The great-great-grandnephew of ruthless Tudor pol Thomas Cromwell rose higher than any English commoner, high enough to be offered the very crown he had struck off at Whitehall. Oliver Cromwell declined it in sweeping Puritan rhetoric just as if he hadn’t spent weeks agonizing over whether to take it.
“I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again.”
The House of Stuart never could rebuild its Jericho while the Lord Protector ran the realm* — thirteen years, writes Macaulay, “during which England was, under various names and forms, really governed by the sword. Never, before that time, or since that time, was the civil power in our country subjected to military dictation.”
The English Commonwealth foundered after Cromwell’s death, however, and restoration of the monarchy — a rock, as it turned out, on which the Puritans’ bourgeois revolution could erect its colossus — came with the price of a few examples being made.
Of course, “executing” dead guys displays about as much strength as it does sanitation, and for all Charles II‘s demonstrative vengeance, the politically circumscribed throne he resumed was very far from his father’s dream of absolutism. Between the late dictator and the new king, the future belonged to the corpse clanking around on the gibbet.
When the able Charles II followed Cromwell into the great hereafter, his brother James II promptly fumbled away the crown with his anachronistic insistence on royal authority and his impolitic adherence to Catholicism.**
In the emerging England of the century to come, the divine right would depart the Stuarts for another dynasty more amenable to the rising authority of the parliament whose sword Oliver Cromwell once wielded.
* Resources on the particulars of Cromwell’s career, the English Civil War, et al, are in plentiful supply online. This BBC documentary is a very watchable overview: part I; part II; part III; part IV.
** James II remains England’s last Catholic monarch.
On this date in 1793, in a revolutionary Paris where the machinery of the Terror was clattering to life, five tumbrils bore to the guillotine twenty former Girondist ministers to the National Convention — plus the corpse of their late colleague Dufriche de Valazé, who had cheated the executioner by killing himself.
Named for the region of Aquitaine from which their leading lights hailed, the Girondists (or Girondins) had in the compressed history of the Revolution ascended from fringe democratic party to governing party even as the political facts shifted under their feet. Finding themselves the conservative party in an assembly increasingly dominated by radical Montagnards and the Paris mob, the Girondists’ tactlessness and stubborn refusal to deal with Georges Danton after his (still historically murky) involvement in the riotous slaughter of prisoners during the September Massacre eroded their position.
As the terrible year of 1793 unfolded, the Girondins discovered themselves successively overthrown, expelled from the Convention, proscribed, and hunted. Though many more — Girondists and others — were to follow in their steps, the trial of these 21 before the Revolutionary Tribunal and subsequent guillotining, the first notable mass-execution of the Revolution, raised the curtain on the Terror.
L’ultime adieu des Girondins le 31 Octobre 1793, by Paul Delaroche
[The Girondins] stood four months before their fall. During that memorable struggle, the question was whether France should be ruled by violence and blood, or by men who knew the passion for freedom. The Girondins at once raised the real issue by demanding inquiry into the massacres of September. It was a valid but a perilous weapon. There could be no doubt as to what those who had committed a thousand murders to obtain power would be capable of doing in their own defence.
Almost to the last moment Danton wished to avoid the conflict. Again and again they rejected his offers. Open war, said Vergniaud, is better than a hollow truce. Their rejection of the hand that bore the crimson stain is the cause of their ruin, but also of their renown. They were always impolitic, disunited, and undecided; but they rose, at times, to the level of honest men.
They were easily beaten and mercilessly destroyed, and no man stirred to save them. At their fall liberty perished; but it had become a feeble remnant in their hands, and a spark almost extinguished. Although they were not only weak but bad, no nation ever suffered a greater misfortune than that which befell France in their defeat and destruction.
That Pierre Vergniaud who scorned the hollow truce was the last to mount the scaffold this day — a shining orator of the Revolution who captured the calamity engulfing his nation in another well-remembered aphorism, “the Revolution devours its own children.”