Oliver Cromwell. The Protector.
Oliver Cromwell (born 1599 in Huntingdon, died on September 3, 1658 in Westminster) was Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland during the brief Republican period of British history. In the history of the British Isles Cromwell is a controversial figure. Some historians rate him as a Kingslayer and dictator, while he applies by others as freedom hero.
It may be said of Charles I. that “nothing in his life so much became him as the leaving of it.” During that strange trial in Westminster Hall before the High Court of Justice — whose jurisdiction he denied—the manner and bearing of the king was so full of patient dignity, his serene temper and uncomplaining meekness under the insults of the soldiery and the rabble were so remarkable, the royal calm with which he went to the scaffold had in it so much of true nobility, that we can scarcely wonder at his obtaining the reputation of a martyr among those who were ready to forget or had previously defended his unscrupulous use of power for the suppression of liberty, and his constant refusal to observe the conditions on which he became King of England. At the same time, his undoubted affection for his children, the tender farewell which he took of his family, his pious conversation, and the religious reflections which he had written and published, left a deep impression on the minds of those who alike abhorred the execution of a sentence evidently prepared before the trial, and feared the now dominant party which had clutched the sword of state in the same iron grip with which it held the sword of war.
It is difficult to perceive what could have been done with a king who, while he claimed absolute authority, contrived so to dissimulate that the country was threatened with a devastating civil war. The leaders of the stern, unyielding Independents, who saw that no government would be possible except by a strong hand, are not all to be charged with the inevitable consequences of the iron energy with which they protected the country from threatened anarchy and bloodshed. The reserved and silent man whose first appearance in the House of Commons little betokened the vast space he was to fill in the history of the country, was himself obliged to submit to the power which he was able to guide to victory, but which, even in the plenitude of his subsequent authority, he found it difficult to control except by an assumption of arbitrary rule that it took all the force of his impregnable self possession and great reputation to sustain even for a few months.
In any endeavor to arrive at a just conclusion on the subject of the changes in administration, the strife of parties, and finally the arbitrary assembling and dissolution of Parliament by Cromwell, whose strong hand was then the only one which could take the helm when the whole state and constitution of the country was in the midst of a political vortex, it will be wise to consider the following words of Thomas Carlyle, in one of his elucidations of Cromwell’s letters and speeches:—”I will venture to give the reader two little pieces of advice which, if his experience resemble mine, may prove further some to him in this inquiry; they include the essence of all that I have discovered respecting it:— the first is by no means to credit the wide-spread report that these seventeenth-century Puritans were superstitious, crack brained persons: given up to enthusiasm, the most part of them: the minor ruling part being cunning men, who knew how to assume the dialect of the others, and thereby, as skillful Machiavels, to dupe them.
This is a wide-spread report but an untrue one. I advise my reader to try precisely the opposite hypothesis—to consider that his fathers, who had thought about this world very seriously indeed, were not quite so far behindhand in their conclusions respecting it— ‘enthusiasms,’ if well seen into, were not foolish,but wise – that Machiavelism, cant, official jargon, whereby a man speaks openly what he does not mean, were, surprising as it may seem, much rarer than they have ever since been.”
It is easy, at any rate, to discover that the demands made by the Parliament which refused to consider the question of tonnage and poundage at the king’s behest until they had resolved to protest against the promotion of Arminianism and Popery by Laud, were clear and earnest enough.
It was during these debates, in February, 1629, that there rose to speak a rough, plain-looking, sturdy, rather slovenly man, in a homely coat and a countrified old hat. His words were unstudied, and possessed little grace of oratory, but they were full of meaning, and there was a look of determination in his face, which, with a resolute bearing, commanded the attention of the house. This was Mr. Oliver Cromwell, the new member for Huntingdon, and the man who might have been King of England in name as he was more than king in power and influence. Sir Philip Warwick, a Royalist, who saw him on this first occasion of his speaking in Parliament, speaks of him as of good size, his countenance swollen and reddish, his voice sharp and untunable, and his eloquence full of fervor, so that he was very much hearkened unto. The redness of his face, and even the pitch of his voice, in these days may well have been attributable to the passionate character of the man, associated with that exercise of self-control which seldom deserted him. That Cromwell was of a deeply earnest and passionate nature there can be little doubt, and it must have been a constant struggle for him to hold back from the exercise of an authority which he would only consent to claim when he believed that it was a Divine commission. “I say to you I hoped to have had leave to retire to a private life,” he declared to the first Protectoral Parliament which he appointed after the battle of Worcester. “I begged to be dismissed of my charge; I begged it again and again; and God be judge between me and all men if I lie in this matter. That I lie not in matter of fact is known to very many; but whether I tell a lie in my heart, as laboring to represent to you what was not upon my heart, I say, The Lord be judge.”
Even afterwards, when he had necessarily assumed a power which rendered those strong tendencies to absolute rule most difficult to contend against, he spoke in the same strain. The arbitrary dismissal of the Long Parliament, when he broke forth into invective against members who were once his friends, he declared to have been chiefly caused by the desire to lay down the power which was in his hands. “I say to you again,” he asserted, “in the presence of God who hath blessed and been with me in all my adversities and successes—that was to myself my greatest end; a desire perhaps, I am afraid, sinful enough, to be quit of the power God had most clearly by his providence put into my hands, before he called me to lay it down, before these honest ends of our fighting were attained and settled.”
In considering the character and the position of Oliver Cromwell it is necessary to remember that he was forty-three years old, and a man of established reputation and fortune, before he became prominent as a general; but that the power to which he attained was the result of conditions apart from personal ambition, and of so urgent a nature that he was justified in regarding them as the direct ordinations of Providence. Whatever we may think of his assumption of the authority to call and to dissolve parliaments, the fact of his efforts to establish a legislative assembly, and his readiness to appoint a House of Lords, are proofs that he desired to renew the government on a constitutional basis, even though the factions with which he had to contend rendered the task temporarily impracticable.
In order to estimate what he really achieved for this country, it is well to note what a sudden and calamitous collapse followed his death and the restoration of monarchy in the person of Charles II. Under the lord-protector England was the strongest state in Europe. Foreign ambassadors spoke with bated breath when he demanded justice and the suppression of abuses which affected English claims. The arrogant demands of Holland were humbled, France was silenced, Spain brought to submission. Everywhere on land the arms of the Ironsides were triumphant; and on the sea, piracy was abolished and the supremacy of England was maintained. Ireland was subdued, Scotland ceased to be an independent kingdom when factions and parties were dissolved by repeated defeats, and the cause of Charles was lost beyond repair. Justice was administered without fear and without reproach; the whole moral atmosphere of the court was purified;and liberty of conscience was proclaimed and so consistently upheld, that, even when the nation was again debased by its rulers, the spirit of freedom was ready to reassert itself.
After Cromwell’s death came the reign of impotence. It would almost seem that the country had yet to be taught that true national greatness was not to be achieved under the arbitrary rule of any one man, however conscientious or however eminent. There was no abiding principle of self-government. The fierce and fanatic section of those parties which strove for power had been suppressed, the less violent had been weakened by division and so had succumbed to the energy which was compelled to govern in spite of their repeated and ineffectual efforts. Charles had lost his throne and his head in the endeavor to usurp arbitrary power for the monarchy. Oliver Cromwell might have gained the throne, and perhaps at one time was tempted by a royal title, but he spent his enormous energy in the unselfish exercise of an arbitrary power which he believed could alone save the country from anarchy. The vast space which he fills in English history is measured not alone by what he achieved, but by the principles which he represented. It is perhaps not too much to say that the strange vicissitudes of that period forced him to adopt a course in seeming opposition to the liberty of which he was the advocate, in order that the principles themselves might be vindicated. If he failed, or rather had not at the time of his death succeeded, in the attempts to create a representative assembly of the nation,, which might share and not monopolize the seats of legislature and judicature, and which, on the other hand, might secure the foundations of society in a different spirit to that of a blind supporter of old abuses or a religious persecutor, we ought not to ignore the wisdom and foresight which saw in his own absolute authority only a transitional necessity.
Oliver Cromwell was in fact a man of powerful character, strong will, and intense convictions, with a passionate and at the same time a deeply sympathetic nature. “His temper was exceedingly fiery,” says Maidston, who was one of his household, “as I have known, but the flame of it kept down for the most part, or soon allayed with those
moral endowments he had. He was naturally compassionate towards objects in distress, even to an effeminate measure; though God had made him a heart wherein was left little room for any fear but what was due to himself, of which there was a large proportion. Yet did he exceed in tenderness towards sufferers. A larger soul, I think, hath seldom dwelt in a house of clay than his was.”
This honest declaration of one who knew him well contrasts strangely with the false estimate of the protector which was disseminated after his death by his enemies, and which, like the pretended names of some of the members of the “Barebone” Parliament, such as Praise God Barebone and others, was the invention of a later time. The true records of history — Cromwell’s speeches, his letters, the evident confidence reposed in him by the most trustworthy men—show at least what his personal character must have been, and that religious liberty and purity of life were the principles which he constantly advocated. It has even been the fashion to represent him as a sour sectary, caring little for intellectual culture or social graces and refinements; but his rule of life was truly a noble one. He advised his son Richard to “be above the pleasures of this life and outward business,and then you shall have the true use and comfort of them, and not otherwise.”
Oliver Cromwell in his earlier days had been the subject of strong religious convictions, and had suffered from that combined depression of the nervous system and distress of mind which have been experienced by other men of intense or emotional temperament combined with a conscience too much directed to self-analysis. But he seems to have emerged from this condition to that of a strong, cheerful, and energetic, but still sympathetic man, with a mind well cultured and a taste by no means unrefined. He formed a noble library, could dispute with the Scotch commissioners, and match their arguments from Mariana and Buchanan; supported the two universities, and planned a third one at Durham; and was certainly an impartial friend and patron of the best scholars, painters, musicians, and poets of the age. He drew around him the best men of the time, and his prayer was, “God give us hearts and spirits to keep things equal.” Milton was his Latin secretary and familiar friend, Andrew Marvel was his frequent guest, Waller was his companion and kinsman, Dryden was among his visitors; Hartlib, the advocate of education, the learned Archbishop Usher, and John Biddle were pensioned.
His court was quiet and modest, yet dignified in its simplicity. At Hampton Court, which was Cromwell’s favorite residence, there was often a good deal of harmless fun going on. He was a great lover of music, and entertained the most skillful in that science in his pay and family. “He respected all persons that were eximios in any art, and would procure them to be sent or brought to him. Sometimes he would for a frolic, before he had half dined, give order for the drum to beat, and call in his foot-guards, who were permitted to make booty of all they found on the table. Sometimes he would be jocund with some of the nobility, and would tell them what company they had lately kept, when and where they had drunk the king’s health and the royal family’s, bidding them, when they did it again, to do it more privately; and this without any passion, and as festivos,droll discourse.” Oliver Cromwell, the iron soldier, was a man of deep family affection, and the tone of his court partook of his domestic character.
Not only the disposition but even the original station of Cromwell has been persistently misrepresented. It would certainly have been no disgrace if the great Protector had been “the son of a brewer at Huntingdon;” but the truth is that his father was one of the landed gentry with a good estate and influential family connections, while Oliver Chromwell himself was afterwards a substantial landowner in Cambridgeshire, and did not take any prominent part in public affairs till he was above forty years of age, when he was returned to Parliament.
The history of the Commonwealth, and of the man who was at its head, need to be studied carefully and without prejudice by the reader who desires to discover what were the elements of those vast changes which led to the establishment of a free constitutional government in England.
Source: “Pictures and Royal Portraits illustrative of English and Scottish History. From the introduction of Christianity to the Present time.” Author: Thomas Archer. Published in London, 1878 by Blackie & Son.
- Charles I of England. King and Martyr.
- The English Civil War 1642-1649.
- Charles I. the first in the guard room.
- King James I of England, son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.
- The character of Henry VIII. Tudor King of England.
- The english boy king Edward VI.
- Tudor Queen. The offer of the crown to Lady Jane Grey.
- Bloody Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII.
- Mary Queen of Scots.
- The reign of Elizabeth. The days of Queen Bess.
- Relics associated with Queen Elisabeth.
- Sir Francis Drake.
Cromwell: Our Chief of Men by Antonia Fraser. Methuen, London (1985)
Oliver Cromwell by Barry Coward (1991)
The Speeches of Oliver Cromwell edited by Ivan Roots (1989)
Oliver Cromwell by Peter Gaunt (Blackwell, 1996)
Oliver Cromwell by J. C. Davis (2001)
God’s Englishman by Christopher Hill (Penguin, 1972)
Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution edited by John Morrill (1990)
The Lord Protector by Robert Paul (1955)
Oliver Cromwell by John Buchan (1934)
Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans by CH Firth (Oxford University Press, 1900)
The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell edited by Thomas Carlyle