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Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell was an English soldier and statesman who led parliamentary forces in the English Civil Wars. He was lord protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1653 to 1658 during the republican Commonwealth. As a general on the parliamentary side of the English Civil War vs. Charles I, Cromwell helped bring about the overthrow of the Stuart monarchy, and he raised his country’s status to that of a leading European power since the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Being a man with strong character made him one of the most remarkable rulers in modern European history.

Although he was a convinced Calvinist he believed deeply in the value of religious toleration. Cromwell’s victories at home and abroad helped to vitalize a Puritan attitude of mind, in Great Britain and in North America, which has continued to influence political and social life until recent times. (Gaunt, 1996) Cromwell, the only son of Robert Cromwell and Elizabeth Steward was born in Huntingdon, England in 1599. His father, who was active in local affairs, had been a member of one of Queen Elizabeth’s parliaments.

Robert Cromwell died when his son was 18, but his widow lived to the age of 89. Oliver went to the local grammar school and then for a year attended Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. After his father died he left Cambridge to go care for his mother and sisters but it is believed that he studies at Lincoln’s Inn in London, where gentlemen could acquire a smattering of law. In 1620 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir James Bourchier, a merchant in London. They had five sons and four daughters. (Kathe, 1984)

Both his father and mother were Protestants who had profited from the destruction of the monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII, and they probably influenced their son in his religious upbringing. Both his schoolmaster in Huntingdon and the Master of Sidney Sussex College were enthusiastic Calvinists and strongly anti-Catholic. In his youth Cromwell was not very studious, since he enjoyed outdoor sports, such as hunting; but he was an avid reader of the Bible, and he admired Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World.

Cromwell learned that the sins of man could be punished on earth but that God, through His Holy Spirit, could guide the elect into the paths of righteousness. (Kathe, 1984) In the early parts of his married life Cromwell, like his father, was quite conscious of his responsibilities to his fellow men and concerned himself with affairs in his native fenlands, but at the same time he had a spiritual and psychological struggle which confused him and damaged his health.

He was convinced that he had been “the chief of sinners” before he learned that he was one of God’s Chosen. (Kathe, 1984) Cromwell also had financial worries until, at the age of 39, he inherited property at Ely from his uncle. Like other lesser gentry, he contended with bad harvests and a variety of taxes and impositions, such as “ship money”, exacted by the monarchy not only to pay for the upkeep of the navy but also to sustain the luxuries of the court.

In 1628 he had been elected a member of Parliament for the borough of Huntingdon, but King Charles I dissolved this Parliament in 1629 and did not call it again for 11 years. (Gaunt, 1996) During this time, country gentlemen like Cromwell became annoyed. The Cromwell family was one of a mass of angry gentry who belonged to “the political nation”: for example, John Hampden, a wealthy squire who brought a case against the king over the levying of ship money, was Cromwell’s cousin.

Then in 1640 Cromwell was elected a member of the Parliament for the borough of Cambridge (partly because of the important social position he held in Ely and partly because of his fame as “Lord of the Fens,”) he found himself among many friends at Westminster who were highly critical of the monarchy. This “Short Parliament” did little since it was dissolved after three weeks, but, when in November 1640 Cromwell returned to Cambridge for the “Long Parliament”, which sat until 1653, his public career began. (Smith, 1991)

Cromwell had already become known as a fiery and somewhat uncouth Puritan, in the Parliament of 1628-29, when he had launched an attack on Charles I’s bishops. He believed that individual Christians could establish direct contact with God through prayer and that the purpose of the clergy was to inspire the laity by preaching. Thus he contributed out of his own pocket to the support of itinerant Protestant preachers and openly showed his dislike of the bishop at Ely. He criticized the bishop in the House of Commons and was appointed a member of a committee to investigate other complaints against him.

Cromwell distrusted the whole hierarchy of the Church of England, even though he was not opposed to a state church. He therefore advised abolishing the institution of the episcopate and the banning of a set ritual as prescribed in The Book of Common Prayer. He believed that Christian congregations should be allowed to choose their own ministers, who should serve them by preaching and extemporaneous prayer. Though he grieved over taxes, monopolies, and other such impositions on the people, it was his religion that made him oppose the King’s government.

In November 1641 when John Pym and his friends presented to King Charles I “Grand Remonstrance,” which consisted of over 200 clauses, among which was one censuring the bishops “and the corrupt part of the clergy in support of their “ecclesiastical tyranny,” Cromwell declared that had it not been passed by the House of Commons he would have left England. (Smith, 1991 & Gaunt, 1996) The Remonstrance was not accepted by the King, and the gap between him and his leading critics in the House of Commons widened.

A month later Charles vainly attempted to arrest five of them for treason, Cromwell was not yet very well known so he was not among these. But when in 1642 the King left London to raise an army, and England approached civil war, Cromwell began to distinguish himself not merely as an outspoken Puritan but also as a practical man capable of organization and leadership. In July he got permission from the House of Commons to allow his constituency of Cambridge to form and arm companies for defense.

In August he rode to Cambridge to prevent the colleges from sending their plate to be melted down for the benefit of the King, and when the war began he enlisted a whole troop of cavalry in Huntingdon. As a captain he made his first appearance with his troop at the end of the Battle of Edgehill (October 23, 1642) when Robert Devereux (3rd earl of Essex) was commander in chief for Parliament in the first part of the war. (Smith, 1991) In 1643 Cromwell got a reputation both as a military organizer and a fighting man.

From the beginning he insisted that the men who served for the parliament were carefully chosen and properly trained. He made it a point to find loyal and well-behaved men regardless of their religious beliefs or social status. Appointed a colonel in February, he began to recruit a first-class cavalry regiment. While he demanded good treatment and regular payment for his troopers, he was very strict. If they swore, they were fined; if drunk, put in the stocks; if they called each other Roundheads–thus endorsing the contemptuous epithet the Royalists applied to them; and if they deserted, they were whipped.

He train his own cavalrymen so well that he was able to check and re-form them after they charged in battle; that was one of Cromwell’s outstanding gifts as a fighting commander. (Sherwood, 1997) Throughout 1643 he served in the east which he knew so well. They formed a recognized center of parliamentary strength, but, unwilling to stay on the defensive, Cromwell was determined to stop the invasion of Yorkshire Royalists into the eastern counties and decided to counterattack. By re-forming his men in a moment of crisis, he won the Battle of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire on July 28.

On the same day he was appointed governor of the Isle of Ely, a province that was thought of as a possible bastion against advancing Royalists. In fact, however, Cromwell, fighting with General Sir Thomas Fairfax, succeeded in halting the royalist attacks at Winceby in Lincolnshire and then successfully besieged Newark in Nottinghamshire. He was now able to persuade the House of Commons to create a new army, which would not merely defend eastern England but would leave and attack the enemy. (Sherwood, 1997) This new army was formed under the command of Edward Montagu, 2nd earl of Manchester, in 1644.

Appearing in the House of Commons, Cromwell accused some of his fellow officers of being incompetent or of being profane and loose in their conduct. Although not all members of the House of Commons approved of Cromwell’s using his political position to hurt other officers, his friends backed him, and in 1644 he was appointed Manchester’s second in command. After an alliance had been concluded with the Scots, he was also appointed a member of the Committee of Both Kingdoms, which was responsible for the overall strategy of the Civil War.

But since he was engaged during the campaigning season, Cromwell took little part in its deliberations. (Sherwood, 1997) After Manchester’s army had stormed Lincoln in 1644, it marched north to join the Scots and the Yorkshire parliamentarians at the siege of York. But Charles I’s commander in chief, Prince Rupert, raised the siege. He was, however, defeated in the Battle of Marston Moor, July 2, 1644, which gave northern England to Parliament. Cromwell had again distinguished himself in battle, and when Manchester’s army returned to eastern England to rest, Cromwell criticized his superior officer for his slowness and lethargy.

He did not believe that Manchester really wanted to win the war, and in mid-September he laid his complaints before the Committee of Both Kingdoms. The fight between the two commanders was patched up, but after defeat at Newbury it began again. (Sherwood, 1997) Cromwell now gave his detailed complaint about Manchester’s military conduct in the House of Commons. Manchester responded by attacking Cromwell in the House of Lords. It was even planned to impeach Cromwell as an incendiary. Once again these quarrels were patched up.

In December 1644, Cromwell proposed that in the future no members of either house of Parliament should be allowed to hold commands or offices in the armed forces; his proposal was accepted, and it was also agreed that a new army should be made under the control of Sir Thomas Fairfax. The post of second in command was left open, and, when the Civil War reached its climax in the summer of 1645, Fairfax insisted that Cromwell should be given it. He fought at the battles of Naseby and Langport, where Charles I’s last two field armies were destroyed.

In January 1646 the House of Commons awarded Cromwell 2,500 a year in Royalist land for his services and renewed his commission for a further six months. Thus he was able to join Fairfax in the siege of Oxford, from which Charles I escaped before surrender. (Gaunt, 1996) Cromwell was delighted with how the war had gone since Fairfax had taken command of the new army and the lethargic earls of Essex and Manchester had been removed from command. He attributed these victories to the mercy of God and demanded that the men who had served the country so faithfully should be rewarded.

After Naseby he wrote to the Speaker of the House of Commons urging that these men should not be discouraged: “He that ventures his life for the liberty of his country, I wish he trust God for the liberty of his conscience, and you for the liberty he fights for. ” But, as soon as the war was over, the House of Commons wanted to disband the army as cheaply and quickly as possible. Disappointed, Cromwell told Fairfax in March 1647 that “never were the spirits of men more embittered than now.

He devoted himself to trying to reconcile the Parliament with the army and was appointed a parliamentary commissioner to offer terms on which the army could be disbanded except for those willing to take part in a campaign to Ireland. When the civilian leaders in the House of Commons decided that they could not trust the army and ordered it disbanded, and hired a Scottish army to protect them, Cromwell, who never liked the Scots and thought that the English soldiers were being badly treated, left London and on threw in his lot with his fellow soldiers.

For the remainder of the year he attempted to find a peaceful resolution for the kingdom’s problems, but his task seemed impossible, and soon his faith was called into question. The army was growing more and more restive, and on the day Cromwell left London, a party of soldiers captured Charles I. Cromwell and his son-in-law, Henry Ireton, interviewed the King twice, trying to persuade him to agree to a settlement that they intended to submit to Parliament. At that time Cromwell was touched by the Kings devotion to his children.

His main task was to overcome the general feeling in the army that neither the King nor Parliament could be trusted. When General Fairfax led the army toward the houses of Parliament in London, Cromwell still insisted that the authority of Parliament must be upheld; in September he also resisted a proposal in the House of Commons that no further addresses should be made to the King. Just over a month later he took the chair at meetings of the General Council of the Army and assured them that he was not committed to any particular form of government and had not had any underhand dealings with the King.

On the other hand, he opposed extremist measures such as the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords and the introduction of a more democratic constitution. But Cromwell’s efforts to act as a mediator came to nothing when Charles I escaped from Hampton Court Palace, where he had been kept in captivity, and fled to the Isle of Wight to open negotiations with Scottish commissioners offering to restore him to the throne. On January 3, 1648, Cromwell abandoned his previous position and, telling the House of Commons that the King was obstinate, agreed to a vote of no addresses, which was carried.

The Royalists took up arms again and the Second Civil War began. (Gaunt, 1996) General Fairfax ordered Cromwell into Wales to crush a rising there then sent him north to fight the Scottish army that invaded England in June. Though his army was to the Scots and northern Royalists, he defeated them both in a campaign in Lancashire; then entered Scotland to restore order; finally he returned to Yorkshire and took charge of the siege of Pontefract. The correspondence he conducted during the siege with the governor of the Isle of Wight, who kept watch on the King, reveals that he was increasingly turning against Charles.

Parliaments commissioners had been sent to the island to make one final effort to reach an agreement with the King, but Cromwell told the governor that the King was not to be trusted and that concessions over religion must not be granted. (Sherwood, 1997) While Cromwell lingered in the north, his son-in-law, Ireton, and other officers in the south took decisive action. They drew up a remonstrance to Parliament complaining about the negotiations in the Isle of Wight and demanding the trial of the King as a Man of Blood. While Cromwell felt uncertain about his own views, he admitted that his army agreed with the army in the south.

Fairfax now ordered him to return to London; but Ireton and his colleagues had removed, from the House of Commons, all members who favored continuing negotiations with the King. Cromwell asserted that he had not been acquainted with the plan to purge the House, “yet since it was done, he was glad of it, and would endeavor to maintain it. ” Hesitating up to the last moment, Cromwell, finally accepted Charles’s trial as an act of justice. He was one of the 135 commissioners in the High Court of Justice and, when the King refused to plead, he signed the death warrant.3

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