1658 Death of Oliver Cromwell
The title of “History’s Most Controversial Englishman” is surely held by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), landowner, Protestant dissident, Member of Parliament, rebel general, Lord Protector of England. For some of the Left, he is a champion of liberty; to others on the Left, he nipped freedom in the bud; to the Irish, he was a genocidal murderer; the Right, he was a regicide usurper.
Cromwell was born in Huntingdonshire in eastern England to a family of landed gentry. He was well-educated but left Cambridge University without taking a degree. His family connections enabled him to sit as a Member of Parliament but he remained obscure into his middle age. He seems to have become a Protestant of the Puritan variety and opposed the religious policies of King Charles I. In the early 1640s when the king quarrelled with Parliament, Cromwell took the side of the latter, demanding reforms and a lessening of royal prerogative power.
In 1642 the English Civil War broke out and Cromwell raised a troop of cavalry to fight on the side of Parliament. He rose rapidly to become one of the principal rebel generals, despite accusations that he favoured ow-born men and religious radicals. In 1645 his cavalry smashed the royalist army at the Battle of Naseby, leading to the capture of the king and an end to the first phase of the war. When Charles escaped in 1648 and restarted the conflict, Cromwell was instrumental in defeating royal forces.
In 1649 Charles was placed on trial by Parliament and sentenced to be executed, with Cromwell as one of the “Regicides”, those signing the death warrant. Parliament then declared an English republic, known as the Commonwealth, and its government commissioned Cromwell to take an army to Ireland and crush any opposition there. He did so from 1649 to 1651 with such ferocity that his name remains hated in the country to this day. Catholic landowners were dispossessed and the practice of the Catholic religion was banned.
The “Rump Parliament” that was sitting in 1653 had irritated many with its indecision and lack of legitimacy. It had been elected in 1642 and had been purged of any MPs who might have opposed the execution of Charles. Cromwell took it upon himself, backed by other army officers, to dissolve the body. He entered the House of Commons in force and cried “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” His intense Puritanism led him to believe that a new governing body should be drawn only from those of proven godliness and thus the “Parliament of Saints” (or “Barebones” Parliament) was formed. Its radicalism caused upset and division and it lasted only until the end of the year when it was dissolved and Cromwell was chosen as Lord Protector.
Cromwell had some notion of religious liberty but valued social stability above all else. He quelled Catholics in Ireland but allowed Catholicism in the Maryland colony; he supported the abolition of the Church of England and the episcopacy but crushed radical sects; he allowed Jews to settle in England for the first time since the 13th century. He wished a form of Puritanism to be followed but feared the imposition of a dominant Presbyterian structure such as existed in Scotland. As he told the Scottish Church ” Is it therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say? I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you might be mistaken.”
Cromwell died in 1658, succeeded as Protector by his son Richard who was not up to the job. By 1660 the monarchy was restored and Cromwell was put on trial posthumously with his remains disinterred. His head was stuck on a pole for a generation in London.