Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658)

Cromwell was born at Huntingdon in the east England in 1599. He went to the local grammar school and then Cambridge University. He left after a year, to look after his widowed mother and his sisters.

In August 1620 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir James Bourchier, a London merchant. The marriage was held in the church of St Giles Without Cripplegate (which is still standing beside the lake in the Barbican estate). This afternoon visit appears to be his only connection with the Barbican. The Cromwells had five sons and four daughters. His principal interest for the first forty years of his life was farming and the duties of a country gentleman in the Fens.

Cromwell was a Puritan. He believed that the individual Christian could establish direct contact with God through prayer and that the principal duty of the clergy was to inspire the laity by preaching. He believed that Christian congregations ought to be allowed to choose their own ministers, not have them imposed by bishops. As a Puritan, he was in favour of doing away with the hierarchy of bishops and with the ritual prescribed in The Book of Common Prayer, although he was never opposed to a state church as such.

Cromwell was a member of Parliament from 1628. He was one of the Parliamentarians who opposed King Charles I’s attempts to evade parliamentary controls and to exercise arbitrary power. In 1642 the King left London to raise an army, and events drifted toward civil war.  Cromwell made his first appearance as a captain in the closing stages of the Battle of Edgehill (1642). He had no previous military experience.

As a colonel in 1643, he formed his own cavalry regiment. The men all had short hair-cuts. The Royalists (who did not) called them Roundheads. (Soldiers caught referring to their colleagues as Roundheads were kicked out of the regiment – the earliest fashion victims).

Cromwell and his cavalry distinguished themselves at the Battle of Marston Moor (1644) under the earl of Manchester, and in the battles of Naseby and Langport under Sir Thomas Fairfax. Cromwell’s chief contribution at this stage was in forming the New Model Army or “Ironsides” which began to win consistent victories against the king’s forces.

Cromwell was not a convinced republican. When King Charles I was captured, Cromwell initially opposed his colleagues’ proposals to abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords. He signed the King’s death warrant (as one of 135 commissioners), but reluctantly, and only once the King refused to negotiate or to answer charges.

The British Isles were declared a republic and renamed the Commonwealth. There was a one-chamber Parliament and its executive arm was the Council of State. Oliver Cromwell was its first chairman. He suppressed a mutiny in the army led by “Levellers”, an extremist Puritan party aiming at a “levelling” the rich and the poor. He went to Ireland to fight the Royalist forces there. He believed the Catholic Irish were responsible for a huge massacre of English settlers in 1641, so he waged a ruthless campaign against them, massacring a garrison at Drogheda near Dublin in 1649. In 1650 Cromwell led an army into Scotland, where Charles II had been acknowledged as its new king. He felt more tender toward the Scots, most of whom were fellow Puritans, than toward the Catholic Irish. He defeated the Scots at Dunbar (1650). When Charles II advanced into England, Cromwell destroyed his army at Worcester (1650). This brought the Civil War to an end.

But it didn’t bring political peace. The army became more and more discontented with Parliament. It believed that the members were corrupt and that a new Parliament should be called. Cromwell tried to mediate between the two antagonists, but his sympathies were with his soldiers. When he finally came to the conclusion that Parliament must be dissolved and replaced, he called in his musketeers and on April 20, 1653, expelled the members from the House. He replaced it with a nominated assembly –  the “Assembly of Saints”, as it was called. But this body too was not to his liking. It did not consult him. He regarded it as too hasty and too radical. In December 1653, the army forced the Assembly of Saints to transfer its power to Cromwell. He had decided reluctantly that he had to rule directly.

An “Instrument of Government” drawn up by army officers appointed him Lord Protector.As Lord Protector he ruled three nations of England, Scotland, and Ireland with the advice of a council of state and a Parliament, which had to be called at least every three years. He summoned two elected parliaments (1654-55 and 1656-58), but he was never able to control them and ultimately disbanded them in favour of absolute personal rule. In the spring of 1657 he was tempted by an offer of the crown by a majority in Parliament on the ground that it fitted in better with existing institutions and the English common law. In the end he refused to become king because he knew that it would offend his old republican officers. Nevertheless, in the last year and a half of his life he ruled according to a form of government known as “the Petition and Advice.” This in effect made him a constitutional monarch with a House of Lords whose members he was allowed to nominate as well as an elected House of Commons. But he found it equally difficult to govern either with or without parliaments.

Cromwell had always hoped for a political settlement and for social reform. His position was a fairly moderate one. After the Civil War he pushed through an Act of Oblivion – an amnesty – for the defeated. His aim was to reform the law, to set up a Puritan Church, to permit toleration outside it, to promote education, and to decentralize administration. He was strongly opposed to severe punishments for minor crimes. He regarded murder, treason, and rebellion as the only crimes deserving capital punishment. During his Protectorate, committees known as Triers and Ejectors were set up to ensure that high standards of conduct was maintained by clergy and schoolmasters. In spite of resistance from some members of his council Cromwell allowed Jews to settle in Britain. (They had been banned for the previous 365 years).

The guiding motive in his foreign policy was national and not religious benefit. He sent an amphibious expedition to the Spanish West Indies, and in May 1655 Jamaica was conquered. As the price for sending an expeditionary force to Spanish Flanders to fight alongside the French, he obtained possession of the port of Dunkirk.

Ever since the campaign in Ireland, Cromwell’s health had been poor. In August 1658, after his favourite daughter, Elizabeth, died of cancer, he was taken ill with malaria. He died in Whitehall on 3rd September. His body was secretly interred in Westminster Abbey on 10th November, 13 days before his state funeral. In 1661, after the restoration of King Charles II, Cromwell’s embalmed remains were dug up and hung at Tyburn, where criminals were executed. His body was then buried beneath the gallows. But his head was stuck on a pole on top of Westminster Hall, where it is known to have remained until the end of Charles II’s reign.

Puritans have an almost Taliban-like reputation for religious excesses and for opposition to all forms of enjoyment. But music and hunting were among Cromwell’s recreations. He liked organ music. He smoked, and drank sherry and beer. He permitted dancing at the marriage of his youngest daughter.

In religious matters he was very tolerant. Outside the church, he permitted all Christians to practice their own religion so long as they did not create disorder and unrest. He allowed the use of The Book of Common Prayer in private houses. Even English Roman Catholics were better off under the Protectorate than they had been under Charles I. Although many Quakers were kept in prison for disturbing the peace, Cromwell was on friendly terms with George Fox, the founder of the Quaker Society of Friends, and explored religious questions with him. The fact of the matter is that the Puritans were far more intolerant of religious diversity than the Royalists ever were.

In politics, Cromwell held no fixed views except that he was opposed to what he called arbitrary government. Click sayings to view a few of his more memorable utterances. It’s ironic, however, that having fought a civil war for parliamentary rights against an individual ruler’s arbitrary use of power, he ended up ruling arbitrarily and removing any parliament which didn’t agree with him.

He continues to intrigue us. Biographies of Cromwell far outnumber those of any English or British monarch.