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Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell.jpg

Born April 25, 1599
Huntingdon, England
Died September 3, 1658
London, England

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was an English soldier, statesman, and leader of the Puritan revolution. He rose from the ranks of the middle gentry to become an outstanding soldier; his genius for organizing and inspiring the parliamentary armies, called the "New Model Army" and nicknamed "roundheads", was displayed at the battle of Marston Moor (1644). His admiring soldiers called him "Old Ironsides". Victory in the field allowed him to execute the king in 1649 and become a virtual dictator; after 1653 he ruled under the title "Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland." He executed an aggressive and generally effective foreign policy. He also promoted education. Cromwell did as much as any English ruler to shape the future of the land he governed, but his Commonwealth collapsed after his death and the royal family was restored in 1660.

An intensely religious man—almost a Puritan Moses—he fervently believed God was guiding his victories. However he was never identified with any one sect or position, and favoured religious tolerance, except towards Catholics. His many admirers called him "God's Englishman".

Cromwell is one of the most controversial figures in British history. Strongly held opinions stretch from those who label him a regicidal dictator who trampled on glorious royal traditions or a religious fanatic and a near-genocidal murderer of the Irish Catholics, to those who celebrate a hero of liberty who helped make the nation great. Most historians now have a favourable view of Cromwell's achievements and character. Recent BBC polls show the public considers him one of the ten greatest Britons.

Early life

Cromwell was born at Huntingdon in eastern England on April 25, 1599. His father, Robert Cromwell, and his mother, Elizabeth Steward, were typical English country gentlefolk. His father was a younger son of a family founded by Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), a minister of Henry VIII; they had acquired considerable wealth by taking over monastery property during the Reformation. At the time of Oliver's birth his grandfather, Sir Henry Cromwell, was one of the two wealthiest landowners in Huntingdonshire, but his father was of modest means. Oliver was sent to the Huntingdon Grammar School and afterwards for one year only to Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge University. His father died when he was 18, and Oliver, the only surviving son, left the university to look after his mother and six sisters. He studied law for a time at the Inns of Court in London, and at 21 he married Elizabeth Bourchier, the daughter of a London leather merchant. He then returned to Huntingdon and settled down as a farmer.


For 20 years Cromwell followed the stable and common career of a country gentleman and farmer, taking a prominent part in local affairs. In 1628, he was sponsored by the Montagu family and elected by Huntingdon to the last parliament summoned by King Charles I before the 11-year period (1629-1640) during which the latter tried to rule without one—the so-called "Eleven Years Tyranny." Cromwell's only speech in the Parliament of 1628-1629 was a fierce attack upon the High Church bishops. About 1628 he had a profound religious conversion that shaped his life; he became involved in local networks of Puritans, did some lay preaching, and considered a move to the Puritan colony of Connecticut.

In 1631 after a humiliating political defeat in Huntingdon, and near bankrupt, he moved to St. Ives, and four years later to Ely. About this time he caught malaria, which troubled him sporadically and shortened his life. An inheritance in 1636 brought him the adequate income of £300 a year.

Puritan leader

When King Charles I was forced by a shortage of funds to recall Parliament in 1640, Cromwell was returned to this Parliament as the M.P. for Cambridge. Known as the Short Parliament, Charles again dissolved the house after only 3 weeks.

Cromwell became a local leader in the rapidly the expanding Puritan movement, which demanded a radical reform of the Church of England, and was opposed to the High Church tendencies favored by William Laud, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. In 1640, Cromwell was returned to Parliament as member for Cambridge, the poorest man in the House of Commons by some distance; he wore a coarse suit, and plain linen shirt, its collar spotted with blood. Poor in dress but rich in speech, he was a man with a fearless and tactless tongue who denounced the tyranny of the bishops, and the pervasive idolatry of the established Church. He served on eighteen high-profile committees, especially those concerned with investigating religious innovation and abuse of ecclesiastical power. However, he was shunned by those leading the opposition to Charles I's government, but when it came for war he was packed off to raise troops in his home area, which he did with remarkable success.

Causes of the Civil War (1630-1642)

In 1630-42, when he governed without calling a parliament, King Charles I multiplied his enemies by imposing irritating financial exactions upon various classes of the community, using prerogative powers exercised by the king in centuries past. He demanded "ship money" from the towns, fined country gentlemen (including Cromwell) for refusing to accept knighthood, raised "forced loans," and increased customs duties. He did all this because he had no right to levy fresh taxes without the consent of Parliament; indeed, his broad aim was to secure the financial independence of the monarchy, and to fasten uniformity upon the Church. Thus the king antagonized the Puritan reformers as well as many of the country gentry and townspeople. In 1638 he became involved in a war against his Scottish subjects (he was hereditary king of Scotland as well as of England) when he tried to force upon them a prayer book similar to that in use in the English Church. They rebelled, and he was compelled to call a parliament at Westminster to ask for money to pursue the war. The accumulation of grievances against the king over eleven years made the leaders of the House of Commons aggressive and uncooperative. Cromwell at once showed himself to be a staunch Puritan, and as such gave steady support to the critics of church and government.

The Long Parliament

During the summer of 1640 King Charles was again defeated and humbled by the Scottish rebels. He appealed for help to a new parliament, which met in the autumn, with Cromwell again M.P. for Cambridge. This "Long Parliament," as it was to be called, repudiated the king's policies and obliged him to surrender many of his prerogative powers. It put to death one of the king's chief ministers, the Earl of Strafford. Cromwell and a majority of the Commons voted for a "Grand Remonstrance" against the government, and showed they did not trust the king. When the Irish rose up in rebellion in 1641, Parliament demanded the power to appoint all the king's ministers and principal army officers—an unprecedented step.

The king was eventually goaded to arrest five of the parliamentary leaders for treason. When this coup failed, King Charles left London to rally his supporters in the north of England. The Commons retorted by seizing "the power of the sword" and sending M.P.'s into their constituencies to gain control of local armories and militia. Cromwell himself went to Cambridge, took possession of the castle, arrested a captain of the militia, and prevented the colleges from sending their silver plate to the king, who was short of money. He raised a troop of 60 cavalry and searched for suspected royalists.

In the Long Parliament he made his name as an extreme Puritan who desired the complete abolition of the bishops; in eastern England as a whole he was recognized as a champion of the right of all church congregations to choose their own ministers, and their own religious forms.

Cromwell as soldier

The civil war began in August 1642. From that moment, though totally inexperienced as a soldier, the aggressive Cromwell, now in his early 40's, rose to the front as a military organizer and a Puritan leader. Cromwell, a good horseman, became a cavalry officer, raising his own Parliamentarian troop in Huntingdon. Within a year he rose from captain, to colonel, to lieutenant general of one of the largest regional armies in England. Cromwell fought together with his cavalry at the drawn battle of Edgehill (October 23, 1642). Afterwards, he doubled the size of his troop, and then converted it into a full regiment, becoming a colonel in February 1643.

With only 2,000 men he took charge of the defenses in the six parliamentarian heartland counties of East Anglia: Essex, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, and Norfolk. The threat was an attack from the north, and he prepared for it, while suppressing local pockets of royalists; he also organized a supply system based on county committees he appointed. He called repeatedly on the Commons to raise the pay, improve the training, and lift the morale of the soldiers they enlisted. The king, meanwhile, had a capable force furnished largely by peers, landed gentry, and their outdoor staffs. By the autumn of 1643, two thirds of England and Wales were under the king's control; in spite of minor successes achieved at Grantham, Gainsborough, and Winceby, where Cromwell served his apprenticeship in the art of war, the prognosis was poor for Parliament's army. In desperation the Parliamentary leaders came to terms with the Scottish leaders, and a Scottish army entered England in 1644.

Cromwell became convinced that if he could produce a well-disciplined army he could defeat the Royalist forces under the king's nephew Prince Rupert, the Duke of Cumberland, and his Cavaliers. He also knew, as a result of his limited experience with the local county militia that pikemen, armed with sixteen-foot-long pikes, who stood their ground during a cavalry attack, could do a tremendous amount of damage.

Cromwell had also realised that the Prince's cavalry were poorly disciplined, and that after they charged the enemy they then went in pursuit of individual targets. At the first major battle of the civil war at Edgehill, the majority of the Prince's cavalry did not return to the battlefield until over an hour after the initial charge. By this time the horses were so tired they were unable to mount another attack.

Cromwell instead trained his cavalry to stay together after a charge, and in this way his forces could repeatedly charge the Cavaliers. Cromwell's new cavalry took part in its first major battle at Marston Moor in Yorkshire in July 1644. The king's forces suffered a crushing defeat, and Cromwell's soldiers became known as the Ironsides because of the way they cut through the Cavaliers on the battlefield. Cromwell himself earned the nickname Old Ironsides.

New Model Army

At the beginning of the Civil War, Parliament relied on soldiers recruited by large landowners who supported their cause. In February 1645, Parliament decided to form a new army of professional soldiers. This army of 22,000 men became known as the New Model Army and its commander-in-chief was General Thomas Fairfax. Cromwell was placed in charge of its cavalry.

Members of the New Model Army received proper military training and by the time they went into battle they were very well-disciplined. Previously, people only became officers because they came from powerful and wealthy families. In the New Model Army men were promoted when they showed themselves to be good soldiers. For the first time it became possible for plain men to become army officers. Cromwell thought it was very important that soldiers in the New Model Army believed strongly in what they were fighting for. Where possible he recruited men who, like him, held strong Puritan views and the New Model Army always went into battle singing psalms, convinced that God was on their side.

One strong faction among the regiments of the Army were known loosely as the "Levellers" "for they intend to sett all things straight, and rayse a parity and community in the kingdom".[1] who subscribed to a belief in the "natural rights" of men that had been violated by the king's side. These natural rights, they asserted, came from the law of God expressed in the Bible.

General Cromwell

Puritans immediately recognized and appreciated his firm, fair and aggressive leadership. In a military career that only lasted a decade, he fought in more than thirty battles, and took part in more than forty sieges, without ever tasting defeat. The extraordinary self-discipline of his cavalry charges proved decisive in several of the greatest battles of the war, and earned Cromwell himself, and then his men, the title "Ironsides." He demanded that promotions and commands be given not to the well-born (who wore long flowing hair) but to the godly (who cut their hair short and were called "roundheads"). "I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else."[2] The two Houses moved to reorganize their armies in the winter of 1644-45, and created a new major assault force, the New Model Army. Cromwell was, to the joy of the radicals, and the dismay of the more cautious Parliamentarians, given command of the cavalry, effectively the number two position in the Army.

Battles of Marston Moor and Naseby

Oliver Cromwell, now a lieutenant general, fought alongside the Scots and a northern army under Lord Fairfax and his son, Sir Thomas, at the Battle of Marston Moor in Yorkshire on July 2, 1644, where the king's army, led by Prince Rupert, was outnumbered and defeated.

Next year, fighting without the Scots, the New Model Army took part in its first major battle just outside the village of Naseby in Northamptonshire on 14 June 1645. The battle began when Prince Rupert led a charge against the left wing of the parliamentary cavalry which scattered and Rupert's men then gave chase. While this was going on Cromwell launched an attack on the left wing of the royalist cavalry. This was also successful and the royalists that survived the initial charge fled from the battlefield. Cromwell then ordered his cavalry to attack the now unprotected flanks of the infantry. Charles I was waiting with 1,200 men in reserve, but instead of ordering them forward to help his infantry he decided to retreat. Without support from the cavalry, the royalist infantry realised their task was impossible and surrendered. By the time Prince Rupert's cavalry returned to the battlefield the fighting had ended and his horses were exhausted after their long chase and not in a fit state to take on Cromwell's cavalry. The prince had no option but to ride off in search of the fleeing Charles I. The battle of Naseby was disastrous for the king, with 1,000 of his men killed, and another 4,500 of his most experienced men taken prisoner. The Parliamentary forces were also able to capture the Royalist baggage train that contained the king's complete stock of guns and ammunition. After Naseby, Charles was never able to raise another army strong enough to defeat the parliamentary army in a major battle.

Cromwell served under Sir Thomas Fairfax, the new Parliamentarian commander in chief. In both these battles Cromwell distinguished himself by his courage, enterprise, and leadership. Above all, his hold on eastern England had contributed to the reversal of the fortunes of war. When King Charles allowed his stronghold of Oxford to capitulate in June 1646, and himself fled to seek the mercy of the Scottish army, Cromwell had gained a reputation as the outstanding general of the first civil war. Although he had publicly criticized some of the aristocratic parliamentary commanders for what he considered lethargy and incompetence, he had been a loyal lieutenant to his superior, Sir Thomas Fairfax.

Second English Civil War

In January 1647, Charles I fled to Scotland where he was captured and handed over to the New Model Army. Charles was imprisoned in Hampton Court, but in November 1647 he escaped and managed to rally support to raise another army. This time he was able to persuade the Scots to fight on his side. However, in August 1648 Cromwell's New Model Army defeated the Scots army (the "Engagers") at Preston, where Cromwell took sole command for the first time over an army of 9,000, which won a brilliant victory against the 18,000 strong Scots force. Once again King Charles was taken prisoner.

Parliament versus Army: Second Civil War (1648)

During the first civil war Cromwell retained his seat in the House of Commons, and appeared there whenever he could. In 1644 he had taken a leading part in promoting a "self-denying ordinance", whereby those members of parliament who had held commissions in the armed forces had relinquished them in order to make way for new blood, thereby paving the way for the appointment of the nonpolitical Fairfax. Cromwell himself had been ready to lay down his command, but Fairfax persuaded him to take command at the battle of Naseby in 1645.

Cromwell was conscious of his gifts, but, as always in his life, attributed his victories to Almighty God. It was indeed his independent-minded, highly personal Puritan religion (to which he had been "converted" as a young married man) that had brought him into the war against the king, and had sustained him in every battle. When the alliance was made with the Scots, he had insisted that this must not be at the price of liberty of conscience for himself and his fellow Independents or "sectarians." However, he was at first content to leave to the civilian leaders in Parliament, most of whom were Presbyterians, the future shape of the government.

However, the House of Commons (from which the Royalists had withdrawn at the outset of war) and the House of Lords, who were a mere handful, now showed themselves anxious to impose a rigid Presbyterian organization upon the English Church, and to dismiss Fairfax' soldiers, most of whom were Independents, without adequate compensation for their services. At first Cromwell, as an M.P. and a figure of immense influence in the army, tried to act as a mediator between Parliament and the soldiers. Eventually, he was driven to make a choice, and threw in his lot with the army. He also tried hard to come to terms with the king, whom the Scots had handed over as a prisoner to the English Parliament before their army went home. Cromwell was not opposed to a Presbyterian form of state church, but he insisted that the Puritan sects or Independents should be tolerated outside it. In negotiating a postwar settlement both with Parliament, and with the king, on behalf of the army, that was always the great point on which he would not yield. At the same time Cromwell acted as a conciliator within the army, trying to persuade those extremists who wanted to set up a democratic republic that the time was not ripe for so revolutionary a change. His idea was to have a constitutional monarchy, a middle-class parliament, and a tolerant church. But he reckoned without the king, who took advantage of the disputes among his enemies to escape to an island, thence to incite the Royalists both in England and in Scotland to a fresh civil war, which broke out early in 1648.

Second Civil War and Execution of Charles I

Parliament and its army now more or less closed ranks. While Sir Thomas Fairfax dealt with Royalist risings in southeast England, Cromwell first suppressed a rebellion in Wales, and then marched north to meet the Scots. He won a series of decisive victories over the larger Scottish army, in Lancashire (August 1648), marking his first major success as an independent commander. The temper of the army had been set aflame by the king's revival of war, and the Royalists' breach of faith. While the Presbyterians in Parliament still hoped to reach agreement with Charles I, Cromwell's son-in-law Henry Ireton led a movement to punish the king and overthrow the old monarchy. In December 1648, the southern army "purged" the Commons of its Presbyterian members and demanded the trial of the king. This event is known as "Pride's Purge". It summarizes the removal of about 100 Royalists and Presbyterians of the English House of Commons from Parliament by a detachment of soldiers led by Colonel Thomas Pride under the direction of Oliver Cromwell in December 1648.

During the autumn Cromwell had followed his retreating enemy into Scotland, and restored order in Edinburgh, but he had lingered in the north until General Fairfax recalled him to London; he was hesitating over his political attitude. When he got back to the capital he approved of the purge, and took charge of the arrangements to bring Charles I to his trial under guard. Fairfax having washed his hands of all political matters, Cromwell accepted the responsibilities of leadership. He realized that the trial of the king would result in the latter's death, as a result of all the blood shed in the civil wars. Once he made up his mind, Cromwell acted ruthlessly, and it was largely by his personal efforts that the trial by what was in effect a revolutionary tribunal was pressed through, and the king was condemned to death.

On January 30, 1649, King Charles I was beheaded on a block in view of a silent crowd gathered in front of the Banquet Hall of Whitehall Palace; the king's noble death proved a rallying point for his supporters. After the execution of Charles I, England became a republic; Cromwell was appointed a member of the Council of State, and was its first chairman.


Meanwhile, the Royalists had gained control of most of Ireland, which they hoped to use as a base for an invasion of England. Cromwell decided to eliminate the threat by invading. After occupying Dublin in August, 1649, he led his army north and laid siege to Drogheda.


When Drogheda fell to the siege in September 1649, Cromwell's troops massacred nearly 3,500 people. Although this figure comprised around 2,700 royalist soldiers and all the men in the town bearing arms, a concerted propaganda campaign followed which ensured Cromwell was seen as a bloodthirsty tyrant in the national consciousness of Ireland. As recently as the 20th century Irish novelist James Joyce wrote in his novel Ulysses: "What about sanctimonious Cromwell and his ironsides that put the women and children of Drogheda to the sword with the bible text "God is love" pasted round the mouth of his cannon?".

On September 10–11 his army stormed the town, and killed most of the surviving garrison, which had refused to surrender. Cromwell said that the killing at Drogheda had the goal of encouraging other garrisons to surrender and not fight to the death; indeed it induced some other Irish garrisons to surrender, such as Trim, Ross and Dundalk. In October the garrison at Wexford repulsed Cromwell's army but was overcome; here again no quarter was given once the garrison refused to surrender, and this time the town was plundered. By the end of the year most of the eastern coast of Ireland was in Cromwell's hands. Early in 1650 he marched his army inland, ravaging the land and slaughtering the populace regardless of age or sex.

Destroying the power of the Irish Catholics

In 1651 Cromwell's government adopted a policy of destroying the power of those Irish Catholics who did not become Protestants; they were seen as dangerous barbarians and potential allies of the Royalists. All Irish landholdings (except in Connacht, which was deemed to be too "barren") were confiscated, and most of the populace was driven into the wilds of Connacht to die of starvation and pestilence. The proportion of land owned by Catholics fell from 59% in 1641 to 20% in the span of two decades. The goal was to resettle the island with, in his view, more "Godly" Protestants, who were given the best lands, and given near complete control over the remaining Catholics. As a result, the Irish Catholics have hated Cromwell with a passion that continues to this day.

Conquest of Scotland

In May 1650 Cromwell learned that Charles II had landed in Scotland and been proclaimed king by the Scots Covenanter regime so he returned to England to put down this latest threat, leaving Henry Ireton and Edmund Ludlow in command of the English forces in Ireland. The last Catholic held town, Galway, surrendered in April 1652 and the last Irish troops surrendered in April 1653.

In an effort to avert war, Cromwell appealed to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to break their alliance with the royalists, famously urging them: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." The Scot's rejected peace, and Cromwell invaded in August, 1650.

The English republic was threatened because Scotland's Presbyterian Covenanters had come to terms with Charles I's eldest son, Charles II. General Fairfax resigned rather than invade Scotland, and Cromwell took his place as commander in chief. He crossed the Scottish border on July 22, 1650, but at first made little headway against the defensive strategy of the Scottish commander. As in Ireland his campaign was supported by English sea power, the importance of which he appreciated. Although cut off from his English base, Cromwell won a great victory at Dunbar (30 miles [48 km] east of Edinburgh) on Sept. 3, 1650. Cromwell destroyed the main Covenanter army at the battle of Dunbar on September 3, 1650. Leaving 4,000 Scottish soldiers dead and 10,000 taken prisoner, he quickly moved to capture the Scottish capital of Edinburgh.

During the winter 1650-51 Cromwell was taken ill and the army bogged down. But the following summer he outmaneuvered the Scots who, rather than allow themselves to have their lines of communication cut, followed the young King Charles II into England. Charles II and the remaining Covenanters was making a final desperate bid to invade England and capture London while Cromwell was still in Scotland. Cromwell rapidly pursued them south, however, and caught them at Worcester in September. In the ensuing battle Cromwell's forces wiped out the last major Scottish royalist army. Scotland was henceforward ruled from England under military occupation. Cromwell was welcomed as a hero on his return to London.

Creating the Protectorate

During the next two years the quarrel between Parliament and army, which had begun in 1647, was revived. The army was now radically inclined, seeking reform in Church and State. Cromwell became the spokesman of the army's point of view, although once again he tried first to act as conciliator between the two sides. The soldiers asked that the remnant of the original "Long Parliament" of 1640, now known as "the Rump," should be dissolved and a fresh reformist one-chamber Parliament be elected. Other sections of the community had tired of the long naval war then in progress against the Dutch Republic (1652-1654), in which Cromwell's army had no part, and indeed resented as a fratricidal war against fellow Protestants.

When negotiations for the election of a new Parliament broke down, Cromwell forcibly dissolved the Rump on April 20, 1653. By 1653 Cromwell and his Army effectively controlled all Britain. Cromwell did not himself seize political power; he decided instead to invite the Independent churches to nominate members of a Puritan Assembly, which would exercise both executive and legislative powers. In spring 1653 came his best chance to become an all-powerful dictator, and he turned away; with a standing army of under 15,000 men at a time when the population of England and Wales was approximately 5.5 million, the creation of a military dictatorship was a practical impossibility. There were few political prisoners, and only those who actually participated in rebellion were executed; torture was not used.

Named Lord Protector

The Nominated Parliament set about reform with enthusiasm, but was soon split between a radical and a conservative wing. When the conservative wing gained control in December 1653 after a tussle, the majority resigned their powers into Cromwell's hands. This coup d'état was engineered by Cromwell's second-in-command, John Lambert; and it was Lambert who drew up an "Instrument of Government" as a new constitution for the English commonwealth. This constitution provided for an elected parliament, a nominated council of state, and a lord protector as chief executive officer. Cromwell was offered and accepted the post of Lord Protector, not as a dictator but as the first servant of the Commonwealth of England, united with conquered Scotland and Ireland. There was widespread republicanism and a sense that the old monarchical system was dead.

Some officers wanted Cromwell to become a hereditary king but he refused and instead took the title Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. Cromwell did made the decisions—he was a dictator in that sense—but he rarely broke the law. He preferred persuasion to coercion and did not try to impose an authoritarian regime that tolerated only one set of ideas. His experiment with major-generals taking control of England has aspects of a military dictatorship, but the experiment lasted less than 15 months in 1655-57, and the generals did not in fact loom large in deciding local policies. So it verged upon, but did not reach, military rule. When offered the crown, Cromwell said no. He did set up his son as his successor, but made no serious preparations and the son was soon ousted.[3]

Lord Protector

For the remaining five years of his life Cromwell governed as lord protector, sometimes with the help of a parliament, sometimes without it. But like the kings of old, he was always dependent upon the advice and support of his Council of State, or later, Privy Council. At its opening session the Protectorate Parliament (September 1654-January 1655) was more concerned about revising the new constitution than about passing legislation. Differences between protector and parliament encouraged the Royalists. In January 1655, Cromwell dissolved this parliament.

Rule of the Major Generals

A rebellion broke out in March 1655, and although it was easily suppressed, the country was divided into ten districts, each under a major general. That experiment lasted barely a year.

Cromwell imposed martial law in England and the country was divided into eleven districts, each district being overseen by a Major-General. The responsibilities of these Major-Generals included maintaining order, collecting taxes, granting poor relief and imposing Puritan morality. In some districts bear-baiting, cock-fighting, horse-racing and wrestling were banned. Betting and gambling were also forbidden. Large numbers of pubs were closed and fines were imposed on people heard swearing. In some districts, the Major-Generals also closed the theatres.

Constitutional experiments

Meanwhile, England was involved in a fresh war, this time waged against the Spanish Empire; Cromwell, needing money, called a new Parliament to vote him supplies. It met in fall 1656; Cromwell argued on behalf of his policies, but met with considerable opposition, especially from out-and-out republicans who objected to the whole idea of the Protectorate. The new House was therefore in effect "purged" of 160 members, many of whom refused to take an oath to uphold the structure of the Protectorate. The remaining members, on the whole, cooperated with Cromwell and his Council of State. But they were opposed to the system of local government through the major generals. Rather than sustain military rule, a group of lawyers and civilians proposed to create a constitutional monarchy and a Puritan Church, with Cromwell as king.

Cromwell was tempted by the offer of a crown, but eventually, largely because of the opposition of his old friends and supporters in the army, he refused it. Nevertheless, a new constitution was promulgated, providing for a revived House of Lords; a Lower House, to which all except known royalists were to be admitted; a Privy Council, replacing the Council of State; and certain restrictions on the powers of the lord protector and on freedom of religion. This constitution, originally called "the Humble Petition and Advice", came into effect in June 1657. A House of Lords was nominated, but the second Protectorate House of Commons, reinforced by the excluded members and deprived of Cromwell's friends whom he had promoted to the upper House, met in January 1658, to be the scene of an immediate attack launched upon the Protector by the republicans, and aiming to tear the new constitution to pieces.

Cromwell was at last angered beyond restraint. Convinced that a fresh squabble in Parliament would be followed by a Royalist invasion, he promptly dissolved Parliament on Feb. 4, 1658.

Foreign affairs

For the last few months of his life Cromwell governed without a parliament. The war (with France) against Spain was virtually won, thanks to naval victories. A naval expedition to the West Indies resulted in the capture of Jamaica from Spain (May 1655), and Cromwell tried to convert it into a flourishing British colony.[4] In June 1658 he also obtained the port of Dunkirk as payment for the French alliance. After the peace with Holland in 1654, commerce had expanded.

Cromwell in 1654-55 launched a vastly ambitious "Western Design", with conquest of key Spanish territories in the West Indies; it failed badly because of defeats, disease and guerrilla resistance. Cromwell despaired that God had turned against him, while public reactions focused on the failure of English character and masculinity, revealing the ideological structures that underpinned both imperial expansion and the English revolution during the 1650s. Contemporary accounts dwelt on the disastrous campaign to control Jamaica, contrasting the supposedly cowardly conduct of General Robert Venables in Jamaica with the heroism of Major General James Heane in Hispaniola, suggesting that Venables's pusillanimity reflected a general failure of the British troops to live up to the ideal of godly valor and English superiority, associated in the public mind with the New Model Army. The Western Design debacle was a crisis for Cromwell's protectorate, straining the notion that God favored Puritan England, but the vision of Heane's martial virtues ultimately provided a model that guided the future success of the British Empire.[5]


Cromwell fought hard against the more bigoted Puritans to maintain genuine freedom for the Christian religion, permitting even Episcopalians and Roman Catholics to worship in private houses. He appointed good judges, and pressed his legal advisers to reform the law and make it less expensive. He promoted education; for a time he was chancellor of Oxford University, and helped to found a college at Durham. The regime's religious policies fell significantly short of comprehensive toleration, though; rather, Cromwell offered liberty of conscience to a broad range of independent sects, whose members he sought to draw together in a united 'godly party'. Anglicans, Catholics and some of the more radical Protestant groups were excluded from the embrace of official toleration.[6]


Former members of the Levellers, an extreme anti-elitist group, grew disillusioned with the dictatorial policies of Cromwell. In 1655 Edward Sexby, John Wildman and Richard Overton were involved in fomenting a plot to overthrow the government, but the conspiracy was discovered and the plotters fled to the Netherlands. In May 1657 Edward Sexby published (under the pseudonym William Allen) Killing No Murder, a political pamphlet that argued the justification of an assassination of Cromwell. The following month he arrived in England to carry out the assassination, but was arrested and imprisoned.

Death and succession

Cromwell's strong personality and the backing of the army held the Commonwealth together and preserved internal peace; he had to contend with republican plotters as well as discontented Royalists and foreign enemies.

By 1658 the government's debt stood at £1.5 million, largely because of the heavy cost of the armed forces, which the government proved unable to reduce in size. The regime's military commitments were taking it to the verge of bankruptcy, just when it seemed to be devising a feasible civilian basis for its rule.

In 1658 Cromwell announced that he wanted his son, Richard Cromwell, to replace him as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. The English army was unhappy with this decision. While they respected Oliver as a skillful military commander, Richard was just a country farmer.

Worn out, Oliver Cromwell died in London of malaria on September 3, 1658. On his deathbed he named his ineffective son Richard Cromwell (1626-1712) his successor. Richard lasted only 8 months, to be followed in power by the head of the army, George Monck; he lasted for less than a year, whereupon Parliament restored the monarchy, under Charles II.

Image and reputation

After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, a posthumous execution of Cromwell's body was conducted. Remains believed at the time to be Cromwell's were disinterred from the tomb of kings in Westminster Abbey, and were subsequently hung from the gallows at Tyburn on January 30, 1661, along with the remains of John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton.

Blair Warden, a leading historian, reports, "From his century to ours, Oliver Cromwell has been the most controversial figure of English history."[7] First, Cromwell is well known and highly thought of; recent BBC polls show the public considers him one of the ten greatest Britons.[8] Second, his importance and influence is beyond doubt, as is his stature as an outstanding soldier and diplomat. The main facts of his career are not in dispute, only the moral evaluation of those facts.[9] Third, the range and intensity of opinion is extreme, from those who laud him as a champion of liberty and republicanism who uplifted Britain's stature in the world, to those who hate him; labeling him a regicide and murderer of many Irish Catholics. The debate ranges from commoners to kings, and historians have been deeply involved. In the 1930s and 1940s most scholars saw him as a dangerous dictator, along the lines of Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler. In recent decades most all the scholars have been favorable.

During his lifetime, some tracts painted him as a hypocrite motivated by power — for example, The Machiavilian Cromwell and The Juglers Discovered, both part of an attack on Cromwell by the Levellers after 1647, present him as a Machiavellian figure. After his death and public disgrace there were many denunciations and a few positive portrayals, such as John Spittlehouse's A Warning Piece Discharged which compared him to Moses, rescuing the English by taking them safely through the Red Sea of the civil wars.[10] The great royalist historian Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, in his History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (1667) declared that Cromwell "will be looked upon by posterity as a brave bad man". Clarendon argued that Cromwell's rise to power had been helped not only by his great spirit and energy, but also by his ruthlessness. The aristocracy was especially hostile to Cromwell, in large part because of his strong appeal to the common folk.

On the other hand, John Adams regarded Cromwell as a great hero of liberty whose principles found their culmination in the American Founding. At Worcester, the site of a famous battle during the English Civil War, Adams remarked that all England should travel to the site in order to pay honor to Cromwell. "And do Englishmen so soon forget the ground where liberty was fought for? Tell your neighbors and your children that this is holy ground… All England should come in pilgrimage to this hill once a year."[11] On the other hand, Alexander Hamilton denounced the Lord Protector in Federalist No. 21, even comparing him to Julius Caesar. Hamilton, discussing the despotism of certain states in the Union, asked: "Who can determine what might have been the issue of her late convulsions, if the malcontents had been headed by a Caesar or by a Cromwell?"[12]

The conservative President Calvin Coolidge spoke very highly of Cromwell and regarded him as a pivotal figure in the triumph of English liberty over despotic monarchy. In his Autobiography, the thirtieth president recounts his education of English history under Professor Morse at Amherst College: “We saw the British Empire rise until it ruled the seas. The brilliance of the statesmanship of the different periods, the rugged character of the patriotic leaders, of Anselm, and Simon de Montfort, of Cromwell and the Puritans, who dared to oppose the tyranny of the kings, the growth of learning, the development of commerce, the administration of justice – all these and more were presented for our consideration."[13] Coolidge also compared Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia favorably to Cromwell's New Model Army, saying that "except for the forces of Oliver Cromwell, no army was ever more thoroughly religious than that which followed General Lee."[14]

In the early 18th century, Cromwell's image began to be adopted and reshaped by the Whigs, an out-party opposing the Tories around the Hanoverian kings. They stressed Cromwell as republican, a theme often adopted by American historians.[15]

During the early 19th century, Cromwell's image was glorified by Romantic artists and poets. French author Victor Hugo's 1827 play Cromwell was representative of the French romantic movement, showing Cromwell as a ruthless yet dynamic Romantic hero. The major breakthrough came at the hands of a leading Romantic historian, Thomas Carlyle who in the 1840s saw Cromwell as the hero in a battle between good and evil. Carlyle used Cromwell as a model for restoring morality to a Victorian era that otherwise was prone to timidity, meaningless rhetoric, and moral compromise. The growth of Nonconformity in the nineteenth century encouraged an appreciation of Cromwell's Puritanism.

By the late 19th century, Carlyle's portrayal of Cromwell, stressing the centrality of puritan morality and earnestness, had become assimilated into mainstream historiography. Britain's outstanding research scholar on the era, Samuel Rawson Gardiner, concluded that "the man — it is ever so with the noblest — was greater than his work".[16] Gardiner demonstrated Cromwell's dynamic and mercurial character, and his role in ridding England of obsolete absolutism, while downplaying Cromwell's intense religiosity.[17] Gardner showed Cromwell's aggressive foreign policy was a foretaste Victorian imperial expansion, with Gardiner stressing his “constancy of effort to make England great by land and sea”.[18]

Royals dislike regicides, so King George V vetoed Churchill's proposal in 1915 to name a battleship "The Cromwell"; but King George VI made no objection to the naming of a class of tanks that helped to win World War II after Old Ironsides. In the mid-20th century, Cromwell's reputation was often shaped by the rise of dictators like Mussolini and Hitler. In the 1930s Wilbur Cortez Abott, a Harvard professor, compiled and edited a multi-volume collection of Cromwell's letters and speeches, and concluded Cromwell had fascist tendencies. However, subsequent historians such as John Morrill have criticised both Abbott's interpretation of Cromwell and his editorial approach.[19]

Cromwell's reputation is now in the ascendant. More than twenty biographies by academic historians have been published in the past fifty years; all but one have been laudatory. They praise his integrity, his reliance upon his God, his brilliance as a soldier, his restless energy as head of state. There are varying estimates of the long-term effects of his role in the British Revolutions; but no recent biographer doubts that he was a man to be admired.[20]

Recent scholars have emphasized Cromwell's religiosity and downplayed his authoritarian style. Austin Woolrych explored the issue of "dictatorship" in depth, arguing that Cromwell was subject to two conflicting forces: his obligation to the army and his desire to achieve a lasting settlement, by winning back the confidence of the political nation as a whole. Woolrych argued that the dictatorial elements of Cromwell's rule stemmed not so much from its military origins or the participation of army officers in civil government, as from his constant commitment to the interest of the people of God, and his conviction that suppressing vice and encouraging virtue constituted the chief purpose of government.[21]

Historians such as John Morrill, Blair Worden and J.C. Davis have explored Cromwell's religious rhetoric, showing his speeches are suffused with biblical references, and arguing that his radical actions were driven by his zeal for godly reformation.[22]



  • Ashley, Maurice. The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell (1958). 382pp, a standard scholarly biography online edition
  • Bennett, Martyn. Oliver Cromwell (2006), ISBN 0-415-31922-6. excerpt and text search
  • Coward, Barry Cromwell (1991), a standard scholarly biography
  • Clifford, Alan. Oliver Cromwell: the lessons and legacy of the Protectorate (1999), ISBN 0-9526716-2-X. praises his religiousity
  • Davis, J. C. Oliver Cromwell (2001), shows Cromwell's remarkable skill at building complex networks of supporters, including coreligionists, politicians and soldiers. ISBN 0-340-73118-4
  • Drinkwater John. Oliver Cromwell, a Character Study (2007) excerpts and text search
  • Fraser, Antonia. Cromwell, Our Chief of Men, and Cromwell: the Lord Protector (1973), ISBN 0-7538-1331-9. Popular narrative. excerpt and text search
  • Gardiner, Samuel Rawson. Oliver Cromwell (1901). ISBN 1-4179-4961-9. Classic biography. online edition
  • Gaunt, Peter. Oliver Cromwell (1994), 144pp ISBN 0-631-18356-6. Short biography by scholar
  • Hill, Christopher. God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell And The English Revolution (1970), ISBN 0-297-00043-8.
  • Hirst, Derek. "The Lord Protector, 1653-8", in Morrill, John (ed.), Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1990), ISBN 0-582-01675-4
  • Mason, James and Angela Leonard. Oliver Cromwell (1998), ISBN 0-582-29734-6. 128pp succinct and effective
  • Morrill, John. "Cromwell, Oliver (1599–1658)", in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2004) online to subscribers, the best place to start
  • Morrill, John. "The Making of Oliver Cromwell", in Morrill, John (ed.), Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1990), ISBN 0-582-01675-4.
  • Paul, Robert. The Lord Protector: Religion And Politics In The Life of Oliver Cromwell. (1958) online edition
  • Wedgwood, C.V. Oliver Cromwell (1939), popular ISBN 0-7156-0656-5.
  • Worden, Blair (1985). "Oliver Cromwell and the sin of Achan", in Beales, D. and Best, G. (eds.) History, Society and the Churches, ISBN 0-521-02189-8.

Political studies

  • Adamson, John . "Oliver Cromwell and the Long Parliament", in Morrill, John (ed.), Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1990)
  • Adamson, John. "The English Nobility and the Projected Settlement of 1647", in Historical Journal, (1987) v30#3.
  • Coward, Barry. The Cromwellian Protectorate (2002),
  • Firth, C.H. Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans in England (1900). full text online
  • Little, Patrick, ed. The Cromwellian Protectorate. (2007). 218 pp.
  • Little, Patrick. "Offering the Crown to Cromwell." History Today 2007 57(2): 24-31. Issn: 0018-2753 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Little, Patrick and David L. Smith, eds. Parliaments and Politics during the Cromwellian Protectorate (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Peacey, Jason. "Cromwellian England: a Propaganda State?" History 2006 91(2): 176-199. Issn: 0018-2648 Fulltext: Ebsco, says that in 1653-1659, profound changes were implemented in intelligence gathering, press censorship, and propaganda and in the deployment of resources and bureaucratic efficiency. By concentrating power in the hands of the secretary of state, Cromwell's regime sought to exert its power in only some areas of print culture rather than to achieve a complete press monopoly.
  • Smith, David, ed. Oliver Cromwell and the Interregnum (2003), ISBN 0-631-22725-3.
  • Smith, David. Oliver Cromwell: Politics and Religion in the English Revolution 1640-1658 (1992) excerpt and text search

Military studies

  • Capp, Bernard. Cromwell's Navy:The fleet and the English Revolution, 1648-1660 (1989)
  • Durston, Christopher. "'Settling the Hearts and Quieting the Minds of All Good People': the Major-generals and the Puritan Minorities of Interregnum England", in History 2000 85(278): pp. 247–267, ISSN 0018-2648 . Full text online at Ebsco
  • Durston, Christopher. "The Fall of Cromwell's Major-Generals", in English Historical Review 1998 113(450): pp. 18–37, ISSN 0013-8266
  • Durston, Christopher. Cromwell's Major Generals: Godly Government during the English Revolution (2001)
  • Firth, C.H. Cromwell's Army (1902), online edition
  • Gillingham, J. Portrait Of A Soldier: Cromwell (1976), ISBN 0-297-77148-5.
  • Kenyon, John, and Jane Ohlmeyer, eds. The Civil Wars: A Military History of England, Scotland, and Ireland 1638-1660 391 pp. (1998), thorough coverage by numerous scholars online edition
  • Kitson, Frank (2004). Old Ironsides: The Military Biography of Oliver Cromwell (2004), 239pp ISBN 0-297-84688-4.
  • Marshall, Alan. Oliver Cromwell: Soldier: The Military Life of a Revolutionary at War (2004), ISBN 1-85753-343-7.
  • Wheeler, J. Scott. Cromwell in Ireland (1999). the standard study
  • Woolrych, Austin. "The Cromwellian Protectorate: a Military Dictatorship?" in History 1990 75(244): 207-231, ISSN 0018-2648 . Full text online at Ebsco.
  • Woolrych, Austin. "Cromwell as a soldier", in Morrill, John (ed.), Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1990)
  • Woolrych, Austin. Soldiers and Statesmen: the General Council of the Army and its Debates (1987), ISBN 0-19-822752-3.
  • Young, Peter and Richard Holmes. The English Civil War, (2000) ISBN 1-84022-222-0. excerpt and text search

Surveys of era

  • Coward, Barry. The Cromwellian Protectorate (2002) ISBN 0-7190-4317-4.
  • Coward, Barry, ed. A Companion to Stuart Britain (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Coward, Barry The Stuart Age: England, 1603-1714, (2003). ISBN 0-582-77251-6. Survey of political history of the era.
  • Davies, Godfrey. The Early Stuarts, 1603-1660 (1959). online. Political, religious, and diplomatic overview of the era.
  • Gardiner, Samuel Rawson. History of the Great Civil War, 1642-1649 (4 vol 1898) online edition from Google
  • Gaunt, Peter. The Cromwellian Gazetteer: An Illustrated Guide to Britain in the Civil War and Commonwealth (1998), 256pp; heavily illustrated; covers the scenes of military conflict such as battlefields, castles, fortified houses and churches, defended and besieged towns and cities
  • Korr, Charles P. Cromwell and the New Model Foreign Policy: England's Policy toward France, 1649-1658 (1975) ISBN 0-520-02281-5. online
  • Macinnes, Allan. The British Revolution, 1629-1660 (2005), 337pp ISBN 0-333-59750-8.
  • Morrill, John. "Cromwell and his contemporaries". In Morrill, John (ed.), Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1990) ISBN 0-582-01675-4. excerpt and text search
  • Trevor-Roper, Hugh. Oliver Cromwell and his Parliaments, in his Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (1967). online edition
  • Venning, Timothy. Cromwellian Foreign Policy (1995) ISBN 0-333-63388-1.
  • Woolrych, Austin. Commonwealth to Protectorate (1982), ISBN 0-19-822659-4.
  • Woolrych, Austin. Britain in Revolution 1625-1660 (2002), ISBN 0-19-927268-6. excerpt and text search


  • Davis, J. C. Oliver Cromwell (2001). 243 pp; a biographical study that covers sources and historiography
  • Goodlad, Graham. "The Cromwellian Protectorate." History Review, (March 2007,) Issue 57; online at EBSCO
  • Lunger Knoppers, Laura. Constructing Cromwell. Ceremony, Portrait and Print, 1645-1661 (2000), shows how people compared Cromwell to King Ahab, King David, Elijah, Gideon and Moses, as well as Brutus and Julius Caesar.
  • Morrill, John. "Rewriting Cromwell: a Case of Deafening Silences." Canadian Journal of History 2003 38(3): 553-578. Issn: 0008-4107 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Worden, Blair. "Thomas Carlyle and Oliver Cromwell", in Proceedings Of The British Academy(2000) 105: pp. 131–170. ISSN 0068-1202 .
  • Worden, Blair. Roundhead Reputations: the English Civil Wars and the passions of posterity (2001), 387pp; ISBN 0-14-100694-3.
  • Warden, Blair. "The English Reputations of Oliver Cromwell, 1660-1900" in William Lamont, ed. Historical Controversies and Historians (1998) 35-48 online

Primary sources

  • Abbott, W.C., ed. Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, 4 vols. (1937–47).The largest reference for Cromwell's own words online edition.
    • Morrill, John. "Textualizing and Contextualizing Cromwell", in Historical Journal 1990 33(3): pp. 629–639. ISSN 0018-246X . in Jstor Examines the Carlyle and Abbott editions.
  • Carlyle, Thomas, ed. Oliver Cromwell's letters and speeches, with elucidations. (1904 edition), online edition
  • Haykin, Michael A. G. ed. To Honour God: The Spirituality of Oliver Cromwell (1999). ISBN 1-894400-03-8. Excerpts from Cromwell's religious writings.
  • Roots, Ivan. Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (1989, ISBN 0-460-01254-1.)


  1. See
  2. Letter #16, Sept. 11, 1638
  3. Austin Woolrych, (1990)
  4. James Robertson, "Cromwell and the Conquest of Jamaica." History Today 2005 55(5): 15-22. Issn: 0018-2753 Fulltext: Ebsco
  5. Jamaica was permanently captured, at great cost. James Robertson, "Cromwell and the Conquest of Jamaica," History Today 55, No. 5 (May 2005) pp 15-22; Carla Gardina Pestana, "English Character and the Fiasco of the Western Design." Early American Studies 2005 3(1): 1-31. Issn: 1543-4273 Fulltext: Ebsco
  6. See Blair Worden, "Toleration and the Cromwellian Protectorate" in W.J. Sheils, ed., "Persecution and Toleration Studies" in Studies Church History,(1984) v.21
  7. Blair Warden, "The English Reputations of Oliver Cromwell, 1660-1900" in William Lamont, ed. Historical Controversies And Historians (1998) p. 35
  8. "Ten greatest Britons chosen". BBC Polls
  9. Compare the controversies over King Richard III, who was a minor player as king for less than two years and whose facts are in dispute.
  10. John Morrill, "Cromwell and his contemporaries", in Morrill, (1990) pp. 263–4, 271-2
  11. John Adams, by David McCullough, p 359; Simon & Schuster, 2001
  13. The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, pg. 49 (digital eBook)
  15. Blair Worden, Roundhead Reputations: The English Civil Wars and the Passions of Posterity (2001). pp. 53–59.
  16. Gardiner, Oliver Cromwell (1901) p. 315.
  17. Worden, Roundhead Reputations (2001) pp. 256–260.
  18. Gardiner, Oliver Cromwell (1901) p. 318.
  19. John Morrill, "Textualising and Contextualising Cromwell", in Historical Journal (1990). v33#3, pp. 629-639.
  20. Morrill (2003)
  21. Austin Woolrych, "The Cromwellian Protectorate: a Military Dictatorship?" in History (1990) 75(244): 207-231
  22. Morrill "Cromwell, Oliver (1599–1658)", in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,(2004). [1]; Blair Worden, "Oliver Cromwell and the sin of Achan". In Beales, D. and Best, G., History, Society and the Churches (1985); J.C. Davis, "Cromwell’s religion", in Morrill, John (ed.), Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1990).

External links