By Robert HodkinsonColonel Thomas Pride is a paradox among prominent English Civil War figures. As the driving force behind ‘Pride’s Purge’, he was responsible for the forcible exclusion of moderate MPs from parliament in December 1648, which led directly to the trial and execution of King Charles I (whose death warrant Colonel Pride signed).
It was a pivotal moment in British history; because of it Pride’s name appears in nearly all general histories of the Civil War. Yet despite his presence at this and other key events of the period – and here comes the paradox – very little is known of this man’s personal history. It was that lack of factual information about one of Charles I’s most forceful Regicides that Cromwell’s Buffoon set out to remedy.Where or how to begin researching a relatively unknown historical figure was problematic. Many modern historians take their cue from the brief biographies that littered the latter seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, wherein Pride is ridiculed as “an ignorant, illiterate fellow” and derided for being Cromwell’s obedient dogsbody: “a useful man to Cromwell in all his projects . . .a buffoon to him”.
The opinion of Regicides was never favourable in the years following the Restoration (it is a truism that history is written by the victors). Yet even the most cursory view of Civil War military history reveals that Colonel Pride was at the forefront of many actions – the only Parliamentarian officer to command a foot regiment at both Naseby and Dunbar. Using references in Ian Gentles’ entry for Pride in the Dictionary of National Biography, I pieced together scraps of information about Pride, which slowly evolved into a life story.Fifteen years ago, reconstructing the biography of a man in this way – almost from scratch – would have been a great deal more difficult. Many of the sources used to research Cromwell’s Buffoon are now readily accessible online or can be located through online databases. Digitised parish registers, searchable through Ancestry.co.uk, were invaluable in retracing Pride’s family tree, which allowed me to unravel its numerous strands and confirm the dynastic links between Pride’s family and those of other dominant figures of the period: by marrying his children to the nieces and nephews of Oliver Cromwell and General Monck, Pride was able to consolidate his place in the Protectorate establishment.
PhD theses were also a resource that would not have been so easily available a few years ago. Digitised and published online by various universities, their areas of study ranged from the London Militia (in which Pride served his military apprenticeship) to the rising influence of religious nonconformity and the examination of Royalist and Restoration satires that did much to defame Pride’s character following his death. Access to such varied and closely-examined subjects provided a closer perspective on many aspects of Pride’s life than had been possible before.Online resources – such as those available through the University of London’s British History Online website – allow a much more thorough study of historical documents than a few hours in a reading room would have once permitted. These sources provided details of Pride’s political role in the late 1640s and 50s, and helped uncover details missing from previous accounts of Pride’s career: his role in choreographing Cromwell’s inauguration as Protector, for example, or that St. James’ palace was converted into a barracks for his regiment – not long after they had helped bring about Charles I’s execution.
The wealth of primary sources held at the National Archives provided a good deal of research material, without which Colonel Pride’s personal history would have been far less complete. Details of his military career, as well as information on many of those who fought alongside him, can be traced through Army pay records in the Exchequer Papers. Records of Court of Chancery Papers provide a narrative of a family’s decline after the death of Pride and the fall of the Protectorate.
The scarcity of facts about Colonel Pride’s life (the church registers that recorded his baptism are lost and there is no record of his burial place) necessitated reconstructing his life from disparate sources. The process of extracting the colonel’s life story from the historical record inadvertently helped shed light on other aspects on mid-seventeenth century warfare. A closer inspection of his regiment’s role in conflicts of the mid-1650s, for example, has shown that the men under his command were engaged in the Glencairn uprising in Scotland (itself a little-known campaign) while at the same time manning warships in the First Dutch War – effectively fighting on two fronts some 600 miles apart. Knowing of Pride’s role as a hospital governor during the Dutch War prompted research into the Savoy Hospital in London, where I discovered references of post-traumatic stress among the soldiers who were being treated there.
Researching Cromwell’s Buffoon demanded a breadth of sources and has revealed Colonel Pride to be a more nuanced figure than hitherto thought. His youth as an apprentice among the London puritans and, later, his consolidation of power in the Protectorate, convinced me that here was a historical figure that was able to draw together different strands of Civil War history. Cromwell’s Buffoon is a political and social history as well as a military biography.
The research process was exciting and a pleasure to undertake and it is a joy to be able to bring to a modern reader the story of a man and soldier whose life had – to a great extent – largely disappeared from history.