Who knows? But it meant that the settlement was unfulfilled, there was no conclusion regarding the succession.

In terms of security, people didn't want to go back to a faction-ridden polity with lots of different ideas, whether religious or political, in case it descended into civil war again. Security is extremely important: even in the twenty-first century when we look at the pandemic, people will give up a lot of liberty for security. That's even more the case in the mid-seventeenth century, after the experiences that people had gone through. It's no coincidence that this is also the time in which Thomas Hobbes, the great political philosopher, wrote LeviathanA ground-breaking book, written by Thomas Hobbes and published in 1651. In it he argues for a reciprocal relationship between obedience (from the people) and protection (by the state), so this work is considered one of the first works of social contract theory. With Hobbes arguing from this…A ground-breaking book, written by Thomas Hobbes and published in 1651. In it he argues for a reciprocal relationship between obedience (from the people) and protection (by the state), so this work is considered one of the first works of social contract theory. With Hobbes arguing from this…A ground-breaking book, written by Thomas Hobbes and published in 1651. In it he argues for a reciprocal relationship between obedience (from the people) and protection (by the state), so this work is considered one of the first works of social contract theory. With Hobbes arguing from this…A ground-breaking book, written by Thomas Hobbes and published in 1651. In it he argues for a reciprocal relationship between obedience (from the people) and protection (by the state), so this work is considered one of the first works of social contract theory. With Hobbes arguing from this…. He was a person who had come to terms with the regime even though he was by disposition a monarchist.

The solution to all of this was to revert to the ancient constitutionA body of fundamental principles and established precedents by which a state governs itself; or the composition of something. , the monarchy with Lords and Commons. But of course, it never reverted to exactly the same thing. I think this is why when people talk about a British revolution, which is a term that is often used about this period, there's always a contradiction there. The question to ask is whether it's a revolution in terms of a rupture, which is the way we tend to think of revolutions, or whether it's more of a revolution as in the turning of the wheel. Because the state never returns to exactly the same thing: there's never a Personal RuleGenerally referring to Charles I's rule without parliament between 1629 and 1640, although it can be extended to any considerable length of rule under prerogative and without recourse to parliament.Generally referring to Charles I's rule without parliament between 1629 and 1640, although it can be extended to any considerable length of rule under prerogativeA right or privilege exclusive to a particular person or group. and without recourse to parliament. Generally referring to Charles I's rule without parliament between 1629 and 1640, although it can be extended to any considerable length of rule under prerogativeA right or privilege exclusive to a particular person or group. and without recourse to parliament. Generally referring to Charles I's rule without parliament between 1629 and 1640, although it can be extended to any considerable length of rule under prerogativeA right or privilege exclusive to a particular person or group. and without recourse to parliament. again, it's impossible. Parliament from then on is in the ascendant. There's lots to be worked out – you still have the 'Glorious RevolutionNow more commonly referred to as the Williamite Revolution or the Revolution of 1688, it refers to the deposition of James II by his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, prince of Orange. This in turn led to the Bill of Rights, which limited the monarch's powers.Now more commonly referred to as the Williamite Revolution or the Revolution of 1688, it refers to the deposition of James II by his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, prince of Orange. This in turn led to the Bill of Rights, which limited the monarch's powers. Now more commonly referred to as the Williamite Revolution or the Revolution of 1688, it refers to the deposition of James II by his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, prince of Orange. This in turn led to the Bill of Rights, which limited the monarch's powers. Now more commonly referred to as the Williamite Revolution or the Revolution of 1688, it refers to the deposition of James II by his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, prince of Orange. This in turn led to the Bill of Rights, which limited the monarch's powers. ' to come in the late-seventeenth century, you still have the Hanoverian SettlementThe settlement of the crown on Princess Sophia, Electress of Hanover (James I's granddaughter) and her heirs, which led to George I coming to the throne. It laid down the conditions under which the crown could be held by a monarch and strengthened parliament's power.The settlement of the crown on Princess Sophia, Electress of Hanover (James I's granddaughter) and her heirs, which led to George I coming to the throne. It laid down the conditions under which the crown could be held by a monarch and strengthened parliament's power. The settlement of the crown on Princess Sophia, Electress of Hanover (James I's granddaughter) and her heirs, which led to George I coming to the throne. It laid down the conditions under which the crown could be held by a monarch and strengthened parliament's power. The settlement of the crown on Princess Sophia, Electress of Hanover (James I's granddaughter) and her heirs, which led to George I coming to the throne. It laid down the conditions under which the crown could be held by a monarch and strengthened parliament's power. to come – but the monarchy's never absolute again.

What about Charles II? Would you say that after the Oxford Parliament he established an autocratic, personal ruleGenerally referring to Charles I's rule without parliament between 1629 and 1640, although it can be extended to any considerable length of rule under prerogative and without recourse to parliament.Generally referring to Charles I's rule without parliament between 1629 and 1640, although it can be extended to any considerable length of rule under prerogative and without recourse to parliament. Generally referring to Charles I's rule without parliament between 1629 and 1640, although it can be extended to any considerable length of rule under prerogative and without recourse to parliament. Generally referring to Charles I's rule without parliament between 1629 and 1640, although it can be extended to any considerable length of rule under prerogative and without recourse to parliament. ?

I think Charles II realized that he had to be quite forgiving of those who had opposed his father. Although there was the exclusion of regicides from the Act of Indemnity and OblivionThis Act of 1660 ensured that no-one - aside from some very specific exceptions (like the people who had been involved in the trial and execution of Charles I) - would be punished by the Restoration government for their behaviour during the civil wars.This Act of 1660 ensured that no-one - aside from some very specific exceptions (like the people who had been involved in the trial and execution of Charles I) - would be punished by the RestorationThe restoration of the monarchy and the return to a pre-civil war form of government in 1660, following the collapse of the Protectorate. government for their behaviour during the civil wars. This Act of 1660 ensured that no-one - aside from some very specific exceptions (like the people who had been involved in the trial and execution of Charles I) - would be punished by the RestorationThe restoration of the monarchy and the return to a pre-civil war form of government in 1660, following the collapse of the Protectorate. government for their behaviour during the civil wars. This Act of 1660 ensured that no-one - aside from some very specific exceptions (like the people who had been involved in the trial and execution of Charles I) - would be punished by the RestorationThe restoration of the monarchy and the return to a pre-civil war form of government in 1660, following the collapse of the Protectorate. government for their behaviour during the civil wars. , many were not executed, like John Lambert or John Milton – despite him making no attempt to recant at all. I think there was a genuine concern that the kind of conflicts that had been seen in the mid-seventeenth century could happen again. You're still working through that process, but it's very, very difficult to imagine Charles II acting in a way that would provoke it. The warning shot across the bows had been made and there was no reversion. That's not to say that monarchs wouldn’t try it. Of course, they'll make power grabs, but there was nothing like Charles I's Personal Rule.

Do you think that an English republic or some sort of protectorateThe position or period of office of a Protector, especially that of Oliver and Richard Cromwell in England.The position or period of office of a Protector, especially that of Oliver and Richard Cromwell in England. The position or period of office of a Protector, especially that of Oliver and Richard Cromwell in England. The position or period of office of a Protector, especially that of Oliver and Richard Cromwell in England. could ever have worked in the long-term?

Not really, no. The republic just doesn't last very long. The Protectorate, of course, is not a republic. This is what people get wrong about it. It's a quasi-monarchy, comparable to the Venetian settlement or something like that, and Cromwell is a quasi-monarchical figure. It could have been made to work if there had been an elected protector, perhaps with someone like John Lambert or indeed Henry Cromwell, who was a much more capable figure than his older brother, Richard.More infoRichard Cromwell was the eldest surviving son of Oliver Cromwell, and succeeded his father as protector in 1658. He 'resigned' his position on 25 May 1659.  But it never really had the backing of the wider public or the gentryThe social rung below the nobility, but including those who were landed and entitled to a coat of arms, and who could sit in the House of Commons. It typically included the locally powerful, such as knights and other important people in towns and the counties.The social rung below the nobilityThe highest hereditary stratum of the aristocracy, sitting immediately below the monarch in terms of blood and title; or the quality of being noble (virtuous, honourable, etc.) in character., but including those who were landed and entitled to a coat of arms, and who could sit in the House of Commons. It typically included the locally powerful, such as knights and other important people in towns and the counties. The social rung below the nobilityThe highest hereditary stratum of the aristocracyA generic term for the highest social class., sitting immediately below the monarch in terms of blood and title; or the quality of being noble (virtuous, honourable, etc.) in character. , but including those who were landed and entitled to a coat of arms, and who could sit in the House of Commons. It typically included the locally powerful, such as knights and other important people in towns and the counties. The social rung below the nobilityThe highest hereditary stratum of the aristocracyA generic term for the highest social class. , sitting immediately below the monarch in terms of blood and title; or the quality of being noble (virtuous, honourable, etc.) in character. , but including those who were landed and entitled to a coat of arms, and who could sit in the House of Commons. It typically included the locally powerful, such as knights and other important people in towns and the counties. , or anyone else.

To a certain extent what you could say – and I think this reflects the weakness of the early modern state – is that despite the Rule of the Major-GeneralsA 15-month period (1655-57) of direct military government, in conjunction with Oliver Cromwell, during the Protectorate. Military rule was imposed with the help of a 'decimation tax' of 10 per cent on all royalists, and the regime imposed stringent restrictions on those it considered to be enemies…A 15-month period (1655-57) of direct military government, in conjunction with Oliver Cromwell, during the Protectorate. Military rule was imposed with the help of a 'decimation tax' of 10 per cent on all royalists, and the regime imposed stringent restrictions on those it considered to be enemies…, there was no real attempt to reform the country. There were extremists among the Major-Generals like Charles Worsley, who looked after Staffordshire and Lancashire and Cheshire, who literally drove himself to an early death by his manic prosecution of these ideas. But most people were pragmatic, because on the whole the country worked, and it worked on the old inheritance. What the regime was good at was legal reform. There was a general sense that the rule of law was maintained. There was not widespread persecution of people.

In terms of religion, which was a major factor – the Thirty Years' WarA war fought primarily in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 that led to the death of about eight million people from battle, disease, and starvation. It started as a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants, but ultimately became about power in Europe.A war fought primarily in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 that led to the death of about eight million people from battle, disease, and starvation. It started as a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants, but ultimately became about power in Europe. A war fought primarily in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 that led to the death of about eight million people from battle, disease, and starvation. It started as a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants, but ultimately became about power in Europe. A war fought primarily in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 that led to the death of about eight million people from battle, disease, and starvation. It started as a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants, but ultimately became about power in Europe. had just ended – it was a very capacious religious settlement. That worried people. They liked the idea of a national church: Presbyterians liked it without bishops, Anglicans liked it with bishops. But essentially, the idea was for people to conform. It goes back to the idea that one follows the religion of the ruler. It was a very important doctrineThe set of beliefs upheld by a religion or political party.The set of beliefs upheld by a religion or political party. The set of beliefs upheld by a religion or political party. The set of beliefs upheld by a religion or political party. in the mid-seventeenth century. When you're not quite sure what the ruler's doctrine is, it’s difficult. Cromwell's an independent, he's what we might now call a CongregationalistA person who believes that a congregation, or religious community, should be completely autonomous and not be subjected to outside interference.A person who believes that a congregation, or religious community, should be completely autonomous and not be subjected to outside interference. A person who believes that a congregation, or religious community, should be completely autonomous and not be subjected to outside interference. A person who believes that a congregation, or religious community, should be completely autonomous and not be subjected to outside interference. , but he's with a group of people who have disparate religious ideas. It's that conflict between the two sides that reveals the tensions of the regime in 1657, at the end of the Rule of the Major-Generals.

The prosecution of the Quaker James Nayler reveals just how lax, actually, the religious laws are. Nayler rides through Bristol in imitation of Christ, which to most people is an act of blasphemyThe action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God or a sacred thing.The action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God or a sacred thing. The action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God or a sacred thing. The action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God or a sacred thing. . There's not much controversy about that. Unfortunately, the penalty for blaspheming, even repeatedly, is only six months in prison. This seems completely unacceptable and so parliament becomes both judge and jury of Nayler. I think Cromwell is very disturbed by this. He warns that if you don't have a rule of law, if you're just making up laws as you go, if you have retrospective laws, then there's always a possibility that you will become the victim one day. You've got to settle something on a foundation.

This is the appeal of the king, which is offered by more moderate people. It's also the impetusThe force or energy with which a body moves; or something that makes a process or activity happen or happen more quickly.The force or energy with which a body moves; or something that makes a process or activity happen or happen more quickly. The force or energy with which a body moves; or something that makes a process or activity happen or happen more quickly. The force or energy with which a body moves; or something that makes a process or activity happen or happen more quickly. behind the Humble Petition and Advice, which is the Instrument of Government amended with more restricted religious liberties. That satisfies Presbyterians to a certain extent, but annoys people like John Lambert, who essentially leaves the scene at that point. But it's essentially irreconcilable ideas between religious liberty and religious order, and that eventually is where the regime unravels.

When the crown is refused by Cromwell, the state is in a limbo constitutionally, and it's the beginning of the end. His eldest surviving son Richard is not capable: he doesn't have the support of the army, which was the foundation upon which the regime rested, and he's not schooled at all. He has very, very little experience. Henry Cromwell, his younger brother, would have been a more suitable inheritor, but Richard's claim is through hereditary succession of the protector. Henry, a much more capable figure, would have to have been elected in some way. And this is just not resolved. You find the country is falling into, again, political and religious factionalism. There's the fear that civil war will return, and so General George Monck, the head of Parliament's Scottish army, marches down to London. After that, the logical step is to recall the king, Charles II.

Cromwell himself is a very controversial figure. What is your take on him?

He's a very elusive figure and he's full of contradictions. What we know for certain is that he does believe in a very advanced form of religious liberty, which is quite unusual for the mid-seventeenth century, certainly for a head of state. His soldiering career might be overrated because, in comparison with other great British commanders like Marlborough or Wellington, he never fights overseas. The one great overseas venture during this time – although Cromwell’s not part of it – is a disaster. I think he's handicapped politically by his dependence on a providentialInvolving the protective hand of God, or divine foresight; divinely ordained.Involving the protective hand of God, or divine foresight; divinely ordained. Involving the protective hand of God, or divine foresight; divinely ordained. Involving the protective hand of God, or divine foresight; divinely ordained. worldview and God. In battle he's bold and decisive because battle is a black and white thing – we either win or we lose. Politics is much more complicated, particularly when you have sects and various people fighting with one another and you have to deal with them. He is that arbiter between the army, between parliament, between the various factions. But that's an exhausting process, and it's not one to which there's an obvious answer other than that he becomes king. He doesn't take that option, again purely for religious reasons. So that's a failing. He's incredibly indecisive as a politician, incredibly decisive as a soldier. And that's for the same reason: the providential worldview works in battle. It doesn't work in politics.

Your book looks beyond the Three KingdomsIn Britain, this refers to the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland (Wales was considered to be part of England).In Britain, this refers to the three kingdomsIn Britain, this refers to the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland (Wales was considered to be part of England). of England, Scotland and Ireland (Wales was considered to be part of England). In Britain, this refers to the three kingdomsIn Britain, this refers to the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland (Wales was considered to be part of England). of England, Scotland and Ireland (Wales was considered to be part of England). In Britain, this refers to the three kingdomsIn Britain, this refers to the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland (Wales was considered to be part of England). of England, Scotland and Ireland (Wales was considered to be part of England). , to the British AtlanticThe area around the Atlantic covered by some sort British involvement, such as the eastern coast of North America and the West Indies.The area around the Atlantic covered by some sort British involvement, such as the eastern coast of North America and the West Indies. The area around the Atlantic covered by some sort British involvement, such as the eastern coast of North America and the West Indies. The area around the Atlantic covered by some sort British involvement, such as the eastern coast of North America and the West Indies. and the Venetian system. What do you think are the benefits of taking that wider perspective?

It's a more complete picture. This has been a trend in history in general. It seems odd, given the importance of empire to British history, that we should ignore the moments when it first comes to the fore, which is just what's happening here. Britain was relatively late to the imperial venture. Spain obviously is advanced, but so is Portugal. France is around about the same level as Britain. The Dutch in many ways are ahead, not just in the Caribbean but in Asia as well. I think it's probably right to say that Britain is successful later on for the same reasons that it first develops. So, what's striking about the Western DesignThe English expedition against the Spanish-held West Indies during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1654-60.The English expedition against the Spanish-held West Indies during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1654-60. The English expedition against the Spanish-held West Indies during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1654-60. The English expedition against the Spanish-held West Indies during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1654-60. is that it's the first state-backed venture that Britain becomes involved in. Before that, it's been privateering, it's been buccaneers like Francis Drake, Walter Ralegh, John Hawkins, all those people. Even after that, it becomes essentially one of private enterprise. The East India CompanyA monopolistic company formed for the exploitation of trade with Southeast Asia and India.A monopolistic company formed for the exploitation of trade with Southeast Asia and India. A monopolistic company formed for the exploitation of trade with Southeast Asia and India. A monopolistic company formed for the exploitation of trade with Southeast Asia and India. basically runs India as its personal fiefdom. The British government is perfectly happy to take the money that comes from that because it doesn't have to do much for those rewards – it just offers chances. It's exactly the same for the Royal Africa Company, which Charles II is involved in. So, what makes Britain stronger in the eighteenth century is what makes it relatively weak in the seventeenth century, which is that it doesn't have the infrastructure that Spain, and perhaps Portugal, provides. Nor does it have the legitimacy that the papacy gives to Spain and Portugal. It's very small scale, and a matter of private enterprise. There's a strong element of contingency. Britain's success as an imperial state is not due to any forethought; it's due to the fact that the practices that they have developed are turned into something advantageous. That's the chance factor, and you see Spain's decline and Britain's ascendance.

So, what’s next?

I'm going to start a new book, which is sort of a follow up to this, on the themes I've just talked about but of a global nature. I want to have a look at the RestorationThe restoration of the monarchy and the return to a pre-civil war form of government in 1660, following the collapse of the Protectorate. from something of a global perspective, but also in terms of the power play. The thing I'm most interested, just in history in general, is power: how do you get it, how do you lose it? I always think that the best maxim for a historian is a question asked by Lenin: ‘who, whom?’ Everyone should ask it.

So, the book’s about power. What you see at the Restoration is this jockeying, where there are people who've been on the other side who want to be on this side, there are people who've been on the opposite side who want to stand by their principles. There are people who've never had any principles and they're jockeying for power. It reveals character, I think. That's the one thing that you can say about Cromwell: he's a pretty incorruptible figure. He's not a man who's particularly bothered about power.

With which historic figures would you want to have a zoom chat?

St Paul and Wagner. I quite like Hildegard of Bingen, she would be quite a good character. There's a person called Paolo Sarpi, who was a Venetian thinker, and I've always thought he was pretty wonderful. Miles Davis? And there is a very interesting actor called Gene Tierney, who would be the other person.More infoRichard Wagner was a controversial German composer. Hildegard of Bingen was a twelfth-century German Benedictine abbess, who was also a composer, writer, and philosopher, and is considered the founder of scientific natural philosophy in Germany. Paulo Sarpi was a Venetian polymathA person of wide knowledge or learning.A person of wide knowledge or learning.A person of wide knowledge or learning.A person of wide knowledge or learning. and politician living in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Miles Davis was an influential jazz musician and trumpeter, who lived in the twentieth century. Gene Tierney was renowned as a great beauty. She was a leading film and stage actress and was contemporarySomeone or something living or occurring at the same time.Someone or something living or occurring at the same time.Someone or something living or occurring at the same time.Someone or something living or occurring at the same time. with Miles Davis. I don't know what language we'd all speak. I presume we would have some sort of auto-translate!

If you could go back to any point in history, with a safety bubble, where would you go, or when?

I think it would be the fall of TenochtitlanThe fall of the Aztec capital in 1521, during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.The fall of the Aztec capital in 1521, during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. The fall of the Aztec capital in 1521, during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. The fall of the Aztec capital in 1521, during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. and the conquest of Mexico. I think that's the thing I would most like to have seen in terms of witnessing people entering what must have seemed like another planet. All that drama! If I had the money for a Netflix series, I would do the conquest of Mexico – it would make a great series.

 

You can purchase Paul Lay's book, Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell's Protectorate here, and you can find out more about History Today here.

Author Info

Debbie Kilroy

Having read history at the University of Birmingham as an undergraduate, where I won the Kenrick Prize, I worked as a trouble-shooter in the public sector until I took a career break in 2009. Thereafter, I was able to pursue my love of history and turn it into a career, founding Get History in 2014 with the aim of bringing accessible yet high quality history-telling and debate to a wide audience. Since then, I have completed a Masters in Historical Studies at the University of Oxford, from which I received a distinction and the Kellogg College Community Engagement and Impact Award. As well as continuing to write for and expand Get History, I am now a freelance writer and historian. I have worked with Histories of the Unexpected and Inside History, and my article for Parliaments, Estates and Representation won the ICHRPI Emile Lousse essay prize (2019).