Oliver Cromwell, 1599-1658
Rose from relatively humble origins to become the most successful military and political leader of the Civil Wars. Lord Protector of England from 1654-8, he was offered — and refused — the Crown itself.
Oliver Cromwell was born into a family of minor Huntingdon gentry on 25 April 1599 and baptised at St John's Church in Huntingdon four days later. He attended the free school attached to the hospital of St John in Huntingdon, where he was taught by Dr Thomas Beard, then spent a year at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he was noted for his enthusiasm for sports and games rather than for his academic abilities. Cromwell's university career was cut short when his father died in June 1617 and he returned home to manage his family estate and to look after his widowed mother and seven unmarried sisters. According to some accounts he also studied law at Lincoln's Inn in London.
In August 1620, Cromwell married Elizabeth Bourchier (1598–1665), daughter of Sir James Bourchier, a London merchant. The marriage was long and stable and produced nine children. Cromwell and his growing family settled in Huntingdon. He was elected MP for Huntingdon in the Parliament of 1628, where he became associated with the opposition to King Charles that culminated in the declaration of the Petition of Right in June 1628. At some time during the late 1620s, following a period of illness and depression, Cromwell experienced a profound spiritual awakening that left him with deep and uncompromising Puritan beliefs.
In 1631, Cromwell's fortunes were in decline. He was forced to sell nearly all his property around Huntingdon and to lease a farmstead at St Ives, where he worked as a farmer for five years. The tide turned in 1636 when Cromwell's childless and widowed maternal uncle Sir Thomas Steward died, leaving him a substantial inheritance, including a house next to St Mary’s Church in Ely and the position of local tax collector of the two Ely parishes of St Mary's and Holy Trinity.
Cromwell's improved social status and his connections with local Puritans led to his nomination as a freeman of the borough of Cambridge and election as MP for Cambridge in the two Parliaments of 1640. During the first week of the Long Parliament, he made a passionate speech that called attention to the injustice of the imprisonment of John Lilburne, and during the following month he was prominent in parliamentary attacks on episcopacy. Although he was not regarded as a fluent speaker, Cromwell's passion and sincerity gained him a reputation as a solid supporter of opposition leaders such as John Pym and Cromwell's own cousin, John Hampden.
On the outbreak of the First Civil War in August 1642, Cromwell took up arms for Parliament. He led one of the earliest military actions of the war when with 200 lightly-armed volunteers he prevented the King's men from carrying off the silver plate of the Cambridge colleges. Cromwell raised a troop of sixty horsemen and effectively secured Cambridgeshire for Parliament. In October 1642, Cromwell's troop joined the army of the Earl of Essex. The superiority of the Royalist horse impressed upon him the need for a disciplined Parliamentarian cavalry. Returning to East Anglia, Cromwell was careful to recruit only "godly, honest men" as his troopers and to lead them with firm discipline. His innate skills as a cavalry commander were in evidence at the skirmishing around Gainsborough in July 1643. Having helped to secure most of East Anglia for Parliament by the summer of 1643, Cromwell was appointed governor of Ely and promoted to colonel in the new Eastern Association army raised by the Earl of Manchester.
Rising to prominence in the Eastern Association, Cromwell attained the rank of lieutenant-general of horse in January 1644. He played a major role in Parliament's victory at Marston Moor, where his highly-disciplined cavalry routed both Prince Rupert's and Lord Goring's cavaliers. Rupert himself is said to have coined the name "Ironside" for Cromwell, which became popular with the army and was extended to his troopers. However, Cromwell's practice of promoting godliness amongst his officers and men drew criticism from Major-General Crawford, a Scottish Presbyterian attached to Manchester's army, who objected to Cromwell's encouragement of unorthodox Independents and Anabaptists. Cromwell also became increasingly critical of the leadership of Manchester himself, and denounced him before the House of Commons in November 1644 for his unwillingness to take decisive action against the Royalists.
A leading supporter of the Self-Denying Ordinance, Cromwell was one of the few Members of Parliament exempted from resigning his commission in the army under its terms. He was officially appointed lieutenant-general of horse under Sir Thomas Fairfax in the New Model Army just before the decisive Parliamentarian victory at Naseby in June 1645, during which Cromwell routed Langdale's Northern Horse and rallied the Ironsides for a charge against the Royalist infantry that decided the outcome of the battle. Despite having no military training or experience prior to 1642, Cromwell was generally regarded as the greatest soldier in England by the time he and Fairfax received the surrender of Oxford in June 1646.
Cromwell supported the Agitators in the conflict between the Army and Parliament of 1647. He was a firm advocate of parliamentary authority but he lost patience with those Presbyterian MPs who seemed willing to risk another civil war rather than settle the soldiers' grievances honourably. Acting independently of Fairfax, and in close association with his son-in-law Henry Ireton, he used the threat of military force to oust the Presbyterian Eleven Members from the House of Commons in August 1647. However, Cromwell opposed Leveller demands for manhood suffrage ("one man, one vote") and other social and political reforms. He tried to adopt a conciliatory attitude towards the King, proposing to restore him to power in the interests of achieving a peaceful settlement. This alienated radicals in the Army and in Parliament, who came to regard Cromwell as a hypocrite motivated by his own self-interest. In any case, Cromwell's attempts to secure a peaceful settlement were frustrated by the King's refusal to compromise and by his negotiations to bring a Scottish army into England, thus provoking the Second Civil War.
When war broke out In 1648, Cromwell marched to crush a Royalist uprising in South Wales while Fairfax dealt with the Royalists in Kent and Essex. Cromwell then went north to take command of Parliament's forces against the Duke of Hamilton's Engager army and their English Royalist allies. In August 1648, Cromwell led a daring and brilliantly-executed campaign that resulted in the total defeat of the Scots at the battle of Preston. He then marched into Scotland and negotiated with the Marquis of Argyll to remove all Engagers and Royalist sympathisers from office in Scotland.
Cromwell was in the north clearing up the last Royalist military resistance during the dramatic events of November and December 1648, when Ireton and the Council of Officers resolved to prosecute King Charles, the "Man of Blood". Cromwell delayed his return to London until the day after the Army's enemies in Parliament had been ejected in Pride's Purge. He claimed to have known nothing of the design, but nevertheless expressed his approval of the purge. Having realised at last that Charles could not be trusted, and recognising that the Army was determined to avenge itself upon the King, Cromwell became a relentless supporter of the King's trial and subsequent execution in January 1649. He had come to believe that regicide was an act of justice and the will of God.
In 1649, Cromwell suppressed the Leveller mutinies in the New Model Army and prosecuted John Lilburne, whom he held personally responsible for the unrest amongst the soldiery. After meticulous preparations, Cromwell then took the army to Ireland (1649-50) where Royalist supporters of the Stuart dynasty had formed an alliance with the Irish Confederates. Cromwell's Irish campaign was a military success. By the time he left Ireland in May 1650, the provinces of Ulster, Leinster and Munster were substantially under English control. However, Cromwell's reputation was indelibly stained by notorious massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, which have lived on in Irish folk memory, making his name into one of the most hated in Irish history.
When Charles II was proclaimed King of Scots in Edinburgh with the support of the Covenanters, Fairfax declined to lead an army of invasion into Scotland and resigned his commission. Cromwell was appointed Captain-General and commander-in-chief of the Army in his place and marched into Scotland in July 1650. He was initially outmanoeuvred by the Earl of Leven and David Leslie but succeeded in defeating the Scots at the battle of Dunbar (3 September 1650), which is regarded as the greatest of Cromwell's victories. After spending nearly a year trying unsuccessfully to persuade the Covenanters that Charles II was an unsuitable king for a godly nation, Cromwell lured Charles and the Scots into an attempt to invade England. Cromwell pursued from the north and decisively defeated the Scots and Royalists at the battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651, the anniversary of Dunbar and the last major battle of the civil wars.
After the execution of Charles I and the declaration of the republic in 1649, the English Commonwealth was governed by the so-called Rump Parliament and the Council of State. The Rump Parliament was regarded as an interim government and was expected to prepare for a permanent representative but divisions arose between factions in Parliament and in the Army over what form the new government should take. After the military campaigns in Ireland and Scotland were over, Army leaders became increasingly impatient over Parliament's lethargy in formulating the new representative. Although Cromwell attempted to moderate the more extreme demands, he too finally lost patience. On 20 April 1653, he led a body of musketeers to Westminster and forcibly expelled the Rump Parliament. His exact reasons for doing so are unclear; he may have come to believe that Parliament was planning to perpetuate itself. There were no plans for an alternative government in place and Cromwell made no attempt to take power himself.
The Rump Parliament was replaced by the Nominated Assembly, popularly known as "Barebone's Parliament", which first met in July 1653. Cromwell regarded the Assembly as a "Parliament of Saints" and expected it to bring righteous, godly government to the Commonwealth. The Nominated Assembly was the most radical constitutional experiment of the 1650s, but the legal and ecclesiastical reforms it tried to introduce were regarded as too extreme by moderates. In December 1653 — less than six months after its inauguration — moderates manoeuvred to dissolve the Assembly and hand power over to Cromwell, whom they regarded as having granted it to them in the first place.
Headed by Major-General John Lambert, the Council of Officers proposed a new constitution. In discussions with the officers, Cromwell made it clear that he did not want to be made King. Seeking to maintain links with the ancient constitution yet distance himself from the disgraced monarchy, Cromwell proposed a revival of the title "Lord Protector", which had a number of precedents going back to the 15th century. Under the terms of the Instrument of Government, executive power now passed to an elected Lord Protector advised by a Council of State. Cromwell was declared Lord Protector for life and formally installed at Westminster Hall on 16 December 1653. His decision to accept the office of Protector alienated many republicans and religious radicals, who regarded it as a betrayal of the principles for which the civil wars had been fought. In April 1654, Cromwell moved into Whitehall Palace, the former residence of King Charles.
Despite opposition from many quarters, Cromwell held on to power throughout the 1650s principally by retaining the loyalty of the Army. He also tended to grant important positions in civil and military government to those with personal attachments to himself or who had reason to be grateful to him for their advancement. Senior army commands were granted to officers who had served with him during the civil wars, particularly those connected to his own family such as his son-in-law Charles Fleetwood and brother-in-law John DIsbrowe. The dependence of the Protectorate régime upon a standing army in England, armies of occupation in Scotland and Ireland as well as a powerful navy led to unprecedented levels of taxation. Despite an aggressive foreign policy, Cromwell gradually reduced army numbers and levels of taxation, but this was never enough to satisfy his critics or to deal with arrears of pay in the armed forces.
“...No-one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going...”
Cromwell on personal fortune
Cromwell's overriding concern in domestic policy was the creation of a broadly-based national church with toleration of radical Protestant groups who remained outside it but were prepared to keep the peace. During the first year of the Protectorate, a central commission of clergy and laymen was established to examine candidates for the ministry ("Triers") and local commissions were appointed to eject ministers who proved unsuitable ("Ejectors"). Although Cromwell's religious policy made steady progress towards reconciliation among the Protestant sects, the emergence of the Quakers, who opposed all organised churches, was disruptive and alarming.
Within months of his inauguration as Protector, Cromwell negotiated a treaty to bring the first Anglo-Dutch war to an end, having never been in favour of war against a Protestant nation. However, his hopes of forming a grand alliance of Protestant European powers came to nothing, and during 1654, Cromwell became involved in secret negotiations with the two great Catholic powers France and Spain. The two nations were at war with one another and each sought an alliance with the Protectorate against the other. Cromwell finally opted for an alliance with France and secretly promoted the Western Design to attack Spanish colonies in the West Indies. The Anglo-Spanish war resulted in the seizure of Jamaica in 1655 and Dunkirk in 1658, but Cromwell's anti-Spanish foreign policy was criticised as anachronistic even during the Protectorate because it was damaging to English trade and commerce.
In September 1654, Cromwell summoned the First Protectorate Parliament, which was elected on a wider franchise than any previous parliament and which included MPs from Scotland and Ireland for the first time. Distrust between the Army leaders and civilian politicians became strikingly clear, however. Heated constitutional debates, amendments to the Instrument of Government aimed at strengthening Parliament's powers at the expense of the Protector's, and criticism of Cromwell's leadership by republican MPs prompted him to dissolve this Parliament at the earliest possible opportunity, in January 1655.
Following Royalist insurrections in March 1655 (Penruddock's Uprising), Cromwell felt obliged to impose direct military rule rather than attempt to govern through another civilian assembly. He had already come to regard the failure of the Western Design in its principal objectives as a sign of God's displeasure at the nation's progress. Consequently, England and Wales were divided into twelve districts, each governed by a Major-General answerable directly to the Protector. The Major-Generals were charged not only with maintaining security but also with enforcing moral reform in the localities. The Rule of the Major-Generals proved deeply unpopular. Growing civilian disquiet and the need to finance military operations against Spain forced Cromwell to call a Second Protectorate Parliament in September 1656. Bowing to pressure from MPs who insisted that the Major-Generals were unconstitutional and against law and custom, Cromwell agreed to abolish the system in January 1657.
The Protectorate gradually adopted the trappings of a Monarchy. Cromwell was usually addressed as "your Highness" and by 1656 he was rewarding his loyal followers with knighthoods. In February 1657, a group of MPs headed by Lord Broghill presented a new constitution known as The Humble Petition and Advice, under which Cromwell was formally offered the Crown. This was primarily an attempt to stabilise the constitution under a civilian-led style of government. Cromwell's powers would be limited as King because they would then be defined by precedent. Furthermore, since the offer came from an elected Parliament, there could be no further doubts regarding the legality of the Cromwellian régime. However, after much agonising and in the face of strong opposition from republicans and army leaders, Cromwell finally decided to reject the offer, saying "I will not build Jericho again".
The Humble Petition was modified to remove references to the royal title and Cromwell was re-installed as Lord Protector on 26 June 1657. The installation ceremony was still reminiscent of a coronation, with Cromwell wearing a robe of purple velvet lined with ermine and carrying a golden sceptre. He took an adapted form of the royal coronation oath and left Westminster Hall in a coach of state amid cries of "God save the Lord Protector". Under the revised Humble Petition, he was now allowed to name his own successor. Lacking only a crown, Cromwell was "King in all but name".
In 1658, Cromwell convened an Upper House of Parliament in which his nominees sat as peers. Republicans regarded this as too similar to the House of Lords and MPs questioned the titles, rights and legitimacy of the Upper House. Amid fears that elements of the army supported the republicans, Cromwell went in person to Westminster on 4 February 1658 and abruptly dissolved the Second Protectorate Parliament. Discouraged by his failure to settle the constitution or to reconcile the Puritan sects in a cohesive national church, Cromwell withdrew from public affairs. Over the next few months his health went into a sharp decline, particularly after the death from cancer of his favourite daughter, Elizabeth, in August.
During a bout of the recurring malarial fever that had afflicted him since the 1630s, Oliver Cromwell died at Whitehall on 3 September 1658 — the anniversary of his great military victories at Dunbar and Worcester. A violent storm wracked England during the night of his death, said by his enemies to be the Devil carrying away his soul. He was buried in Westminster Abbey with a funeral service based upon that of King James I. Oliver's eldest son Richard was nominated to succeed him, but the Protectorate had ended within a year of his death, to be followed in due course by the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy.
Oliver married Elizabeth Bourchier on 22 August 1620. Between 1621 and 1638, they had nine children, eight of whom survived infancy:
Robert b. October 1621, died aged 17 in May 1639 of an unknown fever or accident whilst away at school.
Oliver: b. February 1623. The younger Oliver fought at Edgehill as a cornet in Oliver St. John's regiment, then joined his father's regiment in 1643. He fought at Winceby and Grantham, but died of camp fever in the spring of 1644 when serving on garrison duty at Newport Pagnell, aged 21.
Bridget: b. August 1624. Deeply religious and sober-minded, she married Henry Ireton in 1646 as the First Civil War drew to a close. A year after Ireton's death in 1651, she married Charles Fleetwood, who succeeded Ireton as Lord-Deputy in Ireland. Bridget died shortly after the Restoration. Two daughters by her marriage to Ireton, Jane and Elizabeth, survived her.
Richard: b. October 1626. As Oliver's oldest surviving son, it fell to Richard to succeed his father as Lord Protector in 1658 — a role for which he was temperamentally unsuited. He fled abroad when the Protectorate collapsed in 1659 and remained exiled in France and separated from his wife and daughters until 1680. Upon his return to England, he lived quietly at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, under the assumed name of John Clarke until his death in 1712. Biography of Richard Cromwell
Henry: b. January 1628. Far more capable than his older brother Richard, Henry Cromwell served in the New Model Army and in Ireland. He married Elizabeth Russell in 1653, with whom he had seven children. He succeeded his brother-in-law Charles Fleetwood as Lord-Deputy of Ireland in 1655 and remained there until the fall of the Protectorate in 1659. Henry was treated generously at the Restoration and allowed to keep his Irish lands. Eventually he retired to Spinney Abbey in Cambridgeshire, where he died in 1674. Henry's great-grandson Oliver Cromwell, who died in 1821 aged 79, was the Protector's last direct male descendant. Biography of Henry Cromwell
Elizabeth: b. July 1629. Lively and vivacious, Bettie was her father's favourite. She married John Claypole in January 1646 and had four children. Her kindness and warmth endeared her to the Protectorate court, where she often interceded for Royalist prisoners. Her premature death from cancer in August 1658 profoundly affected Oliver, who died the following month. Like other prominent Cromwellians, Bettie was buried in Westminster Abbey; by chance, hers was the only grave left undisturbed at the Restoration.
James: d. 1632. Died in infancy.
Mary: b. February 1637. Spirited and strong-willed, Mary married Thomas Belasyse, Viscount Fauconberg, in 1657. After the Restoration, the Fauconbergs flourished at the court of Charles II where Lord Fauconberg became a Privy Councillor; he was created an Earl by William III and lived until 1700. As Lady Fauconberg, Mary remained highly regarded at court and lived into the reign of Queen Anne.
Frances: b. 1638. Although suggested as a potential wife for Charles II, Frances married Robert Rich, grandson of the Earl of Warwick, in 1657. She was widowed within three months when Rich died of consumption. After the Restoration, she married Sir John Russell. Frances lived until 1721 and was buried with her sister Mary at St Nicholas' Church, Chiswick.
C.H. Firth, Oliver Cromwell, DNB, 1888
C.H. Firth, The Last Years of the Protectorate 1656-58 vol. ii (London 1909)
Antonia Fraser, Cromwell, our chief of men (London 1973)
Ronald Hutton, The British Republic 1649-60 (Basingstoke 2000)
John Morrill, Oliver Cromwell, Oxford DNB, 2004
Ivan Roots (ed), The Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (London1989)
Wikepedia article on Cromwell
The Cromwell Association website
Oliver Cromwell's head and its curious history — all the grisly details
History podcasts about Oliver Cromwell — includes lectures by .