Oliver Cromwell

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Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell

An unfinished miniature portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper, 1657.

Lord Protector of the
Commonwealth of England
In office
16 December 1653 –  3 September 1658
Preceded by Charles I (as King)
Succeeded by Richard Cromwell

Born April 25, 1599(1599-04-25)
Flag of England Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire
Died September 3, 1658 (aged 59)
Whitehall, London
Nationality English
Spouse Elizabeth Bourchier
Religion Independent
Signature Oliver Cromwell's signature

Oliver Cromwell ( April 25, 1599(1599-04-25) September 3, 1658) was an English military and political leader best known for his involvement in making England into a republican Commonwealth and for his later role as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. He was a mid- gentry yeoman farmer for the first forty years of his life; a religious conversion experience made religion the central fact of his life and actions. A brilliant soldier (called "Old Ironsides") he rose from the ranks to command the army. Politically he took control of England, Scotland, and Ireland as Lord Protector, from December 16, 1653 until his death. Cromwell is a very controversial figure in English history—a regicidal dictator to some historians (such as David Hume and Christopher Hill) and a hero of liberty to others (such as Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Rawson Gardiner). In Ireland, where his measures against Irish Catholics have been characterised by many historians as genocidal or near-genocidal he and his memory are widely despised.

Cromwell's career is full of contradictions. He was a regicide who debated whether to accept the crown himself and decided not to—though ironically he had more power than Charles I. He was a parliamentarian who ordered his soldiers to dissolve parliaments. Under his rule, the Protectorate advocated religious liberty of conscience but allowed blasphemers to be tortured. He advocated equitable justice but imprisoned those who criticised his raising taxation outside the agreement of Parliament. Admirers hail him as a strong, stabilising and stately leader who brought international respect, overthrew tyranny and promoted republicanism and liberty. In a BBC poll of 100 Greatest Britons, he was voted number 10. Cromwell's critics ridiculed him as an overly ambitious hypocrite who betrayed the cause of liberty, imposed puritanical values and showed scant respect for the nation's traditions. When the Royalists returned to power, his corpse was dug up, hung in chains, and beheaded.

Early years: 1599–1640

Cromwell was born in Huntingdon on 25 April 1599. He was descended from Catherine Cromwell (born circa 1482), an older sister of Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell. Catherine was married to Morgan ap Williams, son of William ap Yevan of Wales and Joan Tudor. The family line continued through Richard Cromwell (c. 1500–1544), Henry Cromwell (c. 1524– January 6, 1603), then to Oliver's father Robert Cromwell (c. 1560–1617), who married Elizabeth Steward or Stewart (1564–1654) on the day of Cromwell's birth. Thus, Thomas was Oliver's second great-granduncle.

Records survive of Cromwell's baptism and of his attendance at Huntingdon grammar school. He went on to study at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, which was then a recently founded college with a strong puritan ethos. He left in June 1617 without taking a degree, immediately after the death of his father. Early biographers claim he then attended Lincoln's Inn, but there is no record of him in the Inn's archives. He is likely to have returned home to Huntingdon, given that his mother was widowed, his seven sisters were unmarried, and there was hence a need to take charge of the family.

The crucial event of the 1620s was his marriage to Elizabeth Bourchier (1598–1665) on 22 August 1620. They had eight children; his successor Richard Cromwell (1626–1712) was the third son. Her father Sir James Bourchier was a London merchant who owned extensive land in Essex and had strong connections with puritan gentry families there. The marriage brought Cromwell into contact with Oliver St John and also with leading members of the London merchant community, and behind them the influence of the earls of Warwick and Holland. Membership of this godly network would prove crucial to Cromwell’s military and political career. At this stage, though, there is little evidence of Cromwell’s own religion. His letter in 1626 to Henry Downhall, an Arminian minister, suggests that Cromwell had yet to be influenced by radical puritanism. However, there is evidence that Cromwell went through a period of personal crisis during the late 1620s and early 1630s. He sought treatment for valde melancolicus ( depression) from London doctor Theodore Mayerne in 1628. He was also caught up in a fight amongst the gentry of Huntingdon over a new charter for the town, as a result of which he was called before the Privy Council in 1630.

In 1631 Cromwell sold most of his properties in Huntingdon—probably as a result of the dispute—and moved to a farmstead in St Ives. This was a major step down in society and seems to have had a major emotional and spiritual impact. A 1638 letter is a conversion account of how after having been "the chief of sinners", he had been called to be among "the congregation of the firstborn". By 1638, it is likely that Cromwell was a committed puritan, firmly associated with the Independent vision of religious freedom for all Protestants. He had also established important family links to leading godly families in Essex and London. In his own eyes, he had come through a period of crisis by virtue of God’s providence.

Member of Parliament: 1628–1629 and 1640–1642

Cromwell became the Member of Parliament for Huntingdon in the Parliament of 1628–1629, as a client of the Montagus. He made little impression—records for the Parliament are largely complete, and show only one speech (against the Arminian Bishop Richard Neile) that was poorly received.

Charles I ruled without a Parliament for the next eleven years (having dissolved Parliament, of which Cromwell was a member, in 1629). When Charles was facing a Scottish rebellion known as the Bishops War, he was forced by shortage of funds to call a Parliament again in 1640. Cromwell was returned to this Parliament as member for Cambridge, but it only lasted for three weeks and became known as the Short Parliament. A second Parliament was called later in the same year, which was to become known as the Long Parliament. Cromwell was again returned to this Parliament as member for Cambridge. As with the Parliament of 1628-9, it is likely that Cromwell owed his position to the patronage of others, which would explain the fact that in the first week of the Parliament he was in charge of presenting a petition for the release of John Lilburne, who had become a puritan martyr after being arrested for importing religious tracts from Holland. For the first two years of the Long Parliament, Cromwell was linked to the group of aristocrats in the Lords he had already established links with in the 1630s, such as the earls of Essex, Warwick and Bedford, and Viscount Saye and Sele. At this stage, the group had an agenda of godly reformation: the executive checked by regular parliaments, and the moderate extension of liberty of conscience. In May 1641, for example, it was Cromwell who put forward the second reading of the Annual Parliaments Bill, and who later took a role in drafting the Root and Branch Bill for the abolition of episcopacy.

Cromwell himself, though intensely religious, was little concerned with the outward forms of religion, and did not affiliate himself with any confessional group, such as the independents or Presbyterians. Instead he sought a broad religious liberty in the belief that all the Protestant faiths contained some elements of God's truth, and hoping they would coalesce.

Military Commander: 1642–1646

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell

Failure to resolve the issues before the Long Parliament led to armed conflict between Parliamentarians and Royalists in the autumn of 1642. Support for Parliament tended to be concentrated in London, the South-East and the Midlands, whereas the Royalists gathered most of their support from the North, the West Country and Wales.

Before joining the Parliamentary Army, Cromwell's only military experience was in the trained bands, the local county militia. Now 43 years old, he recruited a cavalry troop in Cambridgeshire after blocking a shipment of silver from Cambridge colleges that was meant for the king. Cromwell and his troop fought at the indecisive battle of Edgehill in October 1642. The troop was recruited to be a full regiment in the winter of 1642/3, making up part of the Eastern Association under the Earl of Manchester. Cromwell gained experience and victories in a number of successful actions in East Anglia in 1643, notably at the battle of Gainsborough on July 28. After this he was made governor of Ely and made a colonel in the Eastern Association.

By the time of the Battle of Marston Moor in July, 1644, Cromwell had risen to the rank of Lieutenant General of horse in Manchester's army. The success of his cavalry in breaking the ranks of the Royalist horse and then attacking their infantry from the rear at Marston Moor was a major factor in the Parliamentarian victory in the battle. Cromwell fought at the head of his troops in the battle and was wounded in the head. Marston Moor secured the north of England for the Parliamentarians, but failed to end Royalist resistance. The indecisive outcome of the second Battle of Newbury in October meant that by the end of 1644, the war still showed no signs of ending. Cromwell's experience at Newbury, where Manchester had let the King's army slip out of an encircling manoeuvre, led to a serious dispute with Manchester, whom he believed to be less than enthusiastic in his conduct of the war. Manchester later accused Cromwell of recruiting men of "low birth" as officers in the army, to which he replied: "If you choose godly honest men to be captains of horse, honest men will follow them... I would rather have a plain russet-coated captain who knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else". At this time, Cromwell also fell into dispute with Major-General Lawrence Crawford, a Scottish Covenanter Presbyterian attached to Manchester's army, who objected to Cromwell's encouragement of unorthodox Independents and Anabaptists. Cromwell's differences with the Scots (at that time allies of the Parliament) would later develop into outright enmity in 1648 and in 1650-51.

Partly in response to the failure to capitalise on their victory at Marston Moor, the Parliament passed the Self-Denying Ordinance in early 1645. This forced members of Parliament such as Manchester to choose between civil office and military command. All of them — with the exception of Cromwell, who was exempted — chose to renounce their military positions. The Ordinance also decreed that the army be "remodeled" on a national basis, replacing the old county associations. In April 1645 the New Model Army finally took to the field, with Sir Thomas Fairfax in command and Cromwell as Lieutenant-General of cavalry, and second-in-command. By this time, the Parliamentarian's field army outnumbered the King's by roughly two to one. At the Battle of Naseby in June 1645, the New Model Army smashed the King's major army. Cromwell led his wing with great success at Naseby, again routing the Royalist cavalry. At the battle of Langport on July 10, Cromwell participated in the defeat of the last sizable Royalist field army. Naseby and Langport effectively ended the King's hopes of victory and the subsequent Parliamentarian campaigns involved taking the remaining fortified Royalist positions in the west of England. In October 1645, Cromwell besieged and took Basing House, where he was accused of killing 100 of the 300 man Royalist garrison there after they had surrendered. Cromwell also took part in sieges at Bridgwater, Sherborne, Bristol, Devizes, and Winchester, then spending the first half of 1646 mopping up resistance in Devon and Cornwall. Charles I surrendered to the Scots on May 5, 1646, effectively ending the First English Civil War. Cromwell and Fairfax took the formal surrender of the Royalists at Oxford in June.

Cromwell had no formal training in military tactics, and followed the common practice of ranging his cavalry in three ranks and pressing forward. This method relied on impact rather than firepower. His strengths were in an instinctive ability to lead and train his men, and in his moral authority. In a war fought mostly by amateurs, these strengths were significant, and are likely to have contributed to the discipline of Cromwell’s cavalry.

Politics: 1647–1649

In February 1647 Cromwell suffered from an illness that kept him out of political life for over a month. By the time of his recovery, the Parliamentarians were split over the issue of the king. A majority in both Houses pushed for a settlement that would pay off the Scottish army, disband much of the New Model Army, and restore Charles I in return for a Presbyterian settlement of the Church. Cromwell rejected the Scottish model of Presbyterianism, which threatened to replace one authoritarian hierarchy with another. The New Model Army, radicalised by the failure of the Parliament to pay the wages it was owed, petitioned against these changes, but the Commons declared the petition unlawful. During May 1647, Cromwell was sent to the army's headquarters in Saffron Walden to negotiate with them, but failed to reach agreement. In June 1647, a troop of cavalry under Cornet George Joyce seized the king from Parliament's imprisonment. Although Cromwell is known to have met with Joyce on 31 May, it is impossible to be sure what Cromwell's role in this event was.

Cromwell and Henry Ireton then drafted a manifesto—the " Heads of Proposals"—designed to check the powers of the executive, set up regularly elected parliaments, and restore a non-compulsory episcopalian settlement. Many in the army, such as the Levellers led by John Lilburne, thought this was insufficient demanding full political equality for all men, leading to tense debates in Putney during the autumn of 1647 between Cromwell, Ireton and the army. The Putney Debates ultimately broke up without reaching a resolution. Cromwell would later have to use force to put down the most radical elements within the New Model in May of 1649. The debates, and the escape of Charles I from Hampton Court on 12 November, are likely to have hardened Cromwell's resolve against the king.

The failure to conclude a political agreement with the king eventually led to the outbreak of the Second English Civil War in 1648, when the King tried to regain power by force of arms. Cromwell first put down a Royalist uprising in south Wales and then marched north to deal with a pro-Royalist Scottish army (the Engagers) who had invaded England. At Preston, Cromwell, in sole command for the first time with an army of 9,000, won a brilliant victory against an army twice that size comprising the Scots allies of the king.

During 1648, Cromwell's letters and speeches became drenched in biblical imagery, many of them meditations on the meaning of particular passages. For example, after the battle of Preston, study of Psalms 17 and 105 led him to tell parliament that "they that are implacable and will not leave troubling the land may be speedily destroyed out of the land". A letter to Oliver St John in September 1648 urged him to read Isaiah 8, in which the kingdom falls and only the godly survive. This letter suggests that it was Cromwell's faith, rather than a commitment to radical politics, coupled with parliament's decision to engage in negotiations with the king at the Treaty of Newport, that led him to realise that God had spoken against both the king and Parliament as lawful authorities. For Cromwell, the army was now God's chosen instrument. The episode shows Cromwell’s firm belief in " Providentialism"—that God was actively directing the affairs of the world, through the actions of "chosen people" (whom God had "provided" for such purposes). Cromwell believed, during the Civil Wars, that he was one of these people, and he interpreted victories as indications of God's approval of his actions, and defeats as signs that God was directing him in another direction.

In December 1648, those MPs who wished to continue negotiations with the King were prevented from sitting by a troop of soldiers headed by Colonel Thomas Pride, an episode soon to be known as Pride's Purge. Those remaining, known as the Rump Parliament, agreed that Charles should be tried on a charge of treason. Cromwell was still in the north of England, dealing with Royalist resistance when these events took place. However, after he returned to London, on the day after Pride's Purge, he became a determined supporter of the King's trial and execution. He believed that killing Charles was the only way to bring the civil wars to an end. A court was duly constituted, and the death warrant for Charles was eventually signed by 59 of its members, including Cromwell. Charles was executed on January 30, 1649. This was the first time a monarch had ever been publicly executed in recorded history. The Royalists, meanwhile had regrouped in Ireland, having signed a treaty with the Irish Confederate Catholics. Preparations for an invasion of Ireland occupied Cromwell in the subsequent months. After quelling Leveller mutinies at Andover and Burford in May, Cromwell departed for Ireland from Bristol at the end of July.

Half-Crown coin of Oliver Cromwell, 1658. The Latin inscription reads: OLIVAR.D.G.RP.ANG.SCO.ET.HIB&cPRO         (OLIVARIUS DEI GRATIA REIPUBLICAE ANGLIAE SCOTIAE ET HIBERNIAE ET CETERORUM PROTECTOR), meaning "Oliver, by the Grace of God Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland and other (territories)".
Half-Crown coin of Oliver Cromwell, 1658. The Latin inscription reads: OLIVAR.D.G.RP.ANG.SCO.ET.HIB&cPRO (OLIVARIUS DEI GRATIA REIPUBLICAE ANGLIAE SCOTIAE ET HIBERNIAE ET CETERORUM PROTECTOR), meaning "Oliver, by the Grace of God Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland and other (territories)".

Irish Campaign: 1649–50

Cromwell led a Parliamentary invasion of Ireland from 1649–50, with the twin aims of eliminating the military threat posed by the alliance of the Irish Confederate Catholics and English Royalists (signed in 1649) to the Commonwealth and punishing the Irish for their rebellion of 1641. The English Parliament had long planned to re-conquer Ireland since 1641 and had already sent an invasion force there in 1647. Cromwell's invasion of 1649, however, was much larger and, with the civil war in England over, could be regularly reinforced and re-supplied. By the summer of 1649, the Irish-Royalist alliance was judged to be the biggest single threat facing the Commonwealth. Cromwell wrote, "I had rather be overthrown by a Cavalierish interest than a Scotch interest; I had rather be overthrown by a Scotch interest than an Irish interest and I think of all this is the most dangerous".

Cromwell's nine month military campaign was brief and effective, though it did not end the war in Ireland. Before his invasion, Parliamentarian forces held only outposts in Dublin and Derry. When he departed Ireland, they occupied most of the eastern and northern parts of the country. After his landing at Dublin on August 15, 1649 (itself only recently secured for the Parliament at the battle of Rathmines), Cromwell took the fortified port towns of Drogheda and Wexford to secure logistical supply from England. At the siege of Drogheda in September 1649, Cromwell's troops massacred nearly 3,500 people after the town's capture—comprising around 2,700 Royalist soldiers and all the men in the town carrying arms, including some civilians, prisoners, and Roman Catholic priests. At the Siege of Wexford in October, another massacre took place under confused circumstances. While Cromwell himself was trying to negotiate surrender terms, the New Model Army soldiers broke into the town, killed 2,000 Irish troops and up to 1,500 civilians and burned much of the town. These actions still have resonance in Irish nationalist historical memory. The two atrocities, while horrifying in their own right, were not exceptional in the war in Ireland since its start in 1641, but are well-remembered even today. In part this is because of a concerted propaganda campaign by the Royalists, which portrayed Cromwell as a tyrant who indiscriminately slaughtered civilians wherever he went. This theme has been continued in histories and literature up to the present day. James Joyce, for example, mentioned Drogheda in his novel Ulysses: "What about sanctimonious Cromwell and his ironsides that put the women and children of Drogheda to the sword with the bible text God is love pasted round the mouth of his cannon?".

After the fall of Drogheda, Cromwell sent a column north to Ulster to secure the north of the country and went on to besiege Waterford, Kilkenny and Clonmel in Ireland's south-east. Kilkenny surrendered on terms, as did many other towns like New Ross and Carlow, but Cromwell failed to take Waterford and at the siege of Clonmel in May 1650, he lost up to 2000 men in abortive assaults before the town surrendered. One of his major victories in Ireland was diplomatic rather than military. With the help of Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, Cromwell persuaded the Protestant Royalist troops in Cork to change sides and fight with the Parliament At this point, word reached Cromwell that Charles II had landed in Scotland and been proclaimed king by the Covenanter regime. Cromwell therefore returned to England from Youghal on May 26 1650 to counter this threat. The Parliamentarian conquest of Ireland dragged on for almost three years after Cromwell's departure. The campaigns under Cromwell's successors Henry Ireton and Edmund Ludlow mostly consisted of long sieges of fortified cities and guerrilla warfare in the countryside. The last Catholic held town, Galway, surrendered in April 1652 and the last Irish troops capitulated in April of the following year.

Debate over Cromwell's actions in Ireland

The extent of Cromwell's alleged brutality in Ireland has been strongly debated. It is clear that Cromwell saw the Irish Catholics in general as enemies. During the civil wars, the Parliamentarian side in particular nursed a hatred towards the Catholic Irish, who were long seen as "savages" and inferior by the English. A desire for revenge for the massacres of the 1641 Irish Rebellion against English rule added to the general climate of Protestant hostility. Cromwell's hostility to them was religious as well as political. He was passionately opposed to the Roman Catholic Church, which he saw as denying the primacy of the Bible in favour of papal and clerical authority, and which he blamed for tyranny and persecution of Protestants in Europe. Cromwell's association between Catholicism and persecution were deepened with the Irish Rebellion of 1641. This rebellion was marked by massacres by native Irish Catholics of English and Scottish Protestant settlers in Ireland, which were wildly exaggerated in puritan circles in Britain (from 4,000 killed to 120,000). These factors contributed to Cromwell's harshness in his military campaign in Ireland.

In September 1649, he justified his sack of Drogheda as revenge for the massacres of Protestant settlers in Ulster in the Irish Rebellion of 1641, calling the massacre "the righteous judgement of God on these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their hands with so much innocent blood". Drogheda had in fact never been held by the rebels in 1641—many of its garrison were in fact English Royalists. Addressing the Irish defenders of New Ross in 1649, who were negotiating the surrender of the town, Cromwell stated, "I meddle not with any man's conscience, but if by liberty of conscience you mean the liberty to exercise the Mass... where the Parliament of England has authority, that will not be allowed of." In a letter to the Irish Catholic Bishops later that year he wrote, "you are part of the Anti-Christ and before long you must have, all of you, blood to drink." Moreover, the records of many churches such as Kilkenny Cathedral accuse Cromwell's army of having defaced and desecrated the churches, another case of a desecrated church by Cromwell is widely reported in southern Galway in Killeely part of parish of Clarinbridge.

On the other hand, on entering Ireland, Cromwell demanded that no supplies were to be seized from the civilian inhabitants, and that everything should be fairly purchased; "I do hereby warn....all Officers, Soldiers and others under my command not to do any wrong or violence toward Country People or any persons whatsoever, unless they be actually in arms or office with the enemy.....as they shall answer to the contrary at their utmost peril". Several English soldiers were in fact hanged for disobeying these orders.

With regard to the massacre at Drogheda, Cromwell's orders followed military protocol of the day, in which a town or garrison was first given the option to surrender and receive just treatment, and the protection of the invading force. The refusal of the garrison at Drogheda to do this, even after the walls had been breached, meant that Cromwell's orders—"In the heat of the action, I forbade them to spare any that were in arms in the town"—was severe, but not unusual by the standards of the day. Cromwell wanted his severity at Drogheda to act as a deterrent to Irish resistance, saying "it will tend to prevent effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds for such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret". Moreover, where Cromwell negotiated the surrender of fortified towns, as at Carlow, New Ross, and Clonmel, he respected the terms of surrender and protected the lives and property of the townspeople.

Cromwell never accepted that he was responsible for the killing of civilians in Ireland, claiming that he had acted harshly, but only against those "in arms". In fact, the worst atrocities committed in Ireland, such as mass evictions, killings and deportation for slave labour to Bermuda and Barbados, were carried out by Cromwell's subordinates after he had left for England.

In the wake of the Cromwellian conquest, the public practice of Catholicism was banned and Catholic priests were executed when captured. In addition, roughly 12,000 Irish people were sold into slavery under the Commonwealth All Catholic-owned land was confiscated in the Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652 and given to Scottish and English settlers, the Parliament's financial creditors and Parliamentary soldiers. The remaining Catholic landowners were allocated poorer land in Connacht. Under the Commonwealth, Catholic landownership dropped from 60% of the total to just 8%. (see Plantations of Ireland).

Cromwell is still a figure of hatred in Ireland, his name being associated with massacre, religious persecution, and mass dispossession of the Catholic community there. A traditional Irish curse was malacht Cromail ort or "The curse of Cromwell upon you". This saying is still occasionally heard in parts of Ireland.

Scottish Campaign: 1650–1651

Cromwell left Ireland in May 1650 and several months later, invaded Scotland after the Scots had proclaimed Charles I's son as Charles II. Cromwell was much less hostile to Scottish Presbyterians, some of whom had been his allies in the First English Civil War, than he was to Irish Catholics. He described the Scots as, "a people fearing His [God's] name, though deceived". He made a famous appeal to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, urging them to see the error of the royal alliance—I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.

His appeal rejected, Cromwell's veteran troops went on to invade Scotland. At first, the campaign went badly, as Cromwell's men were short of supplies and held up at fortifications manned by Scottish troops under David Leslie. Cromwell was on the brink of evacuating his army by sea from Dunbar. However, on September 3 1650, in an unexpected battle, Cromwell smashed the main Covenanter army at the battle of Dunbar, killing 4,000 Scottish soldiers, taking another 10,000 prisoner and then capturing the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. The victory was of such a magnitude that Cromwell called it, "A high act of the Lord's Providence to us [and] one of the most signal mercies God hath done for England and His people The following year, Charles II and his Scottish allies made a desperate attempt to invade England and capture London while Cromwell was engaged in Scotland. Cromwell followed them south and caught them at Worcester in September. At the subsequent Battle of Worcester, Cromwell's forces destroyed the last major Scottish Royalist army. Many of the Scottish prisoners of war taken in the campaigns died of disease, and others were sent to penal colonies in Barbados. In the final stages of the Scottish campaign, Cromwell's men, under George Monck sacked the town of Dundee. During the Commonwealth, Scotland was ruled from England, and was kept under military occupation, with a line of fortifications sealing off the Highlands, which had provided manpower for Royalist armies in Scotland, from the rest of the country. The north west Highlands was the scene of another pro-royalist uprising in 1653-55, which was only put down with deployment of 6,000 English troops there. Presbyterianism was allowed to be practised as before, but the Kirk (the Scottish church) did not have the backing of the civil courts to impose its rulings, as it had previously.

Cromwell's conquest, unwelcome as it was, left no significant lasting legacy of bitterness in Scotland. The rule of the Commonwealth and Protectorate was, the Highlands aside, largely peaceful. Moreover, there was no wholesale confiscations of land or property. Three out of every four Justices of the Peace in Commonwealth Scotland were Scots and the country was governed jointly by the English military authorities and a Scottish Council of State. Although not often favourably regarded, Cromwell's name rarely meets the hatred in Scotland that it does in Ireland.

The Commonwealth: 1649-1653

The Rump Parliament

After the execution of the King, a republic was declared, known as the Commonwealth of England. A Council of State was appointed to manage affairs, which included Cromwell among its members. His real power base was in the army; Cromwell tried but failed to unite the original group of 'Royal Independents' centred around St John and Saye and Sele, but only St John was persuaded to retain his seat in Parliament. From the middle of 1649 until 1651, Cromwell was away on campaign. In the meantime, with the king gone (and with him their common cause), the various factions in Parliament began to engage in infighting. On his return, Cromwell tried to galvanise the Rump into setting dates for new elections, uniting the three kingdoms under one polity, and to put in place a broad-brush, tolerant national church. However, the Rump vacillated in setting election dates, and although it put in place a basic liberty of conscience, it failed to produce an alternative for tithes or dismantle other aspects of the existing religious settlement. In frustration, Cromwell eventually dismissed the Rump Parliament in 1653.

Barebone's Parliament

After the dissolution of the Rump, power passed temporarily to a council that debated what form the constitution should take. They took up the suggestion of Major-General Thomas Harrison for a " sanhedrin" of saints. Although Cromwell did not subscribe to Harrison's apocalyptic, Fifth Monarchist beliefs – which saw a sanhedrin as the starting point for Christ's rule on earth – he was attracted by the idea of an assembly made up of a cross-section of sects. In his speech at the opening of the assembly on 4 July 1653, Cromwell thanked God’s providence that he believed had brought England to this point and set out their divine mission: “truly God hath called you to this work by, I think, as wonderful providences as ever passed upon the sons of men in so short a time”. Sometimes known as the Parliament of Saints, the assembly was also called the Barebone's Parliament after one of its members, Praise-God Barebone. The assembly was tasked with finding a permanent constitutional and religious settlement (Cromwell was invited to be a member but declined). However, the assembly’s failure to do so led to its members voting to dissolve it on 12 December 1653.

The Protectorate: 1653-1658

Styles of
Lord Protector of the Commonwealth
Reference style His Highness
Spoken style Your Highness
Alternative style Sir

After the dissolution of the Barebone's Parliament, John Lambert put forward a new constitution known as the Instrument of Government, closely modelled on the Heads of Proposals. It made Cromwell Lord Protector for life to undertake “the chief magistracy and the administration of government”. He had the power to call and dissolve parliaments but obliged under the Instrument to seek the majority vote of a council of state. However, Cromwell's power was also buttressed by his continuing popularity among the army, which he had built up during the civil wars, and which he subsequently prudently guarded. Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector on 15 December 1653.

The first Protectorate parliament met on 3 September 1654, and after some initial gestures approving appointments previously made by Cromwell, began to work on a moderate programme of constitutional reform. Rather than opposing Parliament’s bill, Cromwell dissolved them on 22 January 1655. After a royalist uprising led by Sir John Penruddock, Cromwell (influenced by Lambert) divided England into military districts ruled by Army Major Generals who answered only to him. The fifteen major generals and deputy major generals—called "godly governors"—were central not only to national security, but Cromwell's moral crusade. The generals not only supervised militia forces and security commissions, but collected taxes and ensured support for the government in the English and Welsh provinces. Commissioners for securing the peace of the commonwealth were appointed to work with them in every county. While a few of these commissioners were career politicians, most were zealous puritans who welcomed the major-generals with open arms and embraced their work with enthusiasm. However, the major-generals lasted less than a year. Many feared they threatened their reform efforts and authority. Their position was further harmed by a tax proposal by Major General John Desborough to provide financial backing for their work, which the second Protectorate parliament—instated in September 1656—voted down for fear of a permanent military state. Ultimately, however, Cromwell's failure to support his men, sacrificing them to his opponents, caused their demise. Their activities between November 1655 and September 1656 had, however, reopened the wounds of the 1640s and deepened antipathies to the regime.

During this period Cromwell also faced challenges in foreign policy. The First Anglo-Dutch War which had broken out in 1652, against the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, was eventually won by Admiral Robert Blake in 1654. As Lord Protector he was aware of the contribution the Jewish community made to the economic success of Holland, now England's leading commercial rival. It was this—allied to Cromwell’s toleration of the right to private worship of those who fell outside evangelical puritanism—that led to his encouraging Jews to return to England, 350 years after their banishment by Edward I, in the hope that they would help speed up the recovery of the country after the disruption of the Civil Wars.

In 1657, Cromwell was offered the crown by Parliament as part of a revised constitutional settlement, presenting him with a dilemma, since he had been "instrumental" in abolishing the monarchy. Cromwell agonised for six weeks over the offer. He was attracted by the prospect of stability it held out, but in a speech on 13 April 1657 he made clear that God's providence had spoken against the office of king: “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 reference to Jericho harks back to a previous occasion on which Cromwell had wrestled with his conscience when the news reached England of the defeat of an expedition against the Spanish-held island of Hispaniola in the West Indies in 1655—comparing himself to Achan, who had brought the Israelites defeat after bringing plunder back to camp after the capture of Jericho.

Instead, Cromwell was ceremonially re-installed as " Lord Protector" (with greater powers than had previously been granted him under this title) at Westminster Hall, sitting upon King Edward's Chair which was specially moved from Westminster Abbey for the occasion. The event in part echoed a coronation, utilising many of its symbols and regalia, such as a purple ermine-lined robe, a sword of justice and a sceptre (but not a crown or an orb). But, most notably, the office of Lord Protector was still not to become hereditary, though Cromwell was now able to nominate his own successor. Cromwell's new rights and powers were laid out in the Humble Petition and Advice, a legislative instrument which replaced the Instrument of Government. Cromwell himself, however, was at pains to minimise his role, describing himself as a constable or watchman.

Death and posthumous execution

Oliver Cromwell's death mask at Warwick Castle.
Oliver Cromwell's death mask at Warwick Castle.

Cromwell is thought to have suffered from malaria (probably first contracted while on campaign in Ireland) and from " stone", a common term for urinary/kidney infections. In 1658 he was struck by a sudden bout of malarial fever, followed directly by an attack of urinary/kidney symptoms. A Venetian physician tracked Cromwell's final illness, saying Cromwell's personal physicians were mismanaging his health, leading to a rapid decline and death, which was also hastened by the death of his favourite daughter Elizabeth Cromwell in August at age 29. He died at Whitehall on 3 September 1658, the anniversary of his great victories at Dunbar and Worcester.

He was succeeded as Lord Protector by his son Richard. Although Richard was not entirely without ability, he had no power base in either Parliament or the Army, and was forced to resign in the spring of 1659, bringing the Protectorate to an end. In the period immediately following his abdication the head of the army, George Monck, took power for less than a year, at which point Parliament restored Charles II as king.

In 1661, Oliver Cromwell's body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey, and was subjected to the ritual of a posthumous execution. Symbolically, this took place on January 30; the same date that Charles I had been executed. His body was hung in chains at Tyburn. Finally, his disinterred body was thrown into a pit, while his severed head was displayed on a pole outside Westminster Abbey until 1685. Afterwards the head changed hands several times, before eventually being buried in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1960.

Plaque commemorating the reinterment of Cromwell's head at Sidney Sussex College.
Plaque commemorating the reinterment of Cromwell's head at Sidney Sussex College.

Posthumous reputation

During his lifetime, some tracts painted him as a hypocrite motivated by power—for example, The Machiavilian Cromwell and The Juglers Discovered, both part of an attack on Cromwell by the Levellers after 1647, present him as a Machiavellian figure. More positive contemporary assessments—for instance John Spittlehouse in A Warning Piece Discharged—typically compared him to Moses, rescuing the English by taking them safely through the Red Sea of the civil wars. Several biographies were published soon after his death. An example is The Perfect Politician by the anonymous "L.S.", which described how Cromwell "loved men more than books" and gave a nuanced assessment of him as an energetic campaigner for liberty of conscience brought down by pride and ambition. An equally nuanced but less positive assessment was published in 1667 by Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, in his History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England. Clarendon famously declared that Cromwell "will be looked upon by posterity as a brave bad man". He argued that Cromwell's rise to power had been helped not only by his great spirit and energy, but also by his wickedness and ruthlessness. Clarendon never knew Cromwell well, and his account was written after the Restoration of the monarchy (which may have shaped the narrative)—but it is still looked upon by some as a "masterpiece".

In the early eighteenth century, Cromwell’s image began to be adopted and reshaped by the Whigs, as part of a wider project to give their political objectives historical legitimacy. A version of Edmund Ludlow’s Memoirs, re-written by John Toland to excise the radical puritan elements and replace them with a Whiggish brand of republicanism, presented the Cromwellian Protectorate as a military tyranny. Through Ludlow, Toland portrayed Cromwell as a despot who crushed the beginnings of democratic rule in the 1640s.

Statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Palace of Westminster, London.
Statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Palace of Westminster, London.

Thomas Carlyle began a reassessment of Cromwell in the 1840s by presenting Cromwell as a hero in the battle between good and evil and a model for restoring morality to an age Carlyle believed to be dominated by timidity, meaningless rhetoric, and moral compromise. Cromwell's actions, including his campaigns in Ireland and his dissolution of the Long Parliament, according to Carlyle, had to be appreciated and praised as a whole. However, readers were free to interpret Carlyle selectively. His picture of Cromwell appealed to nonconformists, who saw him as a champion of denominational independence, and to working-class radicals (including some Marxists), who saw him as a man of the people who had stood up against monarchical and aristocratic oppression. Nonconformist churches supported a campaign to have Cromwell's statue erected outside the Palace of Westminster; Ford Madox Brown and other artists depicted Cromwell as a heroic figure in paintings such as Cromwell, Protector of the Vaudois. In 1899, when commemorative events to mark the anniversary of Cromwell's birth took place, they were all organised by the Congregational and Baptist churches. At the London ceremony David Lloyd George said that he believed in Cromwell because "he was a great fighting dissenter".

By the late nineteenth century, Carlyle’s portrayal of Cromwell, stressing the centrality of puritan morality and earnestness, had become assimilated into Whig and Liberal historiography. The Oxford civil war historian Samuel Rawson Gardiner concluded that "the man—it is ever so with the noblest—was greater than his work". Gardiner stressed Cromwell’s dynamic and mercurial character, and his role in dismantling absolute monarchy, while underestimating Cromwell’s religious conviction. Cromwell’s foreign policy also provided an attractive forerunner of Victorian imperial expansion, with Gardiner stressing his “constancy of effort to make England great by land and sea”.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Cromwell's reputation was often shaped by the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. Wilbur Cortez Abbott, for example—a Harvard historian—devoted much of his career to compiling and editing a multi-volume collection of Cromwell's letters and speeches. In the course of this work, which was published between 1937 and 1947, Abbott began to argue that Cromwell was a proto-fascist. However, subsequent historians such as John Morrill have criticised both Abbott's interpretation of Cromwell and his editorial approach. Ernest Barker similarly compared the Independents to the Nazis. Nevertheless, not all historical comparisons made at this time drew on contemporary military dictators. Leon Trotsky, for example, compared Cromwell to Lenin, arguing that "Lenin is a Proletarian Cromwell of the Twentieth Century".

Late twentieth-century historians have re-examined the nature of Cromwell’s faith and of his authoritarian regime. Austin Woolrych explored the issue of "dictatorship" in depth, arguing that Cromwell was subject to two conflicting forces: his obligation to the army and his desire to achieve a lasting settlement by winning back the confidence of the political nation as a whole. Woolrych argued that the dictatorial elements of Cromwell's rule stemmed not so much from its military origins or the participation of army officers in civil government, as from his constant commitment to the interest of the people of God and his conviction that suppressing vice and encouraging virtue constituted the chief end of government.

Historians such as John Morrill, Blair Worden and J.C. Davis have developed this theme, revealing the extent to which Cromwell’s writing and speeches are suffused with biblical references, and arguing that his radical actions were driven by his zeal for godly reformation.

Locally Cromwell has retained popularity in Cambridgeshire, where he was known as "Lord of the Fens". In Cambridge, he is commemorated in a painted glass window portrait in the Emmanuel United Reformed Church; St Ives, Cambridgeshire has erected his statue in the town centre.

Cromwell in popular culture

Various songs refer to Cromwell. In 1989 Monty Python released a song entitled " Oliver Cromwell", a parody of Cromwell's biography. The song " Oliver's Army" by Elvis Costello references the New Model Army. A number of other songs are more critical. The song "Young Ned of the Hill" by Terry Woods and Ron Kavana (made famous by The Pogues) criticises Cromwell's exploits in Ireland with words: "A curse upon you Oliver Cromwell, you who raped our motherland, I hope you're rotting down in hell for the horrors that you sent". On 2004 album You Are the Quarry, British artist Morrissey recorded a song " Irish Blood, English Heart" with lyrics: "I've been dreaming of a time when, The English are sick to death of Labour, And Tories, And spit upon the name Oliver Cromwell, And denounce this royal line that still salute him, And will salute him forever". The song "Tobacco Island" by Flogging Molly is about Cromwell deporting Irish workers to Barbados with the lyrics "Cromwell and his roundheads/ battered all we knew/ shackled bolts of freedom/ we're now but stolen goods/ dark is the horizon/ blackened full the sun/ this rotten cage of Bridgetown/ is where I now belong". The Finnish doom metal band Reverend Bizarre recorded a song called "Cromwell" as part of the album II: Crush the Insects (2005).

Cromwell's character has also featured in a number of plays and films. Victor Hugo wrote a play about Cromwell in 1827. In 2003 playwright Steve Newman produced his An Evening With Oliver Cromwell, which looked at the relationship between Cromwell and Major General Thomas Harrison. The play was performed in the "Shreeves House" in Stratford-upon-Avon where Cromwell is thought to have stayed prior to the battle of Worcester. On film he has been portrayed in The Moonraker (1958) by John Le Mesurier, in Witchfinder General (1968) by Patrick Wymark, in Cromwell (1970) by Richard Harris (ironically an Irishman) and in To Kill A King (2003) by Tim Roth. On television he was played by Peter Jeffrey in the BBC series By the Sword Divided and in the BBC docudrama Warts and All (2003) by Jim Carter. The Doctor Who 2006 Big Finish audio play The Settling, written by Simon Guerrier, centres on Cromwell during the sieges of Drogheda and Wexford. He was also a playable leader in the 2001 computer game Empire Earth

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