Oliver Cromwell (April 25, 1599 – September 3, 1658) was an English military leader and politician. After leading the overthrow of the British monarchy, he ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland as Lord Protector from December 16, 1653 until his death, which is believed to have been due either to malaria or poisoning.
At the outset of the English Civil War, Cromwell began his military career by raising a cavalry troop, known as the Ironsides Cavalry, which became the basis of his New Model Army. Cromwell's leadership in the Battle of Marston Moor (in 1644) brought him to great prominence. As a leader of the Parliamentarian cause, and commander of the New Model Army, (informally known as the Roundheads), he defeated King Charles I, thus bringing to an end the monarchy's claims to absolute power.
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Oliver Cromwell descended from Catherine Cromwell (born circa 1483), an older sister of Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell. Catherine was married to Morgan ap Williams, son of William ap Yevan and Joan Tudor. There is speculation that Joan was an illegitimate daughter of Jasper Tudor, 1st Duke of Bedford.
Although Catherine married, her children kept her name, possibly to maintain their connection with their famous uncle. The family line continued through Richard Cromwell (c. 1500–1544), Henry Cromwell (c. 1524–January 6, 1603), then to Oliver's father Robert Cromwell, Esquire (c. 1560–1617), who married Elizabeth Steward or Stewart (1564–1654) on April 25, 1599, the day she delivered him a son.
Another interesting feature of the Cromwell bloodline is that the mother's maiden name, unlike the argument above, might have been kept as the surname for a different purpose: to disguise the male side of the family's heritage instead of merely accentuating the female's side from Thomas Cromwell. This heritage goes through the Tudors, de Valois, and Wittelsbach—three royal dynasties of England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire, respectively.
His alleged paternal ancestor Jasper Tudor was a younger brother of Edmund Tudor, 1st Earl of Richmond and uncle to his son Henry VII of England. Jasper was arguably the architect of the Tudor victory in the Battle of Bosworth Field against Richard III of England on August 22, 1485. Leading to the successful conquest of England and Wales by his nephew which established the hegemony of the Tudor dynasty at the close of the Wars of the Roses.
Both Edmund and Jasper Tudor were sons of Owen Tudor and Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France and Isabeau de Bavière. Catherine was also widow of Henry V of England. Her mother Isabeau was the daughter of Stephan III, Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt and Thadea Visconti.
Oliver was born in Huntingdon, in the county of Huntingdonshire in East Anglia. In 1616 he enrolled at Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge, a recently-founded college with a strong Puritan ethos. However, he apparently stayed for only one year, before his father's death caused him to return home.
He subsequently was a gentleman farmer, but had to sell his farm and land to repay debts he had accumulated, as his grandfather had bequeathed land but not money to the family. Already a devout member of the Puritan sect, he became an evangelical member.
There is a tradition that Cromwell and the future Charles I met as children, apparently a scuffle broke out and ended with Cromwell knocking Charles down. However, this is almost certainly mythical.
Member of Parliament
Having decided against following an uncle to Virginia, he instead became the Member of Parliament (MP) for Huntingdon in the Parliament of 1628–1629. His maiden speech was the defence of a radical democrat who had argued in an unauthorised pamphlet in favour of giving the vote to all men. He was also prominent in defending the people of The Fens from wealthy landowners who wanted to drive them off their land.
Charles I ruled without a Parliament for the next eleven years and alienated many people by his policies of raising extra-parliamentary taxes and imposing his Catholicism-influenced vision of Protestantism on the Church of England. When he was forced by shortage of funds to call a Parliament again in 1640, Oliver Cromwell was one of many MPs who bitterly opposed voting for any new taxes until the King agreed to govern with the consent of Parliament on both civil and religious issues. The failure to solve this crisis led directly to civil war breaking out between Parliamentarians (supporters of the power of Parliament) and Royalists (supporters of the King). Cromwell was a passionate supporter of the Parliament, primarily on religious grounds. However, he was not an accomplished speaker and did not become a leader of the Parliamentary cause until well into the civil war.
Although he was later involved in the King's overthrow and execution, Cromwell did not start the civil war as a radical republican, but with the intention of forcing Charles to reign with the consent of Parliament and with a more consensual, Protestant, religious policy.
Cromwell's understanding of religion and politics were very closely intertwined. He was a committed Puritan Protestant, believing that salvation was open to all who obeyed the teachings of the Bible and acted according to their own conscience. He was passionately opposed to the Roman Catholic Church, which he saw as denying the primacy of the Bible in favour of Papal and Clerical authority and which he blamed for tyranny and persecution of Protestants in Europe. For this reason, he was bitterly opposed to Charles I's reforms of the Church of England, which introduced Catholic-style Bishops and Prayer Books in place of Bible study. Cromwell's associations of Catholicism and persecution were deepened with the Irish Rebellion of 1641, which were marked by massacres (wildly exagerated in Puritan circles in Britain) by Irish Catholics of English and Scottish Protestant settlers. This would later be one of the reasons why Cromwell acted so harshly in his military campaign in Ireland.
Cromwell was also opposed to the more radical religious groups on the Protestant side in the Civil Wars. Although he co-operated with Quakers and Presbyterians, he was opposed to their authoritarian imposition of their beliefs on other Protestants. He became associated with the "Independent" faction, which argued for religious freedom for all Protestants in a post-war settlement.
Finally, Cromwell was also a firm believer in Providentialism – the belief that God was actively directing the affairs of the world through the actions of chosen people. Cromwell believed, during the Civil Wars, that he was one of these people and interpreted victories as indications of God's approval of his actions and defeats as signs that God was directing him in another direction.
Having joined the Parliamentary Army with no military experience at the age of 43, he recruited a cavalry unit and gained experience and victories in a succession of battles in East Anglia. He famously recruited his officers based on merit rather than on the basis of noble birth, saying: "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". As a result, the New Model Army under Cromwell's command became a centre for political radicals like the Levellers and a myriad of radical religious sects like the Fifth Monarchists.
Cromwell's troops came to respect his bravery and his concern for their well-being. Promoted to General in charge of cavalry for the New Model Army, he trained his men to rapidly regroup after an attack, tactics he first employed with great success at the Battle of Naseby and which showed a very high level of discipline and motivation on the part of his troops. With successive military victories he gained political power, until he became the leading politician of the time. By the end of the first civil war in 1646, the King was a prisoner of the Parliament. Cromwell, however, commanded the army that had won this victory and as a result was in a position to dictate the future of England. Cromwell showed in the English Civil Wars that he was a brave and daring cavalry commander. However, in the years to come he would also be recognised as an exceptional commander of whole armies. His successful conquests of Ireland and Scotland showed a great mastery of organising supplies and logistics for protracted campaigns in hostile territory.
Execution of the king
The Parliamentarians, including Cromwell hoped to reach a compromise settlement with Charles I. However, the King would not accept a solution at odds with his own Divine right doctrines. The so-called "second civil war", which broke out in 1648 after Charles I's escape from prison suggested to Cromwell that no compromise with the king would be possible. In 1649, after being tried for treason, Charles I was executed by the Rump Parliament at Whitehall. Cromwell came under pressure from the radicals among his own officers to execute the King, whom they termed, "Charles Stuart, that man of blood." Many hold Cromwell responsible for the execution of Charles I in January 1649, although there were 59 signatories to the death warrant. However, Cromwell does hold much of the responsibility, as his troops broke into the Parliament's chambers and only permitted the "regicides" – those in favour of Charles' execution – to vote on the matter. Cromwell did not have long to dwell on the future form of government in England however, as he immediately left the country to crush the remaining Royalist strongholds in Ireland and Scotland.
Ireland and Scotland
Cromwell's actions made him very unpopular in Scotland and Ireland which, as previously independent nations, were effectively conquered by English forces during the civil wars. In particular, Cromwell's brutal suppression of the Royalists in Ireland during 1649 still has a strong resonance for many Irish people. The most enduring symbol of this alleged brutality is the siege of Drogheda in September 1649. The massacre of nearly 3,500 people in Drogheda after its capture — comprising around 2,700 Royalist soldiers and all the men in the town carrying arms, including some civilians, prisoners, and Catholic priests — is one of the historical memories that has fuelled Irish-English and Catholic-Protestant strife for over three centuries.
The extent of Cromwell's intentions has been strongly debated. For example, it is clear that Cromwell saw the Irish in general as enemies – he justified his sack of Drogheda as revenge for the Irish killing of English Protestants in the Irish Rebellion of 1641 calling the massacre, "The righteous judgement of God on these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their hands with so much innocent blood"- and the records of many churches such as Kilkenny Cathedral accuse Cromwell's army of having defaced and desecrated the churches and having stabled the horses in them. On the other hand, it is also clear that on entering Ireland he demanded that no supplies were to be seized from the inhabitants and that everything should be fairly purchased. His actual orders at Drogheda followed military protocol of the day where a town or garrison was first given the option to surrender and receive just treatment and the protection of the invading force. The refusal to do this even after the walls had been breached, meant that Cromwell's orders to show no mercy in the treatment of men of arms was inevitable by the standards of the day. Cromwell's men committed another infamous massacre at Wexford, when they broke into the town during surrender negotiations and killed over 2000 Irish soldiers and civilians. These two atrocities, while horrifying in their own right, were not exceptional in the war in Ireland since its start in 1641, but are well remembered, even today, because of a concerted propaganda campaign by the Royalists, which portrayed Cromwell as a monster, who indiscriminately slaughtered civilians wherever he went.
However, Cromwell himself never accepted that he was responsible for the killing of civilians in Ireland, claiming that he had acted harshly, but only against those "in arms". In fact, the worst atrocities committed in that country, such as mass evictions, killings and deportation for slave labour, were carried out by Cromwell's subordinates after he had left for England. In the wake of the Cormwellian conquest, all Catholic owned land was confiscated in the Act of Settlement 1652 and the practice of Roman Catholicism was banned.
Cromwell also invaded Scotland in 1650–1651, after the Scots had crowned Charles I's son as Charles II and tried to re-impose the monarchy on England. Cromwell had been prepared to tolerate an independent Scotland, but had to react after the Scots invaded England. Cromwell was a lot less hostile to Scottish Presbyterians than to Irish Catholics, seeing them as, "His [God's] people, though deceived". Nevertheless, he acted with ruthlessness in Scotland. Despite being outnumbered, his veteran troops smashed Scottish armies at the battles of Dunbar and Worcester and occupied the country. Cromwell treated the thousands of prisoners of war he took in this campaign very badly, allowing thousands of them to die of disease and deporting others to penal colonies in Barbados. Cromwell's men, under George Monck viciously sacked the town of Dundee, in the manner of Drogheda. During the Commonwealth, Scotland was ruled from England and kept under military occupation, with a line of fortifications sealing off the Highlands from the rest of the country. Presbyterianism was allowed to be practiced as before, but its Kirk did not have the backing of the civil courts to impose its rulings, as previously.
In both Scotland and Ireland, Cromwell is remembered as a remorseless and ruthless enemy. However, the reason for the peculiar bitterness that the Irish especially traditionally held for Cromwell's memory has as much to do with his mass confiscation of Catholic owned property as with his wartime actions.
In the wake of the Army's 1648 recapture of the King, the monarchy was abolished, and between 1649 and 1653 the country became a republic, a rarity in Europe at that time. The republic was known as the Commonwealth of England. However, from all accounts, Cromwell actually ruled as a military dictator.
Many of Cromwell's actions upon gaining power were decried by some commentators as harsh, unwise, and tyrannical. He was often ruthless in putting down the mutinies which occurred within his own army towards the end of the war (which were sometimes prompted by failure to pay the troops). He showed little sympathy for the Levellers, an egalitarian movement which had contributed greatly to Parliament's cause. (The Leveller point of view had been strongly represented in the Putney Debates held between the various factions of the Army in 1647, just prior to the King's escape. However, many historians, including those on the left, have conceded that the Leveller viewpoint, though attractive to a modern audience, was too far ahead of its time to be a stable basis for government). Cromwell was not prepared to countenance a radical democracy, but as events were to show, could not engineer a stable oligarchic Parliamentary republic either.
With the king gone (and with him their common cause), Cromwell's unanimous backing dissolved, and the various factions in Parliament became engaged in infighting. In a repeat of the actions the former king had taken that had contributed to civil war, Cromwell eventually dismissed the republican Rump Parliament in 1653 and instead took personal control, effectively, as military dictator. Cromwell's power was buttressed by his continuing popularity among the army which he had built up during the civil wars.
In 1657 Cromwell was offered the crown by a reconstituted parliament, presenting him with a dilemma since he had been instrumental in abolishing the monarchy. After six weeks of deliberation, he rejected the offer, largely because the senior officers in his army threatened to resign if he accepted, but also because it could have placed existing constitutional constraints on his rule. Instead, he was ceremonially installed as Lord Protector at Westminster Abbey, sitting on the former king's throne. The event was practically a coronation and made him king in all but name. The written constitution even gave him the right to issue noble titles, a device which he soon put to use in much the same fashion as former kings. (A history of the titles is given in Restoration).
Death and posthumous execution
This should have been the end of the story but in 1661 Oliver Cromwell's body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and was subjected to the ritual of a posthumous execution – on January 30, the same date that Charles I had been executed. He was in fact hanged, drawn and quartered. At the end his body was thrown into a pit. His severed head was displayed on a pole outside Westminster Abbey until 1685. Since then it changed hands several times before eventually being buried in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1960.
- "Let us restore the king to his throne, and let the king in future agree to govern with the consent of Parliament. Let us restore the old church, with its bishops, since that is what most of the people want; but since the Puritans and Separatists and Baptists have served us well in the war, let us not persecute them anymore but let them worship as they like, outside of the established church. And so let us have peace and liberty."
In 1989, Monty Python wrote a song called "Oliver Cromwell," which told the entire career of Cromwell to the tune of Frederic Chopin's Polonaise Op.53 in A flat major. It is available on their compilation album Monty Python Sings.
- Admiral Robert Blake for the role played by sea power during this period.
- Cromwell Association
- Cromwell Biography at the BBC
- Cromwell biography at Britannia.com
- Cromwell biography at Internet Modern History Source Book
- Cromwell biography at British Civil Wars
- The Cromwell family
- Page demonstrating his descent from Henry I of England
- Brief biography at the Victoria Web
The Marquess of Ormonde
|Lord Lieutenant of Ireland|
|Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland|