Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658): Rebel, Republican and Reformer

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658): Rebel, Republican and Reformer Part Two

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658): Rebel, Republican and Reformer Part Three

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658): Rebel, Republican and Reformer Part Four

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658): Rebel, Republican and Reformer Part Two

Cromwell’s swift rise to power

     Now sitting firmly in his cavalry saddle in the war against the King and the Church of England, Cromwell was soon reimbursed by Parliament of all his expenses in building up his personal army. Before entering officially into the Civil War, in May, 1641, Cromwell signed a Commons’ vow, ‘To maintain and defend as far as Lawfully I may, with my life, power, and estate, the True Reformed Protestant Religion, expressed in the Doctrines of the Church of England, against all Popery and Popish innovations’. It does appear that Cromwell, who was a harsh critic of the Anglican system, was merely accommodating himself with this statement for the sake of his career. It could mean that he was merely claiming, with a good conscience, that he represented true religion in England. Cromwell now joined the army of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, which made a poor stand against the King’s troops at Edgehill in October 23, 1642. Cromwell found most of his side, ‘old decayed serving men and tapsters’ and the King’s side ‘gentlemen’s sons, younger sons, persons of quality’. Not surprisingly, with such men at his side, by 1643, the King had the North, West and South of England on his side. Cromwell, quickly promoted to Colonel, began to organise his troops on stricter and more disciplined lines. His charisma was so great that he raised thousands of young soldiers who were persuaded to make the army their calling. Before 1643 was over, Cromwell defeated the far larger royal forces at Newark which proved the turning point of the war. Cromwell said the victory was God’s alone. Cromwell was now encouraging youths to join what they called the Saint’s War in uniting Christian England against the false religion of the King. They viewed military acumen as being an extension of godliness. Suggestions were made for reforming University curricula to promote learning for the soul and body. The learning for the soul was the Scriptures, for the body, military training. Royalists were proclaimed agents of Rome and their defeat was seen as an eschatological, apocalyptical necessity for the cause of God and truth and the advent of the Millennium. Cromwell told his soldiers that they were fighting for a New Eden in which righteousness would reign and all demons banished. Despite his oath of loyalty, Cromwell felt Parliament’s outlawing of the Reformed Church of England in 1643 was necessary for the creation of this new era. For the next few years, until Cromwell changed his religio-political views, Anglican Puritans such as Davenant, Ward, Hall, Ussher, Bidell, Featley and Morten were termed ‘Malignants’. Now, however, Presbyterians such as William Prynne reserved the title of ‘Puritan’ for themselves. Pro-Cromwellians kept the name of Protestant. Nonconformist Richard Baxter was placed amongst these ‘Malignant Protestants’ as Cromwell had specifically asked for Baxter’s support but he refused to place his faith under the dictates of Cromwell. Meanwhile, Cromwell identified himself entirely with his yeoman armies and would not have them criticised by outsiders when they showed themselves to be merciless plunderers. However, he sought to reform them from within and demanded a righteous life of all who served him.


Leading England into the New Age

     It soon became apparent that Cromwell was shifting his political and religious positions. He wanted a Parliament without a King. the House of Lords and one dominant Church so he opened his armies and Parliament, which he was now controlling, to Anabaptists and Independents, but not Episcopalians, of all social ranks. The Presbyterians rebelled at this move as they aimed for their own church supremacy in the Kingdom. From 1644 on, it is impossible to pin down Cromwell to any one denomination or even a membership of a local church of any kind. He was merely seen as the leader of what was called nebulously ‘The Religious Party’. Indeed, it is clear from Reliquiae Baxterianae that Cromwell’s army became his world and his church militant. His army chaplains were thus looked on as normal church pastors and his denomination was neither Anglican, nor Presbyterian, nor Independent nor Baptist, but ‘The Army of the Lord’. As Macaulay reports, Cromwell ‘prostrated himself in the dust before his Maker: but he set his foot on the neck of his king.’ By January 1644, Cromwell was Lieutenant-General. Now that John Hampden had died in battle, John Pym was an invalid and Cromwell went from one military victory to another, it was now clear who was to lead New Britain into the New Age.


Presbyterians contra Independents

     Parliament now lost interest in a Presbyterian campaign for a monarchy and kingdom ruled by themselves and the army and became more and more supportive of the Independents. They demanded that the monarchy should be abolished and the King totally defeated and erased if lasting peace would reign. The Presbyterians’ main mistake was their demand that all over the age of 18 should sign the Scottish Solemn League and Covenant which meant a state-church order far more rigid, intolerant and Erastian then any previous English Protestant system. They were pronounced politically unstable and untrustworthy because though they had pioneered criticism of the King, they wished to uphold the monarchy. In the eyes of the Independents, and the outlawed Episcopalian Church, the Presbyterians symbolised a break with all that was Reformed and Protestant and was contrary to the political and religious needs and voice of the common man. The Independents now looked to Cromwell for leadership. He realised that to continue to back the Presbyterians would be to close England to all the needy reforms in Church, State, Society, education, trade, arts and crafts which he planned. However, his free England was a freedom within the tight and totalitarian control of what came to be called ‘The Model Army’. It was freedom in a cage.

     The Presbyterian forces under the Earl of Manchester now found themselves ideologically isolated from Cromwell and his troops. Cromwell charged them with not taking military advantage of the King’s defeats and for wanting peace through diplomacy rather than war. This roused the ire of the Scottish Presbyterians and Manchester received strong support against Cromwell. Now the King’s enemies were at sixes and sevens themselves. Cromwell was charged with showing contempt for the Westminster Assembly, and preventing Presbyterians from joining his army. It was rumoured that he would rather fight the Scots than the King and had said that he hoped to live to see the last nobleman hounded out of his territories. All this was partly true, though Cromwell made it clear that his criticism of the Westminster Assembly was not that it existed but that it had become too party-minded and intolerant. At least three Presbyterians remained his advisors. For instance, after Pride’s Purge, he set up an inter-denominational committee to continue the work of the Assembly, which included the Presbyterian Adoriam Byfield whom the Independents and Baxter said was the only man they could trust. Presbyterian Byfield worked closely with Durie (actually an ordained Anglican), Owen, Goodwin and Nye (three different types of Independents) on further reforms and a new catechism. Baptist Henry Jessey became influential through supporting Cromwell’s open policy for the resettlement of the Jews in England.

     The Lords now took Manchester’s and Scotland’s side and the Commons took Cromwell’s and England’s side, so we can understand why Cromwell’s plans now included the abolishment of the House of Lords. The Scots persuaded lawyers Bulstrode Whitlocke and John Meynard to help them find legal snares into which they would drive Cromwell and impeach him. However, Cromwell made a stirring, patriotic speech in Parliament, rallying ‘true English hearts’ around him in support of their ‘Mother Country’. This baffled the Scots who realised that they could not impeach so patriotic an Englishman.


Cromwell, the promised Messiah

     The Presbyterians, however, gained a partial parliamentary victory when Zouch Tate, a Presbyterian and a spokesman for the Scots, had a motion passed that no military leader could sit in Parliament. This meant that both Manchester and Cromwell had to retire from army leadership. Cromwell is reported as saying that now neither the soldiers nor the Scots could carry on the reforms he planned so the task was left to the godly men of England. Cromwell now, for a very brief time, passed from being the godly military leader to the godly civilian politician. A matter of a few months later, however, on being told to deliver up his commission to Fairfax, he was immediately ordered to join the New Model Army to drive the King from Melcombe Regis and keep him isolated in Oxford. Cromwell was so successful that Parliament gave him back all military authority and commanded him to use his skills to bring the King to bay once and for all time. Commander-in-Chief Fairfax now made Cromwell head of the cavalry and his Second-in-Command with a free hand over all Parliamentary troops. The reason given was that ‘God was with Cromwell’. At the head of the cavalry of his chosen ones, Cromwell, now even rumoured to be the promised Messiah, especially by the Continental Jews anxious to be resettled in England, challenged the King at the Battle of Naseby, praising God for the opportunity to fight on His side. In spite of Prince Rupert’s bravery, Cromwell soundly trounced the Royalists. As a reward, Cromwell demanded that the Independents who had supported him should be granted religious freedom and liberty of conscience. The Presbyterians were shocked and insisted that Cromwell’s words should be struck out of Parliamentary reports. Now the Scots protested that Cromwell was a greater menace to Presbyterianism than the King. They were correct. Is it a sign of positive hindsight or ignorance of historical facts that present day Scottish Presbyterians praise Cromwell and the Independent Puritans such as Owen, Nye and Goodwin as their own but in the seventeenth century looked on them as their bitter enemies, saying they were as malignant as the Episcopalians?


Cromwell the dissembler

     Back in Parliament in his triple role of soldier, statesman and religious leader, Cromwell made a rousing speech for Protestant unity, still leaving out the Anglicans. He told the House that all Presbyterians and Independents had the same spirit of faith and prayer and ‘know no names of difference’. This should be the case throughout the country as all who believed possessed real unity. Concerning outward forms, Cromwell said that every Christian should behave as conscience permitted and look for no compulsion but ‘light and reason’ for the sake of peace. By the autumn of 1646, Oxford and the King had fallen to Parliament and all that was necessary to do was to mop up here and there. However, after the King’s escape from Hampton Court where he was imprisoned, Cromwell surprisingly placed Charles under his own protection. This angered the Presbyterians who suspected that Cromwell had allowed the King to escape in the first place as those who aided Charles were members of Cromwell’s own wider family. Cromwell’s sudden pro-royalty stand did not please the Levellers, either, who demanded the impeachment of their Lieutenant-General and even threatened him with mutiny and demanded what they called ‘soldiers rights’ against him. Cromwell confronted the gathered rebels in person with the full powers of his authority, backed by his drawn sword, and he restored military discipline instantly by court-martialing the soldiers’ spokesmen and relieving them of their heads.


New hope for the King

     Now Charles, encouraged by Cromwell’s new position, made overtures to his enemies which would have created peace and prevented the so-called Second Civil War, but now the army wanted no agreement between King and Parliament. They had also become suspicious of Cromwell, fearing his alleged double-dealing. However, the King was behind the times and had not noticed how swiftly Parliament changed its allegiances. Though still a professing Episcopalian, Charles made enormous concessions to the Presbyterians, granting them freedom of conscience in religious affairs. As the Independents, now in control of the armies, were challenging the Presbyterians because of their intolerance, they were not enamoured by the King’s proposals. So, too, the army felt that Charles was encouraging the Presbyterians to eventually suppress Independency which, though powerful in the army, had little representation amongst the common people. Now, too, the Scots were said to be raising an army to invade England and restore Charles to the throne. Charles was trying to secure peace when he had nothing in his hand with which to bargain. Cromwell was now compelled, in order to keep his own power and, most likely his head, to side fully with the Levellers, the Independents and the army against the King. By the end of 1647, Cromwell testified that for all his obvious abilities, the King was a díssembler and not to be trusted. All criticisms that Cromwell himself was a turncoat were dropped in England, but the Moderator of the Scottish General Assembly, Robert Blair, continued to call Cromwell ‘a greeting (crying or loud-mouthed) devil’ and ‘an egregious dissembler and a great liar.’ Cromwell had started his political career by professing to listen to the ordinary working-class man. Now nobody in leadership, no matter what faction, thought of asking for their opinions. Cromwell’s policy was from now on to expel from Parliament those such as Selden who dared to question his turncoat tactics.

     The vote-less common people interpreted what was going on politically in the pop-songs of the day. Bawdy remakes of the Renaissance, O Brave Oliver, which needs no comment here, became quite a ‘Hit’.


The Second Civil War of 1648

     The Scottish Commissioners, Loudoun, Lauderdale and Lanark advised Charles to place his hope in Scotland and find help and safety there. Scotland was now prepared to go to war with England to save their Scottish King. Thus, in 1647-8 the King experienced a new upsurge in popularity and thousands of prominent English citizens signed petitions supporting him. The Second Civil War of 1648 now began. Cromwell, blind with anti-royalist prejudice and a fanatical conviction that he was God’s High Judge condemning and punishing a sinful people, followed a policy of exterminating his royalist foes including the innocent civilians in the areas such as South Wales who supported them. He argued that those who were against God’s Providence and Oliver Cromwell had committed unforgivable sins and even the officers who surrendered such as Colonel Power should be slaughtered. Cromwell now told more merciful Fairfax, still officially Commander-in-Chief but whom Cromwell was gradually elbowing out, in a letter dated 20 November 1648, that his officers were carrying out full justice on the enemy and it was a task that God had placed in their hearts. Cromwell became more and more convinced that he was the divinely destructive hand of God cleansing England and soon had the Scots on their knees before him, too. The King was handed over and imprisoned in Hurst Castle before being taken to Windsor Castle. The Presbyterians still hampered Cromwell who repeatedly visited the imprisoned Duke of Hamilton hoping, in vain, that Hamilton would provide evidence of Presbyterian plots. Colonel Pride quickly relieved the Presbyterian Members of Parliament of their offices, receiving Cromwell’s hearty congratulations for his firmness. Cromwell saw to it that at least fourteen senior army officers with known Presbyterian sympathies such as Colonel Norton were also ‘purged’ from their posts. Indeed, all who were against the King’s execution such as Selden were removed from Parliament so that the rest could take the law into their own hands and rid themselves of the King. Meanwhile, Charles was spending his last days in prayer and worship, writing his Christian testimony Eikon Basilike which became a posthumous best-seller, running into 36 editions in 1649 alone. The King, faced with either keeping his kingdoms or his concience, declared, ‘I know no resolutions more worthy a Christian king, than to prefer his conscience before his kingdoms.’


Lynch-justice at Westminster

     Whatever justice might be seen in the King’s execution, he was condemned and sentenced before any pretence at a trial. The unauthorised court which gathered to pronounce his death was totally outside the bounds of the law and was a criminal act in itself. Charles was not allowed a single witness to stand in his defence. The death sentence was also reserved for anyone outside of Parliament who suggested a royal successor for Charles. The House of Lords, not yet abolished, took their last stand and declared the trial unlawful but the Commons immediately announced themselves to be the sole and supreme authority in England. The Westminster Assembly condemned the trial as did almost all the ministers of London. The judges’ wives, including Bradshaw’s and Fairfax’ cried from the gallery that the court did not represent the people and condemned the trial until they were forcefully removed. Bradshaw had argued that the King must be killed as it was the wish of the common people who are greater than the law. Outside of the court, the common people, whose opinion had never been asked, did not chant O Brave Oliver now, but ‘God save the King’. The trial was a farce. Of the 135 commissioners nominated as judges, only fifty-two turned up. At the first sitting, Algernon Sydney, declared that no man could be tried at such a court, let alone the King. Cromwell retorted, ‘I tell you we will cut off his head, with the crown upon it.’ At this, Sydney, as brave as his relation, Sir Phillip, left the court never to return. Even Fairfax, chosen as a judge, boycotted the trial after the first sitting. When Colonel Downes protested against the trial and gained a temporary adjournment, Cromwell came down upon him ‘with a great deal of storm’, scolding him for being ‘a peevish man’. Cromwell said that Charles was ‘the hardest-hearted man that lives upon the earth’ and commanded the court to do its duty without further ado.  

     Carlyle has preserved Charles’ death warrant for us. It reads:


To Colonel Francis Hacker, Colonel Huncks, and Lieutenant-Colonel, and to every of them. 


At the High Court of Justice

for the Trying and Judgment

of  Charles  Stuart,  King  of

England, 29th January 1648.


     Whereas Charles Stuart, King of England, is and standeth convicted, attained and condemned of High Treason and other high Crimes; and Sentence upon Saturday last was pronounced against him by this Court, To be put to death by the severing of his head from his body; of which Sentence execution yet remaineth to be done:

     These are therefore to will and require you to see the said Sentence executed, in the open Street before Whitehall, upon the morrow, being the Thirtieth day of this instant month of January, between the hours of Ten in the morning and Five in the afternoon, with full effect. And for so doing, this shall be your warrant.

     And these are to require all Officers and Soldiers, and others the good People of this Nation of England, to be assisting unto you in this service.

Given under our hands and seals,

                                                                                            John Bradshaw,         

                                                                                            Thomas  Grey,

                                                                                            Oliver Cromwell.

                                                                                            (and Fifty-six others.)



It appears that the great Yorkshire poet and Parliamentarian Andrew Marvel witnessed the killing of the King and wrote of the man who died in spiritual serenity and bravery, quite like a martyr:


‘He nothing common did or mean

Upon that memorial Scene;

But with his keener Eye

The Axes edge did try:

Nor called the gods with vulgar spite

To vindicate his helpless Right,

But bow’d his comely Head,

Down as upon a Bed.’