Ronald Hutton: In Conversation
Professor Ronald Hutton is a world-renowned historian who has written extensively on the seventeenth century and the history of paganism. Despite being an active academic at the University of Bristol, he has found time recently to publish two new and exciting books: the first in a three-volume account of Oliver Cromwell; and Queens of the Wild, an investigation into pagan goddesses in Christian Europe. We were lucky enough to catch up with him at Chalke Valley History Festival to discuss his eclectic interests.
You're here at Chalke Valley talking about Oliver Cromwell and your new book, which is coming out in paperback very shortly. Oliver Cromwell's a tricksy character; can you explain your take on him?
He is more tricksy to me than he has been to most biographers before. The Cromwell that we've had for 150 years has been the Victorian one, unveiled by a giant called Thomas Carlyle in 1844, who took a man who was thought of as a self-serving, power-grabbing hypocrite and turned him – by publishing Cromwell's own letters and speeches – into a self-denying patriot, sincerely religious, utterly selfless and devoted to the good of England. And that suited the time: they wanted a man who had risen not exactly from the people, but from respectable medium 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. stock through his own efforts, and who was attached to dissenters (people who worshipped outside the regular Church of England). And he swept the board. That's been the Cromwell we've had ever since, largely because it's half true. The other half is that although sincerely religious and high-principled, especially devoted to liberty of conscience for extreme Protestants, he's also a self-serving, hypocritical, power-grabbing, power machine.
Why do you think he refused the crown?
Because his army didn't want him to take it. He's brought to power by a revolutionary army. And he happens, because of his talents (which are enormous), to be its commander at the time it seizes power. He doesn't really lead it to power. It decides it's seizing it. And then he goes along with that wholeheartedly. Because he's the only top general who does, he ends up being commander-in-chief.
I always find it bizarre that there's a statue of him outside parliament, bearing in mind that he shut it down. What do you think about the statue of him?
I think it's salutary for our MPs to have to walk into work each day under the eyes of somebody who chucked them out. It reminds them that they're not invincible after all; it could happen again. So, I'm quite happy with the statue being there.
Cromwell was a man committed to a programme, and the programme was that of his soldiers, and it consisted of a loosely defined Church of England with liberty of worship outside it for radicals, a reform of the law to make it faster and cheaper, and a reform of the constitutionA body of fundamental principles and established precedents by which a state governs itself; or the composition of something. to have regular elected parliaments on a reformed franchise. The problem was that almost none of the traditional ruling class were willing to have those, so the army and he could never get an elected parliament to work with them.
Of course, everybody wanted some form of parliament to work, even the Royalists. The Royalists who fought Cromwell in the civil wars weren't fighting for an absolute monarchyThe king/queen and royal family of a country, or a form of government with a king/queen at the head.; they were fighting for a constitutional monarchy with power shared between monarchA king, queen, or emperor, House of Lords, and House of Commons, which is what we've had ever since.
Do you think that the history of the seventeenth century is particularly relevant to our current time?
It's the last time that we seriously got it wrong. It's the last time that England and, in fact, the entire British Isles were seriously, lethally dysfunctional and things could have gone in a completely different direction. The direction they took is the one in which we've stayed like a train on rails ever since, so it's got to be relevant, just not particularly so. But it’s also much more than relevant: it's charismatic, it's dramatic. We have everything there: heartbreak, bloodshed, glory, honour, thrills, chills, great characters, and great clothes too.
Of course, it's not your only research interest because you've written extensively on modern paganism. How did you get into doing the history of paganism?
The same way as I did writing the history of everything else. It was an interest in my early teens and I knew that to get a job, I had to choose something and specialize in it. I chose the Tudors and Stuarts because I really liked them and because they're always on the map. And then having made a career out of them, I suddenly thought, ‘Hey, why can't I be self-indulgent and actually write about the other stuff as well?’ Nobody was in my way, so I did so. I feel a bit like the Beatles, having come up from Liverpool and made millions, feeling they now have a right to grow their hair and wear kaftans. But also, it's a wonderful balance because writing about the Tudors and Stuarts is a bit like trench warfare: it's an incredibly fought-over landscape and you're making a few inches of advance at a time, whereas the pagan stuff is like being on a prairie.
Your work has gone a long way in correcting many of the myths told in modern ‘Introduction to Paganism’ books.
I guess so. I didn't set out to correct things; I just set out to write the stuff. Most of the revisionistA person, school, or concept that rejects traditionally held beliefs; someone or something that revises old ideas. work was actually done by other people. My work has taken it on after the myths have been challenged, but it's worth remembering that I don't actually know what effect my books have. I write these things, they then leave home like children – and at least I don't have to support them once they're gone – but I really do not know what effect they have. This is especially true as people read books in such different ways. Anybody who deals with public history will know this, that books are made by audiences as much as they are by authors. So, I don't see myself as an iconoclast. I see myself as somebody trying to rebuild structures after the iconoclasm has happened. The trouble is, as you've said, there are millions of people out there whom the revisionism hadn't yet reached. Because more people read me than some of my predecessorsPeople who held a job or office before the current incumbent., I was the guy who turned up with the bad news.
For your next project you're carrying on with the Oliver Cromwell series; how are you breaking it up?
Probably into three books. Either I or Cromwell is going to die first! I hope it will be Cromwell, as he's occupying the guest bedroom! But I can't bear writing on Oliver non-stop, which is why I'm doing it in segments. It also gives me a chance to digest reactions to the first book and take them on board. The thing about books is that they are lags in time to authors. So the paperback's coming out now; the book came out last year. I wrote the darn thing two years ago in another phase of my life!
I'm popping in a pagan book between each instalment of Ollie and the one that came out last month has been looking at the question of pagan survivals in the Middle Ages. When I've got the second Cromwell on the shelves, or before then, I shall do something upon goddesses of love and war – or, if you like, goddesses of sex and violence – which is looking at a particular type of goddess found throughout the ancient world who looks after love and war at once. There are actually quite a lot of them, and some of them actually give birth to each other – so it's kind of like a divine domino effect – and I want to chart this across cultures.
Do you find that there is a lot of crossover with beliefs across cultures?
Yes, enormously. One of the most exciting things about the history of religion is this cross-pollination, and it's something a historian can map. I'm constantly in danger on this side of things, of overreaching myself. But I was in danger with Oliver in trying something big and something that's been written about for hundreds of years non-stop, and I will go on taking risks until I come a cropper. There are plenty of critics out there who will signal to me when I have, and then I'll know not to go there.
Conrad Russell said of the causes of the English civil wars that they were the traditional blood sport of historians. It’s a fantastic quote, although so over-used, but it does show how easy it is to rile people.
Yet Conrad riled fewer people than others. He also told me, ‘Always go for the ball, not for the player.’ And although I loathe sport of practically any kind – I believe that exercise makes you fat, so I try to take as little as possible – I did think it a very good rule. So, I've tried to avoid going for people. I go for myth. Also, my profession has calmed down a lot in the last thirty years through overwork, underpay and constant overproduction because of the government regulations. There's a lot less quarrelling and disputing than there used to be, we're much more of a team effort. Indeed, this may be happening across society. With rare exceptions, the hostile question has almost died out of audiences when I speak live, and that's in the academic sphere as well as the public. Whereas, when I started out in the 1970s, practically any public lecture or seminar was a kind of bearbaiting, and people would x-ray the speech for imperfections and hone in on them. That has just died, mostly spontaneously.
Do you think because the arts in general have come under attack in the universities, people band together a bit more and join forces to protect the discipline?
That's what's happened. The British, or at least the English, have never really liked intellectuals as much as other people. The Scots have always been keen on them; the Irish have their intellectuals and poets; and of course, the French, the Germans, the Italians have put them on pedestals. Whereas the English don't really like soldiers or intellectuals. I like the sturdy Anglo-Saxon egalitarianism that lies behind that, but it does carry certain penalties if you happen to be something approximating to an intellectual in England.
How has the university experience changed from a teaching perspective and how do you think the students are finding it?
There are two big changes. We've touched on the first, which is that when I joined my profession, it was rife with competitiveness, alcoholism and bitterness. No one really knew what they were doing there or what the whole thing was about. Now everybody is underpaid, overworked and exhausted, but very good to each other and in many ways much better at doing their jobs, even if the job is hell to do.
For the student, it has somersaulted. I joined an institution which sent a tiny minority of people through it, the institution being the higher educational one. The idea was that they would be a national elite, in theory chosen from open talents, in practice heavily weighted towards certain schools, who would be trained at public expense to serve the nation. And that worked until the 1990s, when we suddenly realized we were sending fewer people through universities than any nation in Europe except Portugal. Mass expansion resulted, which of course we couldn't afford. And so after twenty years of bungling, they bit the bullet and came up with student fees. Although the cap on those has produced new financial crises, at least the principle itself is sustainable. But it does turn students from an elite chosen by the nation, and paid by the nation, into customers. The whole experience now is about student satisfaction and, like the NHS, we're top heavy with administrators. As a result, in the 2000s, the tipping point came when my university, like most, was employing more administrative staff than academic staff. The universities are now modelled on their work arrangements, their outlooks designed to suit people carrying out administrative tasks and offices. They're not suited to academics. In many ways, we're becoming anomalies.
What can be done?
We've got to crack the problem of financing, because we still haven't. The student fees idea would have worked had students not been understandably reluctant to see them going up. So we've been subsisting on foreign students. Then came Covid, so the whole system is on the skids again at present. There are a number of models abroad of graduate taxes and such ploys to fund the system through the customer, but in slightly different ways. And they do work: you don't get student rebellions in places like Australia; America functions pretty well without them. So there are models: Finland does it a different way, Sweden a different way. But one of them has to be chosen and stuck to. At present, we're still wavering around between systems and not getting it right.
If you had a safety bubble, where would you go in the past?
I admit I'd like to go to early first-century Palestine and meet Jesus and find out the truth. After all, this is a figure who has changed the face of the world and whose historic reputation depends on a particular story. I'd just love to check out that story: to be seated in Cana with the apostles and chat about their beliefs and see what they're doing. That would be my number one choice, although I don't think anybody would allow me to come back, in which case I would probably just head off to Rome and try to make a career there, probably as a lawyer. You could rise in Rome doing that.
If you were to throw a dinner party for historical figures, who would you invite?
I would like to have the RomanticCharacterised by expressions of love; or an idealised way of looking at something; or someone who followed the Romantic artistic movement, that focused on individualism and emotion. poets to dinner because, boy, they could talk: they were used to making careers out of talking to people and of fraternizing. Some of their best work, and indeed novels like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, came out of dinner parties during rainstorms. I wouldn't have to introduce them to each other, as they already knew each other. They're modern enough to speak my language in every respect, and they're already fired up. And they're boozy. So that would be my ideal dinner party. I would have tempted them into all the indiscretions that haven't quite ended up in the historical record.