Historical Figures: Oliver Cromwell

We've all heard his name banded about the history books - but what exactly did Oliver Cromwell do?

Oliver Cromwell

A unique legacy

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. With his parliamentarian forces he played a leading role in bringing Charles I to trial and to execution during the English Civil War, after which time he championed a degree of religious freedom otherwise unknown in England before the last one hundred years. Despite this formidable legacy, his brave new order collapsed within two years of his death, and his corpse was dangled from a gibbet at Tyburn. He was - and remains - one of the most contentious figures in world history.

The early years

Oliver Cromwell was born on 25 April 1599 in Huntingdon. As his family was distantly related to Thomas Cromwell, Oliver's grandfather built an elegant house on former monastic lands, located on the outskirts of Huntingdon. There they regularly entertained many noted dignitaries including King James. However Cromwell's father was merely a younger son who therefore only inherited a small part of the family fortune and burdened by debt, he sold up in 1630, and took a lease on a farm a few miles away, in St Ives. In 1634 It seems that Cromwell attempted to emigrate to Connecticut in America, but was prevented from doing so by the government. During this time his religious beliefs were solidifying into a strong puritan conviction, and he found living within a church still full of 'popish' ceremonies unbearable.

Member of Parliament

From 1640-2 Cromwell emerged as a highly visible and volatile member of parliament. In the early months of his career, he was outspoken on the need for reform of the Church. He was also prominent in the campaign to force the king into calling annual sessions of Parliament. As the country drifted into civil war, he was one of the activist MPs sent into the provinces to raise troops for the defence of the realm. In 1647 he was confirmed as the Lieutenant General of the 'New Model Army' and, despite this military responsibility, he was always involved in national politics. In 1647-8 he supported 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. Cromwell had always trusted in Charles' willingness to agree to his proposals, but when the King escaped from army custody and launched a second civil war, Cromwell rounded on him and hounded him to death.

Soldier

Given his lack of previous military experience, Cromwell was a formidable military leader. Between 1642 and 44, he helped to put East Anglia under complete parliamentarian control, and he took part in five of the ten major battles, moving his troops as far west as Newbury and as far north as York, culminating in June 1645 when the New Model destroyed the remaining royalist armies at Naseby. He was not a military innovator or a brilliant tactician, but he had an uncanny ability to instill self-belief into his men, while also ensuring that they were better paid and fed than were other armies. In 1649 Cromwell was sent to Ireland to place it firmly under English control and he controversially conquered the land, massacring many Catholics en route. In 1650 he 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.

Ruler

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 laziness in developing long-term solutions led him to lose patience in April 1653 and he forcibly disbanded the Parliament and established a 'parliament of saints', the 140 godliest men Cromwell could find, ordered to devise a constitution that would teach the people the responsibilities of freedom and reflect gospel values. 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. It seemed then, that absolute power finally belonged to Cromwell.

Republican?

Ironically Cromwell was not actually averse to monarchy - he had wanted to replace Charles I with one of his sons, even when he had the King executed. In fact he had 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 had previously been assigned to monarchy but with the title Lord Protector. Meeting with Parliament regularly, Cromwell proved most committed to encouraging 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 their own way. Those 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.

Hero or villain?

In 1658, his health failed him and he died on 3 September and was buried in Westminster Abbey. During the Restoration his body was removed at the behest of Charles II. But was the lasting impact of Cromwell's life? Overall his achievement was fleeting and in the short and medium term it wasn't all good: he gave the English an abiding suspicion of religious 'enthusiasm' and he escalated the long-term instability of Ireland, where Catholics were oppressed by an English colonial elite. However, the naval and military reforms that he put in place underlay the future continental and colonial British triumphs. Moreover, he had championed religious liberty, as well as the idea of the accountability of rulers to the people, both of which ideals have proved a great inspiration to non-conformists and liberals. To this day he is a towering figure in both British and Irish history, and has as many supporters as he has detractors.