Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658) was an English military and political leader best known for making England a republic and leading what became known as the 'Commonwealth of England' after the execution of Charles I in 1649.
Cromwell (above) was the first ruler of England to be a Puritan
The Puritans were a group of English-speaking Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries. Puritans thought that the English Reformation had not gone far enough. They also did not agree with some of the things the Church of England did.
A Puritan was any person who tried to become purer through worship and doctrine. The Puritans' way of life and set of beliefs were called Puritanism. The most important parts of Puritanism were piety (obeying religious rules), dressing simply, and living a modest life.
Many English people today think he was one of their greatest leaders, however some of Cromwell's actions during his career may seem confusing to us today.
He supported Parliament against King Charles I, yet when the occasion demanded it, he ordered his soldiers to break up Parliament. Under his rule, the Protectorate said that people's religious beliefs should be respected, but nevertheless people from religious minorities who went against what most other people believed were often tortured and imprisoned.
Cromwell started off as a gentleman from Huntingdon. He first studied at Huntingdon Grammar School. He had a bad relationship with his father. He went on to Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge. This was a new, small college where he had the chance to talk about his new Puritan ideas. However, he never took a degree because his father died in 1617 while he was studying.
In 1628, Cromwell became an MP and a Puritan and supported Parliament in its quarrel with the King.
When Charles became King, he needed money for a war with Spain, but Parliament wouldn't give it to him. Therefore, he dissolved parliament and did not call it again for eleven years, from 1629 to 1640.
Eventually the King ran out of money, so he had no choice but to call Parliament again in 1640. The members of Parliament, angry at the things that had been going on for 11 years, did not want to give him money to fight a war against Scotland. Instead, they spent the session complaining about what had been going on in the country for the last 11 years. So after only three weeks, Charles dissolved Parliament again. For this reason, it was known as the Short Parliament.
Without enough money, Charles lost the war badly, and had to pay the Scots even more money that he did not have. This meant that once again he had to call a Parliament, much as he hated to do so. One of the first things they did was vote that the King had to call Parliament, and could not shut them down again. Charles had no choice but to agree. This Parliament is known as the Long Parliament, because it ended up lasting for twenty years, until 1660.
(Above) Charles I, King of England, a tyrant who ended up being tried and executed
The Parliament and the King then began to quarrel about who was in control of the army. Each side ended up with their own army, and this led to the English Civil War that started in 1642. The army of Parliament, created and refined by Oliver Cromwell (and Sir Thomas Fairfax) as the 'New Model Army', got the upper hand in this war, and Charles, after a crushing defeat in 1646, went to the Scots for protection.
But the Scots decided to turn him over to Parliament in 1647.
Charles escaped at one point and went to the governor of the Isle of Wight for protection, but this was also a bad move because he too was on the side of Parliament and only captured the king again. While he was being held in the castle, Charles made an agreement with the Scots who joined his side, and the fighting started again in 1648. Because he was still making trouble for them even while he was captured, Parliament voted to put the king on trial. This had never been done to a king of England before.
At the trial he was found guilty and was finally put to death by beheading in January 1649, in Whitehall. Oliver Cromwell was a signatory to the King's death warrant.
By the end of the war in 1649, Cromwell was very powerful. After the execution of the King, a republic was declared, known as the Commonwealth of England. A Council of State was appointed to manage affairs, which included Cromwell among its members. His real power base was in the army.
Some of the members of Parliament who were opposed to killing King Charles were purged, and from this time on, what was left of the Long Parliament became known as the Rump Parliament. This Parliament took complete power in England, and there was not a new king at all until 1660.
During the following years, Oliver Cromwell conducted two campaigns to subdue the Irish Catholics (1649-1650), and in the battles of Dunbar and Worcester (1650-1651) crushed the Scottish royalists, who had proclaimed King Charles II (first-born of the executed sovereign).
In 1652, Cromwell took over Ireland, wreaking revenge on the local inhabitants for their barbarism against Protestants during the 1641 rebellion.
Even today, one of the worst Irish insults is 'May the curse of Cromwell be upon you'.
(Above) Cromwell was a skilled and courageous military commander.
The House of Commons tried hard to control the army, but could not.
In 1653, Cromwell dissolved the House of Commons, yielded legislative power to 139 people of his confidence and took the title of Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland, with powers wider than those enjoyed by the previous king.
During his tenure he re-organized public finances, promoted the liberalisation of commerce in order to ensure the prosperity of the mercantile bourgeoisie, promulgated the Navigation Act (1651), through which he imposed on the Netherlands the English maritime supremacy, defeated the United Provinces (1654), snatched Jamaica from Spain (1655), persecuted the Catholics and placed England at the head of the European Protestant countries.
A new constitution known as the Instrument of Government made Cromwell 'Lord Protector' for life. He had the power to call and dissolve parliaments.
In 1657, Cromwell was offered the crown by Parliament. Cromwell thought about the offer for six weeks. Then he rejected it and was ceremonially re-installed as 'Lord Protector' (with greater powers than had previously been granted him under this title) at Westminster Hall.
Cromwell is thought to have suffered from malaria (probably first contracted while on campaign in Ireland). He died at Whitehall on 3 September 1658, the anniversary of his great victories at Dunbar and Worcester.
At his death (3 September 1658), however, the Republic was immersed in a period of chaos, which ended with the restoration of the monarchy in the person of Charles II of England by the Parliament (1660).
Cromwell was succeeded as Lord Protector by his son Richard. Although Richard was not entirely without ability, he had no power base in either Parliament or the Army, and was forced to resign in the spring of 1659, bringing the Protectorate to an end. A year later Parliament restored Charles II as king.
When the Royalists returned to power, Cromwell's corpse was dug up from Westminster Abbey, hung in chains, and beheaded. It is said that his head was lost for months until a soldier found it. His skull was passed around as a token until it was buried at Tyburn.
At the time of writing (October 2020), there are many who say that the time has come for another Cromwell to put an end to the tyranny of a Parliament that has lost touch with the common people and that refuses to recognise their concerns. History may yet repeat itself.