Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell
By Professor Morrill
Detail of Oliver Cromwell from an engraving ? Oliver Cromwell played a leading role in bringing
Charles I to trial and execution, and was a key figure during the civil war. Why does he remain
one of the country's most controversial public figures?
A unique leader
Oliver Cromwell rose from the middle ranks of English society to be Lord Protector of England,
Scotland and Ireland, the only non-royal ever to hold that position. He played a leading role in
bringing Charles I to trial and to execution; he undertook the most complete and the most brutal
military conquest ever undertaken by the English over their neighbours; he championed a degree
of religious freedom otherwise unknown in England before the last one hundred years; but the
experiment he led collapsed within two years of his death, and his corpse dangled from a gibbet at
Tyburn. He was - and remains - one of the most contentious figures in world history
'Cromwell had been converted to a strong puritan faith'
Oliver Cromwell was born on 25 April 1599 in Huntingdon. His ancestors had benefited from the
power of a distant relative, Thomas Cromwell, who secured them former monastic lands in 1538-9.
Cromwell's grandfather built an elegant house on the outskirts of Huntingdon and regularly
entertained King James (the hunting was good in Huntingdon) and other prominent courtiers. But
Cromwell's father was a younger son who only inherited a small part of the family fortune and he
was brought up in a modest town house. Burdened by debt and a decline in his fortunes, he sold
up in 1630, and took a lease on a farm a few miles away, in St Ives. It would appear that in 1634
Cromwell attempted to emigrate to Connecticut in America, but was prevented by the government
from leaving.
For Cromwell had been converted to a strong puritan faith, and he found living within a church
still full of 'popish' ceremonies unbearable. He yearned to be where the gospel was proclaimed and
preached unadorned. He stayed and became more radical in his religion - he regularly preached at
an illegal religious assembly and he referred in a letter to the Bishop as 'the enemies of God His
Truth'. When the chance came, he stood for Parliament, and was returned on the interest of a
Puritan caucus, for the town of Cambridge.
Member of Parliament (1640 - 1649)
Cromwell was a highly visible and volatile member of parliament from 1640-2 and whenever he
took his seat in between military campaigns. In the early months of the Long Parliament, he was
outspoken on the need for reform of the Church 'roots and branches' and he was the first man to
demand the outright abolition of bishops. He was also prominent in the campaign to force the king
into calling annual sessions of Parliament; and he demanded that control of home defence be
transferred from the King to officers directly appointed by Parliament. As the country drifted into
civil war, he was one of the activist M.P.s sent into the provinces to raise troops 'for the defence of
the realm'. He galvanised the areas around Huntingdon and Ely and used force to prevent the
Cambridge Colleges sending their silver to the King's headquarters to support his war effort.
He was quickly commissioned into the army, and spent most of the next four years in arms. But in
the winter of 1644/5 he returned to Parliament and bitterly denounced the parliamentarian generals
for half-heartedness and an unwillingness to promote low-born men with radical religious views
who had a passion for victory over gentlemen who looked for a negotiated, compromise peace.
Controversially, he was the only M.P. exempted from an ordinance that recalled Members of both
Houses to serve in Parliament, but even he served out the war in the 'New Model Army' on a series
of 40-day commissions. It was only in 1647 that he was confirmed as the Lieutenant General.
'For too long, Cromwell trusted in the King's willingness to agree to his proposals'
In 1647-8 he argued in favour of a settlement with the king that would require him to accept
Cromwell's political allies as his ministers and which would guarantee rights of religious liberty
for all sincere protestants. This brought him into conflict with those in Parliament who wanted to
replace the old Church of England, with a new 'Presbyterian' Church based on the teachings of
Calvin and the experience of Geneva and Scotland, but also with more radical voices that wanted
a much more democratic system of government - the right of all adult males to vote, for example.
For too long, Cromwell trusted in the King's willingness to agree to his proposals. When, instead,
he escaped from army custody and launched a second civil war, Cromwell rounded on him and
hounded him to death.
Soldier (1642 - 1651)
Given his lack of previous military experience, Cromwell's military rise was spectacular: captain
in 1642, colonel early in 1643, in charge of the cavalry of the second most important of the
regional armies by the end of the year, Lieutenant General of the New Model 1645-9 and Lord
General for the campaigns in Ireland (1649-50) and Scotland (1650-1). In 1642-4, he helped to put
East Anglia under complete parliamentarian control, and worked tirelessly to create the most
efficient and responsive civilian support structure in the country, ensuring the flow of money and
supplies to his troops. He took part in five of the ten major battles, moving his troops as far west
as Newbury and as far north as York. His role in the greatest of victories, at Marston Moor in July
1644, was crucial.
In 1645-6 he again played a vital role, in the planning of campaigns and on major battlefields, as
the New Model systematically destroyed the remaining royalist armies at Naseby in Northampton
in June 1645, Langport in Somerset a month later and then in a relentless series of sieges of
royalist strongholds. He was not a military innovator or a brilliant tactician, but he had an
extraordinary ability to instill self-belief into his men, to share with him his own utter conviction
that God was with them and willing them to victory; and he ruthless and relentlessly ensured that
they were better paid and fed than were other armies, even if that meant some controversial
requisitioning of supplies. In 1647, he struggled to maintain the unity of army in the face both of
Parliament's attempts to disband it before a political settlement was reached with a defeated king
and of radical attempts to eliminate monarchy and to establish a constitution that would promote a
major redistribution of wealth and social and economic power. In 1648, Charles I tried to overturn
his defeat in the First Civil War by making a new alliance with the Scots and calling on former
royalists and disillusioned Parliamentarians to rise up. Faced by revolt across Britain, the New
Model divided and Cromwell took on the lion's share of the work, crushing a major rebellion in
South Wales, defeating a Scots invasion force at Preston and then pacifying Yorkshire.
'...every tenth common soldier - were killed, many clubbed to death. It was in accordance with the
laws of war, but it went far beyond what any General had done in England'
In the summer of 1649, Cromwell was sent to Ireland with two objectives: to place it firmly under
English control; to superintend the confiscation the land of all 'rebels' - as a result almost forty per
cent of the land of Ireland was redistributed from Catholics born in Ireland to Protestants born in
Britain. His first target was the town of Drogheda north of Dublin which he stormed and captured.
Perhaps 2,500 men, mainly in arms, were killed during the storm and several hundred more - all
the officers, all Catholic priests and friars, every tenth common soldier - were killed, many
clubbed to death. It was in accordance with the laws of war, but it went far beyond what any
General had done in England. Cromwell then perpetrated a messier massacre at Wexford.
Thereafter most towns surrendered on his approach, and he scrupulously observed surrender
articles and spared the lives of soldiers and civilians. It was and is a controversial conquest. But,
from the English point of view, it worked. In the summer of 1650, he returned to England and was
sent off to Scotland, where Charles II had been proclaimed and crowned as King of Britain and
Ireland. In a campaign as unrelenting but less brutal, he wiped out the royal armies and established
a military occupation of the lowlands and west that was to last until 1660. In September 1651 he
returned to a roman-style triumphant entry in London. One foreign ambassador watching
predicted that he would soon he king. He was almost right.
Statesman (1651 - 1658)
From September 1651 until his death seven years later Cromwell hardly ever left London. As Lord
General, he was a powerful voice in the counsels of the Rump Parliament and its 41-man Council
of State that ruled England. But his deepening irritation with its self-serving and sloth in
developing long-term solutions led him to lose patience in April 1653 and to use military force to
disband the Parliament and to establish a 'parliament of saints', the 140 godliest men Cromwell
could find whose task it was to devise a constitution that would reflect gospel values and would
teach the people the responsibilities of freedom - how to turn from the things of the flesh to those
of the spirit. This proved too tall an order and after five months the assembly surrendered power
back into Cromwell's hands. His army colleagues asked him to take power as a constitutional
monarch within the 'Instrument of Government', a fully developed paper constitution.
'Cromwell was not averse to monarchy - he had wanted to replace Charles I by one of his sons'
Cromwell was not averse to monarchy - he had wanted to replace Charles I by one of his sons,
even at the time of the Regicide - and he had discussed the restoration of the House of Stuarts with
colleagues in 1651 and 1652, but he shrank from taking the title himself. And so he was installed
with most of the powers that the Instrument had assigned to monarchy but with the title Lord
Protector. He was constrained to work with and through a Council of State and to meet Parliament
regularly. He was most committed to a wide measure of religious liberty - there was a state church
under Cromwell, but no-one was required to attend it, and almost everyone, Catholics and Jews
included, was allowed to worship privately in the light of conscience. Membership of the state
church was not a qualification (as it was to be before 1649 and from 1660 until the nineteenth
century) for entry to the universities, the professions, public office. Those who abused liberty to
disturb the liberty of others (Quakers), as a front for political ambition (Catholics), or who
promoted beliefs against the Creeds (especially those who denied that Jesus Christ was God) were
subject to regulation, but otherwise this was a remarkable period of religious freedom. Cromwell
wanted to build a godly commonwealth, and he rode roughshod over those who got in his way raising taxation without consent, overriding a law he has helped to make in 1651 which protected
ex-royalists from further penalty, imprisoning without trial those he believed to be planning
subversion of his regime.
In 1657 the more conservative of Cromwell's supporters - the lawyers above all - made another
attempt to make him King in an attempt to place him under the restraining influence of ancient
rules and restrictions. He again refused the title, but did accept a redefinition of his powers in 'The
Humble Petition and Advice'. In 1658, his health inexorably failed him and he died on 3
September and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He had always led a minority government, and
the coalition of interests he represented disintegrated with his death, opening the way to the
Restoration twenty months later.
'He gave the English an abiding suspicion of religious 'enthusiasm''
His achievement was transient and in the short and medium term negative. He gave the English an
abiding suspicion of religious 'enthusiasm' and of soldiers-in-politics, and he escalated the
long-term instability of Ireland, where a Catholic people were oppressed by an English colonial
elite. The naval and military reforms - and the financial measures that underpinned them underlay the continental and colonial triumphs of the following centuries. He had championed
religious liberty, the principle of the accountability of rulers to the people and these proved a great
inspiration to nineteenth-century non-conformists and liberals. He has more roads named after him
than any other Englishman and woman except Queen Victoria. He is a dominant figure in public
memory of British and Irish history, and probably the one about whom there is most disagreement.
Find out more
Oliver Cromwell by Barry Coward (Longman, 1991)
Oliver Cromwell by Peter Gaunt (Blackwell, 1996)
Oliver Cromwell by JC Davis (Edward Arnold, 2001)
God's Englishman by Christopher Hill (Penguin, 1972)
Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution edited by John Morrill (Longman, 1990)
The Lord Protector by Robert Paul (Heinemann, 1955)
Oliver Cromwell by John Buchan (1934)
Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans by CH Firth (Oxford University Press, 1900)
The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell edited by Thomas Carlyle (innumerable editions
from many publishers, 1843-1903)
The Speeches of Oliver Cromwell edited by Ivan Roots (Everyman, 1989)
About the author
John Morrill is Professor of British and Irish History at the University of Cambridge and was for
ten years President of the Cromwell Association, a body that seeks to promote public knowledge
about and interest in Cromwell and his age. He is the author of many books about the period.