Our Chief of Men: Oliver Cromwell

A portrait of Oliver Cromwell. Credit: ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Oliver Cromwell was quick to seize control after the shocking death of Charles I, but was he hero or villain?

On January 30, 1649 48-year-old King Charles I said goodbye to his children at St James’s Palace and was escorted to the Banqueting House on London’s Whitehall. It was a bitterly cold day and he fortified himself with a little bread and claret. Then he stepped through the window to a specially prepared public scaffold outside. He was wearing two shirts against the chill, lest he should shiver and onlookers think he was afraid.

“I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be,” Charles declared with dignity and, invoking his vision of absolute kingship, offered himself as “the martyr of the people”. An executioner struck off his head. Among the watching crowd there arose, as one eyewitness recorded, “a groan as I have never heard before and desire I may never hear again.” The regicide sent shockwaves throughout Europe.

Banqueting House. Credit: Miles Willis

It was hard to believe what had happened and even harder to imagine what would happen next in a country set to be ruled without royalty. After a decade shattered by civil wars thanks to a King and Parliament at loggerheads over finances, religion and power, Charles had been put on trial before a High Court of Justice accused of high treason “against the realm of England”; in short he had been blamed for all the bloodshed.

Throughout the week-long trial, Charles had declined to acknowledge the legality of the court and refused to plead. “I have a trust committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent, I will not betray it, to answer a new unlawful authority … I do stand more for the liberty of my people, than any here that come to be my pretended judges …” His death warrant was nevertheless signed by 59 commissioners, many of them extremely reluctant. The third signatory, Oliver Cromwell, was persuaded to do so by “Providence and necessity”.

The deed done, the monarchy was abolished along with the House of Lords, and a Commonwealth was established. Cromwell, Commander-in-Chief of the army, pushed home the new government’s military supremacy, with campaigns in Ireland (1649–50) notorious for the bloody massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, and campaigns in Scotland (1650-51). Attempts by the dead King’s son, Charles II to recover the Crown with a Scottish-Royalist army were ended at the Battle of Worcester (1651), a story told in the city today in The Commandery. Charles’ escape of course became a staple of his subsequent romantic history – hiding up an oak tree at Boscobel House, Shropshire, and fleeing to the Continent disguised as a servant.

Charles II flees after the Battle of Worcester. Credit: FALKENSTEINFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

But the question remained: what exactly was this new world of the Commonwealth and its aims? In the immediate term, government needed to restore social stability and there were calls for reform of the legal system, for every adult male to be given the vote, for land to be redistributed. A divided Parliament dithered, with moderates also fearing Cromwell and radical elements in the powerful New Model Army.

In the end a frustrated Cromwell upbraided Parliament on April 20, 1653, calling members whoremasters, drunkards and unjust men: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … In the name of God, go!” Thus he dissolved Parliament – ignoring the irony that Charles I had rashly pursued just such a route – and seized power, ruling first via the Barebones Parliament, then from December 1653 through his appointment as Lord Protector. He would later be offered the Crown – people felt that at least the role of a sovereign was circumscribed – but he declined, preferring to carve his own role: like a king but with greater powers.

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