Oliver Cromwell

by Ian Ritchie

Monarchy in England was abolished on a cold and snowy day when, on January 30th, 1649, King Charles I was beheaded for high treason. Simultaneously, Oliver Cromwell—political and military leader of the Puritan Revolution and the main figure of the English Civil War—ascended to power. Born in England in 1599, Cromwell is one of Early Modern Europe’s most significant historical figures. He eventually became the “Lord Protector” over his country and elevated its reputation to that of a prominent European power since its decay after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

The period in England’s history between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the eventual restoration of monarchy after Cromwell’s death in 1660 is known as the Commonwealth. During the early stages of this period, the country was ruled as a republic by a Puritan government. Cromwell later attained greater authority and rule during the period known as the Protectorate. Under Cromwell, the new administration enacted many laws concerning religion and toleration. While some of these reforms are applaudable, others, such as closing theaters and requiring a strict observance of the Sabbath, were not as well-received by the people.[1] Although short-lived, Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth left a valuable and enduring influence on the legal and political development of England—and through England, America. The accomplishments of this era are responsible for the philosophy of religious tolerance of the Puritan society on which Christendom in the New World was established.

Early Life

Before Cromwell was ever a visible figure in England’s turbulent political landscape, he was a humble country gentleman. Oliver was the only surviving son of Robert Cromwell and Elizabeth Steward, and grandson of Thomas Cromwell, the famous “iron-handed servant of Henry VIII.”[2] Oliver grew up in Huntington in eastern England with his nine sisters. He was sent to the local public grammar school, the master of which was a learned preacher in the town, Dr. Beard. Beard wrote two treatises of the trite proposition that the Pope is the Anti-Christ, and a small work entitled The Theatre of God’s Judgements. In it, Beard collects narrative examples of the justice of God, especially against those in authority whose power oppresses people and violates basic human justice. According to historian John Morley: “the youth of Huntington therefore drank of the pure milk of the stern word that bade men bind their kings in chains and their nobles in links of iron.”[3] Thus, from an early age, Oliver was presented with a strong sense of God’s active providence in human affairs and influenced by anti-authoritarian Puritan teachings.

Unfinished portrait miniature of Oliver Cromwell, c. 1650. public domain

When he was seventeen, Oliver went to Cambridge to study at Sidney Sussex college. The master of the college, Dr. Samuel Ward, was an upstanding scholar who helped create the Authorized Version of the Bible and participated the famous Synod of Dort. His college was denounced as one of the “nurseries of Puritanism.” It is clear the kind of atmosphere in which Oliver spent his formative years that inevitably would shape his character as a man. A little more than a year later, after the death of his father, Oliver left Cambridge and returned home to his family. He took care of his widowed mother and sisters, but it is believed he may have studied law in London for some time.[4] In August of 1620 Oliver married Elizabeth Bourchier, and by her he had five sons and four daughters.[5]

Of Oliver’s early married life two things are known. First, he was very ill, and as late as 1628 he was seeing a physician who described his mental condition as “extremely melancholy.”[6] This condition was, to a degree, the consequence of his physical ailment—some glandular issue he eventually overcame—but it was also largely the result of the second known fact: Oliver was facing a significant spiritual crisis. He was struggling with the problems of election and predestination, as did all Puritans of his day prior to conversion, and was compelled to face his own self with honesty and candor. He was following the steps of what could be called the typical “Calvinist conversion”—conviction of sin, repentance, hope of election, and assurance of salvation. This was an emotional and ecstatic experience for Oliver, not brought about by any process of reasoning, and left his tormented mind at peace.[7] In 1638, he wrote a letter to his cousin, the wife of Oliver St. John, describing his conversion: “You know what my manner of life hath been. Oh, I lived in and loved darkness, and hated the light; I was a chief, the chief of sinners. This is true: I hated godliness, yet God had mercy on me.”[8]

To understand Oliver, one must realize that at the core of his faith was this personal experience. It was not based on emotions; nor was it based on sensible fears, as with many Puritans. This made him impatient with trivial doctrinal disagreements among Christians. It made him tolerant of those different from him, since no one could understand what is in another’s heart. Of the man Oliver became from such a conversion, one historian writes:

“…With this toleration went a strange tenderness. Oliver was a man of a profound emotional nature who demanded food for his affections. His religion, being based not on fear but on love, for fear had little place in his heart, made him infinitely compassionate towards others. A sudden anger might drive him into harshness, but he repented instantly of his fault. Tears were never far from his eyes. I can find no parallel in history to this man of action who had so strong an instinct for mercy and kindness… and it sprang directly from his religion.”[9]

Civil War

Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker
oil on canvas, circa 1649
NPG 536
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Cromwell was elected to the Parliament of 1628-1629 and soon become known as a “fiery and somewhat uncouth Puritan”[10] who strongly opposed Charles I’s bishops. He, as well as most Puritans in Parliament, favored a presbyterian form of government in which congregations can choose their own ministers. Cromwell distrusted the entire hierarchy of the Church of England and rejected the episcopacy, which was considered the king’s main support.[11]

Cromwell was again elected to the Parliaments of 1640 (the Short Parliament of April 13th to May 5th, and the twenty-year Long Parliament convened on November 3rd). In 1641, the House of Commons, the majority of whom were discontent with the king’s policies, instituted measures against the king and his supporters in the House of Lords, one of which expelled bishops from the higher chamber. Parliament was gradually excluding those opposed to Puritanism, creating an increasingly radical Puritan bias and widening the gulf between Parliament and the king.[12] In 1642, Charles I left London to raise an army, preparing for battle against Parliament’s militia.[13] The long conflict between Parliament and the king was finally drifting toward civil war.

Cromwell returned to his hometown of Huntington and recruited a small outfit of cavalry to resist the king. During the first English Civil War, from 1643 to 1645, he gained a reputation as military organizer and a zealous fighter, heading many campaigns throughout the kingdom. Fighting alongside Parliamentary general Sir Thomas Fairfax, Cromwell eventually led the Parliamentary forces to victory at the decisive Battle of Naseby, crushing the king’s army and settling the first war.[14]

The Puritans, who had thus far been united in their opposition to the throne, were now divided. Though the majority of Parliament still supported a presbyterian polity, which retained a national church without bishops, the army mostly consisted of Independents.[15] The Independents thought a national church with a presbyterian polity would deny them the liberty to follow the Bible as they understood it, however beyond this point they did not agree on much else. As tension rose between Parliament and its army, the Commons tried to disband the army as efficiently as possible, though it was unsuccessful.[16] Cromwell, disappointed with the actions of Parliament, became devoted to resolve the issues between them and the army. In 1647, when he realized his efforts were futile, he decided to leave London. On that same day, a group of rebels seized the king’s camps and took him prisoner.[17] Cromwell, whose main objective at this point was to restore trust in both Parliament and the throne, of which the army had grown suspicious, interviewed Charles I to persuade him to agree to a constitutional settlement with Parliament.[18] His mediation between army, Parliament, and king ultimately failed when Charles I escaped and fled to Scotland to restore himself to the throne on their terms.[19] Cromwell then changed his mind about the king, declaring him “an obstinate man, whose heart God had hardened.”[20] The Royalists, taking advantage of the division in London and the support of the Scots, prepared for battle, and the Second Civil War was initiated.

The Puritan army was quick to defeat the Scots and capture the king once again. The Puritans also used this as an opportunity to reclaim Parliament, arresting forty-five leaders and preventing many more from attending sessions.[21] What was left was nicknamed the “Rump Parliament,” because the remnants were only the “rump” of a real Parliament. The Rump Parliament began the trial against Charles I, accusing him of high treason and for involving the country in civil war. Cromwell hesitated up until the last moments to make a decision regarding the king, but, after having been pressured by those close to him, he accepted Charles’s impending execution as an act of justice and signed his death warrant. Cromwell had always believed every decision should be based on the will of God, meaning that, though the steps were slow and painful, a “decision once taken was… irrevocable.”[22] The king refused to defend himself and was beheaded on January 30, 1649.

The British Isles were now declared a republic and renamed the Commonwealth. Oliver Cromwell spent the first few years following the death of the king suppressing the Irish Rebellion and the Royalist armies in Scotland.[23] The king’s son, Charles the II, had been forced to flee to Scotland, where he was acknowledged as the new king. Cromwell lead another campaign to defeat Charles II and the Scots, eventually destroying their army in 1650 at the Battle of Worcester, thus ending the Second Civil War.[24] At this point, Parliament and the Puritan army were still at odds, and Cromwell acted again as their mediator. His sympathies were with his army, so when the Rump Parliament was discussing measures to further its power, Cromwell showed up and expelled every last member of Parliament and claimed total executive rulership of the nation.[25] A few months later, he summoned his own “Barebones Parliament” to take their place and try to restore a representative government.[26] Cromwell’s hope was that this new administration would uphold justice and resolve the nation’s issues, but he grew to resent them for their selfishness and disobedience. He eventually had the Barebones Parliament surrender power into his hands, and in 1653, a new constitution was written which instated the so-called “Instrument of Government” and named Cromwell Lord Protector. Thus, Cromwell became the sole legal authority of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and was to accept minimal guidance from his new Parliaments.[27]

Reformation

Statue of Oliver Cromwell in Parliament Square.

It was during this time as Lord Protector that Oliver Cromwell set out to reform the church and the state. His domestic goals included reforming the law, decentralizing the government, improving education, establishing a Puritan Church, and encouraging toleration outside it.

Under the Instrument of Government, Parliament was to meet every three years, with absolutely no power to legislate between sessions, and was unable to pass laws infringing upon the powers of the Protector. This document was written in such a way that it could not be amended.[28] While the Instrument was successful in providing a sort of separation of powers and binding the branches of government, these had little permanent effect in England.[29] In the next century, however, America would adopt these fundamental ideas and effectively put them into practice. Concerning education, Cromwell served as chancellor of Oxford University, established a college at Durham, and supported the improvement of grammar schools.[30]

Before the first Parliament met, Cromwell utilized his opportunity to exercise his power to make ordinances, and that to the full. Most of his new laws were considered to be beneficial for the nation, such as appointing good judges in both Scotland and Ireland.[31] During this time, he prohibited dueling, horse racing, cockfights, theatre, and other pastimes considered frivolous or immoral, and a strict observance of the Lord’s Day was put in place. Cromwell also began what eventually became a national highway system.[32] In 1654, the First Protectorate Parliament met, as directed in the Instrument of Government, and accomplished very little. “In general it showed a lack of ordinary intelligence seldom [equaled] by any legislative body even in modern times.”[33] Cromwell grew indignant with this Parliament and dissolved it a few months later.

The Second Protectorate Parliament was called by Cromwell the next year, in 1656—almost two years early.[34] He was likely induced by an “over-anxiety to have a legislative body in session, and in particular to avoid the appearance of a military despotism.”[35] This second Parliament purposefully excluded about 100 Republican and Royalist members in hopes of a more effective assemblage, and it was. The most significant reform of this “new rump” Parliament was the writing of a new constitution, approved by Cromwell. It was clear the Instrument of Government required correction. Cromwell also thought it would be good to have a constitution drafted by a Parliament elected by popular-vote rather than the previous one which was drafted by the military.[36]

The new document was called the “Humble Petition and Advice.” Its original purpose was to offer Oliver Cromwell the royal crown, but he declined, still hoping to one day create a republic.[37] Thus, it was amended to keep Cromwell as Lord Protector and accepted in 1657. Under the Petition, the Protector could appoint his own successor, a power representing a drift toward monarchy. One important change was the reduction of power of the Protector to make new laws between sessions of Parliament.[38] Cromwell accepted this change without protest, revealing he was “not one who sought primarily personal prestige and power.”[39]

Religious Toleration

Most of the work accomplished by the Puritans during the Commonwealth had little or no lasting significance. One idea from the Commonwealth that would endure, however, was that of religious tolerance. This was a relatively new idea in governmental policy and probably the first time it was practiced by the dominant societal class. The Parliaments during this time supported Cromwell—by far the most fervent proponent of tolerance—and did away with previous laws which allowed the persecution of members of unpopular religions. The Parliament of 1657, under the Petition, passed an act which implemented a toleration of all who acknowledge the Trinity and the Scriptures, but excluded Catholics and other sects thought to be immoral. Although bishops had been abolished by this time, non-Puritan ministers were still allowed to hold office.[40] The use of the Book of Common Prayer had been banned in churches, (the Puritans encouraged extemporaneous prayer), but Cromwell permitted Christians to use it in their private homes.[41]

There was no persecution of any Protestant sect at all throughout the entirety of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Quakers are the exception; any sufferings they faced were likely due to their own disorderly behavior, and Cromwell was in favor of moderating the harshness of their punishment. Considering the widespread religious violence in the years leading to the Puritan Revolution and the long period of persecution after Cromwell’s death, these instances were “kind treatment,” comparably.[42] Cromwell was a large proponent of toleration for Roman Catholics and Jews, however the public sentiment usually disagreed. Even so, the harshest laws against them were not enforced under his authority.

Although the accomplishments of the Puritans regarding religion and toleration do not seem very remarkable, it should be noted that they were the first rulers to insist on the justice and practicability of such a society. The Puritans are to thank for their insight and courage to initiate a movement which was so unpopular then, yet is so commonplace today.

Restoration

Oliver Cromwell died in 1658. Shortly before his death, he appointed his son Richard to succeed him. Richard Cromwell, recognizing his lack of leadership ability, resigned his position. The Protectorate was deemed a failure. Parliament recalled Charles II to his father’s throne, marking the beginning of the restoration of monarchy.[43] The new king did what he could to disregard the products of the Commonwealth era, but it was impossible. The main outcomes were the end of absolute monarchy and superiority of Parliament. Though the efforts to establish a Puritan church failed and the episcopacy was reinstated, many of the legal reforms endured the Restoration. In fact, English and American governments have been using ideas from the Commonwealth centuries later.[44] The following years were marked by great persecution of Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians. Their systemic oppression persisted until the end of the century when toleration was decreed once again.[45]

Legacy

Close-up of statue of Oliver Cromwell in Parliament Square.

Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth began as a republic but ended as a “practically limited monarchy.”[46] The Restoration, therefore, was more a change in name of government than a change in form. It can be concluded this Commonwealth failed its purpose to create a lasting republic. Nevertheless, the constitutional development it provided England continues to positively influence both England and America. These countries owe significant credit to the stubborn Puritans of the Cromwellian era for their philosophy of toleration and limited government. As for Oliver, admittedly he made his country great. Overall, he is regarded much more as a patriotic ruler than he is a military dictator. With unwavering faith in God’s active providence, he restored political stability in England after the Civil Wars and had a great impact on the development of constitutional government and religious toleration.

 

NOTES

[1] Brown, Law of England, 378.
[2] Morley, Oliver Cromwell, 9.
[3] Morley, Oliver Cromwell, 10-11.
[4] Morley, Oliver Cromwell, 11.
[5] Morley, Oliver Cromwell, 13.
[6] Buchan, Oliver Cromwell, 42.
[7] Buchan, Oliver Cromwell, 43.
[8] Cromwell, Letters and Speeches, 90.
[9] Buchan, Oliver Cromwell, 43-44.
[10] Morill, Oliver Cromwell.
[11] Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 204.
[12] Hill, God’s Englishman, 55.
[13] Hill, God’s Englishman, 57.
[14] Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 205.
[15] Buchan, Oliver Cromwell, 183.
[16] Buchan, Oliver Cromwell, 191.
[17] Buchan, Oliver Cromwell, 192.
[18] Buchan, Oliver Cromwell, 198.
[19] Morley, Oliver Cromwell, 233.
[20] Morill, Oliver Cromwell.
[21] Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 206.
[22] Morley, Oliver Cromwell, 266.
[23] Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 207.
[24] Buchan, Oliver Cromwell, 324.
[25] Buchan, Oliver Cromwell, 345.
[26] Blitzer, Commonwealth of England, 150-51.
[27] Blitzer, Commonwealth of England, 152, 161.
[28] Blitzer, Commonwealth of England, 152.
[29] Brown, Law of England, 371.
[30] Morill, Oliver Cromwell.
[31] Morill, Oliver Cromwell.
[32] Brown, Law of England, 374.
[33] Brown, Law of England, 374.
[34] Brown, Law of England, 375.
[35] Brown, Law of England, 375.
[36] Brown, Law of England, 376.
[37] Blitzer, Commonwealth of England, 163-65.
[38] Brown, Law of England, 376.
[39] Brown, Law of England, 377.
[40] Brown, Law of England, 378-9.
[41] Morill, Oliver Cromwell.
[42] Brown, Law of England, 379.
[43] Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 208.
[44] Brown, Law of England, 382.
[45] Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 208.
[46] Brown, Law of England, 359.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Blitzer, Charles. 1963. The Commonwealth of England: Documents of the English Civil Wars, the Commonwealth and Protectorate, 1641-1660. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Brown, Robert C. 1931. “The Law of England During the Period Commonwealth,” Indiana Law Journal 6, no. 6, (March): 359-382.

Buchan, John. 1934. Oliver Cromwell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Cromwell, Oliver. 1904. The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell. London: Methuen.

Gonzalez, Justo L. 2010. “The Story of Christianity Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day.” New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Hill, Christopher. 1970. God’s Englishman; Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution. New York: Dial Press.

Morill, John S., Maurice Ashley. 2018. “Oliver Cromwell.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April, 2018.

Morley, John. 1899. Oliver Cromwell. New York: The Century Co.