Oliver Cromwell (April 25, 1599 – September 3, 1658) was an English military leader, politician, and dictator, and one of only two commoners ever to have been the English Head of State (from 1653-1658; the other being his son Richard Cromwell from 1658-1659). After being amongst the lower levels of the leadership of the war against the crown, he rose to command the Army and eventually to impose his rule on England, Scotland, and Ireland as Lord Protector, from December 16, 1653 until his death, which is believed to have been by malaria. After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 his body was exhumed and hung in chains at Tyburn.
Cromwell was born in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. He studied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, which was then a recently-founded college with a strong Puritan ethos. However, he left without taking a degree, probably due to the death of his father.
At the outset of the English Civil War, Cromwell began his military career by raising a cavalry troop, which became the basis of the horse of the New Model Army. Prince Rupert gave Cromwell the nickname of "Old Ironsides" which later historians have applied to his Regiment of Horse. Cromwell's success on both wings of the field at the Battle of Marston Moor (in 1644) brought him to great prominence amongst certain parties in London. The 1645 Self-Denying Ordinance, which disallowed members of parliament from serving in the army, should have brought an end to his miliitary career. He was, however, specifically exempted from its provisions by the Committee of Both Kingdoms, the executive body set up to co-ordinate the war against the king. His command was extended by a series of forty day commissions. This was to continue until 1647, when he was finally confirmed as Lieutenant-General. On the resignation of Sir Thomas Fairfax in 1650 Cromwell was appointed as commander-in-chief of the New Model Army. Although sincere in his belief in parliamentary rule, political circumstances, and his reliance on the army as a power base, eventually transformed him into Britain's only miltary dicatator.
Oliver Cromwell was descended from Catherine Cromwell (born circa 1482), an older sister of Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell. Catherine was married to Morgan ap Williams, son of William ap Yevan of Wales and Joan Tudor. There is speculation that Joan was an illegitimate daughter of Jasper Tudor, 1st Duke of Bedford.
Although Catherine married, her children kept her name; possibly to maintain their connection with their famous uncle. The family line continued through Richard Cromwell (c. 1500–1544), Henry Cromwell (c. 1524–January 6, 1603), then to Oliver's father Robert Cromwell, Esquire (c. 1560–1617), who married Elizabeth Steward or Stewart (1564–1654) on April 25, 1599, the day of Oliver's birth.
Another interesting feature of the Cromwell bloodline is that the mother's maiden name, as an alternative to the argument above, might have been kept as the surname for a different purpose: to disguise the male side of the family's heritage, instead of merely accentuating the female's side from Thomas Cromwell. This heritage goes through the Tudors, de Valois, and Wittelsbach—three royal dynasties of England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire, respectively.
Cromwell's alleged paternal ancestor, Jasper Tudor, was a younger brother of Edmund Tudor, 1st Earl of Richmond, uncle to his son Henry VII of England, and son of Owen Tudor and Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France and Isabeau of Bavaria. However, the descent of Oliver Cromwell from Jasper is unverified and is doubtful in view of the tendency of Cromwell's supporters to fabricate claims of his descent from the Royal line. This also occurred with the claim that Cromwell's ancestors on his mother's side could be traced back to a Scottish Stuart (from Stewart and originally Steward) prince shipwrecked on the Norfolk coast in 1406. This claim for a Scottish royal "pedigree" was unfounded, as Cromwell's Steward ancestors actually descended from the Skywards (or Stywards) of Calais.
The Thomas Cromwell genealogy lineage shows Katherine Cromwell's descent from the Earl of Arundel; however it mistakenly gives descent from William d'Aubigny, 3rd Earl of Arundel instead of William d'Aubigny, 4th Earl of Arundel and Mabel of Chester, daugther of Hugh de Kevelioc, 3rd Earl of Chester. Likewise a nephew of Katherine Cromwell had been married to Elizabeth Seymour a sister of Queen Jane Seymour; also an aunt of Oliver Cromwell was the mother of Edward Whalley.
Member of Parliament
Having decided against following an uncle to Virginia, Cromwell instead became the Member of Parliament for Huntingdon in the Parliament of 1628–1629. His maiden speech was the defence of a radical democrat, who had argued in an unauthorised pamphlet in favour of "giving the vote to all men." Oliver was also prominent in defending the people of The Fens from wealthy landowners, who wanted to drive them off their land, 'improve' it by draining the marshland, and take their cut.
Charles I ruled without a Parliament for the next eleven years (having dissolved Parliament, of which Cromwell was a member, in 1629). During this time he alienated many people with his policies of raising extra-parliamentary taxes, and introducing ever more ritual and ceremony into the Church of England, a policy associated with William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury . When King Charles was facing a Scottish rebellion known as the Bishop's War, and forced by shortage of funds to call a Parliament again in 1640, Oliver Cromwell was one of many MPs who bitterly opposed voting for any new taxes, until the King agreed to govern with the consent of Parliament on both civil and religious issues. Failure to resolve these issues led to armed conflict breaking out between Parliamentarians and Royalists in the autumn of 1642. Support for Parliament tended to be concentrated in London, the South-East and the Midlands, whereas the Royalists gathered most of their support from the North, the West Country and Wales.
Cromwell was a passionate supporter of Parliament, on both religious and political grounds. Although not an accomplished speaker, he was prominent in the Parliamentary cause from the outset, making up in courage and conviction what he lacked by way of art and polish. Cromwell was related to a significant number of members of Parliament by blood or marriage. His views were later to be highly influential, although prior to the War he had been a figure of no great distinction. He did not become a leader of the Parliamentary cause until after the first civil war, when his military ability had brought him to prominence.
Although he was later involved in the King's overthrow and execution, Cromwell did not start the civil war as a radical republican; rather, he did so with the intention of forcing Charles to reign with the consent of Parliament, and with a more consensual, Protestant, religious policy.
Cromwell's understanding of religion and politics were very closely intertwined. Cromwell was a committed Puritan, and as such an opponent of the High Church innovations of Charles and Archbishop Laud. His main point of reference was the Bible, and he placed considerable emphasis throughout his life on liberty of conscience. He strongly believed that all true Christians (from which he excluded Roman Catholics) had a right to worship as they pleased. He welcomed followers of many radical sects into the ranks of his New Model Army, including Anabaptists and Fifth Monarchists and gave them toleration during his Protectorate. As Protector, he disestablished the Church of England and abolished the Anglican Hierarchy. He also re-admitted Jews into England in this period and tolerated the practice of their religion. One of the main reasons for Cromwell's opposition to Charles I before the Civil Wars was the persecution of radical Protestant groups.
He was passionately opposed to the Roman Catholic Church, which he saw as denying the primacy of the Bible in favour of Papal and Clerical authority, and which he blamed for tyranny and persecution of Protestants in Europe. Cromwell's feelings of association between Catholicism and persecution were deepened with the Irish Rebellion of 1641. This rebellion was marked by massacres by Irish Catholics of English and Scottish Protestant settlers, which were wildly exaggerated in Puritan circles in Britain. This would be one of the reasons why Cromwell acted so harshly in his later military campaign in Ireland. Addressing the Irish defenders of New Ross in 1649, while negotiating the surrender of the town, Cromwell stated, "if by liberty of conscience you mean the liberty to exercise the Mass... where the Parliament of England has authority, that will not be allowed of." In a letter to the Irish Catholic Bishops later that year he wrote, "you are part of the Anti-Christ and before long you must have, all of you, blood to drink."
He became associated with the Independents, those who argued for religious freedom for all Protestants in a post-war settlement. His belief in both liberty of conscience and liberty of congregations caused him to reject the Scottish model of Presbyterianism, which threatened to replace one authoritarian hierarchy with another.
Finally, Cromwell was also a firm believer in "Providentialism" - the belief that God was actively directing the affairs of the world, through the actions of 'chosen people' (whom God had "provided" for such purposes). Cromwell believed, during the Civil Wars, that he was one of these people, and he interpreted victories as indications of God's approval of his actions, and defeats as signs that God was directing him in another direction.
Before joining the Parliamentary Army, Cromwell's only military experience was in the trained bands, the local county militia. Now 43 years old he recruited a cavalry troop in his home County after blocking a shipment of silver meant for the king. The troop was recruited to be a full regiment in the winter of 1642/3 and Cromwell gained experience and victories in a number of successful actions in East Anglia and then at the major Battle of Marston Moor and the indecisive second Battle of Newbury. His experience at Newbury led to a serious dispute with the Earl of Manchester, the commander of the Eastern Association, whom he believed to be less than enthusiastic in his conduct of the war. Manchester later accused Cromwell of recruiting men of 'low birth' into the army,to which he famously replied: "I would rather have a plain russet-coated captain who knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else."
Cromwell had no formal training in military tactics, but possesed an instinctive gift of leadership.
His troops came to respect his bravery and concern for their well-being, an important development in their later trust for him.
After Parliament passed the Self-Denying Ordinance-which removed lukewarm soldiers like Manchester from command-it also decreed that the army be 'remodeled' on a national basis, replacing the old county associations. In June 1645 the New Model Army finally took to the field, with Fairfax in command and Cromwell as Lieutenant-General of cavalry, and second-in-command. Cromwell led his wing with great success at the ensuing Battle of Naseby. Unlike Fairfax, Cromwell was first and foremost a politician; and victory here and elsewhere was to become the real basis of his ascent to power.
By the end of the first civil war King Charles I was a prisoner of the Parliament. Failure to conclude a political agreement with the king eventually led to the outbreak of the Second Civil War in 1648. At Preston, Cromwell, in sole command for the first time, won a brilliant victory against the Scots allies of the king. His later successful conquests of Ireland and Scotland also showed his mastery of logistics in protracted campaigns in hostile territory.
Execution of the king
The Parliamentarians, including Cromwell, hoped to reach a compromise settlement with Charles I. However, Charles would not accept a solution at odds with his own concept of "Divine right" kingship. The renewal of the civil war convinced Cromwell that no future compromise with the King was possible. Cromwell came under pressure from the radicals among his own officers to put the King on trial for his life. For them he was "Charles Stuart, that man of blood." In December 1648, those MPs who wished to continue negotiations with the King were prevented from sitting by a troop of soldiers headed by Colonel Thomas Pride, an episode soon to be known as Pride's Purge. Those remaining, known as the 'Rump', agreed that Charles should be tried on a charge of treason. A court was duly constituted, and the death warrant for Charles was eventually signed by 59 of its members, including Cromwell. Charles was executed on 30 January 1649. Cromwell did not have long to dwell on the future form of government in England, however, as he immediately left the country to crush the remaining Royalist strongholds in Ireland and Scotland, which had allied themselves with Charles.
Ireland and Scotland
In a series of campaigns fought between 1649 and 1651 Cromwell successfully conquered both Scotland and Ireland. His sometimes brutal suppression in 1649 of the Royalists in Ireland still has a strong resonance for many Irish people. The most enduring symbol of this brutality is the siege of Drogheda in September 1649. The massacre of nearly 3,500 people in Drogheda after its capture — comprising around 2,700 Royalist soldiers and all the men in the town carrying arms, including some civilians, prisoners, and Catholic priests — is one of the historical memories that has fuelled Irish-English and Catholic-Protestant strife for over three centuries.
The extent of Cromwell's intentions has been strongly debated. For example, it is clear that Cromwell saw the Irish in general as enemies - he justified his sack of Drogheda as revenge for the massacres of Protestant settlers in Ulster in the Irish Rebellion of 1641, calling the massacre, "The righteous judgement of God on these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their hands with so much innocent blood"- and the records of many churches such as Kilkenny Cathedral accuse Cromwell's army of having defaced and desecrated the churches and having stabled their horses in them. On the other hand, it is also clear that on entering Ireland, Cromwell demanded that no supplies were to be seized from the inhabitants, and that everything should be fairly purchased. It has been claimed that his actual orders at Drogheda followed military protocol of the day, where a town or garrison was first given the option to surrender and receive 'just treatment', and the protection of the invading force. Cromwell showed no mercy as he wanted Drogheda to act as a deterrent to the Irish, and so he could return to England and put down any threat from the Scots in England. The refusal to do this, even after the walls had been breached, meant that Cromwell's orders to 'show no mercy' in the treatment of men-of-arms was made inevitable by the standards of the day. This view has been disputed by historians. Cromwell's men committed another infamous massacre at Wexford, when they broke into the town during surrender negotiations, and killed over 2,000 Irish soldiers and civilians. These two atrocities, while horrifying in their own right, were not exceptional in the war in Ireland since its start in 1641, but are well-remembered even today in part because of a concerted propaganda campaign by the Royalists, which portrayed Cromwell as a monster who indiscriminately slaughtered civilians wherever he went.
However, Cromwell himself never accepted that he was responsible for the killing of civilians in Ireland, claiming that he had acted harshly, but only against those "in arms." In fact, the worst atrocities committed in that country, such as mass evictions, killings and deportation for slave labour to Bermuda and Barbados, were carried out by Cromwell's subordinates after he had left for England. In the wake of the Cromwellian conquest, all Catholic-owned land was confiscated in the Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652 and given to English settlers and Parliamentary soldiers.
No matter his intentions, Cromwell was not alone in his apparent truculence towards the Irish. During the civil wars, the Parliamentarian side in particular nursed a hatred towards the Catholic Irish, who were long seen as "savages" and inferior by the English. The Royalists were less hostile, and ultimately allied themselves with the Irish Confederates - which discredited them in the eyes of many English and Scottish Protestants. While the number of victims of the massacres in Ulster during the Irish Rebellion of 1641 had been considerably exaggerated, the whole incident added to the general climate of Protestant hostility.
Cromwell also invaded Scotland in 1650 after the Scots had proclaimed Charles I's son as Charles II. He was much less hostile to Scottish Presbyterians (some of whom had been his allies in the first Civil War) than he was to Irish Catholics, and saw them as, "His [God's] people, though deceived". He made a famous appeal to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, urging them to see the error of the royal alliance-I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken. His appeal rejected, Cromwell's veteran troops went on to defeat Scottish armies at the Dunbar and the Worcester. Many of the of prisoners of war taken in the campaigns died of disease, and others were sent to penal colonies in Barbados, although Cromwell himself was not responsible for any acts of cruelty towards captives. In the the final stages of the Scottish campaign, Cromwell's men, under George Monck sacked the town of Dundee. During the Commonwealth, Scotland was ruled from England, and was kept under military occupation; with a line of fortifications sealing off the Highlands, which had provided manpower for Royalist armies in Scotland, from the rest of the country. Presbyterianism was allowed to be practised as before, but the Kirk (the Scottish church) did not have the backing of the civil courts to impose its rulings, as it had previously.
Cromwell's conquest, unwelcome as it was, left no lasting legacy of bitterness in Scotland. The rule of the Commonwealth and Protectorate was largely peaceful and fair, and there were no wholesale confiscations of land or property. Ireland, in contrast, saw the wholesale transfer of land from the Catholic population to veterans of the New Model Army. This created a poisonous legacy, far exceeding the memories left by the sack of Drogheda and Wexford.
After the execution of the King a republic was declared, known as the Commonwealth of England. A Council of State was appointed to manage affairs, which included Cromwell among its members. His real power base was in the army; and as various constitutional experiments were tried and failed, the regime began to appear increasingly like a military dictatorship.
Many of Cromwell's actions upon gaining power were decried by some commentators as "harsh, unwise, and tyrannical." He was often ruthless (though perhaps no more than was then expected) in putting down the mutinies which occurred within his own army towards the end of the war (prompted by Parliament's failure to pay the troops). Cromwell showed little sympathy for the Levellers, an egalitarian movement which had contributed greatly to Parliament's cause. The Leveller point of view had been strongly represented in the Putney Debates, held between the various factions of the Army in 1647, just prior to the King's escape. Cromwell and the Grandees were not prepared to countenance such a radical democracy. As events were to show, Cromwell could not engineer a stable oligarchic Parliamentary republic, either.
With the king gone (and with him their common cause), Cromwell's unanimous backing dissolved, and the various factions in Parliament began to engage in infighting. Cromwell in frustration eventually dismissed the republican Rump Parliament in 1653. Not yet willing to assume outright control he summoned a new Parliament, whose members were all nominated. Sometimes known as the the Parliament of Saints it was also called the Barebones Parliament, after one of its members, Praise-God Barebones. Its failure to deal with the complex political, legal and religious problems facing England forced its withdrawal. In December 1653 Cromwell was appointed Lord Protector, with powers akin to a monarchy. Cromwell's power was buttressed by his continuing popularity among the army, which he had built up during the civil wars, and which he subsequently prudently guarded, and during his period of dictatorship he divided England into military districts 'ruled' by Army Major Generals who answered only to him.
In 1657, Cromwell was offered the crown by a re-constituted Parliament, presenting him with a dilemma, since he had been 'instrumental' in abolishing the monarchy. After six weeks of deliberation, he rejected the offer. Instead, he was ceremonially re-installed as "Lord Protector" (with greater powers than had previously been granted him under this title) at Westminster Hall, sitting upon King Edward's Chair which was specially moved from Westminster Abbey for the occasion. The event was practically a coronation, copying many features of the old coronation ceremony and utilising many of its symbols and regalia, and made him "king in all but name." But, most notably, the office of Lord Protector was still not to become hereditary, though Cromwell was now able to nominate his own successor. Cromwell's new rights and powers were laid out in the Humble Petition and Advice, a legislative instrument which replaced the 1653 Instrument of Government which had previously conferred on him the title of Lord Protector. Many political radicals saw this as a betrayal, believing that Cromwell had become another king in all but name.
Death and posthumous execution
Cromwell is thought to have suffered from malaria (probably first contracted while on campaign in Ireland) and from "stone", a common term for urinary/kidney infections. Yet, he was in generally good health. In 1658 he was struck by a sudden bout of fever, followed directly by an attack of urinary/kidney symptoms. Although weakened, he was optimistic about the future, as were his attendants. A Venetian diplomat, also a physician, was visiting at the time and tracked Cromwell's final illness. It was his opinion that the Lord Protector's personal physicians were mismanaging his health, leading to a rapid decline and his death. He died on 3 September 1658, by remarkable co-incidence the anniversary of his great victories at Dunbar and Worcester.
He was succeeded as Lord Protector by his son Richard. Although Richard was not entirely without ability, he had no power base in either Parliament or the Army, and was forced to resign in the spring of 1659, bringing the Protectorate to an end. A year later Parliament restored Charles II as king.
In 1661, Oliver Cromwell's body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey, and was subjected to the ritual of a posthumous execution – significantly, this took place on January 30 – the same date that Charles I had been executed. His body was hung in chains at Tyburn. Finally, his carcass was thrown into a pit, while his severed head was displayed on a pole outside Westminster Abbey until 1685. Afterwards it changed hands several times, before eventually being buried in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1960.
Despite his treatment after the Restoration, and his grim reputation in Ireland that lingers to this day, Cromwell has gained esteem over the years. As one of British history's 'most notable parliamentarians', his statue outside the Palace of Westminster is understandable, despite the fact that many of his actions are officially regarded as 'treasonous' against the Monarchy. He was the first man in history successfully to unite England, Scotland and Ireland under one rule, a task that had defied all the kings of England. He also has a particular following among Protestant groups; and has retained popularity in Cambridgeshire, where he was known as "Lord of The Fens." In Cambridge, he is commemorated in an unusual fashion: a painted glass window of Cromwell exists in the Emmanuel United Reformed Church, and in St Ives, there is a statue of Cromwell in the town centre.
In George Crabbe's poem, 'The Frank Courtship' about a family of Fenland dissenters, are the lines
- '....No son or daughter of their order wed
- a friend to England's king, who lost his head;
- Cromwell was still their Saint, and when they met,
- They mourn'd that Saints were not our rulers yet....'
- Some authors believe that Oliver Cromwell was a freemason, although no definitive record currently exists to prove this contention.
- Cromwell and some relatives nearly fled and emigrated to the New World before the English Civil Wars.
- Oliver Cromwell was the first to coin the phrase "warts and all." Though he did not actually say "warts and all," the phrase comes from a famous conversation that he made to the artist (Lely) that was painting his portrait after he became Lord Protector. Cromwell was surprised to see that his rough and undesirable features were glossed over, making him look more attractive than he actually was. The quote is as follows:
Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint your picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughness, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me. Otherwise, I will never pay a farthing for it.
- To the Irish Catholic defenders of New Ross in 1649, while negotiating its surrender:
I wish to meddle with no man's conscience, but if by liberty of conscience you mean liberty to exercise the Mass, I think it best to deal in plain speaking, where the Parliament of England has authority, that will not be allowed of.
- To the Presbyterians of Scotland in a letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1650:
I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.
- Another quotation:
Let us restore the king to his throne, and let the king in future agree to govern with the consent of Parliament. Let us restore the old church, with its bishops, since that is what most of the people want; but since the Puritans and Separatists and Baptists have served us well in the war, let us not persecute them anymore but let them worship as they like, outside of the established church. And so let us have peace and liberty.
- Cromwell was (likely in absence) called Copper Nose, for a brownish tinge on his nose.
- The 1970 film Cromwell, starring Richard Harris, is based on the life of Oliver Cromwell.
- British actor Tim Roth played the role of Oliver Cromwell in the 2003 film "To Kill a King".
- British authors - actors - musicians Monty Python have written a song called "Oliver Cromwell" which is a small parodistic - and critical - biography of the military leader.
- British actor Clive Mantle portrayed Cromwell in the Doctor Who 2006 Big Finish audio play, "The Settling." The 2-hour play, starring Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor, centered around Cromwell as man and military leader during the invasions of Drogheda and Wexford in Ireland. According to the official Big Finish web site, scriptwriter Simon Gauthier drew heavily from the Cromwell biographies Cromwell, An Honourable Enemy: The Untold Story of the Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland by Tim Reilly and God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution by Christopher Hill.
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