Oliver Cromwell: Hero Or Villain?

Historians have been arguing for centuries: was Cromwell a great revolutionary ruler, or a brutal tyrant?

Oliver Cromwell: Hero Or Villain?

Oliver Cromwell might well be the most controversial person in British history. The lowly landowner who became a quasi-king, helping slaying an actual king in the process, he's regarded as a champion of liberty by some, and a kind of 17th Century fascist by others.

So should we celebrate or revile Cromwell today? Consider the opposing points of view and make your own thoughts felt below.

Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Marston Moor, 2nd July 1644.

Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Marston Moor, 2nd July 1644.

CROMWELL THE VILLAIN

"A warrior of Christ, somewhat like the crusaders of medieval Europe, he acted as God's executioner, exacting revenge and crushing all opposition." That's how leading expert Micheál Ó Siochrú, author of God's Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the conquest of Ireland, describes the man who would become "Lord Protector" of the realm.

Sounds over the top? Not really. Oliver Cromwell was a brutal military leader who believed in not just beating his enemies but decimating them. No wonder the English Civil War helped make his name, propelling him to the top of the Roundhead food chain in the battle against Royalist forces.

But war is necessarily bloody and brutal, you might say. Fair enough, but what of Cromwell's vicious, almost genocidal conquest of Ireland? In the wake of Charles I's execution, Cromwell led his army to take on the Catholics and Royalists in Ireland, whom he regarded as a threat to the new republic. This was no mere political issue, though. Cromwell's bigotry was also behind it: his contempt for Catholicism meant he would show no mercy during this notoriously violent campaign.

In September 1649, Cromwell's men entered the town of Drogheda and slaughtered almost everyone they found. It's estimated that around 3,500 locals were killed by Cromwell's forces, including many hundreds of ordinary civilians.

Historians still debate the nuances of this outrageous event, and Cromwell's culpability. But let's take the man's own word for it, because Cromwell himself wrote of the massacre: "I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches."

The horror continued just a month later in the Irish town of Wexford, where local rebels were actually trying to negotiate a surrender when Cromwell's men charged in to enact yet more lethal violence. The town and its harbour were destroyed, and it's estimated that around 1,500 people were killed.

Again, some historians may claim that Cromwell didn't directly give the order to murder civilians. Yet, in the words of expert Micheál Ó Siochrú, "His conduct shocked contemporary opinion, not only in Ireland, but also on the continent. As commander-in-chief of the army, the responsibilities for the excesses of the military must be laid firmly at his door."

And away from the battlefield, Cromwell proved himself to be an arch-hypocrite and petty power hungry aristocrat. Despite his religious, Puritan, "man of the people" image, he behaved much like any monarch. He was addressed as "Highness" by his minions, and made Hampton Court Palace his home.

Far from an architect of modern liberty and democracy, he presided over a failed republic which was overthrown by the return of Charles II. Even republicans have no cause to celebrate Cromwell, because there's every possibility that - had there not been a Cromwell - the monarchy may have been properly and permanently overthrown by another more effective leader.

CROMWELL THE HERO

When Oliver Cromwell sat for a portrait, he instructed the artist to "paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me."

That's Cromwell in a nutshell. No nonsense, blunt, and unsentimental, always ready to accept the ugly realities of life. And this underpins and explains even those acts which we may regard as beyond the pale today. What we always have to remember is the time in which he lived, and the enemies he faced.

Take the Ireland question. This is undeniably a black mark against him, and will always cause fists to be shaken at the very mention of Cromwell's name. But let's think like Cromwell for a moment - unsentimental and pragmatic. Let's consider the fact that the Royalists and Catholics in Ireland did present a genuine threat to Cromwell's new republic. Remember that Charles I had only just been executed, and the "Commonwealth of England" was vulnerable to reprisals at any moment. Cromwell did the only thing a leader could do. He defended his nation without hesitation.

It's simply wrong to judge a military leader of the 17th Century, and the defender of a born-again nation no less, by today's standards. Besides, was he really guilty of what we would call "war crimes" today? There's contradictory evidence about the massacres. One historian, Tom Reilly, who actually hails from Drogheda, has questioned the official narrative, claiming that Cromwell actually avoided killing civilians during the Ireland campaign, and negotiated reasonable surrenders in other towns. At the very least, the story of Cromwell in Ireland is a lot more complicated than the lurid mess of legends and historical hearsay would have us believe.

As Lord Protector, Cromwell was a leader genuinely motivated by his sincere religious convictions. Contrary to popular myth, he wasn't a rabid advocate of killing Charles I, and sought to compromise before events spiralled out of control. While he certainly embraced some of the trappings of power, he never forgot that he headed a republic - even when he was literally offered the crown in 1657.

He could easily have accepted it and become "King Oliver", but instead he agonised for weeks over the philosophical and moral implications before turning it down. Doesn't sound like the act of a proto-fascist or dictator, does it?

On the contrary, his efforts kept the country together when it could easily have descended into all-out anarchy. He believed in meritocracy and the will of the people, and he laid the foundations for Britain as we know it today. For all of this he should be praised as a hero.