When last week’s column referred to Oliver Cromwell as the “Great Satan,” my tongue was in my cheek. But many people do think of him in those terms.
So let’s take a look at the man, his works and his historical reputation.
Cromwell (1599 to 1658) rose to prominence during the 1640s. Starting as a cavalry captain, he ascended to second-in-command of the parliamentarian forces fighting Charles I’s Royalists during the English Civil War. And he was the third signatory on Charles’ 1649 death warrant.
In 1653, he became Lord Protector (of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland), a position he held until his 1658 death. This made him the most powerful man in the four countries but it’s a bit of a stretch to describe him as dictator. Unlike, say, a Josef Stalin or an Adolf Hitler, Cromwell had to reckon with other sources of influence.
While Cromwell was born into the gentry, his family experienced financial reverses in the 1620s. In 1631, he sold his properties and became a tenant farmer, only to be rescued by a 1636 inheritance from a maternal uncle. Then, as his star rose in the 1640s and 1650s, an array of grants made him wealthy.
Cromwell was deeply religious. A Puritan Protestant, he sought to be the instrument of God’s will. Military victories were interpreted as an indication of God’s approval.
Together with his innate personality, this produced a disposition towards authoritarian judgmentalism. And it sometimes put him at odds with the fundamental nature of English society.
Take, for instance, the Puritan campaign against Christmas. Although Cromwell didn’t initiate it, he supported and enforced the various measures designed to restrict the celebration.
To Puritans, there was altogether too much eating and drinking associated with Christmas, not to mention other related revelry and bacchanalia. This was directly contrary to their conception of a virtuous society.
And Christmas also smacked of Roman Catholicism, a faith that Puritans had a particular distaste for. Catholics, in the Puritan view, were responsible for the European persecution of Protestants. In addition, they’d strayed from the Bible and been corrupted by popery.
Ireland represents a significant stain on Cromwell’s reputation.
During his brief 1649-1650 Irish military campaign, the sieges of two towns that refused terms of surrender culminated in massacres. These included not only the recalcitrant defending soldiers but also an undetermined number of civilians. This renders him a uniquely evil figure in Irish folk memory.
Some historians, though, have argued that the reality is more nuanced than the legend. Not by any means a whitewash, Prof. John Morrill’s essay Was Cromwell a War Criminal? is an even-handed overview of the controversy.
In the longer term, did Cromwell succeed or fail?
The Puritan regime disappeared within a couple of years of his death and the monarchy was restored. So it’s easy to see the Cromwellian era as a misbegotten aberration. The England that evolved post-1660 bore scant resemblance to the Puritan vision.
But there’s another way of looking at it.
English history can be viewed from many perspectives, one of which is a centuries-long dance between the divine right of kings and the evolution to parliamentary rule. Call it the domestication of monarchical absolutism.
This long-running process was underlined by several major milestones. One was Magna Carta in 1215; another was the execution of Charles I in 1649; and a third was the deposing of James II in 1688’s Glorious Revolution.
Cromwell was instrumental in the second of these milestones.
Yes, the restored Charles II exacted vengeance against those who killed his father. This included exhuming Cromwell’s corpse and subjecting it to symbolic execution and beheading.
Charles, however, understood that the rules had changed. If James II – Charles’ brother and successor – had exhibited the same political savvy, he wouldn’t have been evicted in 1688.
After being thrashed for almost 200 years, Cromwell’s historical reputation took a turn for the better in the 19th century. Thanks to historians like Thomas Babington Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle, a narrative other than that of “duplicitous and bloodstained dictator” gained significant traction.
For many, Cromwell “became a hero of progressive struggles” and a progenitor of modern England. This view sees him as crucial to the development of parliamentary supremacy.
Still, more than 350 years after his death, Cromwell is perhaps the most controversial figure in English history. You can understand why.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.
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