Oliver Cromwell

'Pray Mr. Hampden, who is that sloven?' demanded the nattily dressed Philip Warwick. 'That sloven' was Oliver Cromwell, haranguing the first session of the Long Parliament. Warwick had reason to be unimpressed. The scruffily, badly shaven, purple-faced backbencher was just what he seemed: a failed Huntingdonshire businessman, a religious eccentric, 'an unguided missile not really under ground control'. Obscure, poor, unstable, seemingly not very bright, Cromwell looked like a natural loser rather than a natural leader. Yet within a decade he would rule the British Isles.

Cromwell's achievement was indeed amazing. He transformed the social and political establishment of his day. Parliament's victory in the Civil War owed him an immense debt. He played a dominant role in the execution of Charles I. He defeated the royalists in Scotland and Ireland, bringing those recalcitrant outbacks into England's orbit. Cromwell's achievement abroad was equally impressive - witness Clarendon's judgement 'the glory he had at home was but a shadow of the greatness he had abroad'. Cromwell founded the British Empire based on sea power and trade. He held office for five years as Lord Protector. Only after his death did the republic fall. Who can match such a record? How did he do it?

Both contemporaries and historians have found this a hard question. Even Cromwell was puzzled: 'No man rises so high as he who knows not where he is going'. Was he led by Providence to achieve God's purposes? Or was this pure eyewash which enabled him to betray his friends and cheat his rivals? Did his enemies rightly attribute his success to ambitious hypocrisy? In truth Cromwell was a complex man, one of the best well known, oft-quoted but least understood in history' John Kenyon reviewing Christopher Hill's God's Englishman admitted his inability to reconcile Cromwell's extraordinary achievements with his apparently third-rate, ordinary talents. As Cromwell's most striking trait was his domineering personality, Kenyon concluded that Cromwell succeeded because men were afraid of him.

The general
Certainly the immediate cause of Cromwell's rise to power was military. How good a soldier was he? He was exceptional in that he took to soldiering in middle-age, for he was only 43 when the Civil War began. Only Caesar matches him there Military historians are reluctant to put Cromwell in the top class, David Chandler rating him below Wellington and Marlborough because he never fought a continental enemy. However entertaining such speculation may be, Cromwell was better than Charles I, Rupert and Goring - and much better than Waller, Manchester and Essex. Cromwell excelled in training and inspiring troops, he had a cavalryman's eye for horseflesh and at Preston and Dunbar he exploited his enemy's tactical mistakes. Cromwell enjoyed soldering. He preferred the bonhomie of the camp to the backbiting of Westminster and he found battles exhilarating: 'I profess, they run!' he shouted, laughing hysterically when his enemies turned tail.

Cromwell's greatest military achievement was the most shameful episode in his career - the subjugation of Ireland. He was more responsible than anyone else for the high percentage of Irish deaths during the Civil Wars. But there is no doubting Cromwell's administrative skill in preparing and equipping his army for the campaign, his charismatic leadership in battle, awareness of sea power's contribution, exploitation of speed and ability to split and demoralise the opposition. In Sir Phelim O'Neill's words, 'lf Cromwell taken Drogheda by storm, should storm Hell, he will take it'. Cromwell's enemies hoped that Ireland would ruin him as it had ruined others. Instead Cromwell returned in triumph, soon to conquer Scotland. 'Old Ironsides' was now bomb-proof: power was his for the taking.

If military success was Cromwell's only strength, Kenyon was right. People might well quail before such an all-conquering force, such ruthless brutality For Cromwell not only sought military solutions on campaign. His musketeers 'helped' the MPs out of their seats when he dissolved the Rump in April 1653. The MPs must indeed have been terrified on that memorable occasion as the big, choleric bruiser shouted abuse at them - 'drunkards', 'whoremasters', 'You are no Parliament, I say you are no Parliament!' The bayonets of the New Model Army kept Cromwell in power thereafter while his Major-Generals came down like a ton of bricks on anyone who stepped out of line. This was military dictatorship, rule by fear par excellence.

But was this the whole story? Other explanations of Cromwell's remarkable career will be explored in this article. Not all of them are to Cromwell's credit. Nevertheless one does not have to be a. member of the Cromwell Association to perceive that he was more than a glorified thug.

The man of principle
One of the most thought-provoking reasons for Cromwell's success was that he was widely and highly rated. Ex-royalists such as Ashley and Monck, hardheaded politicians such as Vane and St John, Cromwell's own generals, all of them men of character and independence, sensitive intellectuals such as Milton and Fox were unlikely to be bowled over by a crude bully. The collapse of the Army's unity after Cromwell's death showed the respect in which he was held. Monck remarked that 'Richard Cromwell forsook himself', otherwise I would have sustained him out of the regard I had for his father'. Similarly Cromwell's role as head of state would have provoked ridicule if he had been merely a 17th-century Idi Amin. Significantly royalists mocked 'Joan' Cromwell rather than her husband. Peter Gaunt describes his 'powerful and at times dazzling image as Lord Protector', how he was addressed as 'Your Highness', how he signed himself 'Oliver P', how he created 30 knights, 12 baronets and two peers. The offer of the Crown in the Humble Petition and Advice (1657) was a real compliment.

Cromwell's ability to command respect is particularly impressive, for there were grounds for questioning his integrity. He undermined Manchester, his C-In-C, and behaved deviously over the Self-Denying Ordinance. When he claimed ignorance of Cornet Joyce's kidnapping of the King, Charles' reply, 'Hang him up, and I'll believe what you say', was spot on. Cromwell claimed to be devoid of personal ambition, to fight the Lord's battle both in politics and war, to pursue the interests of God's people - but there is his haunting question asked in 1652, 'What if a man should take upon himself to be a king?' It was extraordinary how power kept on falling into his hands. When Cromwell suggested in April 1653 that there was no more fitting moment to dissolve parliament, the irrepressible republican Henry Martin replied that there was no more fitting moment for the Lord General to be changed. But Cromwell was still there five years later, moaning to the second parliament of the Protectorate: 'I would have been glad to have been living under a woodside to have kept a flock of sheep, rather than to have undertaken such a place as this'. Why did anyone fall for such insincere self-pity? How did Cromwell get away with it?

In self-justification Cromwell claimed that he had a programme to fulfil. Take his letter to Parliament after the victory at Dunbar (September 1650): 'Disown yourselves, but own your authority, and improve it to curb the proud and the insolent, and such as would disturb the tranquillity of England, though under what specious pretence whatever; relieve the oppressed, hear the groans of poor prisoners in England, be pleased reform the abuses of all professions; and if there be any one that makes many poor to make a few rich, that suits not a Commonwealth.'

Moralising clap-trap? Or was this a genuine programme of social justice? Cromwell had a paternalistic concern for the poor. Though he allowed himself to be talked out of law reform, he abolished the death penalty for petty theft. He was above all consistently loyal to three priorities: the maintenance of public order, a settlement based on consent and liberty of conscience for Protestants. 'I had rather that Mohametanism were permitted amongst us than that one of God's children should be persecuted'. Could any reasonable person quarrel with such admirable goals?

The bigot
They certainly could - and did. Actually Cromwell's prejudices explain his political success far more than his idealism. While his campaign for social justice and religious toleration did him no good at all, his contemporaries warmed to his brutality, oversimplified Protestantism and strident nationalism. 'God made them as stubble to our swords', 'This man against whom the Lord hath witnessed', 'You have appealed to the judgement of heaven, but the Lord has declared against you' - such tendentious expressions of faith in Providence did not strike a credulous age as being absurd or presumptuous. Similarly Cromwell's overblown nationalism impressed a political nation which had resented England's poor showing under the first two Stuarts. Cromwell was courted by Mazarin's France, his navy dominated the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Baltic, Spain was humiliated and robbed. 'One thing is sure, we are English', Cromwell boasted complacently to the first parliament of the Protectorate.

Without doubt Cromwell's image was improved by the devastation of Ireland - including the storming of Drogheda. The Lord General's deservedly notorious report to Speaker Lenthall repays analysis: 'I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hand in so much innocent blood; and that will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future. Which are the satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret...'

It is all there - the monstrous claim that a God of mercy should desire the slaughter of 3,000 people (by no means all of them combatants), outrageous anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudice, culpable credulity with regard to alleged massacres perpetrated by the Irish rebels in 1641. Maurice Ashley has defended Cromwell's excuse for the massacre by comparing it with Truman's justification of the atomic bomb ('It will save a million American lives'). S. R. Gardiner wrote that Cromwell 'was probably the only man in the victorious army who imagined what had taken place needed any excuse at all', and certainly Rupert never expressed 'remorse and regret' for the sack of Holton or Monck for the storming of Dundee. Antonia Fraser argues that Cromwell 'saw red - the red of his comrades' blood... the slaughter itself stood quite outside his usual record of careful mercy as a soldier'. Historians are too kind. Both Cromwell's actions and his account of them reek of intolerance and bloodlust. Take his reference to the man burnt to death in the steeple of St Peter's Church who 'was heard to say in the midst of the flames: "God damn me, God confound me, I burn I burn" '. I suspect that Cromwell thought this episode funny and assumed it would amuse the MPs knew his audience. Three weeks later he delighted them with his even more exultant report on the sack of Wexford.

The politician
Cromwell's ability to read men's minds was part of his management skills. He had a gift for concealing his own thoughts and giving men the impression that he agreed with them. He listened patiently to criticism and dissent. He combined this flexibility with a vivid, magnetic personality, an infectious sense of fun which could descend to schoolboy levels when he threw cushions at his generals or - outrageous levity - flicked ink at Henry Martin while they signed Charles I's death-warrant. Cromwell had a capacity for friendship, often going out of his way to win a man over. In the context of charm offensives Cromwell's name might not come to mind. But he could be pleasant. He was courteous to women. His affability was admitted even by critics such as Lucy Hutchinson who described the Protector's attempt to win over her formidable husband 'He went, to the end of the gallery with the Colonel, and there embracing him said aloud to him 'Well, Colonel satisfied or dissatisfied, you shall be one of us, for we can no longer exempt a person so able and faithful from the public service, and you shall be satisfied in all honest things.

The most important explanation of Cromwell's success is that he fitted the bill. He was supported by the political nation because from their point of view he was satisfactory. England was governed, order was kept, royalists were frustrated, taxes were raised, abuses were remedied, trade revived, England's prestige abroad rocketed. The nightmare of anarchy which had terrified the governing classes during the 1640s was scotched.

Cromwell achieved success because of his faith in himself and in God Providence - the will of God revealed in events - was his guiding star. Field-Marshal Montgomery wrote - with unconscious irony - that a general must believe that God is on his side. Cromwell had this conviction, both as a general and as a politician. His Christianity was profound, but it had little to do with the New Testament. Apart from mentioning Christ now and again as someone whose representative he claimed to be, Cromwell was inspired by the stirring and bloodthirsty deeds of Old Testament warlords such as Moses and Joshua. He delighted in Old Testament imagery, rejecting the crown because 'it would rebuild Jericho' and resisting the temptation to enrich himself because it was 'the sin of Achan'. While Cromwell referred approvingly to Phineas who harpooned two fornicating Israelites, he rarely quoted Jesus who advocated forgiveness of one's enemies, the value of everyone - even Catholic Irish - in God's sight, the supreme glory of self-sacrificing love. Far better to be encouraged by a vengeful God who revealed his will by dictating the course of the Civil Wars. As Cromwell remarked, 'Anyone who cannot see this must be an atheist'. So God punished 'the man of blood' Charles I and gave strength to his chosen servants, Cromwell for example.

Cromwell undeniably was given strength to win not only military but political battles. While he quickly learnt his trade as a soldier, Peter Gaunt show how Cromwell developed as a politician. The gauche backbencher of 1640 and the hesitant chairman of the Putney debates developed into a shrewd, flexible realist in the 1650s. The negotiation over the Humble Petition and Advice in which he played off his political and military advisers against each other finally gave Cromwell all he wanted. He proved an effective leader of his Council and a forceful communicator. While his was not rational or a methodical mind, he had common sense and a flair for compromise. The soldier became a statesman.

Cromwell could see to the heart of an issue, for he was a great simplifier. Sometimes he oversimplified - for instance in his approach to divine intervention. But there were occasions when this capacity to see the wood for the trees was invaluable. 'I tell you we will cut off his head with the crown upon it'. 'I should put a sword in the tenth man's hands - would not that do the business?' 'Reflect that the case of James Nayler could be your own'. Straight to the point! But Cromwell was not a calculating machine. He coupled this awareness of priorities with emotional commitment. He wept easily. Fleetwood and Cromwell used to blubber together for hours. Emotion and singleness of mind were a formidable partnership.

In awe of none
Cromwell's most unusual asset was his lack of deference, his irreverence. Sometimes this was sheer blinkered prejudice. 'Leave off your fooling and come down sir' - this to the Reverend Henry Hitch conducting Evensong in Ely Cathedral. At its best it was a grand dismissal of snobbish convention - 'I would just as soon shoot the king as any other enemy soldier'. Cromwell was exceptional here.

Seventeenth-century England was king-worshipping, class-conscious and traditionalist. But Cromwell was different. Monarchy, Lords, Scots, Irish, the Church, the bishops, his aristocratic military superiors - all collapsed before him. In April 1653 Cromwell threw out the Rump, 'the contemplation of the issue whereof made his hair to stand on end'. But he did it just the same, knocking down parliaments more frequently than any Stuart. After each demolition he emerged from the ruins flexing his muscles and looking for the next pillar of the establishment to destroy. His bete noire was the legal profession. 'I care not for the Magna Farta!' he shouted at a protesting lawyer. Historians claim that Cromwell was a conservative, especially towards the end of his life. But his record as an iconoclast is formidable. Familiarity has blunted one of his most shocking remarks. As the Rump broke up in noisy chaos the mace-bearer processed down the House. 'Hey! What shall we do with this bauble? Take it away!' shouted Cromwell. The mace! The symbol of parliamentary authority a bauble!

Cromwell's admirers protest that it is wrong to see him as a mere constitutional yobbo. Christopher Hill finds his hero's radicalism attractive when in the 1640s he defied convention by promoting men on merit. John Morrill writes 'that a man with a less fierce vision, with a more compromising spirit, with less certainty of God's special call to him and to England, would never have risen from being a failed Huntingdon businessman and Fenland farmer to be Head of State and Lord Protector of a united England, Scotland and Ireland'. Furthermore Cromwell mixed radicalism with charity. Ivan Roots admires Cromwell's patience and courtesy with bores and crackpots. Peter Gaunt believes the Protector's reputation should rest on 'the decency of the man and his regime' and praises his modesty and pursuit of compromise and reconciliation.

The man of Providence
Unlike their hero are historians too deferential? Cromwell certainly had breadth of vision and greatness of heart. He rose above his contemporaries in the campaign for liberty of conscience. He pleaded for the lives of the alleged war-criminal the Earl of Derby and of the Jesuit John Southworth. He gave money to John Lilburne's widow and to the imprisoned Quaker John Piddle. He provided an escort for the Royalist Colonel, Townley's widow on the battlefield of Marston Moor After that bloodbath his letter to the bereaved Valentine Walton is a model of sympathy and understanding Cromwell was consistently compassionate - except to Irish Catholics. But Cromwell's admirers tend to regard this as the only blemish on an otherwise admirable and successful career. Whether Cromwell regarded himself as a success is another matter. During the last years of his life, exhausted and depressed, he was preoccupied with his failures. He failed to achieve a constitutional settlement with Parliament: 'I am as much for consent as any man, but where shall we find consent?' He failed to lead a victorious crusade against Spain: The Lord hath mightily humbled us'. He failed to persuade the English to become a godly nation: 'What's for their good, not what pleases them'. Cromwell was disappointed by the Parliament of the Saints' refusal to march into the Promised Land like the Israelites of old. He could not overcome his countrymen's reluctance to be reformed, their affection for the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, their hankering after traditional festivities. Cromwell contemptuously dismissed the future Charles II: 'Just give him a joint of mutton and a whore, for he is so damnably debauched he will undo us all'. But Charles II was more In tune with his people's preferences, uniquely qualified as he was to restore phallic maypoles to village greens. Meanwhile Cromwell sadly, reluctantly resigned himself to being 'the good constable, to keep the peace of the parish.

Cromwell's strength - and his weakness - was his determination to follow the apparent dictates of Providence whatever anyone else thought or said. He was like a Dreadnought ploughing through rough seas - though in 1911 George V vetoed a suggestion that there should be an H.M.S. Cromwell. British Rail had no such inhibitions and in 1967 Oliver Cromwell became appropriately the last steam engine in service. In the same way the Protector had snorted and clanked along his chosen, obsolete track, striving for destinations which contemporaries for the most part rejected as unrealistic or undesirable. But his courage and determination were admirable. Perhaps John Bunyan had Cromwell in mind when he described the 'man of a very stout countenance' in the Interpreter's House: 'At last, when every man started back for fear of the armed men, Christian saw a man of a very stout countenance come up to the men that sat there to write, saying, Set down my name, Sir The which when he had done, he saw the man draw his sword and put a helmet upon his bead, and rush toward the door upon the armed men, who laid upon him with deadly force, but the man, not at all discouraged, fell to cutting and hacking back most fiercely. So after he had received and given many wounds to those that attempted to keep him out he cut his way through them all, and pressed forward into the palace Then Christian smiled and said, I think verily I know the meaning of this'.

by Richard Wilkinson

Oliver Cromwell
Further Reading
Oliver Cromwell (Profiles In Power)
By Barry Coward

Cromwell, Our Chief Of Men
By Antonia Fraser

Oliver Cromwell: British Library Historic Lives
By Peter Gaunt

History of the Commonwealth of England: From Its Commencement, to the Restoration of Charles II
By William Godwin

Oliver Cromwell
By Pauline Gregg

God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution
By Christopher Hill

Images of Oliver Cromwell: Essays for and by Roger Howell
Ed by R. C. Richardson

Cromwell and Interregnum: The Essential Readings (Blackwell Essential Readings in History)
By David Lee Smith

The English Civil Wars: 1640 - 1660
By Blair Worden

History Makers - Oliver Cromwell
Leaders in Battle - Oliver Cromwell


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