Oliver Cromwell is the only commoner ever to have replaced a Monarch as head of the British state. He has been the subject of more biographies than any king or queen in British history, and the dour, 'warts and all' portrait of him by Sir Peter Lely has ensured that he remains one of the most recognizable historical figures. He was in his own day, and has been ever since, perhaps the most contentious of Britons, championed and condemned in equal measure.
Cromwell was born in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, on 25 April 1599, into a respectable gentry family of regional influence. He attended the town grammar school and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, before marrying Elizabeth Bourchier, daughter of a London merchant, and settling into contented domesticity and management of the family estate back in Huntingdon.
1628 was a turning-point in Cromwell's life. He became an MP for the first time and, also in that year, suffered (evidence suggests) a bout of depression. Around the same time, Cromwell experienced the Puritan religious conversion that would dominate his life. He also became embroiled unsuccessfully in a feud with a rival local family, the Montagus, that resulted, in 1631, in the Cromwells selling their lands in Huntingdon and taking on a small farm in St. Ives.
In 1640, Cromwell re-entered Parliament as MP for Cambridge. An inheritance from his wife's uncle had re-established the family's fortunes in 1636, and Cromwell's passionate Puritanism brought him to prominence in the first years of the Long Parliament. In August 1642, he was dispatched to prevent the University of Cambridge from helping to finance Charles I's newly-mustered army. Thence, after assembling his own troop of sixty cavalrymen, Cromwell established himself as a commander in eastern England, being swiftly promoted from captain to colonel. A highly publicised role at the battle of Marston Moor (1644) earned him the nickname of 'Ironsides' from the London press and increasing national prominence within the New Model Army.
As lieutenant-general, Cromwell took a leading part in 1647 in smoothing negotiations with mutinous elements of the army, and with the king. Then, Charles I's escape from captivity and the resumption of war brought about by his alliance with the Scots, changed Cromwell's view. Henceforth, he was amongst the General Council of army officers demanding that Charles face trial "for the treason, blood and mischief he is guilty of."
After the king's execution on 30 January 1649, Cromwell was the single most influential man in the country, but still as a leading army officer rather than a head of state. The army had purged monarchist elements from the Long Parliament and the remainder – the Rump – declared the kingdoms to be a republic. From 1649 to 1651, Cromwell was dispatched with an army to Scotland and to Ireland to eliminate opposition to the new Commonwealth. These campaigns in particular have set Cromwell in the popular mind as a bigoted fanatic but, at the time, he was hailed in England as a conquering hero.
Cromwell therefore had the stature, and the support of the majority of the army, to dissolve forcibly the increasingly conservative Rump Parliament in April 1653. The opportunity was certainly there if Cromwell had chosen to take it to establish personal rule. His biographer John Morrill concluded that Cromwell's deliberate avoidance of power then "is testimony to his lack of ambition", and even historians more cynical of his motives largely agree that there was no next stage planned after the expulsion of the Rump. Cromwell and the Council of officers and civilians nominated 140 men, drawn in proportion from every county of England, from Wales, Scotland and Ireland, to act as an interim assembly.
'Barebone's Parliament' (so-called after one of its more radically named members, Praise-God Barebone) fractured after only five months. The senior army officers then drew up an Instrument of Government, a written constitution for a Republic of the British Isles, and requested that Cromwell take on executive power as Lord Protector for life. Early in 1654, Cromwell moved into the royal palaces at Whitehall and Hampton Court. He may not have held the title of king, but he appeared to have the status.
In 1655, a failed royalist rebellion, Penruddock's Rising, panicked the Protectorate into a two-year phase of quasi-military rule. England was divided into twelve regions, each governed by a major-general with powers to raise militias and taxes, whilst the Protectorate parliament of 400 MPs approved several measures aimed at imposing the strictest moral code on the nation. Theatres, cock-fighting and bear-baiting – anywhere royalists might secretly assemble – were restricted, and religious holidays stripped of many well-loved traditions holding any possible 'papist' or pre-Christian connotation.
In 1657, Parliament presented the Humble Petition and Advice to Cromwell, including an offer of the Crown, which he refused. He did, however, accept the right to choose his own successor. Therefore, his eldest surviving son, Richard, was named as Lord Protector when Oliver Cromwell died on 3 September 1658 and was buried alongside kings in Westminster Abbey.
At first sight, Cromwell's political legacy seems transient. In 1660, his major-general in Scotland, George Monck, had instigated the peaceful restoration of the Stuart monarchy, at the invitation of Parliament. In January 1661, Cromwell's corpse was exhumed in order that he, alongside all others (dead and living) who had signed the former king's death warrant, could be hung, drawn and quartered as traitors, as a final act to wipe out all traces of the Protectorate. However, this brief republican experiment casts a surprisingly long shadow over the history of the British Isles. The Protectorate Parliament was the first to represent proportionately and claim to rule equally all the nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. It was the first (and, as yet, only) parliament to operate under a comprehensive written constitution.
And what of Oliver Cromwell himself? He remains a figure of immense contradiction. He was a regicide who believed in monarchy, and a parliamentarian who opposed universal suffrage. He was an advocate of religious liberty, who ended compulsion to attend the state church and readmitted Jews to England for the first time since 1290. However, his actions at Drogheda and Wexford, and at least tacit acceptance of the 1652 Act of Settlement, driving the Catholic majority of Ireland into the far western counties, has left him with the reputation of a violent bigot that persists today. His inclusion as one of the Top Ten 'Great Britons' in the BBC poll of 2002 drew out the popular extremes of opinion on Cromwell, with the journalist AA.Gill condemning him as "the English Pol Pot, with a touch of Bernard Matthews". However, to his TV champion, Richard Holmes, Oliver Cromwell "emerged from obscurity to help give us Parliamentary democracy – our proudest ever achievement". The prominent statue of Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament, sword in one hand but Bible in the other, is perhaps, though, how he would most like to be remembered.