Oliver Cromwell (April 25, 1599 – September 3, 1658) was an English military leader and politician. After leading the overthrow of the Britishmonarchy 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 which became the basis of his Ironsides Cavalry. 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’s forces, thus bringing to an end the absolute power of the Englishmonarchy.
Family and childhood
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 . 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 an infant son.
Oliver was born in Huntingdon, in the county of Huntingdonshire in East Anglia. He 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 hard-line Puritan sect, he became an evangelical member.
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 defense 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.
Cromwell’s influence as a military commander and politician during the English Civil War dramatically altered the military and the political landscape of the British Isles.
Having joined the 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. 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. With successive military victories he gained political power, until he became the leading politician of the time.
Execution of the king
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. Many hold Cromwell responsible for the execution of Charles I in January 1649, although there were 59 signatories to the death warrant.
Scotland and Ireland
Cromwell’s actions made him very unpopular in Scotland and Ireland which, as nominally independent nations, were effectively conquered by English forces. In particular, Cromwell’s brutal suppression of the Royalists in Ireland during 1649 still has a strong resonance for many Irish people. 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 have been strongly debated. For example, it is 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 the just treatment and protection of the invading force. The refusal to do this even after the walls had been breached, meant that Cromwell’s orders to leave no mercy in the treatment of men of arms was inevitable by the standards of the day. The aftermath of the fall of Drogheda was that such an order was zealously undertaken even to a point where non combatants were caught up in the actions of the invading army. Understandably the extent of this would have been respectively underplayed and overplayed in later accounts by the invaders and defenders. See also Trim Castle and River Shannon.
In the wake of his 1640 victory 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.
Many of Cromwell’s actions upon gaining power were decried as harsh, unwise, and tyrannical by his critics. He was unnecessarily savage in putting down the mutinies which occurred within his own army towards the end of the war (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. His foreign policy led him into the First Anglo-Dutch War in 1652 against the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, eventually won by Admiral Robert Blake in 1654.
With the king gone, and with it 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 tookpersonal control as, effectively, military dictator.
In 1657 Cromwell was offered the kingship by a reconstituted parliament, presenting him with a dilemma since he had been instrumental in abolishing the monarchy. After six weeks of deliberation, he turned down the crown, 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 atWestminster 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. (Ahistory of the titles is given in Restoration).
Death and posthumous execution
Within two years of Cromwell’s death from fever on September 3, 1658 parliament restored Charles II as king, as Cromwell’s son Richard Cromwell had proved an unworthy successor.
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 hung, drawn and quartered. At the end his body was thrown into a pit; his decapitated 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.
Cromwell’s impact on History is likely to be debated for years to come based on both his influence on the British Political system, and his personal excesses.
Cromwell and the development of the United States
For more information on Cromwell’s influence on the events leading up to the American Revolution, and subsequent formation of as a republic, check out The Cousins Wars by Kevin Phillips, and David Hackett Fisher Albion’s Seed . In 2003, Cromwell was ranked 10th in a popular BBC poll of “Great Britons.”
Bob Bainborough portrayed Cromwell in an episode of History Bites.
“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.”
Wikiquote – Quotes by and about Oliver Cromwell