Jul 03, 2021
10 mins read
He was a soldier, politician and head of state. He established the British Army and introduced freedom of religion. Yet, he remains one of the most controversial men of all time. We now look at the life of Oliver Cromwell.
Oliver Cromwell's birth was on 25 April 1599 to Robert and his second wife, Elizabeth. As family trees go, Oliver's could be traced back to a significant ancestor. In the distant past, Oliver's great-great-grandfather had been married to Katherine Cromwell, the sister of none other than Thomas Cromwell, the infamous Chancellor to Henry VIII. It's said to be where Thomas attained the majority of the family's wealth upon the dissolution of the monasteries. But unluckily for Oliver, the funds seem to be anywhere but at his side of the family! It was his paternal grandfather Sir Henry Williams who was the wealthy landowner. As for Oliver, well, he had a modest upbringing. His father, Edward, was just about able to make ends meet on his £300 per year income, yet this was as low as you could get and indicated the lower leagues of gentry incomes.
Cromwell himself, in 1654, said, "I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in considerable height, nor yet in obscurity."
He was baptised at St John's church on 29 April 1599; as he grew older, his education would take him to Sidney Sussex College. He left in 1617 without obtaining any formal degree, but he returned home to Huntington after his father's death. It is thought that over a period between 1620 and 1630, Cromwell had a bit of a crisis! He had been elected to Parliament in 1628, Yet this seems to have taken a toll on him. Depression, physical and emotional times dragged Cromwell down to quite possibly the lowest level of his life to this point.
In 1629, he became embroiled in a dispute with the gentry of Huntingdon. A new charter was delivered for the area, and one in which couldn't be agreed upon. For his troubles, the Privy Council called Oliver to answer the charges. The arguments seemed to be resolved in 1631 when Oliver sold the majority of his properties in the area and up sticks to nearby St Ives. It would have dramatically affected the family and was for sure a step in the wrong direction within society.
It's around this time that we first learn of Oliver's religious beliefs. He described himself as a "chief of sinners" he also stated he did not believe the Reformation went far enough, and those Catholic beliefs must be destroyed and removed from the church. Cromwell had started to sink, his lifestyle was leaking, and it brought him to a point where he knew it required change. It was in 1636 that Cromwell had inherited the position of Tithe Collector for Ely Cathedral. It would bring in much-needed money, and this helped return him to the ranks of the gentry. A role that would help bolster his family and his self-worth.
Cromwell returned to Parliament in 1640, but this time as a member for Cambridge, it was also now he would move his family from Ely to London. Charles I, who had dissolved the Parliament and ruled himself for over ten years, caused much heartache for Cromwell. Charles was digging a very deep hole for himself and one he would struggle to get out of!
By 1642 and a failure to resolve anything eventually led to civil disruption, Parliament's and Charles's saga had deepened into what we now know as the first English civil war. Cromwell's military skills were unknown at this time, yet with vigour, he soon rose through the ranks. He was under the leadership of the Earl of Manchester, Cromwell was elevated to the position of lieutenant general.
The Battle of Marston Moor was a significant step for Cromwell. He was instrumental in leading his troops against the royalists, and although he won the battle, the war would continue. Manchester and Cromwell had a falling out. Manchester accused him of giving a high office to men of low birth.
This was not what Cromwell believed, and he retorted by saying, "If you choose godly honest men to be captains of horse, honest men will follow them ... 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."
By 1645, the Parliamentarians created the New Model Army, yet it would be disbanded by 1660 after the Stuart Restoration. It would now be time for a critical battle within the civil war. June 1645, and the venue was Naseby. Cromwell trounced the royalists at the field. This would be a significant turning point. Throughout the remainder of that year and the next, Cromwell continued to hunt down and eliminate the royalist factions. And by June 1646, both Cromwell and Fairfax took the formal surrender. For now, it was over.
Another failure to agree would set things back, the King, Charles, would be stubborn, and the resultant debates gained nothing. Cromwell wanted a new English constitution, but the ongoing talks failed, and anger grew, leading to the second English civil war. But the King once again tried to gain power by a force of arms, Cromwell shut down any hopes of that happening. He took Chepstow castle, forced a surrender at Tenby and burnt down Carmarthen; his assault on Pembroke would take a little longer. Yet, after eight weeks, control was gained.
Cromwell then marched north with the backing of 9000 soldiers, and he would once again be victorious, this time against the pro royalist; Scottish army. By 1648 one event known as the Prides Purge occurred when soldiers prevented MPs considered hostile to the New Model Army from entering the House of Commons. Although Cromwell was still in the north at this time, he would soon return to London, where he became a firm believer in the arrest and trial of the King. He believed this was now the only option left to stop the Civil War, along with bringing to justice the King and his backers.
Charles I reign was now almost complete, and a death warrant was signed by 59 of the court's members, including Cromwell. This was a significant moment and nearly unprecedented. There were major doubts by most of the ordinary folk as to whether it was a legitimate act. Even serving officers refused to be included in the decision. It was left to Cromwell, who signed the backed by his second officer, Colonel Hacker. The execution would now go ahead, and King Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649.
The death of the King would now mean a new start for the country. Cromwell declared a republic; it was known as the Commonwealth of England. Although Cromwell tried to reunite some royalists and get them on board, this would ultimately fail. For now, they were not happy with events, and we're starting to gather momentum once again, this time across the sea in Ireland. The hope of forming a new constitution was still a distant dream. But Cromwell was determined now to bring it all to an end. Meanwhile, rebellions and mutinies were breaking out around the country, and it would be in the hands of Cromwell to stop them.
Between 1649 and 1650, Cromwell led a Parliamentary invasion of Ireland. His campaign was ruthless and his brutality ferocious. He opposed the Catholic religion as much as its political stance. With the English civil war now but a memory, he had much more resources to hand to quell any further threat, and he always justified his action. After the siege of Drogheda in which his troops slaughtered almost 3500 people, he commented, "I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds for such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret."
The last Catholic held town was surrounded in 1652 in Galway. At the year-end, he had ended the Irish force. Roman Catholicism was banned, and the priests were all executed. The land was taken away and given to Scottish and English settlers.
After the bitter battles in Ireland, Cromwell shifted his attention to Scotland. However, his thoughts were more reserved on this occasion, as some had helped him in the first English Civil War. Scotland had proclaimed Charles II as the new King, which didn't go down well initially. Cromwell appealed to the scots to see the error in their ways, but the scots were not about to cave in. For Cromwell, it looked very likely a new war was about to begin.
Battles at Dunbar and Worcester would define the times and eventually lead to yet another slaughter, in which George Monck, one of Cornwall's leaders, would take Dundee. They killed up to 1000 men along with women and children. England now ruled Scotland.
While Cromwell wielded his power across the country, Parliament was at each other's throats. On his return, he tried to place some stability by asking for new elections, trying to unite the Three Kingdoms and establishing a new church that would be tolerant to most people. Failure to agree meant Cromwell had only one course of action to dissolve Parliament. The force commanded by Charles Worsley headed up the closure just after Cromwell delivered the words, "You are no Parliament, I say you are no Parliament; I will put an end to your sitting."
On 16 December 1653, Cromwell was sworn in as Protector; this was backed by new constitutional reforms headed up by John Lambert. Now at the height of his powers, Cromwell changed his signature to Oliver P, the P being an abbreviation of Protector similar to the way royals would place the letter R for Rex or Regina after their names. His objectives were to try and heal a nation that had been in chaos for many years. The civil wars had taken their toll on everyone and now was a new beginning. But some reforms were minor and less effective, although he continued to bring together a new union, and one that would change the country's constitution forever.
By 1657, Cromwell was offered the crown. This was another dilemma for him, having so profusely tried to end a monarchy. But it's said he was finding the proposal attractive, yet his conscience would not allow him to go down that road. Instead, Cromwell was reinstalled as Lord Protector at Westminster Hall.
In 1658, Cromwell was struck down by what was thought to be a malarial illness. Kidney complaints followed this, and his decline, although looked upon as suspicious by some, was quick. Oliver Cromwell died on 3 September 1658, aged 59. He was buried at Westminster Abbey.
His son Richard took control of the role left by his father, but this was soon ended when he was forced to resign. Now once again, there was no clear leadership. In time constitutional changes would be made, and Charles II would be invited back from exile to take the throne and restore the monarchy to England. Even in death, Oliver Cromwell would not rest. His body was exhumed on 30 January 1661; it was the 12th anniversary of Charles I execution. Cromwell would receive a posthumous execution; his head was cut off and displayed in a pole outside Westminster Hall until 1685.
Cromwell was a man motivated by power. He crushed rebellions and took lives in the blink of an eye, yet was he the saviour of the English constitution. He was certainly a dictator and an energetic campaigner. His pride and ambition delivered a new leadership style no one had seen before or after his demise. But can we all sit back and accept his authoritarian approach?
His military skills were efficient, his ability to bridge political and religious ideals were testing at best, but he somehow managed to convey an aura of overwhelming enforcement. He wanted people to control their lives. He wanted vice suppressed and encouraged virtue. And he was quite possibly the founder of democracy as we know it today. And even in the 21st century, we still struggle with much of the topics that Cromwell faced. Whether he succeeded in his methods will remain controversial and one that historians will always discuss not just now but for many more years to come.