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

The difficulty of finding an apt title

     The most difficult task facing a recorder of Cromwell’s life is finding an apt title for his subject. Whatever positive attribute one finds in Cromwell’s character, and one finds far more than in other great leaders of nations, there are as many shadows and shades present which threaten to subvert them. Cromwell could be all things to different men either at the same or different times. Thus, whatever title one chooses for Cromwell, it will be unacceptable to many. As John Buchan, son of the Manse, said of Cromwell, ‘Paradox is in the fibre of his character and career’.

     After much thought, I have entitled my record ‘Rebel, Republican and Reformer’. However, though Cromwell was obviously a rebel, indeed a revolutionary in the way he combated the English Crown and Church, he was also a stickler for discipline, order and even tradition. Without the armies of the nobility, he could never have enforced his ecclesiastical reforms. He was an Englishman through and through but without the Scottish armies, made experts in warfare by their service under Leslie in the Thirty-Years’ War, he would never have been able to force the Solemn League and Covenant on England who happily were able to reject it after a decade when Scotland lost power. However, it was ever-changing Oliver who invited the Scots to invade England to place her under the Word of God, as Parliament put it, only to bring Scotland to its knees in his northern massacres. We remember that Leslie, adopted by nobles, and then made an Earl himself by his distant kinsman Charles I, and who had sworn allegiance to him, was the main instrument of the rebellion against his King.

     It is true that as a Republican, Cromwell ushered out the King, the House of Lords and the Church of England. He also started his political life as a representative of the working classes. Nevertheless, he demanded to be called ‘His Highness’ and preserved all the trappings and privileges of monarchy for himself, bar the title with which he had coquetted for some time. He rode around in the ex-King’s coaches dressed in Charles cast-off regalia, required absolute obedience and designed a Protectorship dynasty so that his wayward son, who was soon thrown out by the military, could inherit his powers.

     Perhaps no greater reformer of society, church and education has reigned on British soil but many of these reforms died before Cromwell departed from this life and few reforms outlived him. Christian Britain is still patiently waiting for them to be reinstated again. As an educator, I long for the educational reforms which were started in England during the 1640s and 50s but perished for lack of support. Today’s education and learning have still not reached those standards. I also long for the great Church reforms of the practical Episcopalian and Independent believers who began in the mid-sixteen-fifties to set up churches in 16 counties in England and in Ireland which were centred around the Word alone without the complicated hierarchies of the Anglicans and Presbyterians and – dare I say it? – without a King and the House of Lords.

     Another difficulty in writing a balanced biography of Cromwell is the great amount of original, contemporary material readily available to the perusal of all. The fifty-five international archives and university libraries I have visited in the last two years researching into the 17th century provide such an abundance of material that even merely copying it electronically would be a full-time job for decades. The British Library, Bodleian Library, and the Calendar of State Papers will provide more than the basics. Biographies by Ashley, Paul, Frazer, Reilly, Frith and Buchan can be bought on the second hand market for between £8 and £15 each. There are at least three good collections of Westminster Assembly records available through libraries. My large volumes of Cromwell’s letters and speeches cost me only the price of a plate of haddock, chips and mushy peas with a plastic knife and fork thrown in for good measure. One relatively expensive book, however, is a must. This is Wilbur Cortez Abbott’s A Bibliography of Oliver Cromwell, which I picked up for a modern equivalent of £30. Prepare to find an enormous degree of disagreement in these books and documents.


Cromwell’s early life

     Oliver Cromwell was born in the early morning of 25 April, 1599. His father, Robert Cromwell, was of Welsh farming stock formerly named Williams. The entire family had assumed the name of ‘Cromwell’ when a female member married a relation of Thomas Cromwell’s, Prime Minister to Henry VIII. There is nothing like a good name to give one prestige. Robert never went to university but farmed like his forefathers. Nevertheless, he became an MP for Huntingdon and a local bailiff. One of his major pursuits was to seek royal permits to drain the local fens to win more arable land and thus enhance his position, in which he was successful. Robert’s wife and Oliver’s mother was a former widow Elizabeth Lyon from the Norfolk family of Steward or Styward. The couple had ten children of whom six daughters outlived infancy and one son, Oliver. As there had, however, being knights in Oliver’s ancestry, farmer Oliver always referred to himself as ‘a Gentleman’. Oliver is said to have been a sturdy child, fond of sports and was sent to the local Huntingdon Grammar School from where he proceeded two days before his seventeenth birthday to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

     According to most of his biographers, Cromwell was created more for physical activity than mental and never became a book lover. Before Cromwell could persuade history otherwise, he left his college after less than a year on his father’s death to take over the family farm. However, on being confronted with his father’s will, he found that he was bound to give up too thirds of his income to his mother and sisters, yet carry all the responsibility of managing his family inheritance himself. Realising that he had no head for business, the nevertheless enterprising young man went up to London to gain some knowledge of Law and Economics though his name does not occur on the lists of the Inns of Court.


From darkness to light

     Shortly after maturity, Cromwell married Elisabeth, the daughter of a wealthy city merchant named Sir John Bourchier who brought a large dowry into the marriage. The two remained very much in love until death parted them. It is said that Elizabeth never meddled in her husband’s politics or religion. Now Elizabeth moved in with Oliver, his mother and six sisters. These early married years have been used by Oliver’s enemies to pronounce him a ne’er-do-well and state that he committed every sin possible before becoming a religious fanatic. Perhaps this is their way of simply saying that Cromwell became a Christian. Even when Cromwell says that he loved darkness and hated light, this could be the testimony of any converted sinner. Cromwell, however, did obtain a negative reputation when he strove to have his rich uncle Sir Thomas Steward, who was helping to finance him, declared insane. However, after his conversion, Cromwell openly invited all whom he had wronged to apply to him for compensation. Nevertheless, Cromwell can hardly have been the rake he was supposed to have been as he was often ill, suffered from hypochondria and was weighed down by deep depressions. Here again, Cromwell’s biographers are too hard on him when they accuse him of mysticism and more because he could write to his son, ‘You cannot find nor behold the face of God in Christ, therefore labour to know God in Christ, which the Scriptures make to be the sum of all, even life eternal. Because the true knowledge is not literal or speculative but inward, transforming the mind to it.’ I wish I had been more fervent in giving my sons such sound Cromwellian advice. John Buchan, though out of touch with Cromwell’s religion, says something remarkably beautiful and true of Cromwell’s Christian character. He says that the Puritans saw the light and were often dazzled by it whereas when Cromwell saw the light, he looked also on the objects which it lit.


Cromwell becomes a politician

     Now, in 1625, a new King was sitting on the English throne who spoke with a Scottish accent. Oliver Cromwell seemed to have a built in apathy for Charles Stuart. It was when Charles declared himself to be head of Parliament and the only man that could call it or dissolve it, that Cromwell began to have Republican thoughts. He could not know that his own tyranny in dealing with his own Parliaments would cause especially the Presbyterians, Cromwell’s initial allies, to long again for a Royal Captain at England’s helm. Now full of ideas of political reform, on January 23 1628, Cromwell became a Member of Parliament for the Huntingdon Borough alongside James Montague, an ex-Sidney Sussex man. England was now at war with France and Protestant Holland and Germany were pleading with Charles to carry the war into Germany against the Emperor. It also looked as though Scotland would ally with France and invade England. Parliament, and especially Cromwell, felt that the decision to raise money for foreign warfare should be taken out of the Royal prerogative. Indeed, Cromwell became enamoured by Scottish expansionistic ideas because of the ‘Levellers’ state church the Presbyterians were hoping to form. Parliament was also, with Cromwell’s approval, beginning to favour the idea that the King’s position as Governor of the Church of England should be abolished. Indeed, they began to question whether any Sovereign had any rights over England’s law and justiciary at all. This was all very well in the natural progress of a monarchy into a democracy but England was at war and the Emperor was driving Protestant Germany to its knees. Charles brother-in-law Frederick Elector of the Palatinate and King of Bohemia was banned from his own possessions and Elizabeth Stuart, exiled Queen of Bohemia, was sending letter after letter to her brother Charles saying come over and help us. The Leipzig, Heilbron and Frankfurt Diets of 1631-34 appealed to Archbishop Abbot, then Archbishop Laud to come over and help reform them. Such pleas were echoed through the Protestant German and Dutch states as most of their crowned heads were related to the Scottish Stuarts and the Dukes of Germany and Holland were next in line to the thrones of England and Scotland.

     Furthermore, the rebels in Parliament, no matter how democratic their feelings, had no alternative form of government, no well-ordered solutions but their protests, and thus England’s political and essclesiastical hands were internationally tied. However, new laws were quickly forced through limiting the King’s powers and strengthening those of Parliament. For the first time in England’s history, government and the right to wage war was no longer a Royal family matter but firmly in the hands of Parliament, or rather the lawyers in Parliament who ruled by the book but their book was not designed to rule a country. Parliament became a place of public brawling as it became more and more ‘democratic’. Charles refused to debate with common brawlers, whom he told, rather undiplomatically, that they were not his equals. They were not, but he could have kept those thoughts secret. England was now to be ruled by the people for good or evil. That Charles was not dethroned by the 1628 Parliament was a wonder, so too the fact that his opponents had nothing better to offer. It was easier for an Englishman to give up all he otherwise stood for rather than royal traditions.


The Church of England takes over

     One of the results of the binding of the King’s hands was that the Church and Convocation, who, with the lawyers, proved more authoritative, ambitious and competent than the run of the mill English Parliamentarian, began to take control in the running of the country. This was accepted fondly by Charles as the Church of England Archbishops and Bishops owed their allegiance to him as the true ruler in England. Archbishop Laud, for instance was catapulted into ecclesiastical and political power to fill the vacuum left by the weakened King and much weakened Archbishop Abbott. Laud had been archdeacon of Huntingdon and Oliver had seen how affective he was in organising, commanding and reforming. He would have made a fine rebel-leader but his heart was with his Church and King and set on inner reforms rather than state politics. Many of the ‘reforms’ Cromwell’s Commonwealth took over, were, indeed, pioneered by Laud. Unlike the myths spread by writers such as Macaulay and lawyers such as Prynne, he was most Puritan in many ways as seen by his spirituality and close contact with Andrews, Herbert, Ferrar, Hall, Morton, Du Moulin and Ussher. He had great backing amongst the Germans both Reformed and Lutheran; French Reformed Protestants and certain Dutch Reformed churchmen. Laud had also many friends amongst the Independents. Though he was suspicious of the Presbyterian popes, he accepted their ordination, though not as a universal standard. Whilst Parliament was inactive in Europe, Laud helped foster the pan-European union of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Independents and Lutherans and praised the pre-Dortian times when Protestants, especially Lutherans and Reformed lived in peace. Laud’s treatment of foreign churches in England was far more liberal and tolerant than those of say the Dutch or Swedish churches. One of the main wishes of Dutch merchant, De Geer, Sweden’s chief financer in the Thirty-Years War, was that Laud’s England should campaign to have the Dutch Reformed and French Huguenot churches in Sweden given the same rights that they had in England. However, it was only a matter of time, a very short time, that the ‘democrats’ demanded the abolition of the prelates and bishops as well as the King. They remembered King James’ fear that if the bishops went, the King would have to go with them. Parliament now planned that the realm of England and its ancient Church must be ruled from the bottom, not the top.


Cromwell grows in wealth and power

     After trouble in 1631 with the local major whom Cromwell thought had too much power, he sold up his lands and property for a great sum and became a grazier on leased land for five years. Then, in 1636, Cromwell’s rich and hated uncle Sir Thomas Steward died and he inherited his uncle’s property, including vast lands and Cathedral tithes and so moved over to Ely where he immediately quarrelled with the Cathedral ministers. He then turned his gaze on Crown property and the Crown’s right to drain the land which he claimed should be given to the farmers. Cromwell then began to petition in Parliament for the rights of the common man against royal privileges. When the Short Parliament met in the spring of 1640, there were already rumours of a Great Rebellion and Cromwell knew on which side he stood. By the time the Long Parliament sat in November of that year, the King’s armies were defeated in the North and Leslie had taken Newcastle. Though there was rejoicing in the poor London populace, Parliament was now quite divided as hopes of peaceful reform had gone. Cromwell found that his position in Parliament was growing as he had at least seventeen relations who were popular politicians. Cromwell found he was recognised as a worthy clan member and placed on numerous committees. In Cromwell’s first Long Parliament speech he defended a servant of Lawyer William Prynne’s who had got himself into trouble for claiming that the Queen was addicted to dancing. As this became a favourite theme of Prynne’s it appears that he had put his servant up to the protests instead of protesting himself. It was through Prynne’s stealing Archbishop Laud’s diary and correspondence and forging them, including letters of Laud’s Puritan friends, and then appealing to the mob after the courts refused to act, that Laud was condemned to death by lynch justice.  This was not before Prynne had lost his ears as punishment for crimes which he admitted should have cost him his head.

     With Cromwell’s help, Parliament now took over all authority in the nation with no dependence on the King, and none, for that matter, on its own constituents. Dancing and theatre were banned though when the facts came out those who banned them kept up both practices privately. Parliament, in isolation from England’s people, had taken over the divine rights that Charles had lost. It was, however, it meant one law for the chickens and another for the pigs, to use a picture out of Animal Farm. By February 1641, Cromwell campaigned repeatedly in Parliament for the abolishment of the Episcopal Church of England. All church offices were to be taken over by Parliamentary Commissions. For the first time in history, England’s church was to be ruled by an all-sovereign, secular, Government. The newly created Earl Strafford of Yorkshire, married to a Yorkshire Puritan’s daughter, was thought to represent both Royalty and the Church being the close friend of Charles and Laud. Rather than lay hands directly on Charles, King Parliament, committed Strafford and Laud to the Tower in November and December, 1640 respectively. Not even a mock court could find any cause to punish brave Strafford but Parliament resolved that it was a law unto itself and as dead men tell no tales, Strafford was sentenced to death. More macabre still, though the King had been released from his Parliamentary responsibilities, Parliament demanded that he should sign the death warrant for his close friend and adviser. This was their way of saying that Stafford was being sacrificed in place of the King. Noble, steadfast Stafford begged the King to sign his death warrant to help bring peace to England. Charles, not so noble and steadfast, signed the dreadful document and repented of it for the remaining few years of his life. Archbishop James Ussher, who accompanied Strafford to the block, confessed that he had never met a purer soul than Strafford. Continental leaders scorned England for murdering their wisest man. For an honest, well-documented account of Laud’s scandalous murder, see Trevor-Roper’s biography of Laud. If this is hard to swallow by believers in the negative myths surrounding Laud, his and Prynne’s writings can be downloaded as freebies from the Internet.

     The House of Commons now saw itself as the custodian of all divine rights. Scotland was in a worse state as the conflicting bands and leagues of the Covenanters as fickle in law as they were in religion had assumed power in the Scottish Parliament. Now Britain’s rebels cast their eyes on Ireland as a land of milk and honey whose conquest would provide adequate lands and funds for the colonising interests of Parliament’s members and fill their war-kitty. So they demanded the control of all executive powers in Ireland. Charles strove to combat Parliament by law not arms but Parliament scorned England’s pre-Rebellion laws and saw themselves as alone justified in using arms. The King’s attempt to arrest five commoners for seditious behaviour has been displayed by generations of Presbyterians as the crossing of the Rubicon and the real start of the war between Parliament and the King. They forget that when Cromwell eventually ruled Parliament, he had Colonel Pride purge the House of all Presbyterian ministers who constituted some two thirds of the Members.


Cromwell the war-monger

     Cromwell thus declared for war against the King, obtained permission from Parliament to raise two companies of volunteers, and spent £100 on arms from his own pocket. He ordered methods of financing the King to be stopped and took possession of the local arsenal. He then waited until a number of the Ely clergy were in chapel at Sunday payers, arrested them and packed them off to London to be jailed as ‘traitors’. Many more were to follow and many such prisoners without a trial were to be released first at the Restoration twenty years later. By 1641, vigilante Oliver, now forty-three years of age, was at the head of sixty light horse, preparing himself to be the Cavalry Commander he became a year later. Parliament in the South had 20,000 soldiers and Leslie and Ramsey in the North far more whereas the King had no apparent army and no apparent funds. Though Charles had supported Sweden with thousands of troops (many now on the Scots side) and thousands of pounds, Gustav II Adolf had told Charles that he would not tolerate direct Protestant English intervention in his German war, so Oxenstierna, the new Swedish governor of Protestant Germany, did not come to Charle’s assistance when it was needed. Oxenstierna and later Queen Christina did, however, bargain with Cromwell. The Puritan ‘neutral’ clergy, led by Richard Baxter, thus prophesied that the war would be over in a month. He had not taken into account the German Stuarts Prince Rupert and Price Maurice who, tired with Sweden’s haughty colonisation of the German Protestant states, bravely took their kinsman’s side though almost hunted out of existence by the Roman legions who were pushing the Scoto-Swedish troops back. It was, however, Swedish strategy that Rupert and the Continental Stuarts used against Cromwell. Nevertheless, Rupert had yet to reckon with the up and coming Cromwell to whom he gave the nickname ‘Old Ironsides’.


Next issue: Cromwell’s attempts to bring another peace and unity to Britain.