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Oliver Cromwell's Controversial Legacy in English History

Did he liberate the people, or brutally oppress them?

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  • 'Cromwell in the Battle of Naseby in 1645' by Charles Landseer.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Oliver Cromwell has divided opinion for over three and a half centuries. To some, he is a parliamentary hero who stood up for democracy, while others regard him as a ruthless dictator who spearheaded a bloody revolution to topple the reigning monarch in the most brutal of circumstances.

Born in the sleepy East Anglian town of Huntingdon during the last year of the 16th century, the first 40 years of Cromwell’s life were relatively uneventful, with little hint of the tumultuous events that were to follow.  

Cromwell came from a family of relatively minor Huntingdon landowners. He himself famously remarked in a 1654 speech to Parliament that he was “by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height, nor yet in obscurity”.  Having attended the local grammar school, the young Cromwell continued his education at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, but following his father’s death in 1617, was compelled to abandon his studies and return home.

In 1628, Cromwell was elected as Member of Parliament for Huntingdon, but his introduction to politics was short-lived and largely anonymous. The long-running conflict between King Charles I and Parliament was already underway. The following year, Charles countered opposition from MPs regarding his increasingly autocratic behavior by simply dissolving Parliament. Believing in the divine right of kings, Charles did not summon Parliament again for 11 years.

By this stage, Cromwell was married and was struggling to support his own growing family, as well as his widowed mother. In 1630, he came out second best in a local struggle for political power. The following year he sold his property in Huntingdon and moved to nearby St Ives. Here Cromwell became a tenant farmer, renting rather than owning his own land, which represented a significant decline in social status. His financial situation only began to improve when, in 1636, he received a significant inheritance from a maternal uncle.

During the 1630s, Cromwell also underwent a spiritual conversion, abandoning mainstream Protestantism for the more radical Puritanism. He would later reference this change in religious stance as a major motivating factor behind his subsequent actions.

In 1640, Charles I was finally compelled to recall Parliament when he needed funds to finance a military campaign against the Scots.  Cromwell was elected as MP for Cambridge, but, initially, remained very much in the political background. 

He was however, quick to make the switch from civilian to soldier when fighting broke out during the summer of 1642. He successfully repelled an early attempt by royalist sympathizers to remove large quantities of silver from the wealthy Cambridge colleges for use as a war chest by the King.

Despite no formal training, Cromwell was promoted to the rank of colonel in the parliamentary army within a year. He really made his name as a military commander at Marston Moor, where he played a decisive role in the Parliamentary victory. This monumental battle of July 1644, which is believed to have been the largest ever fought on English soil, proved a turning point in the Civil War, as it effectively gave the Parliamentarians full control over the north of England. 

By the time that Charles I surrendered in 1646, the rise in Cromwell’s status was such that he played a prominent role in the negotiations which followed. These talks dragged on for nearly two years, but the attempt to find a peaceful settlement ultimately failed and the fighting resumed. 

oliver cromwell
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  • 'Portrait of Oliver Cromwell in armour' by Robert Walker.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The King’s days were numbered following further heavy Royalist defeats. He was imprisoned and, in January 1649, put on trial for treason at Westminster Hall. Just a week later, the seemingly unthinkable happened when the following verdict was passed,

“This Court does adjudge that he the said Charles Stuart, as a Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer and Public Enemy to the good people of this Nation, shall be put to death, by the severing of his head from his body.”

Cromwell was the third of 59 MPs to sign the King’s death warrant. Charles I was executed only a few days later on January 30th, 1649. The monarchy was officially abolished soon afterwards.

His death did not signify the end of the conflict. Later that same year, Cromwell left with an army for Ireland, a country already divided by religious differences which had only worsened in the aftermath of the King’s execution. Here, Cromwell cracked down on those resistant to the new Puritan order with merciless efficiency, particularly at Drogheda and Wexford, where his actions are still called into question today.

Cromwell himself provided a firsthand account of events following the capture of Drogheda, which involved the indiscriminate massacre of more than 3,000 Catholic soldiers and civilians. He recalled that he personally forbade his troops “to spare any that were in arms in the town”, leading to the death of about 2,000 men. Catholic priests and friars were also specifically targeted. Some unfortunate men sought sanctuary in the local church, but were burned alive when Cromwell’s troops set fire to the building.

He justified his actions as “a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches”, referring to the earlier murder of English Protestant settlers by Irish Catholics. Throughout his rise to power, Cromwell habitually made similar claims that he was acting as God’s instrument. 

The King may have been unpopular with many of his subjects, but his death created a power vacuum. Cromwell was the country’s most influential military commander and was backed by a large army, so it was perhaps inevitable that he would fill the void. Amid growing dissatisfaction regarding the unsatisfactory state of government, Cromwell took control. In April 1653, he led a troop of soldiers into Westminster and forcibly dissolved Parliament, claiming that they were “corrupt and unjust men”.

Just eight months later, Cromwell was given the title of “Lord Protector”, thus effectively becoming head of state. The meteoric rise to power of the man, who only two decades earlier had been an inconsequential East Anglian tenant farmer, was now complete.

In his role as Lord Protector, Cromwell committed to undertake “the chief magistracy and the administration of government”, responsibilities which bore more than a passing resemblance to those of the erstwhile monarch. There was, however, one significant difference. His appointment was ratified by a constitutional settlement called the Instrument of Government, which stipulated the rules and procedures by which the Lord Protector was to govern. As the first written constitution, this represents a key moment in British political history.

Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector for just under five years, before his death in September 1658. He brought stability to a country which had been torn apart by civil war, but towards the end of his rule displayed a worrying tendency to seize more power for himself. His son Richard succeeded him as Lord Protector, but did not enjoy the same level of support as his father. Only two years later, the monarchy under Charles II was restored. 

A concerted effort to destroy Cromwell’s reputation inevitably followed. He was portrayed as a ruthless tyrant who had personally overseen the death of the martyred Charles I. Having been posthumously convicted of high treason, Cromwell’s opponents dug up his corpse and removed the head, which was then impaled on a spike close to the spot where Charles I had been tried and executed. It remained there until it blew off during a storm two decades later.

Misinformation regarding Cromwell’s legacy has continued ever since. He has, for instance, famously gone down in history as the man who “cancelled Christmas”. It is true that widespread reforms were introduced during the Protectorate which were designed to impose Puritan values on a generally unresponsive public.  However, the first measures to restrict Christmas festivities predate the Protectorate by several years, at a time before Cromwell came to the forefront of political power.

Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle was among the first to portray Cromwell in a more positive light. He published Cromwell’s letters and speeches for the first time, along with annotations of his own, which aimed to present Cromwell as a god-fearing man who saved his country from the disastrous consequences of endless civil war.

Whilst later historians have questioned the way in which Cromwell deliberately set out to characterize himself through his own writing, Carlyle very much took Cromwell’s self-portrayal at face value. Certainly, it is hard to square Carlyle’s view of Cromwell as a benign dictator with his complicity in regicide and the atrocities committed in Ireland, even allowing for the different moral standards of the age. Yet, even today, researchers are continuing to unearth documents which reveal previously little-known aspects of Cromwell’s time as Protector, such as his commitment to religious freedom for all denominations.

In examining Cromwell’s legacy, one fact cannot be denied. That is, the importance of his contribution to the development of modern parliamentary democracy, which is taken for granted by so many in the Western world today.