A military historian recently remarked to me, ‘The problem with Cromwell was that he took the Bible too literally’. But I would question whether he took it literally enough. ‘We wrestle not with flesh and blood’, says the Bible – but in Ireland he did, and killed the king. Contrast this with the fact that in the Old Testament David would not lay a hand on King Saul, the Lord’s annointed, even though the Lord had rejected him.
Oliver Cromwell was one of eight children of a staunchly Puritan family. He was educated in Huntingdon under Thomas Beard, the author of a number of books. One of these showed ‘how rare … good princes have been at all times’; that princes are subject to righteous civil laws; that it is unlawful for kings to tax ‘above measure’; and that private property is sacred, even against kings. These were very formative ideas for the young Cromwell.
He married Elizabeth Bourchier, who bore him nine children. He became active in local politics, defending the rights of the poor, and the independence of local government. Although he was an inherently melancholy man until his conversion, it became his abiding desire to find God’s will and do it.
In 1628 he was elected an MP. His maiden speech concerned religious freedom. The Speaker attempted to curtail further debate on the subject and was forcibly restrained by a group of MPs. King Charles I responded by dissolving Parliament and ruling absolutely for eleven years.
The nation faced three problems. Without a sitting Parliament, Charles depended upon numerous local officials to implement his policies. Secondly, there were economic problems. The king raised revenue by imposing ‘Ship Money’ – a tax to support the navy, which was about as popular as Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax. Then there was the religious question – whether the national church should be Anglican or Presbyterian. Neither church would respect the freedom of conscience which was supremely important to Cromwell.
Britain at war
Finally the king’s attempt to impose the English Prayer Book on Scotland led to an armed uprising. Charles had to reconvene Parliament. To his dismay Parliament rallied to the Scottish side. He dismissed it after only three weeks but recalled it in midsummer 1640 when the Scots invaded England.
The power of raising troops and appointing commanders lay with the king. In 1641 insurrection broke out throughout Ireland. To quell it an army had to be raised, and Parliament was determined that the king should not control it. Parliament proposed that all troops raised in the South of England should be placed under the Earl of Essex. Charles, seeing his power in jeopardy, marched with his troops on the Commons. The failed coup d’état proved that Charles could not be trusted to honour the freedom of Parliament.
Both sides recruited armies, and by August war was declared. For Cromwell, the war was principally about freedom of conscience, and only secondarily about Parliament’s independence. The Royalists won the first battle, at Edgehill. Cromwell observed that the Parliamentary side’s weakness lay in the calibre of its troops. He set about recruiting honest and godly men who thoroughly understood the cause for which they were fighting, and he treated them honourably. His expectations were high; his men rose to them, and were soon held in high renown. He took victories as proof that he was in the will of God. Defeats sent him to his knees in agonies of prayer.
Parliament agreed to allow Scotland to impose Presbyterianism on England after the war. This alarmed the Independent Sectarians. In July 1644 Cromwell resoundingly won the Battle of Marston Moor by sheer tactical brilliance. Parliament acknowledged its debt to him with a concession for ‘tender consciences’ within the Presbyterian system. The next decisive battle was at Naseby on 14 June 1645 and Cromwell again perceived God’s hand in his overwhelming victory. By June 1646 the war was over. It could not have been won without him.
The Presbyterian majority in Parliament imposed its will. Discontent fomented among the soldiers, who feared for the freedom of conscience for which they had fought. The Independents subdivided into those who sought religious independence, and the Levellers, who wanted a radical reorganisation within society. Cromwell was of the former, believing that although all men were equal before God, they could not be socially equal. He was the only commander combining the necessary military and political skills to dominate the situation.
There were two peacetime problems: could Parliament afford to settle arrears of pay and disband the army, and would the promised tolerance be granted to ‘tender consciences’? Parliament handled the problems badly, and both sides misinterpreted Cromwell’s mediation attempts. He allied himself with the army, and had the king removed from Parliament’s custody and brought to Newmarket. Cromwell foresaw that in open conflict between Parliament and the military, the side which held the king held a trump card. Both the king and the Levellers rejected his peace proposals. Charles tried to escape, and appealed to the Scots to restore him to the English throne.
The Army Council demanded the dissolution of Parliament, and elections. The Presbyterians responded by raising troops to defend London. Cromwell marched on the capital with twenty thousand men to restore order. He abandoned negotiations with Charles, denouncing him as ‘an obstinate man whose heart God hath hardened’. After three days’ prayer and fasting, the Army Council resolved to bring the king to trial once there was peace – for the Scots were again invading, with Royalist uprisings elsewhere. In Cromwell’s absence from Parliament the Presbyterians voted for negotiations with the king. Soldiers led by Colonel Pride blocked the way to the Commons and forcibly excluded all members who had supported this measure.
Death of a king
Interpreting military victories as indications of God’s will, Cromwell determined that Charles should die for his misdeeds. The king’s great dignity during his trial and at his execution on 30 January 1649 won the hearts of the populace, who were genuinely shocked at his death. Cromwell’s was the third of fifty-nine signatures on the death warrant. For him the issue was clear-cut. Charles had cheated those who tried to negotiate, and provoked another war. History does not record that his conscience troubled him over the regicide. He now worked to make Parliament more representative. The House of Lords was abolished.
Next Cromwell turned his attention to the Irish rebellion. On his orders, thousands were mercilessly slaughtered, including civilians and priests, and lands were confiscated. To his enduring shame, Cromwell called this ‘a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches’.
Scotland again threatened invasion. Cromwell was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the army. The Scots outmanoeuvred his troops, besides outnumbering them two to one. Then they made a tactical blunder and Cromwell routed them. ‘The Lord hath showed us an exceeding great mercy’, he wrote. ‘My weak faith hath been upheld’.
By September the civil wars were ended. Cromwell turned his energies to reconciliation and healing national wounds. A provisional Parliament was appointed, with Cromwell as Lord Protector. His rule was not absolute – legislative power rested with Parliament, which had to meet at least once every three years. He dared not offend the army, nor the ruling council. But his own principles would keep him from misusing power, except in the case of Ireland, about which he was blinded by a combination of prejudice and propaganda. As our own century has seen, he left a terrible legacy.
Cromwell’s rule brought an end to chaos. He turned a blind eye to those who privately practised proscribed faiths, in keeping with his passion for liberty of conscience. His foreign policy was largely peaceable and promoted commerce.
The Republicans were uneasy about the extent of his power, which seemed no less than Charles’s had been. Faced with opposition from Royalists and Republicans he imposed military rule, despite wanting democracy and freedom. The army was loyal and his government secure, but it was not the government he desired.
Military rule ended through lack of funds. Parliament proposed a reformed monarchy, with Cromwell as king. He refused the crown, fearful of alienating the army. During the summer recess he appointed some of his ablest supporters to a new Upper House. The admission of 100 of his opponents to the Commons further weakened his position. He had not solved the problems over which the war had been fought and he forcibly dissolved Parliament after fifteen days, ordering new elections.
Cromwell had effected some stability. His degree of religious tolerance was remarkable for the age in which he lived. Despite some harsh actions, the Lord Protector had given the country a ‘breathing-space’.
After a physically and mentally strenuous life he was, at fifty-nine, an old man. The death of his favourite daughter at the age of twenty-nine was the final blow. He died less than three weeks later on 3 September 1658. He had discovered that every man’s liberty to some extent curtails another’s freedom, and that his goal had been unattainable. But he had laid the foundations of Nonconformity and fostered its characteristic independence of thought. His faith kept him from cynicism, and his dying prayer was for the people of England, who had at times exasperated him, yet whom he had always loved.