Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon in 1599. Educated at Huntingdon Grammar School and Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge, he studied law in London.

Sponsored by the Montagu family he was elected to the House of Commons in 1628. When Parliament was dissolved in 1629 he took up farming in Huntingdon. Soon afterwards he was converted to Puritanism.

In 1640 Cromwell returned to Parliament when he was elected to represent Cambridge. Cromwell was a strong critic of Charles II and on the outbreak of the Civil War he joined the Parliamentary forces and served under Edward Montagu, Duke of Manchester.

Although Cromwell had no military training, his experience as a large landowner gave him a good knowledge of horses. Cromwell became convinced that if he could produce a well-disciplined army he could defeat Prince Rupert and his Cavaliers. He knew that pikemen, armed with sixteen-foot-long pikes, who stood their ground during a cavalry attack, could do a tremendous amount of damage.

Cromwell also noticed that Prince Rupert's cavalry were not very well disciplined. After they charged the enemy they went in pursuit of individual targets. At the first major battle of the civil war at Edgehill, most of Prince Rupert's cavalrymen did not return to the battlefield until over an hour after the initial charge. By this time the horses were so tired they were unable to mount another attack against the Roundheads.

Cromwell trained his cavalry to keep together after a charge. In this way his men could repeatedly charge the Cavaliers. Cromwell's new cavalry took part in its first major battle at Marston Moor in Yorkshire in July 1644. The king's soldiers were heavily defeated in the battle. Cromwell's soldiers became known as the Ironsides because of the way they cut through the Cavaliers on the battlefield.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Parliament relied on soldiers recruited by large landowners who supported their cause. In February 1645, Parliament decided to form a new army of professional soldiers. This army of 22,000 men became known as the New Model Army. Its commander-in-chief was General Thomas Fairfax, while Cromwell was put in charge of its cavalry.

Members of the New Model Army received proper military training and by the time they went into battle they were very well-disciplined. In the past, people became officers because they came from powerful and wealthy families. In the New Model Army men were promoted when they showed themselves to be good soldiers. For the first time it became possible for working-class men to become army officers. Cromwell thought it was very important that soldiers in the New Model Army believed strongly in what they were fighting for. Where possible he recruited men who, like him, held strong Puritan views and the New Model Army went into battle singing psalms, convinced that God was on their side.

The New Model Army took part in its first major battle just outside the village of Naseby in Northamptonshire on 14 June 1645. The battle began when Prince Rupert led a charge against the left wing of the parliamentary cavalry which scattered and Rupert's men then gave chase.

While this was going on Cromwell launched an attack on the left wing of the royalist cavalry. This was also successful and the royalists that survived the initial charge fled from the battlefield. While some of Cromwell's cavalry gave chase, the majority were ordered to attack the now unprotected flanks of the infantry. Charles I was waiting with 1,200 men in reserve. Instead of ordering them forward to help his infantry he decided to retreat. Without support from the cavalry, the royalist infantry realised their task was impossible and surrendered.

By the time Prince Rupert's cavalry returned to the battlefield the fighting had ended. Rupert's cavalry horses were exhausted after their long chase and were not in a fit state to take on Cromwell's cavalry. Rupert had no option but to ride off in search of Charles I.

The battle was a disaster for the king. About 1,000 of his men had been killed, while another 4,500 of his most experienced men had been taken prisoner. The Parliamentary forces were also able to capture the Royalist baggage train that contained his complete stock of guns and ammunition.

The Battle of Naseby was the turning point in the war. After Naseby, Charles was never able to raise another army strong enough to defeat the parliamentary army in a major battle.

In January 1647, Charles I fled to Scotland where he was captured and handed over to the parliamentary army. Charles was imprisoned in Hampton Court, but in November 1647 he escaped and managed to raise another army. This time Charles was able to persuade the Scots to fight on his side.

In August 1648 Cromwell's parliamentary army defeated the Scots and once again Charles was taken prisoner. Now that Parliament was in control of England its members began to argue amongst themselves. Most Members of Parliament were Presbyterians. These men were willing to share power with the king. Presbyterians also had strong feelings on religion. They disapproved of other puritan groups such as the Anabaptists, Quakers and Congregationalists and wanted them suppressed.

The other major group were called the Independents. They tended to be followers of the religious groups that the Presbyterians wanted to suppress. The Independents argued for a policy of religious toleration. Some Independents also wanted to bring an end to the monarchy.

The Independents had a strong following in the parliamentary army and had the support of Oliver Cromwell. Afraid of their power, Presbyterianmembers of the House of Commons tried to disband the army. The soldiers were furious, especially as Parliament made no effort to pay them the wages that were due to them. The army decided to take action. The Presbyterians were expelled from Parliament. With the Independents now in control, it was decided to put Charles I on trial as a traitor. In 1649 Charles was found guilty and executed outside his Whitehall Palace.

The Independents now passed a series of new laws. The monarchy, the House of Lords and the Anglican church were abolished. Lands owned by the royal family and the church were sold and the money was used to pay the parliamentary soldiers. The Independents also kept their promise regarding religious toleration. People were no longer fined for not attending their local church. However, everyone was still expected to attend some form of religious worship on Sundays.

In August 1649, Cromwell and 12,000 soldiers arrived in Ireland. During the next ten years of bloodshed it is estimated that about a third of the population was either killed or died of starvation. The majority of Roman Catholics who owned land had it taken away from them and were removed to the barren province of Connacht. Catholic boys and girls were shipped to Barbados and sold to the planters as slaves.

The land taken from the Catholics by Cromwell was given to the Protestant soldiers who had taken part in the campaign. Before the rebellion in 1641, Catholics owned 59% of the land in Ireland. By the time Cromwell left in 1650 the proportion had shrunk to 22%.

Although the House of Commons continued to meet, it was Cromwell and his army that controlled England. In December 1653, the army decided that Cromwell should become England's new ruler. Some officers wanted him to become king but he refused and instead took the title Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. However, Cromwell had as much power as kings had in the past. When the House of Commons opposed his policies in 1655, he closed it down.

Cromwell now imposed military rule. England was divided into eleven districts. Each district was run by a Major General. The responsibilities of these Major-Generals included maintaining order, collecting taxes, granting poor relief and imposing Puritan morality. In some districts bear-baiting, cock-fighting, horse-racing and wrestling were banned. Betting and gambling were also forbidden. Large numbers of ale-houses were closed and fines were imposed on people caught swearing. In some districts, the Major-Generals even closed down theatres.

Former members of the Levellers grew disillusioned with the dictatorial policies of Cromwell and in 1655 Edward Sexby, John Wildman and Richard Overton were involved in developing a plot to overthrow the government. The conspiracy was discovered and the men were forced to flee to the Netherlands.

In May 1657 Edward Sexby published, under the pseudonym William Allen, Killing No Murder, a pamphlet that attempted to justify the assassination of Cromwell. The following month he arrived in England to carry out the deed, however, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

In 1658 Cromwell announced that he wanted his son, Richard Cromwell, to replace him as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. The English army was unhappy with this decision. While they respected Oliver as a skillful military commander, Richard was just a country farmer.

Oliver Cromwell died on 3rd September 1658. His son became Lord Protector but in May 1659, the generals forced him to retire from government. As a result of the Restoration in 1660, Cromwell's body was disinterred from the tomb of kings in Westminster Abbey and was hung from the gallows at Tyburn.

Primary Sources

(1) Sir Philip Warwick, a Royalist, made these comments on Oliver Cromwell in 1640.

He wore... a plain cloth-suit, which seemed to have been made by a poor tailor; his shirt was plain, and not very clean; and I remember a speck or two of blood upon his collar... his face was swollen and red, his voice sharp and untunable, and his speech full of passion.

(2) Oliver Cromwell, speech to the people of Dublin after his arrival in Ireland. (16 August, 1649)

God has brought us here in safety... We are here to carry on the great work against the barbarous and blood-thirsty Irish... to propagate the Gospel of Christ and the establishment of truth... and to restore this nation to its former happiness and tranquillity.

(3) Earl of Clarendon wrote about Oliver Cromwell in his book History of the Rebellion (c. 1688)

Without doubt, no man with more wickedness ever brought to pass what he desired more wickedly.

(4) John Lilburne was a Leveller who was imprisoned by Oliver Cromwell. In 1649 Lilburne wrote a letter to Cromwell.

We have much cause to distrust you; for we know how many broken promises that you have made to the kingdom.

(5) In about 1660, Edward Burroughs, a Quaker, wrote down his thoughts on Oliver Cromwell.

He loved the praise of men, and took flattering titles... He allowed tithes and false worship and other popish stuff.... He persecuted and imprisoned people for criticising things that were popish.

(6) Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary these comments on Oliver Cromwell in July 1667.

Everybody do nowadays reflect upon Cromwell and praise him... what brave things he did and made all the foreign princes fear him.

(7) Nathaniel Crouch, A History of Oliver Cromwell (1692)

Many people in our times... have a great respect for the memory of Oliver Cromwell, as being a man of devout religion and a great champion for the liberties of the nation.

(8) Richard Overton, Hunting the Foxes (March, 1649)

O Cromwell, O Ireton, how hath a little time and success changed the honest shape of so many officers! Who then would have thought the army council would have moved for an act to put men to death for petitioning? Who would have thought to have seen soldiers (by their order) to ride with their faces towards their horse tails, to have their swords broken over their heads, and to be cashiered, and that for petitioning, and claiming their just right and title to the same?

Was there ever a generation of men so apostate so false and so perjured as these? Did ever men pretend an higher degree of holiness, religion, and zeal to God and their country than these? These preach, these fast, these pray, these have nothing more frequent than the sentences of sacred scripture, the name of God and of Christ in their mouths: you shall scarce speak to Cromwell about anything, but he will lay his hand on his breast, elevate his eyes, and call God to record, he will weep, howl and repent, even while he doth smite you under the first rib.

(9) Oliver Cromwell, writing to the Speaker of the House of Commons after defeating the Catholics at Drogheda. (September, 1649)

Every tenth man of the soldiers were killed and the rest sent to the Barbados... I think we put to the sword altogether about 2,000 men... about 100 of them fled to St Peter's Church... they asked for mercy, I refused... I ordered St Peter's Church to be set on fire.

(10) Message sent by Oliver Cromwell to Sir Arthur Aston, commander of the Irish forces in Drogheda. (10 September, 1649)

I have brought the army belonging to the Parliament of England to this place, to reduce it to obedience... if you surrender you will avoid the loss of blood... If you refuse... you will have no cause to blame me.

(11) Oliver Cromwell commenting on the activities of the Levellers and the Diggers (1649)

What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces.

(12) Edward Sexby, Killing No Murder (1657)

To his Highness, Oliver Cromwell.

To your Highness justly belongs the Honour of dying for the people, and it cannot choose but be unspeakable consolation to you in the last moments of your life to consider with how much benefit to the world you are like to leave it. 'Tis then only (my Lord) the titles you now usurp, will be truly yours; you will then be indeed the deliverer of your country, and free it from a bondage little inferior to that from which Moses delivered his. You will then be that true reformer which you would be thought. Religion shall be then restored, liberty asserted and Parliaments have those privileges they have fought for. We shall then hope that other laws will have place besides those of the sword, and that justice shall be otherwise defined than the will and pleasure of the strongest; and we shall then hope men will keep oaths again, and not have the necessity of being false and perfidious to preserve themselves, and be like their rulers. All this we hope from your Highness's happy expiration, who are the true father of your country; for while you live we can call nothing ours, and it is from your death that we hope for our inheritances. Let this consideration arm and fortify your Highness's mind against the fears of death and the terrors of your evil conscience, that the good you will do by your death will something balance the evils of your life.