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Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell (April 25, 1599September 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.

In 2003, Cromwell was ranked 10th in a popular BBC poll of "Great Britons."



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. 15001544), Henry Cromwell (c. 1524January 6, 1603), then to Oliver's father Robert Cromwell, Esquire (c. 15601617), who married Elizabeth Steward or Stewart (15641654) 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.

Early life

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.

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 16281629. 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. 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 MP's 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.

Military commander

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 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, "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 radicals like the Levellers. 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 behalf 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.

Scotland and Ireland

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 have been strongly debated. For example, while 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" - 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. Against this are the records of many churches such as Kilkenny Cathedral accusing Cromwell's army as having defaced and desecrated the churches, along with stabling the horses in them. 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. However, Cromwell himself never accepted that he was responsible for the killing of civilians in Ireland and in fact, the worst atrocities committed in that country were carried out by his subordinates after Cromwell had left for England. See also the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, and Irish Confederate Wars.

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's men, under George Monck vicously 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.

In both Scotland and Ireland, Cromwell is remembered as 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.

Political rule

Statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Palace of Westminster, London.
Statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Palace of Westminster, London.

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.

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.

Cromwell's 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.

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 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

Within two years of Cromwell's death from malaria 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 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."

See also

External links

|- style="text-align: center;" | width="30%" |Preceded by:
| width="40%" style="text-align: center;" |Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland
1653–1658 | width="30%" |Succeeded by:
Richard Cromwell

Last updated: 10-17-2005 04:00:57
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