1902 Encyclopedia > Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell
English soldier, statesman and Lord Protector of the Commonwealth
(1599-1658)




OLIVER CROMWELL, Lord Protector of the British Commonwealth, was born at Huntingdon, 25th April 1599. His father, Robert Cromwell, was the second son of Sir Henry Cromwell of Hinchinbrook, surnamed, for his munificence, The Golden Knight. His mother,1 Elizabeth Steward, was the daughter of a gentleman of some property in the city of Ely. The connection of the Cromwell family with that of the celebrated Thomas Cromwell, earl of Essex and of the Stewards with the royal line of Scotland, is not without interest.2 The stories of Cromwell’s youthful visions and adventures, his violence and profligacy, are derived from the most questionable authority, and are little worthy of serious notice. The authentic facts of his early history seem to be confined to these,—that he was educated at Huntingdon grammar-school, under a rigid and pious instructor, Dr Thomas Beard; on 22d April 1616 he was admitted a fellow-commoner of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge; on his father’s death in June 1617 he left the university, carrying away at least as much Latin as enabled him in after years to make occasional use of that languages; and soon after he proceeded to London to gain some knowledge of law. There is no proof that he ever attended any of the inns of court; and regarding his life in London, and the limits of his residence there, we are equally destitute of information. On 22d August 1620 he was married at St Giles’s Church, Cripplegate, to Elizabeth, daughter of Sir James Bourchier of Felsted, in Essex, a woman of very amiable and prudent character, whose gentle virtues sweetened his domestic life to its close, and amid all outward vicissitudes.1 He now returned to Huntingdon, and assumed the management of his patrimonial estate; and in the quiet routine of a farmer’s life fulfilled for nearly then years, without any incident chronicled in history, the ordinary duties of a country gentleman. We are left to imagine, so far as we can, the silent and unnoticed growth of a great soul, limited as yet in its outgoings to the cares of a farm,—the thoughts that struggled and sank to rest in the stillness of home,—the powerful religious convictions, the "splenetic fancies," the deep fits of melancholy, that ultimately resulted in an open profession of Christianity, and a steady adherence thenceforward to that strict and earnest form of it which had received from its enemies the derisive name of Puritanism. The house of Oliver Cromwell became from this time a resort of "godly men;" and in their prayers and preachings, their interests and their grievances, he took a zealous and active part. On 17th March 1628 he took his seat in the House of Commons as member for Huntingdon. The increasing influence of Puritanism, reacting against the arbitrary and ceremonies tendencies of the king, was powerfully exhibited in the transactions of this brief but memorable Parliament. On 11th Februay 1629, a few weeks before the close of its second session, Cromwell made his first recorded speech,calling the attention of the House to the scandalous fact "that Dr Alablaster had preached flat popery at Paul’s Cross" and even been encouraged therein by his diocesan; while "Mainwaring, so justly censured by this House for his sermons, was by the same bishop’s means preferred to a rich living." "If these," he said," are the steps to church preferment, what are we to expert?" "It is amusing," remarks Mr Hume, "to observe the first words of this fanatical hypocrite, corresponding so exactly to his character." The correspondence is remarkable enough; but those who have formed a different estimate of Cromwell from that of the skeptical historian may find more than amusement in this first sound of "the imperial voice" which in after days "arrested the sails of the Libyan pirates and the persecuting fires of Rome."2

About two years after this Cromwell sold his lands in Huntingdon, and stocked a grazing farm at St Ives, where he resided for five years. In 1636 he removed to Ely, where he had succeeded to the property of his uncle, Sir Thomas Steward. Events meantime were tending to a great crisis. His first cousin, John Hampden, had on the 11th January in this year refused to pay his "ship-money;" in the streets of London, in the midst of pale crowds, good men were being mutilated, branded, and pilloried; Scotland had risen in a flame against a forced episcopacy, and the patience of England was drawing near exhaustion. In April 1638 sentence was delivered against Hampden. The spirit of residence rose with each new check. In his own district Cromwell has now some opportunity for its exercise, and that victoriously. The great work of draining the fens and completing the Bedford Level had proceeded successfully, till the interference of royal commissioners excited a general outcry of dissatisfaction. Cromwell took an active part in the opposition; and his successful zeal in the business procured him the popular title of "Lord of the fens." In April 1640 a new Parliament met, in which he took his seat as member for Cambridge. In three weeks it was dissolved. Another was summoned for the 3d November, which became ever memorable in history as the "Long Parliament." Cromwell against sat for Cambridge. On his share in its proceedings for about two years there is little record. That he was an active member there can be no question. One interesting glimpse we obtain from the graphic narrative of Sir Philip Warwick. It brings before us a Monday morning, early in November 1640, when the writer, then a "a courtly young gentleman," came into the House, "well clad," and found a remarkable figure in possession of the House, "a gentleman whom I knew not, very ordinary appareled," his linen "plain and not very clean," his stature" of a good size, his sword stuck close to his side, his countenance swoln and reddish, his voice sharp and untunable, and his eloquence full of fervour." This personage was pleading, and amid considerable attention, on behalf of a troublesome young man of the name of Lilburne, amanuensis to Mr Prynne, who had disperst libels against the queen for her dancing and such like innocent courtly sports." The impression made on the gay young courtier was anything but favourable. "I sincerely profess," he says, "it lessened much my reverence unto that great council, for this gentleman was very much hearkened unto."

The inevitable rupture at length took place, and the king and Parliament made their appeal to the sword. On 12th January 1642 Charles left Whitehall to return no more till the day of his execution. Military preparations on both sides began; and now, at the mature age of forty-three, Oliver Cromwell girded on his armour, and, with his eldest son Oliver3 by his side, left his quiet home and farm to fight for England’s liberty. With no knowledge of the art of war, but much of himself , of men, and of the Bible, this stout English squire had made up his mind in no hasty or factious spirit to draw the sword against his king, and venture his life for what he believed with his whole heart and soul to be the cause of "freedom and the truth in Christ." Out of his moderate fortune he subscribed £500 "fro the service of the commonwealth;" £100 more he expected on arms; and during the summer he was actively engaged in raising volunteers. His first exploit was to seize the magazine in the castle at Cambridge, and prevent the carrying away of the university plate to help the royal exchequer. IN September he received his commission as captain of a troop of horse. In the first campaign the royal troops generally had the advantage, Cromwell already knew in his own person wherein lay the strength of Puritanism, and the secret of its success. He spoke on the subject to his cousin Hampden. "Old decayed serving men and tapsters," and such "base mean fellows," he said, "could never encounter gentlemen and persons of quality." To match "men of honour" they must have "men who had the fear of God before them," and would "make some conscience of what they did." "A few honest men," he elsewhere said, "are better than numbers." Mr Hampden thought his cousin "talked a good notion, but an impracticable one." To turn "good notions" into facts, however, was the characteristic work of Cromwell,—"impracticable" being a word for which we may suppose him to have had as little tolerance as Napoleon. On this principle of selection accordingly he gradually enlisted around him a regiment of 1000 men, whose title of "Ironsides" has become famous in history. "They never were beaten." "Had his history," says Mr Forster, "closed with the raising and disciplining of these men, it would have left a sufficient warrant of his greatness to posterity."





During the winter associations for mutual defence were formed among the counties. Of these the "Eastern Association" alone, through the prompt and indefatigable of Cromwell, proved really efficient. During the spring of 1643, having now attained the rank of colonel, he employed himself in quelling all royalist attempts throughout the association, giving them the final blow by the capture of Lowestoft, with a consideration body of influential royalist and a large supply of warlike stores. His services were next devoted to Lincolnshire, and with similar success. Towards the end of July the marquis of Newcastle, after his victory at Atherto Moor, advanced with a large army against Gainborough, which was garrisoned by a small Parlimentary force under Lord Willoughby. Cromwell threw himself between the town an the enemy’s van. Under General Cavendish, forced his way up a sandy eminence, in the face of a body three times superior in number to his own, and drove them in total rout down the other side. Their commander, an accomplished young nobleman, was killed on the spot. "This victory," says Whitelocke, "was the beginning of Cromwell’s great fortunes, and now he began to appear in the world." The other Parliamentary leaders, meantime, had met with a series of humiliating reverses, and at the close of the summer the popular canse seemed to imminent peril. In August the earl of Manchester took the command of the Eastern Association, with Cromwell as one of his colonels. On 9th October they effected a junction with Fairfax at Boston, and on the 11th Cromwell and Fairfax encountered the royal force under Sir John Henderson on the field of Winceby, near Horncastle. Cromwell led the van, which advanced to the battle singing psalms. His horse was killed in the first charge, and fell upon him. As he rose he was again struck down, but recovering himself be mounted a "sorry horse" belonging to a trooper, and mingled in the fight. The enemy gave way at the first onset, and were pursued with terrible slaughter for many miles. During the remainder of this season Cromwell was occupied in attending to the security of the Eastern Association, in raising funds, and settling public affairs in Ely, of which he had some months previously been appointed governor.

On 10th April 1644 the Scotch Covenanted army of 21,000 men under Lesley, earl of Leven, united with Fairfax at Wetherby, and proceeded to invest York. They were presently joined by Manchester and Cromwell, now lieutenant-general and second in command. On hearing of this, Prince Rupert hurried from Lancashire at the head of 20,000 men, and relieved York. The Parliamentary army raised the siege, drew out to meet the enemy on Marston Moor, and on the evening of the 2d July gave a deathblow to the royal cause in the north of England. To Cromwell belonged the chief glory of the victory. While the right wing under Fairfax was overpowered by the furious onset of Prince Rupert, Cromwell carried all before him on the left, and suddenly wheeling round, charged the victorious cavalry of Rupert with such overwhelming force that they were "swept off the field,"—"God made them as stubble to our swords." In the west, on the other hand, Essex and Waller succeeded only in losing their armies. The Parliament, still confiding in these generals, granted them fresh forces, and summoned Manchester and Cromwell to join them. On 27th October they met the king at Newbury, and a sanguinary conflict ensued, with dubious success. During the night the king effected a safe retreat. Cromwell urged Manchester to pursue him, but in vain. Twelve days thereafter, the king and Prince Rupert returned, revictualled Dennington Castle, and carried off their artillery. Cromwell again pressed Manchester to attack the, but the timid earl was immovable. The fruit of these disagreements was a rupture, ending in important results. On 25th November Cromwell, having been called upon to give an account of the affair at Newbury, charged Manchester in the House of Commons with neglect of the Parliamentary interests; and on the 9th December openly urged the necessity of remodeling the army. The "self-denying ordinance,’ discharging members of Parliament from military offices, and permitting enlistment without the signing of the Covenants, was finally passed on 3d April 1645. Meantime Fairfax had been nominated general, the ‘new model’ was passed, and the raising of troops and remodeling of the old army proceeded with activity.

The wisdom of these charges was proved by the triumphant result of the next campaign. Cromwell’s services were by this time felt to be indispensable. He accordingly received a dispensation from the self-denying ordinance, and was hastily dispatched (April 23) to intercept a force of 2000 men sent by Rupert to convoy the king from Oxford to Worcester. On the second day he attacked and routed them at Islip Bridge, took Bletchington House on the same day, and on the 26th gained another victory at Radcot Bridge. On 31st May the king suddenly stormed Leicester; the southward movement of his army exposed the eastern counties to imminent danger; and Fairfax, appealed to help, immediately solicited the appointment of Cromwell as his lieutenant-general. The request was granted, and Cromwell, collecting 6000 chosen, horse, joined the camp at Northampton without the loss of an house, amid the acclamations of the whole army. Decisive action attended his presence; on the very day following, June 14, 1645, the royal army was beaten to pieces on the filed of Naseby, and the first civil war virtually brought to an end. Cromwell and his Ironsides decided as usual the fate of the day. Proceeding victoriously south-westward, the Parliamentary army encountered the "Clubmen," a new and somewhat formidable party in the royal interest. At Shaftesbury Cromwell dispersed a large body of them, after which they appeared no more. On 11th September Bristol was stormed; and again turning southward the army took every town and stronghold in its way. Cromwell particularly distinguished himself by his sieges. Basing House, the residence of the marquis of Winchester, had for four years defied all besiegers, and was regarded by the royalists as impregnable. On 14th October Cromwell wrote to the speaker—"I thank God I can give you a good account of Basing." He had stormed it that morning at 6 o’clock, having, says Hugh Peters, "spent much time with God in prayer the night before." A few more such successes ended the campaign and the war. On 22d April 1646 Cromwell returned to his place in Parliament, and was received with the most distinguished honours.





During the next two years, he resided for the most part in London, taking a due share in the negotiations with the king, an din the important contest between the Presbyterians and Independents, represented respectively by the city and army, which ended in the triumph of the latter. On the one side the support of the army was felt to be now an unnecessary burden, while the fact that so many of the soldiers had never taken the Covenant was displeasing to the strict Presbyterians, especially to those who had held commands in the old army. On the other side it was regarded as a most hazardous policy to disband the army without any surer guarantee for the nation’s peace than the promises of the king. The formed chaims of the soldiers, however, were forty-three weeks’ arrears of pay, indemnity for acts done in the war, and discharge according to contract. After much unsatisfactory negotiation, the celebrated rendezvous or army convocation took place (June 10, 1467) on Triploe Heath near Cambridge. The Parliamentary commissioners were saluted in every regiment with the cry "Justice! Justice!" On the same day a letter signed by the general (Fairfax) and chief officers was despatched to the mayor and corporation of London. It expressed in moderate language their desires, containing at the same time the significant intimation that "for the obtaining of these things we are drawing near your city." A succession of events, varied by the advance and retreat of the army as the Parliament resisted or yielded, ended in the entry of the army into London, August 6,m after having received full satisfaction of all its demands. On 12th November the king escaped form Hampton Court, leaving the Parliamentary leaders convinced, after months of fruitless negotiation, of the hopelessness of further treating with him. On 3d January 1648 it was decided that there should be no more addresses to his Majesty. In March new came from Scotland that a royalists army under the duke of Hamilton was preparing to invade England. The smouldering elements of insurrection now broke out. In London an alarming riot was only crushed by "a desperate charge of cavalry." Similar risings in Norwich, Canterbury, Exeter, &c., were put only down by Fairfax. A more formidable revolt took place in Wales, and thither Cromwell was ordered to hasten. On 11th May he took the town of Chepstew, and after a protracted siege Pembroke Castle was surrendered to him on 11th July. Having settled Wales, Cromwell now hastened northwards and joined Lambert in Yorkshire. Hamilton, with 17,000 Scots, and Sir Marmaduke Langdale, with 4000 Yorkshiremen, were advancing in loose combination into Lancashire. Cromwell, marching westward at the head of 8600 men, attacked them at Preston on 17th August. The rout and chase extended over three days, at the end of which Hamilton’s army was a total wreck. 2000 men were slain, and 10,000 (the duke himself in the number) made prisoners. So rapid and unexpected had been the movement of Cromwell, that Hamilton did not know till the close of the first day with what enemy he had been engaged. Following up this amazing success, Cromwell proceeded northward by Durham and Berwick across the border. On 4th October he entered Edinburgh, where he was welcomed with enthusiasm. During two days he lodged in "the earl of Murrie’s house, in the Canningate," receiving visits from persons of distinction ; and on the day of his departure he was entertained to a sumptuous banguet in the castle. Having received satisfactory guarantees of future amity, he took his departure on the 17th October, leaving Scotland "in a thriving posture." And "like to be a better neighbour than when the greater pretenders to the Covenant, and religion, and treatise, had the power in their hands." Returning by Carlisle, which was delivered up according to agreement with the Scots, he laid siege to Pontefract Castle. It held or stubbornly. On 6th December, the day of "Pride’s Purge," having left Lambert to conduct the siege, Cromwell arrived in London, and on the morrow received the thanks of the House for his services. During the following month he sat assiduously in the High Court of Justice for trying the king; and after the execution was nominated to the new council of state.

The critical state of Ireland now demanded the most vigorous measures,—the whole country, with the exception of Dublin and Derry, having through the exertions of Ormond, been roused into open war against the Commonwealth. On 15th March 1649 Cromwell was nominated lord-lieutenant for Ireland. Some work, however, still remained to be done at home. The wild doctrines of the Levellers, propagated mainly through the restless activity of John Lilburne, had made dangerous way in the army. The flame of discontent soon broke out into open mutiny at the various headquarters. By prompt activity, and a just exercise of "vigour and clemency," Cromwell and Fairfax quelled this alarming insurrection; two or three of the ringleaders were shot; the rest were admonished and submitted. On 10th July Cromwell left London in great state, and after some weeks spent in preparations at Bristol, embarked at Milford Haven, August 13,—"followed," as Milton tells us, "by the well-wished of the people, and the prayers of all good men." He landed in Dublin on the 18th, and was received with the most lively demonstrations of joy. On 3s September he appeared before Tredah (Droheda), which Ormond had garrisoned with 3000 of his best troops. On the 10th Cromwell batteries began to play, and the governor received a summons to surrender. It was rejected, and the bombardment proceeded. Next day a breach was made, and the storming party entered , but met with a vigorous repulse. Cromwell, witnessing this from the batteries, hastily headed a second assault drove in the enemy, and, "being in the heat of the action." Put the whole garrison without mercy to the sword. "I am persuaded," he wrote in his dispatch, "that this is a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood; and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood in the future. Which are the satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise cannot but work regret and remorse." "The execrable policy of that regicide," says Carte, "had the effect he proposed. It spread abroad the terror of his name." Towns and garrisons were yielded up in rapid succession; and, with the exception of Wexford, where a similar slaughter took place (October 11), the subsequent effusion of blood in Ireland was comparatively small. The arm of resistance had been thoroughly paralyzed. On 2d December Cromwell retired to winter quarters. Before resuming the campaign, he issued, in answer to a manifesto from an assembly of the Popish hierarchy at Clonmacnoise, a "Declaration for the Undeceiving of Deluded and Seduced People," In this remarkable document Cromwell, with rude but masterly hand, tears up the sounding pretences of the hierarchy, points to the true causes of Ireland’s miseries, rebuts the charges of "massacre" and extirpation," and invites the inhabitants of Ireland to submit peaceably to the Commonwealth, with assurance of inviolate protection in their just rights and liberties. These promises were no empty words’ the results of Cromwells conquest and government in Ireland were a general peace and prosperity, admitted, even by his bitterest enemies, to be without example in the previous history of that misgoverned country. On 29th January 1650 he again too the field. Success everywhere attained him and his lieutenants. At Clonnel 2000 men of Ulster made a last desperate effort in the royal cause. After a fierce and gallant resistance the place was stormed, and surrendered on 9th May. Cromwell had some time previously received orders to return to England; and having thus, within the brief space of nine months, reduced a hostile kingdom to comparative obedience, he sailed for England, leaving Ireton as his deputy, and entered London in triumph on 31st May.

The threatening aspects of affairs in Scotland had hastened his recall. Charles, willing "to sign anything," had taken the Covenant, and forces were being raised against the Commonwealth. The command of the northern expedition was offered to Fairfax, but he declined to act against the Scottish Presbyterians, save in the event of their invading England; and on 26th June Cromwell was nominated captain-general of all the forces of the Commonwealth. He made his preparations with his usual promptitude, and on the 29th marches from London,—Lambert, Fleetwood him. On 23d July he crossed the border at Berwick. The inhabitants everywhere fled at his approach, the clergy having represented the English invaders as "sectaries and blasphemers," monsters of the world." Who would "put all the men to the sword, and thrust hot irons through the women’s breast." By dint, however, of encouraging proclamations, combined with the extreme discipline preserved in the army, the confidence of the people was gradually restored. On 28th July Cromwell encamped at Musselburgh. The Scotch army, commanded by David Lesley, as superior to the English in numbers us it was inferior in discipline, lay strongly fortified between Edinburgh and Leith. On the second day after the arrival of Cromwell the enemy made a vigorous sally, but were repulsed with loss. "This," wrote Cromwell to the president of the council, "is a sweet beginning of your business, or rather the Lords." Lesley, however, was not to be drawn into an open encounter. Fabius himself was not more skilful in wearing out by cautions manoeuvring the patience of an enemy. During a whole month Cromwell marched an countermarched round Edinburgh, in vain attempting to provoke a battle, his supplies failing, the season advancing, and sickness reducing his men "beyond imagination." Declarations and responses, with no satisfaction on either side, had meanwhile passed between him and the Scotch commissioners. On 31st August he left Musselburgh, and fell back upon Dunbar, where his ships lay. Lesley immediately hastened to cut off his retreat, and, passing closely in the rear, took possession of the heights above Dunbar, and the only pass that left a southward opening to the enemy. Thus hemmed in, the sea behind, the enemy encircling him on the hills, 23,00 strong, his own men reduced by sickness from 14,000 to 11,000, Cromwell’s good fortune seemed, on the 2d September 1650, to have at length forsaken him. "Before the fight," he afterwards wrote to Ireton, "our condition was made very sad, the enemy greatly insulted and menaced us." Not even then, however, did his strong trust in God and in himself for a moment desert him. "He was a strong man," said one who knew him; "in the dark perils of war, in the high places of the field, hope shone in him like a pillar of fire, when it had gone out in all the others." "In the mount the Lord would be seen ; He would find out a way of deliverance and salvation."_ On the afternoon of that gloomy day, Cromwell, reconnoitering the enemy’s position, saw that Lesley was moving his forces to the right, and "shogging" down his right wing to more open ground, At once recognizing the advantage this offered for "attempting upon the enemy," he decided, after consulting his officers, to begin the attack on the morrow before dawn. The battle, however, did not begin till six. The "dispute" was hot on the right for about an hour, when Cromwell’s own regiment came to charge, and "at the push pf pike" drove in "the stoutest regiment " of the enemy. At that moment the sun’s beams broke out through the morning mist, over the hills, and the sea, and the flashing lines of steel. Then was Oliver heard to say, in the words of the Psalmist," Let God arise, let his enemies be scaterred!" Horse and foot now charged resistlessly on every side; the Scottish ranks tells back in wild confusion, wracked and scattered in tumultuous flight. Before 9 o’clock 3000 of them were slain, and 10,000 prisoner’s, with all their baggage, train, and artillery, were in the hands of the English, who "lost not thirty men."

He now took possession of Edilburgh, where he spent the most of the winter and spring. The city clergy had shut themselves up in the castle, and refused on his invitation to return to their flocks. Some correspondence ensued; in the course of which the general showed himself rather more than a match for the theologians even on their own ground In February a deputation from Oxford came to inform him of his election as chancellor of the university. Shortly after we find him pleading in behalf of a "pious and laudable scheme" for establishing a college at Durham. About this time he was seized with a dangerous illness, brought on by exposure to wet and cold, which, after a temporary convalescence, broke out in several relapses. The Council of State expressed their consideration by sending two physicians from London to attend him. In the interval he spent ten days in Glasgow, where he held a friendly conference with some of the leading Presbyterian ministers. The Scotch army meantime lay intrenched at Torwood, near Stirling. Towards the end of June, Cromwell, having recovered from his illness, moved westward. Finding the enemy too strong to be dislodged, he sent a portion of his army under Lambert across the Firth. At Inverkeithing they defeated a large body of the enemy, killing about 2000 men. Inchgarvie and Burntisland soon after surrendered to Monk; and Cromwell, crossing with his army to Fife, marched upon Perth, which surrendered on the second day. Charles, finding his supplies thus cut off, determined on a bold stroke, and breaking up his camp, marched into England. Cromwell, leaving Monk behind him, sent his light horse in advance, under Lambert, joined by Harrison, and followed at some distance. The tidings of the royal movement excited great alarm in London and it was even suspected that the general had betrayed the Commonwealth. Crowmell, not unaware that such fears would arise, wrote to the Parliament simply relating the facts, and expressing full confidence of success. The militia flocked to his standard all along his march; and by the time he reached Worcester he found himself at the head of upwards of 30,000 men. There, on the 3d of September 1654, the anniversary of Dunbar, after a fierce and unequal contests, the Scotch army was shivered into ruin, and the last hope of royalism buried. "The dimensions of this mercy," said Cromwell in his dispatch, "are above my thoughts. It is, for aught I know, a crowning mercy."

At this point Cromwell’s career as a soldier ends, and the events of his life become identified with the general history of Britain. After the battle of Worcester, the management of Scotland, where his deputy Monk had been completely successful in crushing royalism, naturally fell under the chief direction of Cromwell. That country was now united to the Commonwealth by Act of Parliament; a small army distributed in garrisons preserved the peace of the country; justice was strictly administered; the affairs of the church were committed to a commission of pious and judicious ministers; and during the while period of Cromwell’s government Scotland prospered under the strict but beneficent rule. In the interval between the battle of Worcester and the dismissal of the "Rump" Parliament, Cromwell too no continuously visible part in public affairs. The general opinion among historians seems to be that during these nineteen months the ambitious general was busily occupied in the course of profound dissimulation and intrigue which had marked his whole career, and that as the premeditated result of the selfish scheme of usurpation which had lurked darkly in his bosom even on the banks of the Ouse, he entered the House of Commons on 20th April 1653, expelled the Parliament, and assumed the reins of power. There views may be left untouched; certain it is that the great assembly that moulded the Commonwealth had now, at the end of twelve years, exhausted its vitality, and dwindled into a numeral fragment of a Parliament, and a mere mockery of representative government. It had become in fact an oligarchy, which absorbed to itself not merely the whole administration of public affairs, but the control of many private interests. Their "only serious occupation to maintain themselves in power, and defend themselves against their enemies."1 These men wasted months in debating questions of more technicality, and prolonged time after time the duration of their power, after the voice of the nation, so far as it was capable of being interpreted, had pronounced it intolerable. After months of discussion and delay, they had completed their measure for electing a new Parliament, professedly with the view of laying down their power into the hands of their successor, when it was found that by this act the members of the exiting Parliament were to be de jure members of the new, and to constitute a committee for deciding on the admission of their successors! On the morning of 20th April, Cromwell, being informed that this measure was getting hurried through the House, entered with his troopers, and dissolved the Parliament. By that daring act he became the sole head of power in the nation, and nothing was left him but to use it as wisely and firmly as he could. The consequences of that act left him thenceforth no honourable retreat had he desired it. One strong had was needed to give consistency and unity to the action of the state, alike in its internal and its foreign relations; and, from the hour that Cromwell seized and helm, the ship of the Commonwealth rode the waves, if not without straining or accident, yet with a proud and steady march. Few tears were shed for the departed "statement," the nation quietly submitted, if it did not positively approve; the business of the state went on without interruption; the leaders of the army and navy, many of them ardent republicans, continued at their posts, sinking their private opinions in their concern for the country’s good. As soon as possible, summonses were issued in Cromwel’s name to 140 "persons of approved fidelity and honesty," selected from the nation by himself and his council to act as a Parliamentary in the existing emergency. This extraordinary assembly met on the 4th of July. The old and vulgar charge against them, as a herd of mean and contemptible fanatics, is of a piece, with the general run of historic portraitures of Cromwell himself, and has been sufficiently answered even by writers who have little favour for him. They were in fact a body of most sincere and earnest men, only too eager and comprehensive in their efforts to accomplish a national reformation.

They attempted too much; they aroused a storm of hostility from the classes whose interests they threatened; they bowed before it; interval dissensions and intrigue hastened their fall; and on 12th December they resigned their power into the hands of Cromwell, who now found himself in the solemn position of beingn the uncontrolled arbiter of the peace and safety of Britain. Earnestly desirious, as he throughout evinced himself, of giving his country a stable and constitutional government, he was willing now rather than that England should sink into the abyss of anarchy, to brave the dangers and the odium that attach to the name of a ursurper. Four days after the resignation of the "Little Parliament," it was openly proclaimed that Oliver Cromwel had been invested with the office of supreme governor of the British Commonwealth under the title of "Lord Protector;" and on 16th December 1653 he was solemnly installed in Westminster Hall.

All the chief courts of Europe sent their congratulations to the new sovereign, and soon they were made to feel and bow to his power. A Parliament was summoned for the 3d of September 1654; and in the meantime Oliver and his council proceeded with vigour in the settlement of domestic and foreign affairs. "in less than nine months," says M. Guizot, "eighty-two ordinance, bearing upon almost every part of the social organization of the country, bore witness to the intelligent activity and to the character, at once conservative and reformatory, of the Government." Of these it is sufficient to mention the partial reform of the Court of Chancery, and the settlement of ecclesiastical affairs by the commission of "Triers," a body of able and pious men who, by the impartial testimony of Baxter, "did abundance of good to the Church." A plot, the first of many, to assassinate the Protector, was discovered in the month of July. The principal conspirators, Gerard and Vowel, were executed; and on the same day, as a terrible example to Europe of British justice, Don Pantaleon, Sa, brother of the Portuguese ambassador, was publicly beheaded for his share in the murder of an English citizen. On the 3d September the Parliament met. The Protector had already concluded peace with the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Portugal; and a treaty with France was proceeding hopefully towards settlement. The Parliament began business by deliberating whether they should approve the newly established frame of government—in other words, by calling in question the authority which had called them together. Oliver at once hastened to set them right. "I told you," he said, "that you were a ‘free Parliament," but I though it was understood withal that I was the Protector and the authority that called you?" He concluded an earnest and powerful address by requiring them to sign a document pledging themselves to acknowledge the existing government. One hundred and fifty of the republican members refused to sign, and withdrew. The rest resumed their sitting; but their subsequent proceedings were scarcely more satisfactory than their inauspicious commencement. Instead of accepting as a fact the power of the Protector, and aiding him in the work of government, they occupied themselves interposing as many checks as they could to his influence. Deeply grieved at the failure of each successive attempt to govern by constitutional means, Cromwell was not therefore discouraged. If parliaments would not help hi, he was determined to govern without them. His scheme of "Major-generals" followed,—"a little poor invention," as he called it, for preserving order in the country, and crushing the now imminent attempt at a combination between the Royalists and the Levellers. Though arbitrary, and in many instances oppressive, this scheme accomplished the great end of its establishment—the preservation of the country’s peace.

But while the enemies of peace and order at home were made to fell the invincible power of his government, it was in his relations with foreign states that the commanding genius of Oliver was most conspicuously displayed. No monarch ever so sustained in the eyes if Europe the majesty of the British power. The grand object of his foreign policy was to unite the Protestant states, with Britain at their head, in a defensive league against Popery, then as now the enemy of the civil and religious liberty. Spain, "the great underpropper of the Roman Babylon," the natural enemy of the honest interest," he determined to humble, and in due to time he did. With France, less subject to the yoke of Rome, he allied himself, making such terms as he pleased, extorting from the crafty Mazarin,1a prince of the Church of Rome, protection for Rome’s enemies, and full pardon for offences committed against her in the heart of France itself! In the summer of 1655 the persecution of the Protestants in the valleys of Piedmont afforded an occasion for displaying in the noblest light the greatness of the Protector and the nation which he represented. The tidings of these cruel oppressions affected the stern conqueror to tears. The treaty with France was ready to be signed that day. He refused to put his name it until he received assurance of protection for the persecuted Piedmontese; and immediately wrote, not only to the duke of Savoy himself, but to Louis XIV., to Cardinal Mazarin, the kings of Sweden and Denmark, the States-General, the Swiss cantons, and even to Ragotzki, prince of Transylvinia, pleading for their interposition. Had his remonstrances proves unsuccessful, he had fully prepared of Transylvania, pleading unsuccessful, he had fully prepared to exact compliance at the point of the sword. A Protector not of the British realms only, but of the Protestantism of Europe, this "ursurper" might claim, without fiction the title "Defender of the faith." Meantime the supremacy of England on the seas was upheld by Blake, whose guns thundered along the shores of the Mediterranean, exacting justice and submission from every hostile power. The duke of Tuscany, the Pope, the deys of Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers, each in succession, were forced to make reparation for injuries to English commerce and liberty. The Mediteranean was cleared of pirates, and the confidence of peaceful merchants was restored. "By such means as these," said Cromwell, "we shall make the name of Englishmen as great as that of Roman was in Rome’s most palmy days."

After a lapse of nearly two years, Cromwell still clinging to the wish of restoring the ancient constitution, now made another experiment of governing with a Parliament. It met on 17th September 1656. About a hundred of the inveterate republicans were excluded, and the House, now tolerably in harmony with the Protector’s views, proceeded to a settlement of the notion. The major-generals were abolished early in spring; the form of a new constitution, with the title of "King," was proposed; and during three months the subject was discussed amidst the intense expectation of the whole people. That Cromwell was willing and even desirous to add this element of stability to his government there can be no doubt; but seeming that the dangers that threatened to accompany the assumption of the title were likely to overbalance its advantages, he finally declined it. The remaining points if the constitution were agreed on, and on 26th June 1657 he was again with additional solemnity and increased power, invested with the Protectorate. The new Parliament assembled on 29th January 1658. The Commons refused to acknowledge the Protector’s House of Peer, and on 4th February he dissolved them, concluding his last speech with the solemn words—"God be judge between me and you! And The whole weight of government again rested on his shoulders, and with unabated energy he went on with his work, crushing the designs of domestic enemies, and maintaining abroad the full prestige of his power. His struggles were now drawing to an end. "He being compelled," says Maidston,2 "to wrestle with the difficulties of his place, so well as he could, without parliamentary assistance, in it met with so great a burthen as (I doubt not to say) it drank up his spirits, of which natural constitution yielded a vast stock, and brought him to his grave; his interment being the seed-time of his glory and England’s calamity," On the 6th August his favourable daughter, Elizanbeth, died after a lingering illness, during which the Protector had watched unremittingly by her side. His health, already declining, now visibly broke down. On Friday, the 3d of September 1658, the anniversary of his Fortunate Day, the spirit of Cromwell was released from its earthly toils,—Natural herself seeming to prophesy, in the voice of the tempest that had swept over England, that a great power was passing away.

"It has often been affirmed," says Lord Macaulay, "but apparently with little reason, that Oliver died at a time fortunate for his renown, and that, if his life had been prolonged, it would probably have closed amidst disgraced and disasters. It is certain that he was to the last honoured by his soldiers, obeyed by the whole population of the British Islands, and dreaded by all foreign powers, that he was laid among the ancient sovereigns of England with funeral pomp, such as London had never before seen, and that he was succeeded by his son Richard as quietly as any king had ever been succeeded by any prince of Wales."3

Historians, till within a comparatively recent period, have been nearly unanimous in their judgment on the character of Cromwell. That he was a man of extraordinary abilities was a necessary and universal admission, but served for the most part only "to point the moral" as an aggravation of his crimes. The only question concerning so terrible a prodigy seemed to be, how far a selfish and unscrupulous ambition may have been modified in him by a blind fanaticism, how far in deceiving others he may gradually have fallen into deception of himself. That his history should have been so interpreted admits of easy explanation. The recoil of sentiment that followed the death of Cromwell, and with him of Puritanism as a visible power, was great in proportion to the intensity of the previous strain; and a man who attempted to realize Christianity as a practical element in the government of nations, and addressed armies and parliament in the language of the Bible, was not likely to be looked upon with sympathy in the age of Bolingbroke and Hume. Had Cromwell been less of a Christian and more of a Pagan, historians might have according to him some of that leniency with which they have spoken of the vices of a Caesar of a Peter the Great. But the same office which cowardly hands had done for his bones, servility, ignorance, and prejudice did for his memory; and during most part of two centuries, the name of the greatest man of his own age, and one of the noblest of any age, has been associated with all the infamy that belongs to a life-long career of unmitigated hypocrisy and insatiable ambition. Truth, however, at length begins to prevail, and Cromwell’s own prophetic hope is attaining fulfillment—"I know God has been above all ill reports, and will in his own time vindicate me." "In speaking," said Milton, "of a man so great, and who has deserved so signally of this commonwealth, I shall have done nothing if I merely acquit him of having committed any crime, especially since it concerns, not only the commonwealth, but myself individually, as one so closely conjoined in the same infamy, to show to all nations and ages, as far as I can, the supreme excellence of his character, and his supreme worthiness of all praise." The most eloquent of English historians has defended, in pages read by all the world, both the Puritans and their king; and an other historians, with still deeper love and admiration, has paid his "tribute to the memory of a hero," in a work which will henceforth enable posterity to know what kind of man Oliver Cromwell really was.1

There is no severer test of a man’s character than the use he makes of absolute power. Tried by this test Cromwell bears comparison favourably with any of the greatest names in history. Elevated into supremacy, regal save only in name, he still preserved the plain simplicity of his former life. Armed with more than regal power, he limited himself within the strict bounds of necessity. Personally he cared little for the outward shows of royalty, but he stinted no pomp or ceremony so far as it seemed to involve the nation’s dignity. Too great to be jealous or vindictive for himself, he was swift and stern in crushing the enemies of public tranquility. He was truly a terror to evil-doers, a praise to them that did well. He fostered leaning, though himself not learned, and allied with some to whom learning was profanity. "if there was a man in England who excelled in any faculty or science, the Protector would find him out, and reward him according to his merit." The head of a triumphant cause, he was so little of a fanatic that he tolerated all sects, so long as they meddled not to disturb the state. His large and healthy spirit, was bound by no party sympathies, but yearned towards all good men, of whatever name. At an era when toleration was looked upon by many as foolish in politics and criminal in religion, he stood out in glorious prominence as the earnest advocate of the rights of conscience, and proclaimed all men answerable to God alone for their faith. Popery and prelacy he proscribed, on grounds political rather than religious; to the adherents of both he showed private lenity; under his rule men no more suffered at the stake or the pillory. So far did his thoughts reach beyond his age, that he desired, and earnestly attempted, to extend the rights of citizenship to the outcast and persecuted Jews. Himself the greatest, "the most English of Englishmen"—he was determined that England should be the greatest of states. He encouraged trade, planted colonies, made wise peace with whom he would, or waged just and successful war. All Europe trembled as his voice, and the flag of Britain thenceforth waved triumphant over every sea. In fine, considering the comparative position of Britain in the times that preceded and followed him, the circumstances of his life, and the difficulties with which he had to contend, making all allowance for his errors and his failings, he was a man for all ages to admire, for all Britons to honour in proud remembrance. No royal name, at least since Aldred’s, is more worthy of our veneration than that of the "Usurper," Oliver Cromwell. (A. NI.)


Footnotes

FOOTNOTES (page 597)

(1) The character of Cromwell, in some of its noblest aspects, seems to have been inherited from his mother. She died at Whitehall, November 16, 1654, in her ninetieth year. "A little before her death," says Thurloe, "she gave my lord her blessing in these words:—"The Lord cause His face to shine upon you, and comfort you in all your adversities, and enable you to do great things for the glory of your Most High God, and to be relief unto His people. My dear son, I leave my heart with thee. A good night!’"

(2) See the proofs adduced in Forster’s British Statemen, vi. 2; Carlyle’s Letters and Speeches of Cromwell, i. 32, 40.


FOOTNOTES (page 598)

(1) She died in the house of her son-in-law Claypole, October 8, 1672. The following letter from her husband, penned the day after the battle of Dunbar, may be taken as a specimen of his private correspondence. "For my beloved wife, Elizabeth Cromwell, at the Cockpit; these. Dunbar, 4th September 1650—My Dearest—I have not leisure to write much. But I could not be unmindful of thee and thy little ones. Truly, if I love you not too well, I think I err not on the other hand much. Thou art dearer to me than any creature; let that suffice. The Lord hath showed us an exceeding mercy; who can tell how great it is? My weak faith hath been marvelously upheld. I have been in my inward man marvelously supported; though, I assure thee, I grow an old man, and fell infirmities of age stealing upon me. Would my corruptions did as fast decrease! The particulars of our late success Harry vane or Gilbert Pickering will impart to three. My love to all dear friends. I rest thine, Oliver Cromwell." (Letters and Speeches, iii. 67.)

(2) Macaulay, essay on Hallam’s Constitutional History.

(3) We may here subjoin a brief notice of Cromwell’s family, gathered from a note by Mr Carlyle. Oliver (born in 1623) entered as a cornet in the same division of cavalry wit his father, who seems to have regarded him with deep affection and hope. He was killed shortly before the battle of Marston Moor. The Protector, on his death bed, alludes to this Oliver’s death" "It went to my heart like a dagger, indeed it did." Richard war born in 1626, and died in 1712, a man of mild and indolent character, unfit for any office requiring strong powers of mind. Henry, born in 1628, died in 1674. He entered the army at sixteen, and greatly distinguished himself by his courage, prudence, and resolution. He accompanied his father to Ireland in 1649, and in 1657 was appointed lord deputy there. He governed with great ability. "He is a governor," said Cromwell, "of whom I myself might learn." Of the daughters, the eldest, Bridget, born 1624, died 1681, was married first to Ireton, afterwards to Mr Claypole, who became Master of the Horse to the Protector. Mr Carlyle calls her "a graceful, brave, and amiable woman." Mary, born 1637, died 1712, was married to Lord Fauconberg. Dean Swift called her "handsome and like her father." Frances, born 1638 , died 1721, was married first to Mr Rich, again to Sir John Russel. Charles II. at one time entertained the idea of allying himself with Cromwell by marrying her.


FOOTNOTES (page 601)

1 Letters and Speeches, iii. 40, 59.


FOOTNOTES (page 602)

1 Guizot, History of Cromwell and the English Commonwealth.


FOOTNOTES (page. 603)

(1) It was said that Mazarin "feared Oliver more than the devil," and charged colour at the mention of his name.

(2) Letter to Winthrop, govern of Connecticut (Thurloe, i. 763). From the same source we take this description of the Protector’s personal appearance and character. "His body was well-built, compact, and strong, his stature under sic feet (I believe about two inches), his head so shaped as you might see in it a storehouse and ship both of a vast treasury of natural parts. His temper exceedingly fiery, as I have known, but the flame of it kept down fro the most part or soon allayed with those moral endowments he had. He was naturally compassionate towards objects in distress, even to an effeminate measure; though God had made him a heart wherein was left little room for any fear, but what was due to Himself, of which there was a large proportion, yet did he exceed in tenderness towards sufferers. A larger soul I think hath seldom dwelt in a house of clay than his was."

(3) History of England, vol. i. p. 139.


FOOTNOTES (page 604)

(1) "That collection of all his speeches, letters, and sermons, "says Hume, "would make a great curiosity, and, with a few exceptions, raight pass for one of the most nonsensical books in the world." How the Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, with Elucidations by Thomas Carlyle, reply to this remarkable verdict, readers must judge for themselves. No such noble service was ever rendered to the memory of a great man by a single hand. For an able biography in the reader is referred to Mr Forster’s Statesmen of the British Commonwealth, vols. vi. vii.



The above article was written by Alexander Nicolson, M.A., LL.D.; Advocate; late Sheriff of Kirkendbright; author of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases and Memoirs of Adam Black.




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