Oliver Cromwell was an English soldier and statesman who led parliamentary forces in the English Civil Wars. He was lord protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1653 to 1658 during the republican Commonwealth.
As a general on the parliamentary side of the English Civil War vs. Charles I, Cromwell helped bring about the overthrow of the Stuart monarchy, and he raised his country’s status to that of a leading European power since the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Being a man with strong character made him one of the most remarkable rulers in modern European history. Although he was a convinced Calvinist he believed deeply in the value of religious toleration. Cromwell’s victories at home and abroad helped to vitalize a Puritan attitude of mind, in Great Britain and in North America, which has continued to influence political and social life until recent times. (Gaunt, 1996)
Cromwell, the only son of Robert Cromwell and Elizabeth Steward was born in Huntingdon, England in 1599. His father, who was active in local affairs, had been a member of one of Queen Elizabeth’s parliaments. Robert Cromwell died when his son was 18, but his widow lived to the age of 89. Oliver went to the local grammar school and then for a year attended Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. After his father died he left Cambridge to go care for his mother and sisters but it is believed that he studies at Lincoln’s Inn in London, where gentlemen could acquire a smattering of law. In 1620 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir James Bourchier, a merchant in London. They had five sons and four daughters. (Kathe, 1984)
Both his father and mother were Protestants who had profited from the destruction of the monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII, and they probably influenced their son in his religious upbringing. Both his schoolmaster in Huntingdon and the Master of Sidney Sussex College were enthusiastic Calvinists and strongly anti-Catholic. In his youth Cromwell was not very studious, since he enjoyed outdoor sports, such as hunting; but he was an avid reader of the Bible, and he admired Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World. Cromwell learned that the sins of man could be punished on earth but that God, through His Holy Spirit, could guide the elect into the paths of righteousness. (Kathe, 1984)
In the early parts of his married life Cromwell, like his father, was quite conscious of his responsibilities to his fellow men and concerned himself with affairs in his native fenlands, but at the same time he had a spiritual and psychological struggle which confused him and damaged his health. He was convinced that he had been “the chief of sinners” before he learned that he was one of God’s Chosen. (Kathe, 1984)
Cromwell also had financial worries until, at the age of 39, he inherited property at Ely from his uncle. Like other lesser gentry, he contended with bad harvests and a variety of taxes and impositions, such as "ship money", exacted by the monarchy not only to pay for the upkeep of the navy but also to sustain the luxuries of the court. In 1628 he had been elected a member of Parliament for the borough of Huntingdon, but King Charles I dissolved this Parliament in 1629 and did not call it again for 11 years. (Gaunt, 1996)
During this time, country gentlemen like Cromwell became annoyed. The Cromwell family was one of a mass of angry gentry who belonged to "the political nation": for example, John Hampden, a wealthy squire who brought a case against the king over the levying of ship money, was Cromwell’s cousin. Then in 1640 Cromwell was elected a member of the Parliament for the borough of Cambridge (partly because of the important social position he held in Ely and partly because of his fame as “Lord of the Fens,”) he found himself among many friends at Westminster who were highly critical of the monarchy. This ;quot;Short Parliament;quot; did little since it was dissolved after three weeks, but, when in November 1640 Cromwell returned to Cambridge for the ;quot;Long Parliament;quot;, which sat until 1653, his public career began. (Smith, 1991)
Cromwell had already become known as a fiery and somewhat uncouth Puritan, in the Parliament of 1628-29, when he had launched an attack on Charles I’s bishops. He believed that individual Christians could establish direct contact with God through prayer and that the purpose of the clergy was to inspire the laity by preaching. Thus he contributed out of his own pocket to the support of itinerant Protestant preachers and openly showed his dislike of the bishop at Ely. He criticized the bishop in the House of Commons and was appointed a member of a committee to investigate other complaints against him. Cromwell distrusted the whole hierarchy of the Church of England, even though he was not opposed to a state church. He therefore advised abolishing the institution of the episcopate and the banning of a set ritual as prescribed in The Book of Common Prayer. He believed that Christian congregations should be allowed to choose their own ministers, who should serve them by preaching and extemporaneous prayer. Though he grieved over taxes, monopolies, and other such impositions on the people, it was his religion that made him oppose the King’s government. In November 1641 when John Pym and his friends presented to King Charles I “Grand Remonstrance,” which consisted of over 200 clauses, among which was one censuring the bishops “and the corrupt part of the clergy in support of their “ecclesiastical tyranny,” Cromwell declared that had it not been passed by the House of Commons he would have left England. (Smith, 1991 & Gaunt, 1996)
The Remonstrance was not accepted by the King, and the gap between him and his leading critics in the House of Commons widened. A month later Charles vainly attempted to arrest five of them for treason, Cromwell was not yet very well known so he was not among these. But when in 1642 the King left London to raise an army, and England approached civil war, Cromwell began to distinguish himself not merely as an outspoken Puritan but also as a practical man capable of organization and leadership. In July he got permission from the House of Commons to allow his constituency of Cambridge to form and arm companies for defense. In August he rode to Cambridge to prevent the colleges from sending their plate to be melted down for the benefit of the King, and when the war began he enlisted a whole troop of cavalry in Huntingdon. As a captain he made his first appearance with his troop at the end of the Battle of Edgehill (October 23, 1642) when Robert Devereux (3rd earl of Essex) was commander in chief for Parliament in the first part of the war. (Smith, 1991)
In 1643 Cromwell got a reputation both as a military organizer and a fighting man. From the beginning he insisted that the men who served for the parliament were carefully chosen and properly trained. He made it a point to find loyal and well-behaved men regardless of their religious beliefs or social status. Appointed a colonel in February, he began to recruit a first-class cavalry regiment. While he demanded good treatment and regular payment for his troopers, he was very strict. If they swore, they were fined; if drunk, put in the stocks; if they called each other Roundheads–thus endorsing the contemptuous epithet the Royalists applied to them; and if they deserted, they were whipped. He train his own cavalrymen so well that he was able to check and re-form them after they charged in battle; that was one of Cromwell’s outstanding gifts as a fighting commander. (Sherwood, 1997)
Throughout 1643 he served in the east which he knew so well. They formed a recognized center of parliamentary strength, but, unwilling to stay on the defensive, Cromwell was determined to stop the invasion of Yorkshire Royalists into the eastern counties and decided to counterattack. By re-forming his men in a moment of crisis, he won the Battle of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire on July 28. On the same day he was appointed governor of the Isle of Ely, a province that was thought of as a possible bastion against advancing Royalists. In fact, however, Cromwell, fighting with General Sir Thomas Fairfax, succeeded in halting the royalist attacks at Winceby in Lincolnshire and then successfully besieged Newark in Nottinghamshire. He was now able to persuade the House of Commons to create a new army, which would not merely defend eastern England but would leave and attack the enemy. (Sherwood, 1997)
This new army was formed under the command of Edward Montagu, 2nd earl of Manchester, in 1644. Appearing in the House of Commons, Cromwell accused some of his fellow officers of being incompetent or of being profane and loose in their conduct. Although not all members of the House of Commons approved of Cromwell’s using his political position to hurt other officers, his friends backed him, and in 1644 he was appointed Manchester’s second in command. After an alliance had been concluded with the Scots, he was also appointed a member of the Committee of Both Kingdoms, which was responsible for the overall strategy of the Civil War. But since he was engaged during the campaigning season, Cromwell took little part in its deliberations. (Sherwood, 1997)
After Manchester’s army had stormed Lincoln in 1644, it marched north to join the Scots and the Yorkshire parliamentarians at the siege of York. But Charles I’s commander in chief, Prince Rupert, raised the siege. He was, however, defeated in the Battle of Marston Moor, July 2, 1644, which gave northern England to Parliament. Cromwell had again distinguished himself in battle, and when Manchester’s army returned to eastern England to rest, Cromwell criticized his superior officer for his slowness and lethargy. He did not believe that Manchester really wanted to win the war, and in mid-September he laid his complaints before the Committee of Both Kingdoms. The fight between the two commanders was patched up, but after defeat at Newbury it began again. (Sherwood, 1997)
Cromwell now gave his detailed complaint about Manchester’s military conduct in the House of Commons. Manchester responded by attacking Cromwell in the House of Lords. It was even planned to impeach Cromwell as an incendiary. Once again these quarrels were patched up. In December 1644, Cromwell proposed that in the future no members of either house of Parliament should be allowed to hold commands or offices in the armed forces; his proposal was accepted, and it was also agreed that a new army should be made under the control of Sir Thomas Fairfax. The post of second in command was left open, and, when the Civil War reached its climax in the summer of 1645, Fairfax insisted that Cromwell should be given it. He fought at the battles of Naseby and Langport, where Charles I’s last two field armies were destroyed. In January 1646 the House of Commons awarded Cromwell 2,500 a year in Royalist land for his services and renewed his commission for a further six months. Thus he was able to join Fairfax in the siege of Oxford, from which Charles I escaped before surrender. (Gaunt, 1996)
Cromwell was delighted with how the war had gone since Fairfax had taken command of the new army and the lethargic earls of Essex and Manchester had been removed from command. He attributed these victories to the mercy of God and demanded that the men who had served the country so faithfully should be rewarded. After Naseby he wrote to the Speaker of the House of Commons urging that these men should not be discouraged: “He that ventures his life for the liberty of his country, I wish he trust God for the liberty of his conscience, and you for the liberty he fights for.”
But, as soon as the war was over, the House of Commons wanted to disband the army as cheaply and quickly as possible. Disappointed, Cromwell told Fairfax in March 1647 that “never were the spirits of men more embittered than now.” He devoted himself to trying to reconcile the Parliament with the army and was appointed a parliamentary commissioner to offer terms on which the army could be disbanded except for those willing to take part in a campaign to Ireland. When the civilian leaders in the House of Commons decided that they could not trust the army and ordered it disbanded, and hired a Scottish army to protect them, Cromwell, who never liked the Scots and thought that the English soldiers were being badly treated, left London and on threw in his lot with his fellow soldiers.
For the remainder of the year he attempted to find a peaceful resolution for the kingdom’s problems, but his task seemed impossible, and soon his faith was called into question. The army was growing more and more restive, and on the day Cromwell left London, a party of soldiers captured Charles I. Cromwell and his son-in-law, Henry Ireton, interviewed the King twice, trying to persuade him to agree to a settlement that they intended to submit to Parliament. At that time Cromwell was touched by the King’s devotion to his children. His main task was to overcome the general feeling in the army that neither the King nor Parliament could be trusted. When General Fairfax led the army toward the houses of Parliament in London, Cromwell still insisted that the authority of Parliament must be upheld; in September he also resisted a proposal in the House of Commons that no further addresses should be made to the King. Just over a month later he took the chair at meetings of the General Council of the Army and assured them that he was not committed to any particular form of government and had not had any underhand dealings with the King. On the other hand, he opposed extremist measures such as the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords and the introduction of a more democratic constitution.
But Cromwell’s efforts to act as a mediator came to nothing when Charles I escaped from Hampton Court Palace, where he had been kept in captivity, and fled to the Isle of Wight to open negotiations with Scottish commissioners offering to restore him to the throne. On January 3, 1648, Cromwell abandoned his previous position and, telling the House of Commons that the King was obstinate, agreed to a vote of no addresses, which was carried. The Royalists took up arms again and the Second Civil War began. (Gaunt, 1996)
General Fairfax ordered Cromwell into Wales to crush a rising there then sent him north to fight the Scottish army that invaded England in June. Though his army was to the Scots and northern Royalists, he defeated them both in a campaign in Lancashire; then entered Scotland to restore order; finally he returned to Yorkshire and took charge of the siege of Pontefract. The correspondence he conducted during the siege with the governor of the Isle of Wight, who kept watch on the King, reveals that he was increasingly turning against Charles. Parliament’s commissioners had been sent to the island to make one final effort to reach an agreement with the King, but Cromwell told the governor that the King was not to be trusted and that concessions over religion must not be granted. (Sherwood, 1997)
While Cromwell lingered in the north, his son-in-law, Ireton, and other officers in the south took decisive action. They drew up a remonstrance to Parliament complaining about the negotiations in the Isle of Wight and demanding the trial of the King as a Man of Blood. While Cromwell felt uncertain about his own views, he admitted that his army agreed with the army in the south. Fairfax now ordered him to return to London; but Ireton and his colleagues had removed, from the House of Commons, all members who favored continuing negotiations with the King. Cromwell asserted that he had not been acquainted with the plan to purge the House, “yet since it was done, he was glad of it, and would endeavor to maintain it.” Hesitating up to the last moment, Cromwell, finally accepted Charles’s trial as an act of justice. He was one of the 135 commissioners in the High Court of Justice and, when the King refused to plead, he signed the death warrant. (Smith, 1991)
After the British Isles were declared a republic and named the Commonwealth, Oliver Cromwell served as the first chairman of the Council of State. However, during the first three years he was chiefly absorbed in campaigns against the Royalists in Ireland and Scotland. He also had to suppress a mutiny, inspired by a group known as Levellers, a Puritan group aimed at “levelling” between rich and poor, in the Commonwealth army. Detesting the Irish as primitive, savage, and superstitious, he believed they had carried out a huge massacre of English settlers in 1641. As commander in chief and lord lieutenant, he waged a ruthless campaign against them. On his return to London in May 1650 Cromwell was ordered to lead an army to Scotland, where Charles II had been acknowledged as its new king. Fairfax refused the command; so on June 25 Cromwell was appointed captain general in his place. He felt tender toward the Scots, most of whom were fellow Puritans, than toward the Catholic Irish. The campaign proved difficult, and during the winter of 1650 Cromwell was taken ill. But he defeated the Scots with an army inferior in numbers at Dunbar on September 3, 1650, and a year later, when Charles II advanced into England, Cromwell destroyed his army at Worcester. (Smith, 1991 & Sherwood, 1997)
This battle ended the civil wars. Now Cromwell hoped for pacification, a political settlement, and social reform. The army believed that the members of Parliament were corrupt and that a new Parliament should be called. Once again 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 said they were “corrupt and unjust men and scandalous to the profession of the Gospel”; two months later he set up a nominated assembly to take their place. In a speech on July 4 he told the new members that they must be just, and, “ruling in the fear of God,” resolve the affairs of the nation.
Cromwell seems to have regarded this “Little Parliament” as a body capable of establishing a Puritan republic. But just as he had considered the previous Parliament to be slow and self-seeking, he came to think that the Assembly of Saints, as it was called, was too hasty and too radical; he also resented the fact that it did not consult him. Later he described this experiment of choosing Saints to govern as an example of his own weakness. He sought moderate courses and also wanted to end the naval war begun against the Dutch in 1652. When in December 1653, after a coup d’etat planned by Major General John Lambert and other officers, the majority of the Assembly of Saints surrendered power into Cromwell’s hands, he decided reluctantly that Providence had chosen him to rule. As commander in chief appointed by Parliament, he believed that he was the only legally constituted authority left. He therefore accepted an “Instrument of Government” drawn up by Lambert and his fellow officers by which he became lord protector, ruling the three nations of England, Scotland, and Ireland with the advice and help of a council of state and a Parliament, which had to be called every three years.
Before Cromwell summoned his first Protectorate Parliament on September 3, 1654, he passed more than 80 ordinances embodying a constructive domestic policy. His aims were 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, saying: “to see men lose their lives for petty matters . . . is a thing that God will reckon for.” To him murder, treason, and rebellion were the only crimes subject to capital punishment. During his Protectorate, committees known as Triers and Ejectors were set up to ensure that clergy and schoolmasters maintained high standards of conduct. In spite of resistance from some members of his council Cromwell readmitted Jews into the country. He concerned himself with education, was an excellent chancellor of Oxford University, founded a college at Durham, and made sure that grammar schools flourished. (Smith, 1991)
In 1654 Cromwell ended the Anglo-Dutch War, which he had always disliked. The question then arose of how best to employ his army and navy. His Council of State was divided, but eventually he decided to ally with France against Spain. He sent a naval expedition to the Spanish West Indies, and in 1655 conquered Jamaica. As the price for sending a fleet to Spanish Flanders to fight alongside the French he obtained possession of the port of Dunkirk. He also interested himself in Scandinavian affairs; although he admired King Charles X of Sweden, his first consideration in attempting to mediate in the Baltic was the result for his own country. In spite of the emphasis Cromwell laid on the Protestant interest in some of his speeches, the guiding motive in his foreign policy was national and not religious. (Sherwood, 1997)
His economic and industrial policy followed traditional lines but he opposed monopolies. For this reason the East Indian trade was stopped for three years, but in the end Cromwell granted the company a new charter in return for financial aid. Since satisfactory methods of borrowing had not yet been discovered, Cromwell’s public finances were complex. (Sherwood, 1997)
When Cromwell’s first Parliament met he justified the establishing of the Protectorate as “healing and settling” the nation after the civil wars. Arguing that his government had prevented anarchy and social revolution, he was particularly critical of the Levellers who, he said, wished to destroy well-tested institutions “whereby England hath been known for hundreds of years.” He believed that they undermined “the natural magistracy of the nation” and made "the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord.” He also thought that the spiritual anarchy that followed the destruction of the Anglican Church had gone too far because preachers were frequently interrupted or shouted down in their pulpits. A radical in some directions, Cromwell now adopted a conservative attitude because he feared that the overthrow of the monarchy might lead to political collapse. (Smith, 1991)
But vociferous republicans, who became leaders of this new Parliament, were unwilling to concentrate on legislation, questioning instead the basis of Cromwell’s government. Cromwell insisted that they must accept the “four fundamentals” of the new constitution which had been approved both by “God and the people" The four fundamentals were government by a single person and Parliament; the regular summoning of parliaments; the maintenance of “liberty of conscience”; and the division of the control of the armed forces between the protector and Parliament. Oliver said that he would sooner be killed than consent to the “willful throwing away of this Government, . . . so owned by God, so approved by men.” Therefore he required all members of Parliament to sign an engagement to be faithful to a protector and Parliament and to promise not to alter its character. Except for 100 republicans, the members agreed to do so but were still more concerned with rewriting the constitution than reforming the laws as desired by the protector. As soon as he could legitimately do so Cromwell dissolved Parliament. (Gaunt, 1996)
But with his second Parliament, which he convened in 1656, he encountered exactly the same difficulty, the republicans, tried to destroy the Protectorate on the ground that they were being forced to return to “an Egyptian bondage.” Once again Cromwell emphasized that he had been called to power and that chaos or an invasion from abroad would follow if he was not obeyed. Thus in February 1658 he felt himself driven again to dissolve Parliament even though, as a former member, he understood only too well the gravity of his action. (Gaunt, 1996)
Ever since the campaign in Ireland, Cromwell’s health had been poor. In August 1658, after his favorite daughter, Elizabeth, died of cancer, he was taken ill with malaria and taken to London with the intention of living in St. James’s Palace. He died in Whitehall at three o’clock on September 3, the anniversary of two of his greatest victories. His body was secretly interred in Westminster Abbey on November 10, 13 days before his state funeral. In 1661, after the restoration of King Charles II, Cromwell’s embalmed remains were dug out of the Westminster tomb and hung up 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. (Kathe, 1984)
Oliver Cromwell was an English soldier and statesman who led parliamentary forces in the English Civil Wars. He was lord protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1653 to 1658 during the republican Commonwealth.