Richard Cromwell, Lord Protector, 1626-1712

Successor to Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, his régime was brought down by financial chaos and confrontation between Parliament and the Army

Portrait of Richard Cromwell

Born at Huntingdon on 4 October 1626, Richard was the third son of Oliver and Elizabeth Cromwell. Like his brothers Oliver and Henry, he served in the Parliamentarian army during the First Civil War but Richard's military career was brief and undistinguished. With the death of his elder brother Oliver in 1644, Richard became the eldest surviving son and heir to Oliver Cromwell.

In May 1647, Richard was admitted a member of Lincoln's Inn. He was betrothed to Dorothy, the daughter of Richard Mayor (or Major) of Hursley in Hampshire in February 1648, but owing to disputes over the settlement, the marriage did not take place until May 1649. Richard and Dorothy lived on Mayor's estate at Hursley. During the 1650s, they had nine children, only four of whom survived into adulthood.

“Prince Richard”

Richard served as a justice of the peace in Hampshire, but despite his father's attempts to advise him, he fell into debt after exceeding his allowance. To Oliver's dismay, Richard neglected religion and devoted himself to hunting and field sports. Unlike his younger brother Henry, Richard was not appointed to the Nominated Assembly in July 1653 nor to public office when his father was named Lord Protector the following December.

With the establishment of the Protectorate, however, Richard's status inevitably changed. As the Protector's eldest son, he was addressed as "Lord Richard", or even "Prince Richard", though sometimes derisively. He gradually began to take on a more prominent role in public affairs. In September 1654, he was elected MP for Hampshire in the First Protectorate Parliament and in November 1655 he was appointed to the Committee for Trade and Navigation and a number of other committees. He sat as MP for Cambridge University in the Second Protectorate Parliament (1656-8). In July 1657, Richard succeeded his father as chancellor of the university of Oxford.

Under the terms of the Humble Petition and Advice, the written constitution adopted in May 1657, Oliver Cromwell was empowered to name his successor as Lord Protector. There was no requirement to name his eldest son, but Oliver began to promote Richard's interests to a far greater extent than previously. In contrast to Oliver's first installation as Lord Protector, in which Richard had played no part, he was prominent in the second installation in June 1657, accompanying Oliver in the state coach and standing near him during the ceremony itself. Richard was made a member of the newly-established Upper House of Parliament during the autumn of 1657 and appointed to the Council of State in December. In January 1658, he was appointed honorary colonel of a cavalry regiment and in May a new warship was named the Richard in his honour.

Lord Protector

Immediately after Oliver Cromwell's death on 3 September 1658, Richard Cromwell was proclaimed Lord Protector in his place. The succession passed smoothly and was generally well-received around the country and in Europe, but a group of army officers petitioned for the appointment of a soldier as commander-in-chief rather than the new Protector, who unlike Oliver had not won their trust and loyalty on the field of battle. The two most important officers in the army were Charles Fleetwood, who was generally compliant to the wishes of the soldiers, and John Disbrowe, who openly disliked Richard. The 13-man Council of State, which Richard had inherited from Oliver, was divided between a military group headed by Fleetwood and Disbrowe and a civilian group headed by John Thurloe. The army officers were suspicious of Thurloe's influence over Richard and there were clashes over the possible appointment of new councillors, though in fact Richard made no new appointments to the Council during his Protectorship.

Army discontent was made worse because pay had fallen into arrears as the Protectorate's financial crisis deepened. Richard met senior officers and attempted to win them over. Although he insisted upon retaining supreme command and the power to issue commissions, he appointed Fleetwood lieutenant-general and pledged that he would do all he could to clear arrears of pay. Richard's tactful yet firm stance quietened the army for a time and won him the support of several senior officers, including major-generals Whalley, Goffe and Howard. To strengthen his position further, Richard cultivated the friendship of General Monck in Scotland and secretary of state Thurloe. He appointed his brother Henry Cromwell lord lieutenant of Ireland, with full authority over the army there.

In order to raise much-needed finances, Richard was obliged to call a new parliament. The Third Protectorate Parliament assembled in January 1659. Richard gave an impressive opening speech and, after several weeks' debate, MPs endorsed the authority of the Protectorate. By early April 1659, it appeared that Richard Cromwell was firmly established as Oliver's successor. However, the Protectorate régime was vehemently opposed by republican "Commonwealthsmen" who worked to spread disaffection against Richard amongst the soldiers. Antagonism between army officers and the conservative majority in Parliament came to a head when the former major-general William Boteler was threatened with impeachment for actions carried out under Oliver Cromwell's jurisdiction.

The Fall of the Protectorate

Amid rumours of an army plot to seize Richard at Whitehall, Major-General Howard offered to arrest the leading conspirators, but once again, Richard succeeded in calming the situation at a face-to-face meeting with senior officers. Immediately afterwards, however, Parliament insensitively began debating the re-organisation of the army and the formation of a new militia. Under this provocation, Fleetwood and Disbrowe demanded Parliament's dissolution. When Richard refused to comply, the Grandees called the soldiers stationed around London to a rendezvous at St James's. Richard called upon the army to rally to him at Whitehall, but the soldiers unanimously followed their officers. On 21 April, Major-General Disbrowe confronted Richard at Whitehall and insisted that he dissolve Parliament and entrust himself to the army, to which Richard reluctantly agreed. The Third Protectorate Parliament was dissolved on 22 April 1659, leaving the Council of Officers in control of the government.

Richard was held under house arrest at Whitehall Palace. Fleetwood and Disbrowe intended to maintain the Protectorate under army control, but they were unable to resist the demands of junior officers and republicans for the recall of the Rump Parliament, which Oliver Cromwell had dismissed in 1653. Parliament duly re-assembled on 7 May 1659 and voted to abolish the Protectorate. With no clear lead from Richard, the English armies stationed in Scotland, Ireland and Dunkirk and the fleet all accepted the change of régime. Richard's renunciation of the Protectorship was read in Parliament on 25 May 1659, just eight months after his inauguration.

Heavily in debt, Richard retired into private life. In the summer of 1660 he left his wife and family in England and went into exile on the Continent. Regarded as a potentially dangerous person by the Restoration government, he remained abroad until 1680. On his return to England, he lived quietly at Cheshunt in Hertfordshire, under the assumed name of John Clarke until his death in July 1712.

Often derided as "Tumbledown Dick", Richard Cromwell was generally acknowledged to be a modest and engaging man who inherited severe financial problems and constitutional difficulties that were not of his own making. His downfall came about through trying to support the civilian parliament in a confrontation with the army where he had little personal influence.


Godfrey Davies, The Restoration of Charles II, 1658-60 (San Marino 1955)

Peter Gaunt, Richard Cromwell, Oxford DNB, 2004

Ronald Hutton, The British Republic 1649-60 (Basingstoke 2000)