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Oliver Cromwell: Lord Protector of the Commonwealth

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A statue of Oliver Cromwell.

Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon on 25 April, 1599. His father was Robert Cromwell (1560 - 1617) and his mother was Elizabeth Cromwell. This branch of the family was descended from Catherine Cromwell, the sister of Thomas Cromwell1, 1st Earl of Essex. Despite these lofty connections, the Cromwells were in the lower strata of the gentry class, as Oliver was to say when he had become Lord Protector: 'I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in considerable height, nor yet in obscurity'.

Cromwell's Early Life (1599 - 1628)

Oliver was baptised in St John's Church, Huntingdon on 29 April, 1599. He was educated at Huntingdon Grammar School and later at Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge. This college was renowned as a Puritan establishment and may well have been an influence on his strong religious views.

When he was 21, Cromwell married Elizabeth Bourchier2 on 22 August, 1620, at St Giles's church, Cripplegate, London. They lived in Huntingdon, but in 1631 they moved to St Ives. The next move was to Ely in 1636, where they stayed until the family moved into Whitehall Palace in 1650. Together they had nine children, five sons: Robert (1621 - 1639), Oliver (1622 - 1644), Richard (1626 - 1712), Henry (1628 - 1674), and James (1632); and four daughters: Bridget (1624 - 1681), Elizabeth (1629 - 1658), Mary (1637 - 1713), and Frances (1638 - 1720).

Cromwell never forgot his family and frequently wrote love letters to his wife back in Huntingdon.

Parliament (1628 - 1629)

In 1628, Cromwell became Member of Parliament for Huntingdon. He made controversial speeches, including a defence of a pamphlet which advocated giving the vote3 to all men. He asked for the Fens, an area of flat marshland encompassing parts of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk, to be drained and improved. He also protected the inhabitants of the area from unscrupulous landowners who wanted to drive the residents off the land. In 1629, however, Charles I dissolved the Parliament.

Parliament (1640 - 1642)

In 1640, Cromwell was again elected MP for Huntingdon in the first Parliament Charles I had called for 11 years. He supported the various reforms proposed, including the one that Parliament should be convened at least once a year. He also opposed the king's plan to raise taxes4 and, along with several other MPs, demanded that the king consult with Parliament on all issues of government.

The king's refusal to consult led to Parliament defying him. Charles retaliated and attempted to arrest five members of the house: John Hampden, John Pym, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Holles and William Strode. This led to such open hostility to the king that he fled with his family to Oxford. By this time the Civil War of 1642 was unavoidable.

'This Warr Without An Enemie' (1642 - 1646)

The English Civil Wars, also known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms5, are what Cromwell is best remembered for. From 1642 until 1651, the country was embroiled in a series of wars between Parliament and the Crown which Parliament eventually won.

The first Civil War started in Nottingham where Charles raised his standard on 22 August, 1642.

At the time, the 42-year-old Cromwell had virtually no military experience. His only knowledge had been gained as an officer in the locally recruited militia known as the 'trained bands'. He now formed, and was appointed the colonel of, a troop of cavalry known as the Cambridgeshire Ironsides. It is from this troop he gained the nickname 'Old Ironsides'. He and his men were on the field at the first battle of the war on 23 October, 1642, at Edgehill.

After this battle, Cromwell's troop was posted to the Earl of Manchester's newly formed Eastern Association and was expanded into a full regiment. During this time, Cromwell gained valuable experience and was ready for the regiment's first major battle at Gainsborough on 28 July, 1643.

By the time of Marston Moor on 2 July, 1644, Cromwell was a Lieutenant General of Horse. The regiment's action during the battle was a major factor in Parliament's victory. Cromwell suffered a personal loss as his nephew, Valentine Walton, was killed in the battle.

The war carried on until 1647 when the Royalist garrison at Harlech finally surrendered. It was during this war that the infamous 'New Model Army' was set up, with Cromwell as second-in-command.

Between the Wars (1647 - 1648)

Cromwell was ill during February and March 1647. During this time Parliament became divided over the fate of the king and what to do with Parliament's army. A majority of both houses were in favour of:

  • Restoration of the King
  • Disbanding the Scottish Army
  • Disbanding a large part of the New Model Army
  • A Presbyterian settlement of the Church

The soldiers of the New Model Army were on the verge of mutiny due to the failure of Parliament to pay them, and were against the proposals. A petition stating the army's objections was sent to Parliament and was rejected as illegal. Cromwell attempted without success to negotiate an agreement. On 31 May, Cromwell met a Cornet6, George Joyce. This may be a coincidence but in June 1647, the king was taken by a cavalry troop under the command of Cornet Joyce from the Parliamentarian prison and imprisoned in Hampton Court under the care of the New Model Army.

Cromwell and Henry Ireton tried to negotiate with the king. They drafted a proposal that was known as the 'Heads Of Proposals' which included a new system of election for parliaments and religious reform.

The army, however, thought this did not go far enough and sought full political equality for all men; this was the cause of much discussion which resolved nothing. The king, however, saw his chance and escaped from Hampton Court on 12 November. The behaviour of the king and his refusal to reason with Parliament may well have turned Cromwell irrevocably against him.

The Second Civil War 1648

The second, and shortest, Civil War was caused by the king's attempt to gain freedom by negotiating with the Scots to introduce church reform; this led to a Scottish invasion of England. This war lasted from spring to late summer in 1648. The events of that year would lead to the execution of Charles I in 1649.

Cromwell's Military Service Record

Although Cromwell seemed to be everywhere during the Civil Wars, his list of engagements was relatively modest and he was only active in the field during the years 1643 until 1646.

  • Battle of Gainsborugh, 20 July, 1643.
  • Battle of Marston Moor, 2 July, 1644.
  • (Second) Battle of Newbury, 27 October, 1644.
  • Battle of Naseby, 14 June, 1645.
  • Battle of Langport, 10 July, 1645.

His appointments and commands were:

  • Colonel of the Cambridgeshire Ironsides (1643 - 1644)
  • Eastern Association Lieutenant-General of Horse (1644 - 1645)
  • New Model Army Lieutenant-General of Cavalry (1645 - 1646)

The Rump Parliament — to Kill a King (1649)

After the second Civil War, the king's conduct was debated. There were still some who supported him and sought to negotiate a peace with him. This was too much for the army. Led by Thomas Pride, troops marched on Parliament and arrested 45 and excluded a further 146 members from the chamber. This action, which came to be known as 'Pride's Purge', removed all the members who were sympathetic to the king and who were preventing a trial. The remaining members were referred to as the Rump Parliament7.

They allowed the remaining 75 to pass legislation to create a High Court of Justice for the trial of Charles I for treason.

Charles maintained that this court had no lawful authority to judge him. The trial went ahead and the trial commissioners found the king guilty of high treason, as in their own words he was a 'tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy'. The warrant to execute the king was issued and Oliver Cromwell was the third of the 59 signatures on the warrant. Charles I was beheaded in front of the Palace of Whitehall Banqueting House on 30 January, 1649.

Then To Ireland (1649 - 1650)

The Civil War in England was over but there was still fighting in Ireland. Colonel Michael Jones was one of the commanders in Ireland and was able to defeat the Royalist army led by the Marquis of Ormond at Rathmines in March 1649. When Cromwell and his army arrived, they landed unchallenged at Dublin. Cromwell proceded to deal with the pockets of Royalist resistance located in the cities.

Much has been made of the atrocities committed in Ireland during Cromwell's campaign. His army besieged 28 towns and fortresses; only a few resisted, such as Dungannon, Galway, Limerick and Waterford, and there were massacres at only two: Drogheda and Wexford.


The massacre at Drogheda figures large in the anti-English rhetoric of Irish republicans even today. Indeed, there may be many in Ireland who would consider Cromwell to be competing with the likes of Hitler and Stalin for one of the 'Most Evil Men in History' awards. The fact that all priests and friars found were killed, and that 100 people who had sought refuge in a church were burned to death inside it, is used as an illustration of the viciousness of Cromwell's attack. At the time, Lieutenant-General Edmund Ludlow observed: 'The slaughter was continued all that day and the next, which extraordinary severity, I presume, was used to discourage others from making opposition. And truly I believe this bitterness will save much effusion of blood.'

More recent studies, however, have suggested that the Siege of Drogheda was a typical example of 17th Century warfare, where the rules said that you could annihilate a garrison which refused to surrender, and therefore that allegations of unusual cruelty are exaggerated.

Cromwell sent a letter to the town's governor Sir Arthur Aston, an English Royalist, asking for his surrender:

Sir, having brought the army of the Parliament of England before this place, to reduce it to obedience, I thought fit to summon you to deliver the same into my hands to their use. If this be refused, you will have no cause to blame me. I expect your answer and remain your servant.
– O. Cromwell

The governor refused, and effectively forfeited the lives of all who defended the town. The siege began on 11 September, 1649 and, after two failed attempts, the New Model Army eventually broke through the Irish defences and chased down any they found who bore arms against them.

Cromwell himself denied that his soldiers killed any civilians, concentrating only on those who were armed, and few modern studies support the argument that Drogheda was in any way cruel and unusual for the time.


To put it simply, the Massacre of Wexford was an accident. After a short siege, Cromwell began discussing terms with the garrison commander, David Sinnott. During these negotiations, the captain of Wexford Castle, the town's main defense against the Parliamentarians, suddenly and unexpectedly surrendered leaving the town open to invasion. Upon hearing this, one of Cromwell's subordinates launched an assault without orders. The massacres themselves began after the Parliamentarian troops claimed to have discovered evidence of Catholic atrocities.

The other thing that Cromwell is hated for in Ireland was the attempt to clear Catholics off the land to make way for Protestants. In fact, this so-called 'Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland' probably had nothing to do with Cromwell - he was out of favour with the English Government at the time - and he later sent his son Henry to try to mitigate the effects.

And On To Scotland (1650 - 1651)

The third and final war lasted from 1650 until 1651, during which time Charles II was crowned in Edinburgh and the Scottish Royalists attempted to invade England. This was the last stand of the Royalist cause, who now acknowledged Charles II as king. Charles appointed the Marquess of Montrose as his Lieutenant-Governor of Scotland in February 1649, with a commission to lead the army. The Scots were now allied to the king.

Cromwell made a personal appeal to the General Assembly of the Church Of Scotland, but despite this, he decided that war was unavoidable. It was time for the New Model Army to invade Scotland.

At first the invasion went badly as the Scots had an able leader in David Leslie, and the supply lines were very poor. However, the turning point came at Dunbar on 3 September, when Cromwell engaged the Scottish army in battle. The Scots suffered a devastating defeat: 4,000 men were killed and 10,000 men were captured. This victory was so important that Cromwell called it 'a high act of the Lord's Providence to us and one of the most signal mercies God hath done for England and His people'.

While Cromwell was engaged in Scotland, a Scottish army marched south into England and headed toward London. Cromwell headed after them and caught them at Worcester on 3 September, 1651. The Scottish army was smashed and taken prisoner; those who did not perish in captivity were deported to Barbados. Cromwell's general in Scotland, George Monk, took Dundee, killing 2,000 of its citizens. This effectively ended what is known as the Third Civil War.

The Commonwealth ruled Scotland until the Restoration and its rule was strengthened by the establishment of forts to secure the Highlands. The only trouble was the Highland Rebellion, that started in 1653 and lasted until 1655, and took 6,500 troops to pacify.

Dissolution of The Rump Parliament (1651 - 1653)

While Cromwell was engaged in Ireland and Scotland, several ideological factions developed in Parliament. Upon his return to London, Cromwell sought to bring some order to the chaos; he set the members the task of arranging new elections. These were needed in order to establish a national church and to unify the three kingdoms. The house took its time and failed to agree on a timetable, or to enact important legislation. Cromwell became impatient and ordered that the members establish a stewardship of 40 members taken from the parliament and the army, and that the Parliament should then be dissolved.

The instructions were ignored and in a fury on 20 April, 1653, Cromwell arrived at Parliament with 40 musketeers and forcibly evicted the members with the words 'you are no Parliament, I say you are no Parliament; I will put an end to your sitting'. The mace, the emblem of Parliament, was entrusted to Charles Worsley with the words 'take that bauble away'. So ended the last sitting of the Rump Parliament.

The Barebones Parliament 1653

With Parliament gone, it was time for a new government. The newly nominated assembly had several names: Parliament of Saints, or the Barebones Parliament, after the London member Praise-God Barebone, who was a Fifth Monarchist and lay preacher from Fleet Street in London.

The assembly had a short life, from 4 July to 12 December, 1653, but it was important for two reasons. First, its members were not elected but chosen by Cromwell and the Army Council. There were 140 members in all: five for Scotland, six for Ireland and 129 for England. The speaker, Francis Rous, was elected on the second day.

Secondly, despite Cromwell's best efforts and intentions, the parliament was unable to govern effectively. The assembly was split by differences and became an object of derision to the country at large. The dissolving of this assembly on 12 December led to the Council of State passing the legislation which allowed Cromwell to be appointed Lord Protector.

The Protectorate (1653 - 1658)

The constitutional amendment 'the Instrument of Government' was enacted on 16 December, 1653. Cromwell preserved the dignity of the occasion and as was his nature wore plain black, displaying no insignia of rank. At the conclusion of the investiture, Oliver Cromwell became:

Oliver P Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland

The addition of 'P' to his signature was intended to signify Protector, the only affectation he allowed himself. The position gave Cromwell power, subject to the approval of the majority of the members of the Council of State, to call and dissolve the commons. His power was further strengthened by the support of the army, so in effect he was the ruler of England with an annual income of £100,000.

Cromwell set himself two main tasks. The first was what he called healing and settling; this was the restoration of British society after the Civil War. The second task was the creation of a strong and stable system of parliamentary government.

The Man Who Would Not Be King

Contrary to popular belief, Cromwell did not specifically set out to become a dictator, nor did he fully become a despot after the execution of Charles I. In 1653, after the disintegration of the Barebones Parliament, he was appointed Lord Protector of The Commonwealth, a post which many believe gave him supreme power over all of the England, Scotland and Ireland. In fact, however, he shared power with Parliament and the Council of the State. It is now believed that many of the acts for which Cromwell is so reviled were actually ordered under pressure from Parliament.

Cromwell himself had no problem with there being a monarchy, and in 1651 had discussed the possibility of restoring the House of Stuart through one of Charles' sons. Instead, Parliament offered Cromwell the crown in 1657 but he refused it. Records on why he did this are sketchy at best; some say it was pressure from the army which led to his refusal while others say it was his own personal honour.

A Slight Oversight

British lovers of Medieval history have a reason to dislike Cromwell. During the Civil War period and in the time of the Protectorate, orders were issued for the slighting of approximately 150 castles in England. This means that the castles were deliberately destroyed or rendered incapable of being used for defense. We have lost so much of our heritage that we tend to view Cromwell's legacy with some hostility.

It is easy to lose sight of the reasons for the slighting of the castles. We must remember that this war simply had to be ended and as rapidly as possible. Each castle was a potential flashpoint for restarting the war; the only way was to render the castle indefensible. The destruction of Britain's Medieval heritage was therefore necessary to preserve the peace of the realm and undoubtedly saved lives.

A Faith That Could Not Be Shaken

Another misconception about Cromwell concerns his attitudes to religion. Cromwell himself was a Puritan, but compared to the rest of this notoriously dour sect he was a comparative liberal. In fact he was fond of drinking, gambling and hunting. Many people see this as decadent hypocrisy, but for all these earthly pleasures, Cromwell was sure of this: God and our saviour Jesus Christ came first, above all things.

Cromwell was one of the first statesmen to advocate religious freedom. Since the death of Henry VIII there had been bitter squabbles between the Catholics and Protestants, but Cromwell believed that all should be free to worship how they wished. Despite this, Catholics continued to be persecuted with the blessing of the Protectorate. It was the Protectorate, however, that allowed Jews to live legally in England for the first time since 1290, an act of tolerance that was almost unprecedented in Western Europe at the time.

Illness, Death and Disgrace

Cromwell died at Whitehall on 3 September, 1658 following several bouts of an unknown illness8 and was subsequently embalmed and laid out in Somerset House. Unfortunately, the embalming was less than successful and his body started to decompose. When the smell finally became unbearable, Cromwell was given a full state funeral and interred at Westminster9.

Richard Cromwell, Lord Protector

At the death of his father the position of Lord Protector went to his 31-year-old son Richard. The new Protector initially attracted support from the Cromwellian factions in the Commonwealth but he proved unable to rule effectively. He lacked something vital that his father had: the support of the politically-powerful Army; he was also regarded as weak and indecisive. Eventually, the army moved against him in April of 1659 as a result of attempts by Parliament to control them, and Richard Cromwell found himself politically isolated. The Protector was forced to resign in May after a little under nine months in power. With Richard's resignation, the Protectorate came to an end.

Richard did however achieve something that got him into the record books; as he was born in 1626 and died in 1712, he became the longest lived ruler of England to date at 85 years. Queen Victoria was only 81 years old when she died in 1901.

After the fall of Richard Cromwell the republic-proper was restored, but Parliament was unable to create a truly stable government. Control went to General George Monck, who marched on London with troops loyal to him. Despite protesting his republican sympathies, Monck dissolved the Long Parliament and oversaw the formation of a new Parliament with a strong Royalist presence. The new Parliament ended the republic and restored the Monarchy; Charles II officially became king on 23 April, 1660.

When Charles came to the throne he ordered that Cromwell's body should be exhumed and symbolically hung on a gibbet at Tyburn. Although there has been much speculation, Cromwell's final resting place is unknown.

Warts and All

Whatever people think about Cromwell, there is one thing we can all agree on; he was not a proud man. In an age when the fashion among portrait painters was to accentuate a person's best features while playing down or eliminating the bad things, thus creating a highly-romanticised image of the subject, Cromwell insisted that he be painted 'warts and all, with none of the blemishes or shortcomings concealed'. Because of this, it is likely that Cromwell's portraits are the only reliable likenesses we have of anybody from that period.

You drew me here to accept the place I now stand in. There is ne'er a man within these walls that can say, sir, you sought it, nay, not a man nor woman treading upon English ground.
- Cromwell, speaking in Parliament, 4 February, 1658.

Cromwell in the 21st Century

The English Civil War was an important part of the development of political power and the system of government in Britain. It changed the relationship between the Crown and Parliament. Nearly everybody in the UK has heard of Cromwell, even if they don't consciously know it. Only Queen Victoria has had more streets in Britain named after her, and – as explained above – the phrase 'warts and all' originated with Cromwell.

The New Model Army was originally set up to centralise as much of the armed forces as possible under a single commander, rather than there being several units each with a separate commander and united only by a common cause. This system has in fact become the model that the armed forces still use today.

A national poll organised by the BBC in 2002 to choose the greatest Britons of all time was taken by more than 30,000 people in the UK, voting by telephone and internet. The result gives an indication of Cromwell's standing in the national consciousness. He achieved tenth place, and third in the list of political leaders, after Winston Churchill and Elizabeth I. Cromwell's effect on history and the national esteem he still has are a testament to his greatness, a place that he perhaps justly deserves.

1Chief minister to King Henry VIII (1532 - 1540).2Daughter of Sir James Bourchier.3Between 1430 and 1832, only men who owned land that had a value over £2 could vote. That meant that for 402 years, only 25% of the male population had the right to vote.4With which Charles intended to fund the Bishop's War against Scotland.5England, Scotland and Ireland.6The most junior commissioned rank in a cavalry regiment, Cornets carried the regimental standard into battle.7A term first used in 1660, apparently referring to those who were left 'behind'.8Not that this prevents speculation — everything from kidney stones to poisoning has been suggested over the years.9The exact location is unknown but some sources say it was near the tomb of Henry VIII.

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