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Oliver Cromwell, 1599 - 1658

Updated Sunday, 7th January 2001
A head of state who wasn't born to the job? Cromwell led the country into new territory.

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Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell was a gentleman farmer from Huntingdon who lived in relative obscurity until the Civil War provided an outlet for his leadership skills. Emerging as a dynamic cavalry commander at Marston Moor, Cromwell went on to become a major military figure who shaped political and religious events over the next decade and a half.

Oliver Cromwell first entered Parliament as MP for Huntingdon in 1628, but, when Parliament reconvened in 1640, he represented Cambridge. While Parliament was prorogued during the period of personal rule (1629- 40), Cromwell established himself as a political figure in East Anglia by opposing the Crown's plans to drain the fens, and by resisting the Laudian church reforms of the Bishop of Norwich. In the early 1630s, Cromwell experienced spiritual and financial crises and, thereafter, was as a sincere and devout Puritan.

When the war began in 1642, Cromwell became a captain of horse and assumed personal responsibility for selecting, drilling and equipping his men. Despite a lack of previous military experience, Cromwell established his military credentials at the Battle of Winceby (11th October 1643) and then, more decisively, at Marston Moor (2nd July 1644). The repeated, disciplined charges of the Cromwellian Ironsides won the day for Parliament and secured Cromwell's national reputation.

As a man of property, Cromwell shunned social and economic radicalism but endorsed 'liberty of conscience' for all Protestants. With his son-in-law, Henry Ireton, he emerged as a leader of the Independents, a Puritan group in Parliament and the army which favoured a vigorous prosecution of the war effort and which ultimately displaced the Presbyterian 'old guard'. Cromwell helped draft the Self-Denying Ordinance (severing the link between political and military command for everyone bar himself) and, when the New Model Army emerged in early 1645, it was based on principles which Cromwell had pioneered in 1642-3. It was this dedicated and ruthless army which defeated the Royalists at Naseby (thereby ending the First Civil War) and vanquished the Scots Engagers at Preston (thereby concluding the Second Civil War).

Cromwell vacillated over the execution of the King, reluctant to be pushed into a hasty decision, but, once he had settled on a course of action, he was single-minded and remorseless. When Richard Ingoldsby declined to sign the death warrant, Cromwell grabbed his hand and forced him to write.

With Charles dead, England became a Republican Commonwealth and Cromwell the dominant political figure. His first task after securing victory in England and Wales was to defeat enemies of the Commonwealth in Ireland and Scotland. The ongoing Irish rebellion was put down with great ferocity at Wexford and Drogheda, before Cromwell turned to his attention to Scotland where Charles II had been proclaimed King of Scots following his father's death. Decisive Royalist defeats at Dunbar and Worcester secured the Commonwealth's military triumph and Charles fled into exile.

As the dominant political and military figure, much of Cromwell's time over the next seven years was taken up with attempts to secure a lasting political settlement and introduce the Godly Commonwealth he yearned for. Cromwell dismissed the rather ineffectual Rump Parliament in April 1653 and, after a brief experiment with the Parliament of the Saints, declared a Protectorate in December 1653, with himself as Lord Protector. The once avid Parliamentarian summoned and dismissed Parliaments as necessity demanded and was King in all but name. A formal offer of the crown was declined in 1657 on the grounds that the Army would probably object.

Cromwell's popular image is that of a dour Puritan but in his private life, he was fond of sherry and beer, smoked tobacco and appreciated music. His political legacy and achievements are mixed. On the debit side, he summoned and dismissed Parliament when it suited him, imprisoned critics without trial (occasionally) and levied taxes without Parliamentary consent. Public celebration of the mass was forbidden.

On the credit side, Jews were allowed to settle in England for the first time since 1290, all mainstream Protestant groups enjoyed freedom of worship, and private use of the Book of Common Prayer was tolerated. A college was created in Durham (later to become a University) and grammar schools flourished under the Protectorate. Jamaica was added as an imperial possession and English maritime power revived.

By 1658, Cromwell was almost sixty years old and in poor health, saddened by the death of his daughter. He died on September 3rd 1658 and was succeeded by his less formidable son, Richard. As the country drifted towards anarchy, the army turned to the one figure whom it thought could restore order. On 29th May, 1660, Charles II entered London to great popular acclaim. Cromwell's body was disinterred and placed on public display as a warning to traitors but, in 1899, a statue of the Protector was erected outside Parliament.

English Civil War: The Key Players


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