Oliver Cromwell: Hero or villain?

Described by some as a sincere man of action, labelled a tyrannical dictator and traitor by others, Oliver Cromwell is admired and reviled in equal measure. We unearth the truth behind the fascinating story of the man who crushed the Cavaliers

© Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy/ISTOCK

Oliver Cromwell famously instructed his portrait painter Sir Peter Lely not to flatter him, but rather to note “all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me.” It is the sort of no-nonsense remark you might expect from the Puritan ‘Roundhead’ who ruled as Lord Protector from 1653 to 1658, after he had helped to crush the ‘dashing Cavaliers’ of King Charles I. History has taken Cromwell at his word ever since, scrutinising his deeds and motives, ‘warts and all’, with an unforgiving gaze.

Few figures have excited so much controversy. Decried on the one hand as an ambitious schemer and hypocrite corrupted by power, Cromwell has been acclaimed on the other as a political visionary inspired by God to reform government, law and society. The Interregnum, when monarchy was abolished and England experimented with being a republic, lasted just 11 years from 1649–60, yet it wrought irrevocable change.

Was Cromwell the hero or villain of the piece? To even begin to answer the question we need first to follow his extraordinary rise from regular country gentleman to head of state.

Oliver Cromwell's House in Ely
Oliver Cromwell’s House in Ely © Loop Images/Quentin Bargate

His roots lie in Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, where he was born in 1599 into a distinguished but relatively impoverished squirearchal family. Young Cromwell attended the local grammar school, now The Cromwell Museum, where artefacts and documents highlight the life and legacy of ‘God’s Englishman’. From April 1616 he studied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, leaving suddenly after a year due to the death of his father.

At St Giles’ Cripplegate in London you will find the venue for Cromwell’s marriage to merchant’s daughter Elizabeth Bourchier in 1620. The match appears to have been a happy one, producing nine children.

As a minor landowner, Cromwell made a living from farming and collecting rents, residing in Huntingdon, then in nearby St Ives from 1631 and Ely from 1636 to 1646. There’s a statue of him on the market place in St Ives, while the half-timbered Oliver Cromwell’s House in Ely evokes his family life.

Statue of Cromwell in St Ives, Cambridgeshire
Statue of Cromwell in St Ives, Cambridgeshire © Andrew Dunn/Alamy

In 1628 Cromwell had been elected Member of Parliament for Huntingdon and in 1640 he became MP for Cambridge, gaining a reputation as a blunt speaker with a fiery temperament. This would soon propel him into the limelight as Parliament wearied of King Charles I’s tyrannical disregard of its authority and his belief that the sovereign stood above Church and State. Following clashes over taxes, power and the King’s High Church policies, hostilities erupted into civil war on 22 August 1642 when Charles raised his standard at Nottingham.

Over the next seven years Parliamentarian Roundheads and Royalist Cavaliers tore the country apart. Cromwell, a committed Puritan, saw the battle against Charles not simply as a political struggle but as a necessary path to establish ‘godly’ government and religious freedom, and he threw himself into the mêlée.

It is astounding to think that before the war Cromwell probably had no previous military experience, yet within less than a decade he rose to Commander-in-Chief of all Parliamentary forces. He attributed his success on the battlefield to God’s will, although no doubt his bravery and innate abilities played their part too.

At the first major encounter of the war, at Edgehill in 1642, Cromwell’s troops stood firm when others had fled, while after action at Marston Moor in 1644, Cromwell observed, “truly England and the church of god hath had a great favour from the lord, in this great victory given us.” The first chapter of the war came to an end at Naseby in 1645, with victory for the Parliamentarians’ highly organised New Model Army.

Cromwell, now raised to prominence, was among those who wanted to parley with the King for a peaceful settlement, but Charles threw in his lot with the Scots, who invaded England to try to restore him to the throne. Cromwell’s men crushed Royalist hopes at Preston (1648).

Cromwell’s attitudes hardened. Although not the initiator of the idea to prosecute the King for going to war against Parliament and half of the country, once he decided “Providence and necessity” required such action, he became a relentless supporter. Charles I’s death warrant was signed by 59 of his judges, with Cromwell the third to inscribe his name. On 30 January 1649 the King stepped from a window of London’s Banqueting House onto the scaffold and was beheaded before an incredulous crowd.

St Ives Bridge
St Ives Bridge © Andrew Dunn/Alamy

Cromwell pushed home gains by leading military campaigns to establish English control over Ireland (1649–50) and Scotland (1650–51), and to defeat Charles II and another Scottish-Royalist army at Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651). However, his massacre of defenders and civilians of Drogheda in 1649 and his order for similar action at Wexford spilled an indelible bloody stain on Cromwell’s reputation that Ireland would never forget.

Monarchy was abolished along with the House of Lords, and a Commonwealth was established. But unfortunately the so-called Rump Parliament dithered, failing to press ahead with radical social and constitutional reform, all the while locked in mutual hatred with the Army.

Cromwell, the only man strong enough to hold power and keep both sides in check, lost patience over lack of progress and forcibly dissolved Parliament in 1653. Later that year he proposed and received the office of Lord Protector – King in all but name. He agreed to rule with and through a Council of State and meet regularly with Parliament.

Warwick Castle
Warwick Castle © Skyscan Photolibrary/Alamy

The first Protectorate Parliament (1654) was elected on a wider franchise than ever before and included MPs from Scotland and Ireland for the first time. However, amid continuing factional unrest, Cromwell began to act more like a dictator, ruling by decree. His dictum, “Necessity hath no law”, seemed to justify his actions.

While Cromwell wielded authority, Parliament and Army were kept in creative tension and peace was largely maintained. Taxes, including those levied specifically against ex-Royalists, helped to stabilise finances, pay for a standing Army and for reforms. The Navy was also enlarged.

In religious matters Cromwell believed in ‘liberty of conscience’ and sought to create a broadly based national church while tolerating radical Protestant groups who remained outside but kept the peace. Jews were formally readmitted into the country for the first time since 1290.

Following Royalist insurrections in 1655, the Lord Protector appointed Major-Generals to oversee security across the regions and also to enforce the Protectorate’s ‘reformation of manners’: clamping down on everything from drunkenness to sexual immorality, and attempting to banish the more boisterous aspects of life, including theatres, horse-racing and excessive celebrations at Christmas. The strategy was deeply unpopular.

Parliament, increasingly worried by Cromwell’s arbitrary use of power, decided to – irony of ironies – offer him the kingship in 1657: a role that was known and circumscribed, unlike that of Lord Protector. Cromwell declined, saying, “I will not build Jericho again.” A year later, following illness, he died at the age of 59.

Statue of Oliver Cromwell at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster
Statue of Oliver Cromwell at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster © Mike Cumberbatch/Alamy

The Protectorate, dependent on Cromwell’s authority and on force not consent, now quickly unravelled as his nominated successor, his son Richard, proved unequal to the task. Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and the backlash against the republican hero began.

Cromwell was declared a traitor, his body hauled from Westminster Abbey and subjected to posthumous execution. Even today mystery surrounds the whereabouts of his remains, although his head was bequeathed in 1960 to his old Cambridge college where it is immured in the anti-chapel.

The country got on with life under the Merry Monarch Charles II, but Cromwell and the ideals of the Commonwealth were not so easily forgotten. If Cromwell had acted in a despotic manner, it was later argued, this was not due to self-righteous hypocrisy, but because the turbulent times demanded it. He was a sincere man of action who had sought compromise before violence, but wielded arms with conviction when required; a Romantics’ hero in the battle between good and evil; even a latterday Moses.

Reform had been patchy yet social order had been maintained; the republican experiment had failed but a decisive blow for the rights of Parliament had been struck on the way to fairer government that would include constitutional monarchy. As for the hero or villain conundrum, Cromwell’s famous statue outside London’s Houses of Parliament poses the question to MPs, Lords and passers-by every day, sounding silent warning.

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