Oliver Cromwell: Tyrant or Patriot?
Oliver Cromwell is one of the most controversial figures in history, but a majority of the stories out there are based on myth and not in reality. Especially from his campaign in Ireland, which is about all that most people know about him. If one mentions the name Cromwell today, a majority of the time people will have a negative opinion of the man, even though they most likely know nothing about him or his career. This is due from hundreds of years of negative propaganda that was started by Charles II after he ascended the English throne after Cromwell’s death. Since the Royalists were unable to defeat Cromwell during his lifetime, they staged a cowardly posthumous ‘execution’ where they exhumed Cromwell’s corpse, and decapitated it as a retribution for the execution of the English monarch, Charles I. The Royalists later displayed Cromwell’s rotting corpse and head in public for some time to discourage rebellion. Why did this man rouse so much passion that they would desecrate his body?
Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon, England in April of 1599, which is just north of London and east of Birmingham. His parents were considered lower class gentry, about one famine or bad harvest away from becoming peasants. Thomas Cromwell, a Tudor statesman who served under Henry VIII, was a distant relative of Oliver Cromwell, but the family had little wealth or land to show for their former glory. Oliver Cromwell did have the fortune to attend college, and he went to Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, not far from his home. He was unable to finish his degree, and had to find work after the death of his father. Although he did not finish his degree, Cromwell was heavily influenced by the religion of the Puritan college. He returned home to his widowed mother and seven unmarried sisters in Huntingdon. Cromwell was soon married to Elizabeth Bourchier, whose father was a wealthy London merchant and leader within the Puritan religion. Luckily for Elizabeth, her husband actually loved her and their marriage produced nine children. There are love letters that have survived between the two, and she was not ugly as portrayed in Hollywood films. In the 2003 movie To Kill A King, it portrays the relationship between Cromwell and his wife as cold, and Cromwell jealous of his friend, Thomas Fairfax, who had a hot wife (played by Olivia Williams). There is no evidence to back up these claims, as Cromwell’s wife had vicious rumors spread about her after the death of her husband (i.e. she was an alcoholic, and she was an adulteress). But, we rely on Hollywood for entertainment, and not historical accuracy. Much like the many news channels out there today.
Cromwell started his political career as the MP (Member of Parliament) for his hometown of Huntingdon in 1628, and later became the MP for Cambridge in 1640. The English Civil War was about to get started, and there is no one decisive reason for the war to start as far as historians are concerned. There were just a series of small and larger problems that snowballed into an all out war between those that supported the Parliament (Parliamentarians) and those that supported the monarchy (Royalists). The civil war was actually a series of three wars that were fought between 1642-1651. It is called a civil war, but I believe it could also be classified as a revolution if the issue was really pushed. But, who am I to rename historical events?
Charles Ist believed he had the “Divine Right of Kings,” and the Parliament had other ideas. Basically, Charles believed that because he was the king, he was personally chosen by God, and ‘commoners’ should never question his supreme authority. The English Parliament was not permanent at that time, and they were only assembled when the king wanted more taxes or to fight a war (or both). The king wanted to get more heavily involved in the Thirty Years War that was happening across Europe, but the Parliament would not give Charles the funds to pay for the war and other expenditures. Charles wanted to relax some of the restrictions on the British monarchy that were established within the Magna Carta, and have overall rule over Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales. This would give Charles unlimited rights to raise taxes as much as he wanted by right, without the consent of Parliament, which he needed before. Also, the monopoly of the Church of England over Christianity did not please many in other denominations, like the influential Puritans. Many Puritans viewed the Church of England as the lap dog to the king, since it established his ‘divine right’ to rule as he pleased. Also, Charles was married to a Catholic named Henrietta-Marie de Bourbon, and many of the Protestants in England (which were a majority of the population) were worried that his heirs would become Catholic, and revert their country back to “Popery.”
The Parliament would not bend and give Charles his tax money, and a member of his cabinet was being impeached for a botched invasion to relieve the French Huguenots, which was a total disaster. So, Charles did what any good unelected monarch would do, and disbanded the Parliament. This may have relieved some of his political pressures, but Charles still needed money that the Parliament would not give him. Eventually Charles had to reestablish the Parliament, and they wrote a document called the Petition of Right, that spelled out specific boundaries for the king, and they would not relinquish any tax money without his signature on the document. Charles capitulated to get his much-needed tax revenue, but the next decade was called by many a ‘tyranny’ or ‘Charles’ Personal Rule,’ since he did not convene a Parliament for ten years. Charles tried to get around Parliament by instituting a series of new taxes, like charging inland communities for the Royal Navy, and kept the money for himself. Charles was digging a deeper hole for his cause and Parliament was getting tired of his childish antics.
Many considered the taxes invented by the king illegal, and refused to pay them. Charles also started to reform the Church of England, and made the church interiors look more elaborate (and expensive). Many Protestants in England believed the king had converted to Catholicism, and began a public relations campaign calling these changes a heresy on the church. So, Charles, in his infinite wisdom, decided to make Church of England services a requirement, which required the Puritans and other denominations to pay a fine for not attending Anglican services. Charles was only fanning the flames of his own demise. The king’s dream for a unified Anglican church across the British Isles failed when churches across Scotland decided to rebel, which caused Charles to call the Parliament together for the much-needed tax dollars he would need to squash the rebellion. Charles did not do so well in the field, and after two separate rebellions, the Scottish won their right to have religious freedom, and made the king pay war taxes for the cost of the war to Scotland. So, Charles had to pay for his war, and that of the Scottish forces. He was forced to go back to Parliament with his hat in his hand.
The first Parliament was called the ‘short Parliament,’ since the MP’s went after the king for his invasion of Scotland, which they deemed illegal in the fist place. Charles quickly dissolved this Parliament after a few weeks, and invaded Scotland again. This time, the defeat was even worse, and the Scottish invaded and occupied northern England. Charles was forced to pay a steep ransom every day to keep the Scots from advancing. This caused Charles to call Parliament again, and they were even more belligerent the second time around. The Parliament ended when Charles wanted five members arrested for treason, and they refused to give over the members, basically telling the king that he had no authority within Parliament. Charles knew that he had lost authority and the popular support of the people, and he soon left London with his family and supporters. These were the causes of the first English Civil War.
Cromwell was a member of Parliament, and decided the time to fight had come. He did not start out the war as a great general, but he had a rise in power by merit. He was kind of like the English version of the American Civil War general, U.S. Grant. They both started their wars in lower ranking positions gathering soldiers, and became the darlings of the public by the end of the war.
Cromwell started gathering forces for Parliament in 1642, and within a year became a Colonel in the Eastern Association Army. By 1644 Cromwell was a Lieutenant General of the Eastern Association Army and had fought in his first major battle called the Battle of Marston Moor. There is a long list of battles that Cromwell participated in, but I will fast forward to 1649 after Cromwell became a general in the New Model Army and defeated the Royalists across England and Wales.
By 1649, Cromwell was one of the most important men within the Parliamentarian movement, and an important decision had to be made. There was a decision whether the king, Charles I, was to be executed or not. After a kangaroo court, the decision was made, and Charles was decapitated in public on 30 January, 1649. Cromwell and his compatriots committed regicide, they had killed a king.
Not long after the death of the king, Cromwell sailed to Ireland to quell the rebellion that had begun after the civil war started in England. The Irish Catholics had sided with the Royalists because of false promises of religious equality, and had killed thousands of English Protestants that lived in Ireland. After England became tame under the will of Cromwell’s army, it was time to go to Ireland to take care of the rest of the Royalist threat.
Yes, Cromwell did very nasty things in Ireland, like killing those that surrendered after a siege. Rank did not protect anyone once they took up arms against Cromwell’s army. When it came to cold-blooded murder, he believed in equal opportunity. Despite rumors, Cromwell’s army did not intentionally kill unarmed civilians, but they did kill soldiers, officers, and clergy after a town would fall. If a civilian was to be unfortunate enough to get caught with a weapon in his hand, he would also be summarily executed. Cromwell expected no quarter, and gave no quarter, and that is why he spent less than a year in Ireland. Only a few cities remained in the hands of the Royalists in Western Ireland when Cromwell left the island, and they were left for Cromwell’s underlings in the mop-up operations. Yes, Cromwell did kill thousands of people in Ireland, but he was a man of his times and should not be judged by modern standards. The Royalists killed many Parliamentarians, and by the end of the English Civil War, there was no quarter given on either side.
What ever crimes Cromwell committed in Ireland, he also did some things that were quite noble. For example, Jews had been banned from England since the 13th century, during the time of King Edward Ist. In 1655, Menasseh ben Israel, a Jewish merchant, came to London with a delegation of Jewish leaders to meet with Cromwell. Cromwell eventually allowed Jews to return to England, and soon there was a synagogue and Jewish cemetery in London. Cromwell did not decide to do this out of the kindness of his heart, but he allowed them back nevertheless.
Cromwell eventually became the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth and became the first ‘commoner’ to command Britain and establish a republic in England. The Parliament later offered him the crown and he declined. Not long after Cromwell’s death, the Royalists took control from the Parliamentarians and re-established a monarchy that still remains over Britain today. The roots of Cromwell’s republic would later take hold in the American colonies, since they were remembered by Puritans and others that fled to the colonies after the English Civil Wars. It is strange that a Western country would still have a medieval monarch in the 21st century, but maybe one day aristocracy will only be in the history books where they belong.
Cromwell died quietly in bed in 1658 (probably from complications of malaria, which he contracted in Ireland–the Irish got their revenge!), but his life was not quiet at all. His influence can be seen throughout the world to this day. Thanks for reading my Blog!