History

Cromwell, the Readmission, and the LRB

Uncle Olly

In addition to Jacqueline Rose’s terrific piece on Zola, Dreyfus and the Jewish experience, the latest London Review of Books has a shorter review from Diarmaid MacCulloch. He tackles Anthony Julius’s Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, concluding that Julius is better when dealing with events further back in time, and on less sound territory when considering contemporary anti-semitism. Having not read the book, I can’t comment. But something else about the piece caught my eye.

MacCulloch notes that one of Julius’s natural key moments is the Readmission of 1656, when, almost 400 years after Edward I expelled the Jews from England, Cromwell allowed them to return. (More properly, he achieved toleration – Jewish aliens could already be found in England, particularly in London, but worshipped in secret.) MacCulloch rightly points out that Cromwell’s millenarian tendencies contributed to this decision, inviting Jews back to England so his Puritan cohorts might have some to convert and thus hasten the approach of the longed-for Last Days. The review also emphasises the role of Menasseh ben Israel, the Dutch rabbi, in agitating for the policy.

But MacCulloch, or more likely his tight word limit, rather flattens the real picture: Cromwell was far braver in ordering the Readmission than a picture of consensus Puritan opinion might suggest. A theological conference held on the subject by the Lord Protector was broadly hostile to the idea; and economic concerns, too, played a part – the first Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-4, and sundry other adventures, had left the Commonwealth short of funds and in need of international credit. (MacCulloch does concede that Charles II’s later similar need led to his formalisation of the Readmission.)

MacCulloch portrays Cromwell as a leader “torn between his achievement as a blunt pragmatist who organised the most efficient army of the English Civil Wars, and his ardent Protestant wish to usher in the Last Days.” Accepting a less narrow rationale for the Readmission suggests that – far from being torn – Cromwell was in ordering it attempting the same personal balance for which he always strove.

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