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Dead Famous is a series of biographies about some of the most controversial figures in history. This book, which is suitable for children aged 8 and upwards, takes an irreverent look at Oliver Cromwell who not only had the audacity to chop off a king's head but went on to turn England into a thoroughly joyless place with a range of laws designed to abolish anything that was remotely fun. It's perhaps unsurprising that Cromwell hasn't gone down as the most popular man in English history, although he has certainly divided opinion. Was he a great leader or was he no more than a tyrant? The book provides lots of information to help the reader make up their own mind.
The information is presented in a variety of interesting ways, such as fictional Secret Diaries in which Oliver records his thoughts at different stages of his life in entries which, although tongue-in-cheek, capture the characteristics of the man as gleaned from history, showing him to be a mass of contradictions. You can also read reports from two imaginary newspapers, The Cavalier Cryer and its successor, The Righteous Roundhead. These present the major events dramatically and with lots of atmosphere. For example, the report of the king's execution bears a headline that The Sun would be proud of - "It's the Chop for Charlie" and goes on to describe this momentous historical occasion in the sort of gory detail that always seems to appeal to children. For instance, we learn how the crowd grabbed handfuls of the king's hair and blood as trophies and that even the chopping block was cut into pieces and sold as souvenirs. It's always useful for children to compare different writing styles. Here they can contrast the first-person accounts in the diaries, which record private thoughts and the newspaper reports which are intended for publication and describe things from different perspectives.
The tone of the book is informal, conversational and humorous. Cromwell's warts are a running joke throughout. Oliver Cromwell may have been many things but it seems he was no looker. In addition to having a "colossal conk" which apparently glowed like a beacon in the middle of his face, he was cursed with warts. The story goes that unlike the majority of rulers who liked to be flattered in portraits and made to look as heroic as possible, Cromwell threatened painters with non-payment if they failed to paint him, "warts and all." That is where the phrase originates from.
Another phrase that really ought to have been given to us by Cromwell is "life begins at 40" because it seems that he didn't really come to anyone's attention before then. He was in his early 50s by the time he became Lord Protector which, as the author wittily points out, in the Stuart age would have qualified him for an OAP's bus pass. There was no older leader in Europe at the time. Coming from humble roots, Cromwell might well have lived out his life running the family farm, but the book charts how he became a member of Parliament and grew increasingly involved in the struggle between King Charles I and Parliament which led to the Civil War.
I was rather surprised to learn that in his younger days Cromwell had quite a wild streak and a penchant for practical jokes. (There is a rather strange anecdote in the book about him turning up at a party covered in cow poo, which is sure to appeal to young readers with a fondness of toilet humour.) Given that this man went on to stamp out football, dancing, theatres and swearing, it seemed rather out of character. However, the book explains how Cromwell had a religious conversion in the 1630s when he believed that he was carrying out God's plan. One of the ironies you can't help but notice when you read this book is that Charles I and Oliver Cromwell had certain things in common. They both believed that they were destined to rule as part of a divine plan and both were prepared to use force to get their own way.
The book takes you through the origins of the Civil War and there is a very useful guide to Potty Parliaments which clarifies things for those who can't tell their Rump from their Barebones (these being two of the silly-named Parliaments to feature during this period of history.) You can discover where the terms 'Roundhead' and 'Cavalier' actually came from and compare each side's contribution to the world of fashion. (The Cavaliers were always likely to win that particular contest with their lace, silk and ostrich feathers. The labelled picture illustrates clearly the Roundheads' crimes against fashion with their leather jerkins and breeches!) You can find out who the key players were on each side and how the battles of the Civil War were conducted. You can learn all about the Ranters, the Levellers and the Diggers in a section on Raving Religions and discover what opposition Cromwell faced with references to assassination attempts, secret plots and rebellions. How did Cromwell deal with his enemies? Why did he not accept the Crown when it was offered to him? Who succeeded him on his death? All these topics are covered fully. If you thought Cromwell had an eventful life, his death was no less eventful and the book describes how his body was dug up by royalists who cut off his head and put it on a spike on top of Westminster Hall, where it stayed for 24 years until it was blown down by a storm. The account of the head's journey in the years that followed makes for bizarre and grisly reading. It was certainly well-travelled.
The use of cartoons and comic strip illustrations keeps the book light and word play is used cleverly throughout. (It gets a little tedious, in my opinion, but children would no doubt appreciate it.) For example, to illustrate the killjoy laws passed under the puritan regime, two figures stand next to a redundant maypole and one says to the other, "It's a no you may not pole." My favourite picture shows Father Christmas emerging from a chimney and being met by two stern Roundhead soldiers, with one of them saying, "Book him, Sarge." The humour certainly makes the book more accessible to young readers.
My daughter read this book alongside more formal textbooks when she was studying the English Civil War at school. She had already made up her mind that she didn't like Cromwell and that he was one of history's great party poopers, so she enjoyed the rather mocking style of this book. It does provide quite a balanced picture, however, and Cromwell's military prowess and political skill is acknowledged, along with his more brutal methods. I would recommend it to adults too who want a quick, fairly light introduction to the subject. There's a lot of fascinating information to be learned. This book can be obtained new from Amazon sellers for £2.49.