Oliver Cromwell (1649-1658)
Oliver Cromwell was born into a common family of English country Puritans having none of the advantages of upbringing that would prepare him to be leader of a nation.
Born 5th April 1599, in Huntingdon, He was educated at the Grammar school there, and spent a year at Sidney Sussex College Cambridge, before his father died in 1617. He studied at the Inns Court in London where he met and married Elizabeth Bourchier in 1620. They were a devoted couple throughout their long marriage and had eight children - four boys and four girls.
After his marriage Cromwell and his family lived in St Ives where he leased a farm. In 1636 he inherited a large estate from his maternal uncle Sir Thomas Steward, in Ely. His inheritance also brought him the position of local tax collector, "Farmer of the Tithes" of the two Ely parishes: St Mary's and Holy Trinity. He was responsible for seeing that local taxes were paid to the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral. It made him into a man of property and gave him considerable local status in the area.
He was a strict Puritan with a Cambridge education. Cromwell's early years were ordinary, but after a conversion experience at age 27, he was seized by a sense of divine destiny. He became suddenly zealous for God. He was a country squire, a bronze-faced, callous-handed man of property. He worked on his farm, prayed and fasted often and occasionally exhorted the local congregation during church meetings. A quiet, simple, serious-minded man, he spoke little. But when he broke his silence, it was with great authority as he commanded obedience without question or dispute. As a justice of the peace, he attracted attention to himself by collaring loafers at a tavern and forcing them to join in singing a hymn. This exploit together with quieting a disturbance among some student factions at the neighbouring town of Cambridge earned him the respect of the Puritan locals and they sent him to Parliament as their representative.
There he attracted attention with his blunt, forcible speech as a member of the Independent Party which was made up of Puritans. Clothed conservatively, he possessed a Puritan fervour and a commanding voice; he quickly made a name for himself by serving in both the Short Parliament (April 1640) and the Long Parliament (August 1640 through April 1660).
Charles I, pushing his finances to bankruptcy and trying to force a new prayer book on Scotland, was badly beaten by the Scots, who demanded £850 per day from the English until the two sides reached agreement. Charles had no choice but to summon Parliament. The Long Parliament, taking an aggressive stance, steadfastly refused to authorize any funding until Charles was brought to heel. The Triennial Act of 1641 assured the summoning of Parliament at least every three years, a formidable challenge to royal prerogative. The Tudor institutions of fiscal feudalism (manipulating antiquated feudal fealty laws to extract money), the Court of the Star Chamber and the Court of High Commission were declared illegal by Act of Parliament later in 1641.
A new era of leadership from the House of Commons (backed by middle class merchants, tradesmen and Puritans) had commenced. Parliament resented the insincerity with which Charles settled with both them and the Scots, and despised his links with Catholicism. 1642 was a banner year for Parliament. They stripped Charles of the last vestiges of prerogative by abolishing episcopacy, placed the army and navy directly under parliamentary supervision and declared this bill become law even if the king refused his signature. Charles entered the House of Commons (the first king to do so), intent on arresting John Pym, the leader of Parliament and four others, but the five conspirators had already fled, making the king appear inept.
Charles travelled north to recruit an army and raised his standard against the forces of Parliaments (Roundheads) at Nottingham on August 22, 1642. England was again embroiled in civil war. Cromwell added sixty horses to the Roundhead cause when war broke out. At the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642, the Roundheads were defeated by the superior Royalist cavalry (Cavaliers). When he discerned the weaknesses of the Roundhead army, Cromwell made himself captain of the cavalry and to build a trained cavalry.
Cromwell had never been trained in war, but from the very beginning he showed consummate genius as a general. Cromwell understood that successful revolutions were always fought by farmers so he gathered a thousand hand-picked Puritans - farmers and herdsmen - who were used to the open fields. His regiment was nicknamed "Ironsides" and was never beaten once, although they fought greatly outnumbered - at times three to one. They would recite the Westminster Confession and march into battle singing the Psalms of David striking terror into the heart of the enemy. Cromwell's tactic was to strike with the cavalry through the advancing army at the centre, go straight through the lines and then circle to either the left or the right milling the mass into a mob, creating confusion and utterly destroying them.
Cromwell amassed a body of troops and soon became commander-in-chief. His discipline created the only body of regular troops on either side who preached, prayed, paid fines for profanity and drunkenness, and charged the enemy singing hymns - the strangest abnormality in an age when every vice imaginable characterised soldiers and mercenaries. Cromwell proved most capable as a military leader. By the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, Cromwell's New Model Army had routed Cavalier forces and Cromwell earned the nickname "Ironsides" in the process. Fighting lasted until July 1645 at the final Cavalier defeat at Naseby.
Within a year, Charles surrendered to the Scots, who turned him over to Parliament. By 1646, England was ruled solely by Parliament, although the king was not executed until 1649. English society splintered into many factions: Levellers (intent on eradicating economic castes), Puritans, Episcopalians, remnants of the Cavaliers and other religious and political radicals argued over the fate of the realm. The sole source of authority rested with the army, who moved quickly to end the debates. In November 1648, the Long Parliament was reduced to a "Rump" Parliament by the forced removal of 110 members of Parliament by Cromwell's army, with another 160 members refusing to take their seats in opposition to the action. The remainder, barely enough for a quorum, embarked on an expedition of constitutional change. The Rump dismantled the machinery of government, most of that, remained loyal to the king, abolishing not only the monarchy, but also the Privy Council, Courts of Exchequer and Admiralty and even the House of Lords.
England was ruled by an executive Council of State and the Rump Parliament, with various subcommittees dealing with day-to-day affairs. Of great importance was the administration in the shires and parishes: the machinery administering such governments was left intact; ingrained habits of ruling and obeying harkened back to monarchy. With the death of the ancient constitution and Parliament in control, attention was turned to crushing rebellions in the realm, as well as in Ireland and Scotland.
Cromwell forced submission from the nobility, muzzled the press and defeated Leveller rebels in Burford. Annihilating the more radical elements of revolution resulted in political conservatism, which eventually led to the restoration of the monarchy. Cromwell's army slaughtered over forty percent of the indigenous Irishmen, who clung unyieldingly to Catholicism and loyalist sentiments; the remaining Irishmen were forcibly transported to County Connaught with the Act of Settlement in 1653. Scottish Presbyterians fought for a Stuart restoration, in the person of Charles II, but were handily defeated, ending the last remnants of civil war. The army then turned its attention to internal matters. The Rump devolved into a petty, self-perpetuating and unbending oligarchy, which lost credibility in the eyes of the army. Cromwell ended the Rump Parliament with great indignity on April 21, 1653, ordering the house cleared at the point of a sword. The army called for a new Parliament of Puritan saints, who proved as inept as the Rump.
By 1655, Cromwell dissolved his new Parliament, choosing to rule alone (much like Charles I had done in 1629). The cost of keeping a standard army of 35,000 proved financially incompatible with Cromwell's monetarily strapped government. Two wars with the Dutch concerning trade abroad added to Cromwell's financial burdens. The military's solution was to form yet another version of Parliament. A House of Peers was created, packed with Cromwell's supporters and with true veto power, but the Commons proved most antagonistic towards Cromwell. The monarchy was restored in all but name; Cromwell went from the title of Lord General of the Army to that of Lord Protector of the Realm (the title of king was suggested, but wisely rejected by Cromwell when a furore arose in the military ranks). During the fifteen years in which Cromwell ruled, he drove pirates from the Mediterranean Sea, set English captives free, and subdued any threat from France, Spain and Italy. Cromwell made Great Britain a respected and feared power the world over. Cromwell maintained a large degree of tolerance for rival denominations. He stood for a national church without bishops. The ministers might be Presbyterian, Independent or Baptist. Dissenters were allowed to meet in gathered churches and even Roman Catholics and Quakers were tolerated. He worked for reform of morals and the improvement of education. He strove constantly to make England a genuinely Christian nation and she enjoyed a brief "Golden Age" in her history. The Lord Protector died on September 3, 1658, naming his son Richard as successor.
With Cromwell's death, the Commonwealth floundered and the monarchy was restored only two years later. The failure of Cromwell and the Commonwealth was founded upon Cromwell being caught between opposing forces. His attempts to placate the army, the nobility, Puritans and Parliament resulted in the alienation of each group. Leaving the political machinery of the parishes and shires untouched under the new constitution was the height of inconsistency; Cromwell, the army and Parliament were unable to make a clear separation from the ancient constitution and traditional customs of loyalty and obedience to monarchy.
Lacey Baldwin Smith cast an astute judgment concerning the aims of the Commonwealth: "When Commons was purged out of existence by a military force of its own creation, the country learned a profound, if bitter, Lesson: Parliament could no more exist without the crown than the crown without Parliament. The ancient constitution had never been King and Parliament but King in Parliament; when one element of that mystical nion was destroyed, the other ultimately perished."
Cromwell did have a God-given ability to earn the loyalty and respect of men of genius who served him throughout his lifetime. John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress served under his command in the English Civil War, and John Milton, who penned Paradise Lost, served as his personal secretary.