Oliver Cromwell

The English statesman and general Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) won decisive battles in the English civil war. He then established himself and his army as the ruling force in England and later took the title Lord Protector of Great Britain and Ireland.

Oliver Cromwell was born on April 25, 1599, at Huntingdon. His father, Richard Cromwell, was a younger son of one of the richest men in the district, Sir Henry Cromwell of Hinchinbrook, known as the "Golden Knight." Cromwell's mother was the daughter of Sir William Steward, who managed the tithe revenues of Ely Cathedral. Little is known of Cromwell's childhood, except that his circumstances were modest and he was sent to the local school. His schoolmaster, Dr. Beard, was a devout Calvinist; most of Cromwell's intense religious convictions were derived from Beard, whom he venerated throughout his life.

In 1616 Cromwell entered Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. He left the following year on the death of his father. For the next few years he lived in London, where in 1620 he married Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir James Bourchier, a wealthy leather merchant. Cromwell then returned to his small estate in Huntingdon, where he farmed his land and played a modest part in local affairs, acquiring a reputation as a champion of the poor and dispossessed. During these years Cromwell experienced periods of deep melancholy, suffused with religious doubt, but after much spiritual torment he became convinced that he was the instrument of God.

Political Situation in 1640

When Cromwell entered Parliament for Cambridge in 1640, England had been ruled personally by Charles I for 11 years. The King had pursued an authoritarian policy in religion and finance which had distressed many country gentlemen, including Cromwell. Furthermore, Charles had plunged into war with Scotland, which had risen in revolt when Archbishop William Laud had persuaded him to impose the English Prayer Book on the Scottish Church. The Scots rapidly defeated the King; destitute of money and at the mercy of the Scots, Charles I was forced to call Parliament.

The mood of Parliament was highly critical, and there was a closely knit body of Puritan country gentlemen and lawyers who were determined that the power of the King and the Anglican Church should be limited by Parliament. Several of Cromwell's relatives, particularly the influential John Hampden and Oliver St. John, belonged to this group, which was led by John Pym. Cromwell threw in his lot with these men. A middle-aged man without parliamentary experience, he spoke rarely, but when he did it was usually in support of extreme measures. Cromwell soon established his reputation as a firm upholder of the parliamentary cause; he was dedicated to the reform of the Church and of the court and was highly critical of the King.

Civil War

By 1642 the King and Parliament had become so antagonistic that armed conflict was inevitable. At the outbreak of war in August 1642, Cromwell headed a regiment whose prime duty was to defend East Anglia. He rapidly demonstrated not only his skill as a military leader by rapid raids into royalist territory combined with skillful retreat, but also his capacity to mold an effective army from his force of raw recruits.

Under the leadership of the Earl of Manchester, Cromwell's commander, regiments from other counties were brought together in a formidable body, known as the Eastern Association. In 1643 Cromwell's cavalry worsted the royalists in a number of sharp engagements—Grantham (May 13), Gainsborough (July 18), and Wincaby (October 13). These successes helped to create parliamentary supremacy in East Anglia and the Midlands. Cromwell's reputation as Parliament's most forceful general was made the next year, however, at the battle of Marston Moor (July 2, 1644), when his Ironsides routed the cavalry of Prince Rupert, the most successful royalist general. To Cromwell, whose religious convictions strengthened with every victory that he won, Marston Moor was God's work, and he wrote, "God made them stubble to our swords."

The victories in eastern England, however, were not matched by success elsewhere. After 2 years of war the King was still in the field, and there was a growing rift between Parliament and the army. Many disliked the price paid for alliance with the Scots (acceptance of the Presbyterian form of church government), and most longed for peace. Cromwell, however, yearned for victory. He bitterly attacked the Earl of Manchester, and after complex political maneuvering he emerged as the effective leader of the parliamentary armies. He proved his exceptional capacities as a general on June 14, 1645, when he smashed the royalists' army at Naseby in Northamptonshire. Within 12 months the royalist armies had capitulated.

In 5 years Cromwell had risen from obscurity to renown. A large man with a long, red face studded with warts, he nevertheless possessed considerable presence. His mood was usually somber, thoughtful, and deeply religious. His soldiers sang psalms as they went into battle, and every regiment had its preacher.

The next 3 years taxed Cromwell's skill and faith. His army became riddled with Levellers, whose radical doctrines called for a far more democratic social structure than Cromwell and his fellow generals would tolerate. Parliament and the Scots inclined not only to peace with the King but also to a rigid form of Presbyterianism, which Cromwell disliked. He claimed to believe in toleration, but excepted always Catholics and atheists.

In 1648 the royalists rose again, sided by the Scots, but in a lightning campaign Cromwell smashed both. The republicans were then determined to bring Charles I to trial, and Cromwell did nothing to stop them. At last agreeing that the King was "a man of blood" and should be executed, he signed Charles I's death warrant.

Further Campaigns

The execution of the King settled nothing. Legally, the House of Commons, purged to such an extent that it was called the Rump, ruled. But the army, Scotland, and Ireland were soon in rebellion. The Scottish Presbyterians proclaimed Charles II (Charles I's son) their lawful monarch, and the Irish Catholics did likewise. In England the radicals were a rampant minority, the royalists a stunned majority, but neither had any respect for the Rump.

Cromwell suppressed the Levellers by force and then set about subduing first Ireland and then Scotland. In the former Cromwell fought a tough, bloody campaign in which the butchery of thousands of soldiers at Drogheda (Sept. 11, 1649) and hundreds of civilians at Wexford (Oct. 11) caused his name to be execrated in Ireland for centuries.

On June 26, 1650, Cromwell finally became commander in chief of the parliamentary armies. He moved against the Scots and got into grievous difficulties. At Dunbar in August 1650 he was pressed between the hills and the sea and was surrounded by an army of 20,000 men. But the folly of the Scottish commander, Leslie, enabled Cromwell to snatch a victory, he thought by divine help, on September 3. The next year Charles II and his Scottish army made a spirited dash into England, but Cromwell smashed them at Worcester on Sept. 3, 1651. At long last the war was over and Cromwell realized that God's humble instrument had been given, for better or worse, supreme power.

Cromwell's Rule: 1653-1658

For 5 years after the execution of the King, Parliament tried to formulate a new constitution. Its failure to do this so exasperated Cromwell that on April 20, 1653, he went with a handful of soldiers to the House of Commons, where he shouted at the members, "The Lord be done with you," and ordered them out.

Until his death Cromwell tried to create a firm new constitutional base for his power. His first attempt to establish a constitution by means of a nominated Parliament in 1653 ended in disaster, so the Council of Army Officers promulgated the Instrument of Government, by which Cromwell became Protector in December 1653. He was assisted by a Council of State on whose advice he acted, for Cromwell believed sincerely in the delegation and sharing of power. For 8 months Cromwell and his Council ruled most effectively, sweeping away ancient feudal jurisdictions in Scotland and Ireland and uniting those countries with England under one Parliament, which was itself reformed. When the Parliament met in 1654, however, it soon quarreled with Cromwell over the constitution. He once more took power into his own hands and dissolved Parliament on June 22, 1655.

Cromwell's government became more authoritarian. Local government was brought under major generals, soldiers whom he could trust. This infuriated the radical left as well as the traditionalists. Again attempting to give his authority a formal parliamentary base and also needing additional revenue, Cromwell reconvened Parliament. His successes abroad and his suppression of revolts at home had greatly increased his popularity; thus when Parliament met, he was pressed to accept the crown, but after much soul-searching he refused. He took instead the title Lord Protector under a new constitution—the Humble Petition and Advice (May 25, 1657). This constitution also reestablished the House of Lords and made Cromwell king in all but name. But Cromwell was no Napoleon; there were definite limits to his personal ambition. He did not train his son Richard to be his successor, nor did he try to establish his family as a ruling dynasty. And at the height of his power he retained his deep religious conviction that he was merely an instrument of God's purpose.

Cromwell pursued an effective foreign policy. His navy enjoyed substantial success, and the foundation of British power in the West Indies was laid by its capture of Jamaica (1655). He allied himself with France against Spain, and his army carried the day at the battles of the Dunes in 1658. These victories, combined with his dexterous handling of Scotland and brutal suppression of Ireland, made his personal ascendancy unassailable, in spite of failures in his domestic policy. But shortly after his death on Sept. 3, 1658, Cromwell's regime collapsed, and the restoration of the monarchy followed in 1660.

Critical Assessment

Cromwell's greatness will always be questioned. As a general, he was gifted yet lucky; as a statesman, he had some success but was unable to bring his plans to complete fruition. Although his religious conviction often appears to be a hypocritical cloak for personal ambition, his positive qualities are unmistakable. He believed in representative government (limited to men of property, however). He encouraged reform, and much of it was humane. He brought to the executive side of government a great degree of professionalism, particularly in the army and navy. Britain emerged from the Commonwealth stronger, more efficient, and more secure. Perhaps the most remarkable qualities of Cromwell were his sobriety and his self-control. Few men have enjoyed such supreme power and abused it less.

Further Reading on Oliver Cromwell

Cromwell's letters and speeches are collected by Wilbur C. Abbott in The Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (4 vols., 1937-1947). The literature on Cromwell is enormous. The best and most complete biography of him is Sir Charles Firth, Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans in England (1900; repr. 1961). An excellent brief biography is C. V. Wedgwood, Oliver Cromwell (1939). Maurice Ashley, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan Revolution (1958), is also valuable. The problems of Cromwell's character and policies are well explored in Richard E. Boyer, ed., Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan Revolt (1966). Equally valuable is Maurice P. Ashley, ed., Cromwell (1969). Cromwell's career as a general is best studied in C. V. Wedgwood, The King's War (1958); Alfred H. Burne and Peter Young, The Great Civil War: A Military History of the First Civil War, 1642-1646 (1959); and Austin H. Woolrych, The Battles of the English Civil War (1961). The best bibliographical guide is Wilbur C. Abbott, Bibliography of Oliver Cromwell (1929).