Monday, May 28, 2012

Enemy of Monarchy: Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell occupied a very unique place in British history and, of course, English history in particular. He was never very well liked (to put it mildly) in Scotland or Ireland but in England, although he was far from universally popular by the end of his life, even today many still admire him. He was undoubtedly a gifted military leader, a man of strength and determination. Most of those today who admire Cromwell, however, do not admire him as a great English general, oh no -they admire him because he’s the man who killed a king, brought down the monarchy and is to date the only non-royal to ever hold the highest seat in the land over England, Scotland and Ireland. They admire him for being the only successful republican (so far) in English history and tend to sweep any other details about the man safely under the rug. One could find amongst those sweepings the fact that Cromwell was also a megalomaniac religious fanatic, a military dictator and a mass murderer on a scale that is (fortunately) unique in the British Isles. This man was no champion of liberty as anyone today or even then would understand it and in his career illustrates that absolute tyranny is the inevitable result of an overthrow of monarchy. There was truly never a more depressing period of British history than during the rule of Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell was born on April 25, 1599 in Huntingdon into the landed gentry, most known for being related to the Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell who was beheaded by King Henry VIII for presenting him with an unsuitable wife. Oliver Cromwell was generally a failure as a youth, known for getting into trouble and being rather petulant and arrogant. When a local dispute went against him, he sold off his property and moved away in a huff and fell in with a radical religious crowd. Down on his luck, despised by many of his neighbors, his arrogance convinced him that these religious extremists were right and that he was one of the chosen “elect” destined to purify his country of all he considered evil. He muddled on through life, becoming a zealous Puritan but remaining a failure at pretty much everything else he pursued in life, including efforts at furthering his education which came to nothing. He did, however, manage to land a beneficial marriage that provided him with new properties, a great many children and new contacts in the growing merchant community. This crowd tended to be very wealthy, very religious (in the Puritanical, ‘we are the elect of God because we’re rich’ way of thinking) and very opposed to any authority beyond themselves and their own bottom lines.

In his life thus far, Cromwell had been a depressed, unsuccessful loser on just about every level. However, once he inherited some valuable property from a late uncle and made an advantageous marriage, everything seemed to turn around. He became wealthier, more prominent and easily fit in to the Puritan crowd that deemed wealth and prosperity as a sure sign of divine favor. This did not mean that his abilities increased though and even when he was first elected to the House of Commons in 1628 (through the influence of powerful friends) he was a lackluster politician. Still, he spent his time in Parliament working for his own advancement, forging alliances with those inclined toward his religious and political views; specifically to restrict the power of the monarchy, press for religious “toleration” (for those Protestants who dissented from the established Church of England) and to abolish bishops. Of course, he opposed King Charles I who stood for everything that he, and the powerful elite who supported Cromwell, most opposed. They wanted a more Puritanical Church of England, the King wanted more elaborate and traditional forms of worship. They wanted more power for Parliament (which they could easily dominate -it was a very restricted franchise in those days), the King believed in absolute monarchy. The King wanted to have bishops in Scotland as well as England, they wanted to keep them out of Scotland and even hoped to get rid of them in England. They also adamantly opposed the efforts of the King to raise money to carry out the duties entrusted to him as monarch because the taxes levied by the King would fall most on the shoulders of these wealthy businessmen.

When civil war broke out between the King and Parliament, Cromwell was a nonentity with his only military service being a brief stint in the local county militia. However, his inheritance, marriage and business contacts had brought him some money and he was able to purchase himself a command. He gained some notice for what amounted to simple banditry but missed out on the major early engagements. However, he began to build his career in a number of mostly minor actions and he proved to be a quick learner and to have a natural military talent. He finally gained genuine fame for his part in the battle of Marston Moor in 1644 which won the Parliamentarians a dominant place in northern England. During his service he showed himself to have a natural military talent but also a great deal of arrogance, self-righteousness and, what we might call, an inability to work well with others. However, his superiors were thwarted by the fact that Cromwell and his motley army of Protestant dissenters won battles and through victory his star began to rise. After a number of changes, Cromwell came to dominate the military forces of Parliament and he reorganized them to create the famous “New Model Army”.

Cromwell was an arrogant and self-righteous commander but, it must be said, also a naturally talented if authoritarian one. He forbid looting, swearing and generally all “ungodly” behavior and also took care of the logistical side of war, drawing on the funds provided by the wealthy merchant class who made up the backbone of Parliamentarian support, to ensure that his men were the best armed, the best equipped and paid in a timely fashion. He also emphasized discipline, often an extremely harsh discipline, and rigorous drill and training until his New Model Army was the best in the British Isles. His was the first really large professional army in British history and, incidentally, the first to wear red uniforms (it was the cheapest color available). He played a critical role in the crushing Parliamentary victory at the battle of Naseby in 1645 and won a number of smaller victories afterwards, gaining a reputation for natural military talent and, for the first time, ruthlessness against his enemies. He played a large part in bringing the First Civil War to a successful conclusion for Parliament, though he was often at odds with the political leadership, the anti-royalist factions lacking much real unity.

When the Second Civil War broke out, Cromwell won some minor victories in Wales before achieving a stunning victory over a much greater Scottish army fighting on behalf of the King as the Scots had begun to fear that the forces of Parliament would be an even greater terror to their cause than the King had been. It was during this time that Cromwell really seemed to develop a ‘Messiah complex’, quoting obscure Biblical passages and preaching about himself and his men as the instruments of God and the true “chosen people”. Just as health, wealth and prosperity was taken by many Puritans as signs of divine favor and that one was a member of the “elect”, so Cromwell believed that his victories had proven that God was on his side. Thus, the King and the royalists were not only political enemies in the mind of the increasingly fanatic general, but also enemies of God to whom no mercy should be shown. When the Scots were defeated and the King was handed over to Parliament for “trial”, Cromwell made sure that there would be nothing at all fair or just about the proceedings, vowing from the beginning to see his monarch killed. Cromwell and his troops occupied London and physically prevented any members of Parliament suspected of opposing their wish to see their monarch murdered from taking their seats. It was a show trial by any standard of judgment but this made no difference to Cromwell who believed himself to be the instrument of God, and the wrathful Old Testament God at that. He signed the death warrant and King Charles I met the death of a martyr on January 30, 1649.

Cromwell used his military command to advance his political power and despite all of his previous grand talk about the rights of the people, ruthlessly suppressed all those in his ranks who supported the idea of popular sovereignty. Cromwell was determined that only the elites, such as himself, would be able to vote or hold office in the new republican Britain. Anyone who dissented from this was promptly shot and Cromwell had many of his own men massacred for refusing to follow his political wishes. However, even more brutality was to come when the royalists reorganized themselves in alliance with the Confederates of Ireland. This joint threat of both English royalists and Irish Catholics represented the very worst fears of Cromwell brought to life and embodied everything he most despised: Catholicism and monarchy. In his mind, the two were practically inseparable for he blamed the Catholic Church, with its hierarchy and high ceremony, as being responsible for the rise of absolute monarchies in the first place. And, intolerant enough among his own countrymen, Irish Catholics making common cause with the royalists could expect no mercy at the hands of Cromwell.

In August of 1649 Cromwell and his formidable army landed at Dublin and in September stormed the Catholic and royalist stronghold of Drogheda. The result was one of the worst atrocities in Irish history. Cromwell captured the place, having his enemy outnumbered by about 4 to 1 and the proceeded to execute those who had surrendered and massacre innocent civilians. Cromwell himself had ordered that no prisoners be taken and his troops vandalized churches and butchered women and children in a show of just how truly “equal” all were in this new version of the British Isles without a king. Despite the efforts of his apologists to cover up or explain away the atrocity, the massacre of Drogheda was seared into the Irish Catholic consciousness and has never been forgotten. After three days of slaughter only 30 men out of 3,000 were left alive and no one could count the number of women and children. As Cromwell and his seemingly unstoppable army advanced across the island they left a trail of atrocities behind them; 2,000 men and 1,500 helpless civilians were killed in Wexford, including 300 women who had taken shelter beneath the Celtic high cross in the town marketplace. After eight months Ireland was subdued and was brought under the most brutal occupation in her history thanks to the first republican leader of the British Isles with many tens of thousands more being killed, driven off their land and starved to death or sold into slavery.

Cromwell could not tarry long in Ireland though for he soon learned that the young King Charles II had landed in Scotland and was rallying the disaffected Scots to his side in a bid to restore the legitimate monarchy. Cromwell rushed to meet them in May of 1650, showing much greater mercy to the predominately Protestant Scots, though he was still arrogantly condescending toward them, viewing them as good God fearing people, but essentially simple-minded fools easily led astray. He smashed the Scottish army at the battle of Dunbar, occupied Edinburgh and finished them off at the battle of Worcester. He was not as brutal as he had been in Ireland, but captured men fighting on the royalist side could still expect to be sold into slavery in the New World. At Dundee his forces carried out another massacre and under his tyrannical rule Scotland was permanently occupied by an English army to ensure that none might regret turning against their King and wish for the House of Stuart to return.

Cromwell returned to England as the military dictator of the whole of the British Isles, the only non-royal to ever have the highest seat in the land and the only man of any kind to ever hold total, absolute and arbitrary power over the three kingdoms. Many may have come to regret their decision to betray the King, abolish their ancient monarchy and entrust themselves to the power of the mightiest sword. Despite all of their hypocritical preaching about rights and limits to power and the sacrosanct nature of Parliament, Cromwell proved even less tolerant of that body than the King when it refused to bow to his wishes. He brought soldiers in to secure Westminster and evict the members, saying to them, “You have been sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” After that, Cromwell ruled the British Isles himself as a military dictator, the three kingdoms divided up into districts under the authority of a local army officer. He did not rule for long, only about five years as “Lord Protector” of the Commonwealth but it was five years that left a very lasting impression on Great Britain and Ireland.

There is not much that needs to be said about the five years that Cromwell and his Puritan military dictatorship ruled the British Isles. Most people have heard about what it was like, even if they do not take it very seriously these days. Some may even think the stories are exaggerated. They are not. To be fair, there was religious tolerance of a kind under Cromwell; Protestant dissidents were of course given freedom of religion, the Jews were allowed back in England with freedom of religion all privately of course yet even Anglicans were persecuted, as were Catholics. This was because, according to the tastes of Puritans like Cromwell, even the Presbyterians were “too Catholic”. The British Isles had never known such a restrictive, totalitarian state as during those years when there was no king on the throne. Yes, it is true, Christmas was indeed banned. The theatres which were so famous were closed (yes, Cromwell is the Englishman who banned Shakespeare) and there was to be no dancing, no playing cards, no drunkenness, no flashy clothes, just dour, silent, miserable republican Puritanism. Those who cry for individual liberty and a libertarian society might be surprised to know that in English history prior to Cromwell, even under the “divine right” absolutists of the House of Stuart, casinos, brothels and bear-baiting were all perfectly legal.

The people no more approved the taxes of Cromwell than they had those of the King. Parliament even tried at one point to make Cromwell the king -specifically because the powers of a King were limited by tradition whereas a “Lord Protector” was absolute and arbitrary. However, the army would have none of that and Cromwell remained a dictator rather than a monarch. Remember that after the death of the King, Parliament had abolished the monarchy on the grounds that having any king at all was burdensome, unnecessary and dangerous, even to the point of trying to remove the word “king” from the English dictionary. Only a few years later the Parliament tried to push a crown on Oliver Cromwell in a desperate attempt to limit his harsh and arbitrary rule. What a difference a few years of republicanism makes. Whereas the King had been bound by ancient tradition, Cromwell ruled by might with no checks on his powers at all. Whereas the King had been opposed for trying to raise money to fight the Scots, Cromwell extracted far greater sums to wage his wars of subjugation against Scotland and Ireland as well as his vindictive wars throughout his time in office to eliminate Dutch commercial competition and punish the House of Orange for the sympathy they gave their Stuart relatives.

The rule of Cromwell and his generals was so oppressive and odious, banning gambling, horse racing, play acting, swearing and even closing down the pubs that the public was desperately unhappy and longed for the return of the monarchy like the sinner longs for salvation. When Cromwell died of malaria on May 3, 1658 his republican regime, for all intents and purposes, died with him. His son briefly tried to succeed him but the people had had quite enough of Puritan tyranny and soon King Charles II was back on the throne of his father, the monarchy restored and “Merry England” along with it. In subsequent English history there have been rebellions and even one “Glorious Revolution” but Cromwell and his tyrannical rule left such a bitter taste in the mouths of the ordinary people that the country has never been without a monarch ever since. The fact that some now contemplate such an idea proves that the true horrors of Cromwell have begun to be forgotten. That is, forgotten or simply hidden.

Today, it seems, when every aberration is tolerated, Cromwell has become a nostalgic figure in some circles. Indeed, many people far and wide across the English-speaking world regard him as a “great man”, one of the masterful captains of history, even a champion of freedom, which truly makes about as much sense as saying Adolf Hitler was a civil rights pioneer. There can be no denying that Cromwell had some immense talents, although they were decidedly hidden for most of his life. He was a natural and gifted military leader and on the battlefield had accomplished what no King ever had; the total subjugation of the whole of the British Isles under his rule. However, his campaigns were brutal bloodbaths driven by religious fanaticism. His power was based solely on the barrel of a musket and the point of a pike. No King ever had or ever would have as much pure, arbitrary power as Cromwell exercised and no King had or would butcher and tyrannize his own people as Cromwell did. Monarchists should be familiar with his record and make it known to republicans today who ignorantly think their situation would be bound to improve if the monarchy was done away with. Learn from history, Britain tried that and the result was not more freedom; it was less. The result was not a more accountable government but a totally unaccountable one. The result was not a classless society but a tyranny by the armed over the unarmed and the most oppressive political dictatorship in British history. Cromwell was no hero, he was without question the most harmful ruler the British Isles have ever had.


  1. This post was interesting and informative. Thank you for giving the complete picture about Cromwell. I agree when you said, "They admire him for being the only successful republican (so far) in English history and tend to sweep any other details about the man safely under the rug."
    What books would you recommend that don't sweep the details under the rug? I was told that Christopher Hill is an expert during this time and his books are helpful. I haven't read anything he wrote yet. It would be helpful if you listed some books on the historical events you write about that support and defend the monarchies that get swept under the rug in exchange for the praise of republicanism. Money and time is limited, so it would be nice to have a list of references to an accurate account of these important events in history.
    Thank you
    College student

  2. Recently read a "conservative" blog praising the old turd. Thanks for the truth.

  3. A very informative post. There is one thing that I take issue with that I want to see cleared up though. "...Cromwell who believed himself to be the instrument of God, and the wrathful Old Testament God at that." The God of the Old Testament is the same God as the God of the New Testament. To approach him one must be perfectly Holy-"be holy for I am holy"-which is the reason for what nowadays seem like harsh laws. They were to keep the people pure from sin. Sinful people as they were (and all mankind for that matter) could not keep the law. St Paul attests to this in Romans 2. This is why God sent Jesus Christ to live perfectly before God the Father and make a way of access to God for all who believe in Him. Forgive me for getting a bit preachy. I trust it is clear and you already know all of this. Oliver Cromwell obviously grossly misapplied the Word of God and did many things contrary to Christ.

    1. It was simply a nod to the fact that in the Old Testament (just to recap off the top of my head) God wiped out all but a handful of the human race for displeasing Him, sent plagues to Egypt to devestate their land and kill their children, chastised King Saul for taking prisoners rather than destroying every living thing of the enemy and regularly smacked around His people when they behaved badly. As none of that happened in the New Testament, God simply comes across as a bit more hard-nosed in the Old. Of course any Christian (should) believe they are the same God.

  4. I just cannot believe that he is admired while men like Charles I, Charles II and James VII are looked down upon

  5. If reincarnation is true, I bet Cromwell's latest incarnation was an iranian ayatollah given his actions, especially how he rode to power on the backs of a naively optimistic democratic republican movement, then brutally purged them once they outlived their usefulness.

  6. Given that Oliver was succeeded by Richard, it'd be interesting if had the Commonwealth continued, they would have formalized dynastic succession. In that respect the Cromwells would have become like the Bonapartes, except without the initially crowning themselves in the presence of the Pope bit.


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