Oliver Cromwell, 1599-1658
Rose from obscurity to become the most successful military and political leader of the Civil Wars. Lord Protector of England from 1654-8, he was offered—and refused—the Crown itself.
Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon on 25 April 1599 and baptised at the church of St John four days later. He was the second son of the ten children of Robert Cromwell (d.1617) and Elizabeth Steward (d.1654). The family estate derived from Oliver's great-grandfather, Morgan Williams, a brewer from Glamorgan who settled at Putney in London. Williams married Katherine Cromwell, the sister of Thomas Cromwell, who became chancellor to Henry VIII. Through his association with Thomas Cromwell, Morgan Williams gained estates in Huntingdonshire after the confiscation of church lands at the Reformation. His son Richard changed the family name to Cromwell in honour of their benefactor.
Oliver attended the free school attached to the hospital of St John in Huntingdon, where he was taught by Dr Thomas Beard, then spent a year at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. However, his university career was cut short by the death of his father in June 1617. He returned home to manage his family estate and to look after his widowed mother and seven unmarried sisters.
In August 1620, Cromwell married Elizabeth Bourchier (1598–1665), daughter of Sir James Bourchier, a London merchant. The marriage was long and stable and produced nine children. Cromwell and his growing family settled in Huntingdon. Thanks to connections between the Cromwells and the powerful Montagu family, he was elected MP for Huntingdon in the Parliament of 1628, where he became associated with the opposition to King Charles that culminated in the declaration of the Petition of Right in June 1628. At some time during the late 1620s, following a period of illness and depression, Cromwell experienced a profound spiritual awakening that left him with deep and uncompromising Puritan beliefs.
In 1631, Cromwell's fortunes were in decline. He was forced to sell nearly all his property around Huntingdon and to lease a farmstead at St Ives, where he worked as a farmer for five years. The tide turned in 1636 when Cromwell's childless and widowed maternal uncle Sir Thomas Steward died, leaving him a substantial inheritance, including a house next to St Mary’s Church in Ely and the position of collector of tithes in the two Ely parishes of St Mary's and Holy Trinity.
Cromwell's improved social status and his connections with local Puritans led to his nomination as a freeman of the borough of Cambridge and election as MP for Cambridge in the two Parliaments of 1640. During the first week of the Long Parliament, he made a passionate speech that called attention to the injustice of the imprisonment of John Lilburne, and during the following month he was prominent in parliamentary attacks on episcopacy. Although he was not regarded as a fluent speaker, Cromwell's passion and sincerity gained him a reputation as a solid supporter of opposition leaders such as John Pym and Cromwell's own cousin, John Hampden.
On the outbreak of the First Civil War in August 1642, Cromwell took up arms for Parliament. He led one of the earliest military actions of the war when with 200 lightly-armed volunteers he prevented the King's men from carrying off the silver plate of the Cambridge colleges. Cromwell raised a troop of sixty horsemen and effectively secured Cambridgeshire for Parliament. In October 1642, Cromwell's troop joined the army of the Earl of Essex and was present during the later stages of the battle of Edgehill. The superiority of the Royalist horse impressed upon Cromwell the need for a well-trained Parliamentarian cavalry corps. Returning to East Anglia, he was careful to recruit only "godly, honest men" as his troopers and to lead them with firm discipline. His innate skills as a cavalry commander were in evidence at the skirmishing around Gainsborough in July 1643. Having helped to secure most of East Anglia for Parliament by the summer of 1643, Cromwell was appointed governor of Ely and promoted to colonel in the new Eastern Association army raised by the Earl of Manchester.
Rising to prominence in the Eastern Association, Cromwell attained the rank of lieutenant-general of horse in January 1644. He played a major role in Parliament's victory at Marston Moor, where his troopers routed both Prince Rupert's and Lord Goring's cavaliers. Rupert himself is said to have coined the name "Ironside" for Cromwell, which became popular with the army and was extended to his regiment. However, Cromwell's encouragement of religious zealots among his officers and men drew criticism from Major-General Crawford, a Scottish Presbyterian attached to the Eastern Association. Cromwell became increasingly critical of the leadership of the Earl of Manchester, and denounced him before the House of Commons in November 1644 for his unwillingness to take decisive action against the Royalists.
A leading supporter of the Self-Denying Ordinance, Cromwell was one of the few Members of Parliament exempted from resigning his commission in the army under its terms. He was officially appointed lieutenant-general of horse under Sir Thomas Fairfax in the New Model Army just before the decisive Parliamentarian victory at the battle of Naseby in June 1645, during which Cromwell routed Langdale's Northern Horse and rallied the Ironsides for a charge against the Royalist infantry that decided the outcome of the battle. Despite having no military training or experience prior to 1642, Cromwell was generally regarded as one of the greatest soldiers in England by the time he and Fairfax received the surrender of Oxford in June 1646.
Cromwell supported the Agitators in the conflict between the Army and Parliament of 1647. He was a firm advocate of parliamentary authority but he lost patience with those Presbyterian MPs who seemed willing to risk another civil war rather than settle the soldiers' grievances honourably. Acting independently of Fairfax, and in close association with his son-in-law Henry Ireton, he used the threat of military force to oust the Presbyterian Eleven Members from the House of Commons in August 1647. However, Cromwell opposed Leveller demands for manhood suffrage ("one man, one vote") and other social and political reforms. He tried to adopt a conciliatory attitude towards the King, proposing to restore him to power in the interests of achieving a peaceful settlement. This alienated radicals in the Army and in Parliament, who came to regard Cromwell as a hypocrite motivated by his own self-interest. In any case, Cromwell's attempts to secure a peaceful settlement were frustrated by the King's refusal to compromise and by his negotiations to bring a Scottish army into England, thus provoking another civil war.
The Second Civil War
When war broke out In 1648, Cromwell marched to crush a Royalist uprising in South Wales while Fairfax dealt with the Royalists in Kent and Essex. Cromwell then went north to take command of Parliament's forces against the Duke of Hamilton's Engager army and their English Royalist allies. In August 1648, Cromwell led a daring campaign that resulted in the total defeat of the Scots at the battle of Preston. He then marched into Scotland and negotiated with the Marquis of Argyll to remove all Engagers and Royalist sympathisers from office in Scotland.
Cromwell was in the north clearing up the last Royalist military resistance during the dramatic events of November and December 1648, when Ireton and the council of officers resolved to prosecute King Charles, the "Man of Blood". Cromwell delayed his return to London until the day after the Army's enemies in Parliament had been ejected in Pride's Purge. He claimed to have known nothing of the design, but nevertheless expressed his approval of the purge. Having realised at last that Charles could not be trusted, and recognising that the Army was determined to avenge itself upon the King, Cromwell became a relentless supporter of the King's trial and subsequent execution in January 1649. He had come to believe that regicide was an act of justice and the will of God.
Ireland and Scotland
After meticulous preparations, Cromwell then took the army to Ireland (1649-50) where Royalist supporters of the Stuart dynasty had formed an alliance with the Irish Confederates. Cromwell's Irish campaign was a military success, and by the time he returned to England in May 1650, the provinces of Ulster, Leinster and Munster were substantially under the control of the English Commonwealth. However, Cromwell's reputation was indelibly stained by notorious massacres that took place during the attacks on Drogheda and Wexford in the autumn of 1649, which have lived on in Irish folk memory, making his name into one of the most hated in Irish history.
When Charles II was proclaimed King of Scots in Edinburgh with the support of the Covenanters, Fairfax declined to lead an army of invasion into Scotland and resigned his commission. Cromwell was appointed Captain-General and commander-in-chief of the Army in his place and marched into Scotland in July 1650. Although initially outmanoeuvred by Alexander Leslie, he succeeded in defeating the Scots at the battle of Dunbar (3 September 1650), which is regarded as the greatest of Cromwell's victories. After spending nearly a year trying unsuccessfully to persuade the Covenanters that Charles II was an unsuitable king for a godly nation, Cromwell lured Charles and the Scots into an attempt to invade England. Cromwell pursued from the north and decisively defeated the Scots and Royalists at the battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651, the anniversary of Dunbar and the last major battle of the civil wars.
After the execution of Charles I and the declaration of the republic in 1649, the English Commonwealth was governed by the so-called Rump Parliament and the Council of State. The Rump Parliament was regarded as an interim government and was expected to prepare for a permanent representative but divisions arose between factions in Parliament and in the Army over what form the new government should take.
When the military campaigns in Ireland and Scotland were over, Army leaders became increasingly impatient over Parliament's lethargy in formulating the new representative. Although Cromwell attempted to moderate the Army's more extreme demands, he too finally lost patience. On 20 April 1653, he led a body of musketeers to Westminster and forcibly expelled the Rump Parliament. His exact reasons for doing so are unclear; he may have come to believe that Parliament was planning to perpetuate itself. There were no plans for an alternative government in place and Cromwell made no attempt to take power himself.
The Rump Parliament was replaced by the Nominated Assembly, popularly known as "Barebone's Parliament", which first met in July 1653. Cromwell regarded the Assembly as a "Parliament of Saints" and expected it to bring righteous, godly government to the Commonwealth. The Nominated Assembly was the most radical constitutional experiment of the 1650s, but the legal and ecclesiastical reforms it tried to introduce were regarded as too extreme by moderates. In December 1653—less than six months after its inauguration—moderates manoeuvred to dissolve the Assembly and to hand power over to Cromwell, whom they regarded as having granted it to them in the first place.
Headed by Major-General Lambert, the council of officers proposed a new constitution. In discussions with the officers, Cromwell made it clear that he did not want to be made king. Seeking to maintain links with the ancient constitution yet distance himself from the disgraced monarchy, Cromwell proposed a revival of the title "Lord Protector", which had precedents going back to the 15th century. Under the terms of the Instrument of Government, executive power now passed to an elected Lord Protector advised by a Council of State. Cromwell was declared Lord Protector for life and formally installed at Westminster Hall on 16 December 1653. His decision to accept the office of Protector alienated many republicans and religious radicals, who regarded it as a betrayal of the principles for which the civil wars had been fought. In April 1654, Cromwell moved into Whitehall Palace, the former residence of King Charles.
No man rises so high as he who knows not whither he goes.Cromwell, as recorded in the memoirs of Cardinal de Retz
Despite opposition from many quarters, Cromwell held on to power throughout the 1650s by retaining the loyalty of the Army. He also tended to grant important positions in civil and military government to those with personal attachments to himself or who had reason to be grateful to him for their advancement. Senior army commands were granted to officers who had served with him during the civil wars, particularly those connected to his own family such as his son-in-law Charles Fleetwood and brother-in-law John Disbrowe. The dependence of the Protectorate régime upon a standing army in England, armies of occupation in Scotland and Ireland as well as a powerful navy led to unprecedented levels of taxation. Despite an aggressive foreign policy, Cromwell gradually reduced army numbers and levels of taxation, but this was never enough to satisfy his critics or to deal with arrears of pay in the army and navy.
Cromwell's overriding concern in domestic policy was the creation of a broadly-based national church with toleration of radical Protestant groups who remained outside it but were prepared to keep the peace. During the first year of the Protectorate, a central commission of clergy and laymen was established to examine candidates for the ministry ("Triers") and local commissions were appointed to eject ministers who proved unsuitable ("Ejectors"). Although Cromwell's religious policy made steady progress towards reconciliation among the Protestant sects, the emergence of the Quakers, who opposed all organised churches, was disruptive and alarming.
Within months of his inauguration as Protector, Cromwell negotiated a treaty to bring the first Anglo-Dutch war to an end, having never been in favour of war against a Protestant nation. However, his hopes of forming a grand alliance of the Protestant states of Europe came to nothing, and during 1654, Cromwell became involved in secret negotiations with the two great Catholic powers France and Spain.
The two nations were at war with one another and each sought an alliance with the Protectorate against the other. Cromwell finally opted for an alliance with France and secretly promoted the Western Design to attack Spanish colonies in the West Indies. The Anglo-Spanish War resulted in the seizure of Jamaica in 1655 and Dunkirk in 1658, but Cromwell's anti-Spanish foreign policy was criticised as damaging to English trade and commerce.
In September 1654, Cromwell summoned the First Protectorate Parliament, which was elected on a wider franchise than any previous parliament and which included MPs representing Scotland and Ireland at Westminster for the first time. Distrust between the Army leaders and civilian politicians became strikingly clear, however. Heated constitutional debates, amendments to the Instrument of Government aimed at strengthening Parliament's powers at the expense of the Protector's, and criticism of Cromwell's leadership by republican MPs prompted him to dissolve this Parliament at the earliest possible opportunity, in January 1655.
Following the Royalist insurrections in March 1655 (Penruddock's Uprising), Cromwell felt obliged to impose direct military rule rather than attempt to govern through another civilian assembly. He had already come to regard the failure of the Western Design in its principal objectives as a sign of God's displeasure at the nation's progress. Consequently, England and Wales were divided into twelve districts, each governed by a Major-General answerable directly to the Protector. The Major-Generals were charged not only with maintaining security but also with enforcing moral reform in the localities. The Rule of the Major-Generals proved deeply unpopular. Growing civilian disquiet and the need to finance military operations against Spain forced Cromwell to call the Second Protectorate Parliament in September 1656. Bowing to pressure from MPs who insisted that the Major-Generals were unconstitutional and against law and custom, Cromwell agreed to abolish the system in January 1657.
“King in all but Name”
The Protectorate gradually adopted the trappings of a monarchy. Cromwell was usually addressed as "your Highness" and by 1656 he was rewarding his loyal followers with knighthoods. In February 1657, a group of MPs headed by Lord Broghill presented a new constitution known as The Humble Petition and Advice under which Cromwell was formally offered the crown. This was primarily an attempt to stabilise the constitution under a civilian-led style of government. Cromwell's powers would be limited as king because they would then be defined by precedent. Furthermore, since the offer came from an elected Parliament, there could be no further doubts regarding the legality of the Cromwellian régime. However, after much agonising and in the face of strong opposition from republicans and army leaders, Cromwell finally decided to reject the offer, saying "I will not build Jericho again".
The Humble Petition was modified to remove references to the royal title and Cromwell was re-installed as Lord Protector on 26 June 1657. The installation ceremony was still reminiscent of a coronation, with Cromwell wearing a robe of purple velvet lined with ermine and carrying a golden sceptre. He took an adapted form of the royal coronation oath and left Westminster Hall in a coach of state amid cries of "God save the Lord Protector". Under the revised Humble Petition, he was now allowed to name his own successor. Lacking only a crown, Cromwell was "King in all but name".
In 1658, Cromwell convened an Upper House of Parliament in which his nominees sat as peers. Republicans regarded this as too similar to the former House of Lords and MPs questioned the titles, rights and legitimacy of the Upper House. Amid fears that elements of the army supported the republicans, Cromwell went in person to Westminster on 4 February 1658 and abruptly dissolved the Second Protectorate Parliament.
Discouraged by his failure to settle the constitution or to reconcile the Puritan sects in a cohesive national church, Cromwell withdrew from public affairs. Over the next few months his health went into a sharp decline, exacerbated by the death from cancer of his daughter, Elizabeth, in August 1658.
Death and Beyond
During a bout of the recurring malarial fever that had afflicted him since the 1630s, Oliver Cromwell died at Whitehall on 3 September 1658—the anniversary of his victories at Dunbar and Worcester. A violent storm wracked England during the night of his death, said by his enemies to be the Devil carrying away his soul. He was buried in Westminster Abbey with a funeral service based upon that of King James I. Oliver's eldest son Richard was nominated to succeed him, but the Protectorate had ended within a year of Oliver's death, to be followed in due course by the return of the Stuart monarchy.
After the Restoration, a vengeful Parliament ordered the exhumation and posthumous execution of Cromwell's corpse, along with those of the prominent regicides, Ireton and Bradshaw. Their bodies were removed from their tombs and dragged to Tyburn gallows, where they were publicly hanged and beheaded on 30 January 1661, the twelfth anniversary of the execution of Charles I. The headless corpses were thrown into an unmarked pit, but the heads were displayed on spiked poles above Westminster Hall, where they remained for several decades.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Cromwell's head became a collector's curiosity and was sometimes put on public exhibition. After scientific analysis confirmed that the head was probably genuine, it was finally interred in 1960 in the chapel of Cromwell's old college Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, its precise location undisclosed.
C.H. Firth, Oliver Cromwell, DNB, 1888
C.H. Firth, The Last Years of the Protectorate 1656-58 vol. ii (London 1909)
Antonia Fraser, Cromwell, our chief of men (London 1973)
Ronald Hutton, The British Republic 1649-60 (Basingstoke 2000)
John Morrill, Oliver Cromwell, Oxford DNB, 2004
Ivan Roots (ed), The Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (London 1989)
Oliver Cromwell's head — all the grisly details
Podcasts about Oliver Cromwell — includes lectures by Mark Kishlansky, Barry Coward and David Trim