He’s the man who killed a king. Oliver Cromwell, the English Puritan turned military dictator, is today most famous for signing the death warrant that led to Charles I’s bloody execution in 1649. Over a hundred years before the American and French Revolutions shook the globe, this small-time farmer from the British sticks proved with steel that the divine right of kings was not so holy after all.
But what set Cromwell on his path to infamy? What possessed a guy who worked in agriculture to drop his tools one day and go commit regicide? The story is even more fascinating than you probably think. From his humble background, Cromwell would rise to become a leading Puritan and tireless advocate of religious freedom, even as he committed war crimes on the battlefields of Ireland and pursued personal empowerment with a terrifying zeal. An idol to some, an ogre to others, this is the true story of the man who spearheaded England’s civil war.
Early Life – England on the Edge
Like many great men of history, Oliver Cromwell was born into surprisingly modest circumstances. Well, modest for the landed classes of Britain who, in the dying days of the 16th Century, were the only ones that really mattered.
The second of ten children, young Oliver was the product of a Protestant family that had done well out of the Reformation seven decades earlier, rising from brewers to owners of a small estate. He could trace a family link back to Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell, and his nearby grandfather frequently entertained James I’s royal hunting party. Young Oliver may not have been rich, but he was well connected.
He was also growing up in the shadow of Britain’s most notorious terrorist attack. In 1605, vengeful Catholics hid gunpowder beneath the Houses of Lords, intending to blow up the King. The plot’s discovery fired off a wave of anti-Catholic fervor across England, something that may well have helped form young Oliver’s strict Protestant outlook.
Terrorism aside, though, the reign of James I was mostly stable, and Oliver lived a mostly stable life. He attended school, spent a year at Cambridge University, only to be forced to return to the family’s East Anglia estate after his father died. In 1620, he married Elizabeth Bourchier and that, really, should have been that.
However, in 1625, something happened that would act as catalyst for all the bloodshed that was about to follow. On March 27, James I died. His son, Charles I, inherited the throne. It was the start of a long march towards catastrophe.
Charles I was, by most accounts, a shy and rather sweet fellow in private. In public, he was everything the growing Puritan movement in England feared. His wife was a Catholic. He supported a form of Anglicanism that appeared dangerously close to Catholicism. Oh, and he was super keen on raising taxes to send his friend Lord Buckingham galivanting off to fight foreign wars England didn’t stand a chance of winning.
When the new King convened his first Parliament in 1625, it became known as the “Useless Parliament” because its members refused to vote through those new taxes Charles wanted. Annoyed, Charles dissolved the Parliament after just 12 days. One year later, he tried again, only for the new MPs to also refuse to raise taxes that would be wasted on Buckingham’s boneheaded buccaneering. So, once again, Charles dissolved Parliament. Get used to hearing that sentence.
While London was indulging in high politics, back in East Anglia Oliver Cromwell was in the grip of a severe spiritual illness. Plagued for years by serious depression, he finally slipped into a funk one night, that became a fever, that nearly became death. When he finally recovered, he was a changed man. Cromwell would later describe his experience as emerging from darkness into light – the light of Puritanism. From then on, he would be a staunch defender of the Puritan faith.
This Road to Damascus-style conversion may explain what happened next. In 1628, Charles I decided once again to try raising taxes, and called yet another Parliament. This time, Cromwell decided to join. Using those connections we talked about earlier, he managed to literally get himself a front row seat to the most explosive Parliament in decades.
By 1628, Charles had resorted to extracting money from his subjects at swordpoint. Known as Forced Loans, they were as unpopular as daylight robbery tends to be, and became even more so when Buckingham used the money not just for disastrous adventures in Spain, but also to launch an identically-disastrous war with France. That Charles had resorted to locking up MPs who refused to pay only added fuel to the dumpster fire that was the new Parliament.
As a young Cromwell looked on, Charles refused to accept the new parliament’s assertion of their rights to refuse unwarranted taxation. Parliament blamed Buckingham for influencing the King, only for a young army officer to then assassinate Lord Bonehead. Charles blamed MPs for the death of his friend and – you guessed it! – dissolved Parliament in a fit of pique. That fit of pique, by the way, lasted 11 years. No parliament would sit from March 1629 until April 1940. The period became known as the years of Personal Rule.
For Cromwell, Personal Rule was tough. Shorn of his Parliamentary standing, he wound up losing contact with his old network, selling his property, and taking on a small farm in Cambridgeshire to survive. By 1636, Cromwell was a broke, unimportant nobody with zero prospects. He even considered emigrating to America and joining the Pilgrims.
Thankfully, the 1630s closed with two bits of luck for Cromwell. First, in 1636, his fabulously wealthy, childless uncle died and left Oliver everything. Second, in 1639, Charles I did something spectacularly stupid. He tried to force his religious beliefs on Scotland.
At the time, Scotland had been in union with England and Wales for less than 40 years. Scots still worshipped Presbyterian style, with none of the fancy stuff so beloved of Charles. When Charles tried to ram through his religious reforms, the Scots went nuts. Known as the Bishops’ Wars, the following battles saw Scotland invade and occupy northern England. Charles sued for peace, and the Scots said “Sure, on two conditions. One, no more of this fancy religious bollocks. Two, pay all our war expenses.”
Completely broke, with an occupying army in his nation’s north, Charles was forced to grit his teeth and summon another Parliament. This attempt would go even worse than the others.
The Long Parliament – Life During Wartime
The parliament of 1640 got off to a farcical start. Known as the Short Parliament, it lasted only three weeks before – yep – Charles dissolved it. But he was still broke, so he called yet another Parliament just six months later. And, finally, we reach the end of our run of Charles dissolving things, because the second Parliament of 1640 is known, fittingly, as the Long Parliament.
Although the Long Parliament wasn’t a straight revival of the 1628 Parliament, it did feature some familiar faces. Among them was Oliver Cromwell. Now an influential Puritan with new connections, Cromwell became MP for Cambridge. During the 11 years of Personal Rule, he’d lost his shyness. In the first week of the Long Parliament, he made an impassioned speech attacking the King’s imprisonment of Freeborn John. In the second, he launched a ferocious broadside at Charles’s attempts to force his brand of Christianity upon his people. While the speeches were hardly Lincoln or Churchill, they were passionate enough that Cromwell began to get noticed.
As the Long Parliament’s first year rumbled on things got hairy. While an act putting some of Charles’s taxes on a legal footing kept the King somewhat happy, Parliament also passed bills accusing his advisors of treason, and making it illegal for Charles to dissolve Parliament without their consent. Oh, and they also attacked his Catholic wife, because that’s just how things went down in 17th Century Britain.
By 1641, things had completely deteriorated. A civil war had erupted in Ireland. A royalist coup had been crushed in Scotland. Then Parliament went and presented Charles with something called the Grand Remonstrance, which was basically a Top Ten list of Reason We Hate You, You Stupid Tyrant. Never a man to take criticism well, Charles became convinced that this was all a Puritan plot against him.
On January 4, 1642, Charles led a group of soldiers into the House of Commons to arrest five prominent MPs – a move unprecedented in English history. But the MPs weren’t there. They’d been tipped off and fled. Embarrassed, convinced the world was against him, Charles left London on January 10. When he arrived in his traditional haven of Oxford, he began raising an army. In March, Parliament voted to raise their own. By now, everyone could see where this was heading.
In August, 1642, the First English Civil War finally began. Pitching Royalist forces against Parliament’s army, it would ultimately lead to some 200,000 deaths. Unfortunate for most, but not all. For Oliver Cromwell, this would be the moment when he stepped out the shadows into the blinding light of history.
From the get-go, Cromwell was at the heart of the war. Even though he was just a farmer with no fighting experience, one of the very first engagements of the conflict came when he successfully garrisoned Cambridge against a royalist attack. But it would be at the Battle of Edgehill in October where Cromwell really became a soldier. The battle was a stalemate, but Cromwell was able to witness firsthand the effectiveness of the Royalists’ horse mounted troops. Convinced the Parliamentarians needed cavalry to win the war, he headed back to East Anglia to raise a mounted army.
It’s almost impossible to overstate how effective Cromwell’s horsemen would become. By mid-1643, they’d secured East Anglia for Parliament. In 1644, they wiped the floor with Charles’s own mounted troops at the Battle of Marston Moor. Cromwell was such a natural leader of men that he was soon promoted to lieutenant-general and given the nickname “Ironside”. His men were professional, disciplined and loyal – qualities sorely lacking in the rest of the Parliamentary army.
In fact, it was Cromwell’s obvious military skill that stopped him from exiting the story at this point. Fed up with ex-aristocrats leading their army, Parliament passed a motion in 1645 to kick every MP and Lord out of the military. As MP, Cromwell should have been among them, but Parliament passed a second law allowing him to continue serving under new leader Thomas Fairfax. They knew winning the war rested on Cromwell’s cavalry.
In 1645, Cromwell’s horsemen played the decisive role at the Battle of Naseby, effectively wiping out the Royalist Army. Charles held firm for another year, but in 1646 Cromwell took his stronghold of Oxford. Charles fled into the night disguised as a servant, traveled north, and threw himself on the mercy of his old enemies the Scots. Unsurprisingly, the Scots traded him to the English. The First English Civil War was over.
War and Ireland – Rise to Power
Remarkably for a regicidal dictator, Cromwell responded to Charles’ capture by trying to force Parliament to cut a deal with him. Cromwell sincerely believed that the only way forward was to restore Charles I to the throne, only with a new constitution in place to stop him running around raising taxes and dissolving Parliaments. The hero of the Parliamentary cause even joined a rebellion against Parliament that year, using his influence to force out 11 Presbyterian MPs he considered anti-Army.
If Charles I had been just a little bit less of a stubborn ass, it could have all ended here. Sadly, being an ass was what Charles was all about. Despite losing the war, he refused to accept any deal with Parliament. Instead, he cut a secret deal with the Scots to make the whole of Britain Presbyterian if they’d just invade and restore him to the throne. The Scots agreed.
And so we come to the embarrassment that is the Second English Civil War. Embarrassing because of its farcical lack of coordination. Royalist uprisings paralyzed Wales and Southern England in 1648, but the Scots didn’t invade until Cromwell and Fairfax had already subdued them. In August, Cromwell rode north, met the Scottish army, and annihilated it. So much for that.
However, there were two important outcomes from this second dust up. The first was that the Army forcibly purged Parliament of MPs who didn’t support Cromwell and Fairfax. This severely-reduced Long Parliament became known as the Rump.
The second was that Charles’s role in the Scottish invasion was inevitably discovered. With Cromwell’s blessing, the Rump dragged Charles before it and held a mock trial. Charles was sentenced to death. Only 59 MPs, including Cromwell, dared put their names to the execution order.
On January 30, 1649, Charles was publicly executed in London, his head lopped off and held aloft for the crowds to see. Unpopular as he was, it’s thought only a hundred or so men in the whole of England wanted to see him dead. It’s just as shame for Charles that one of those men was Oliver Cromwell.
Yet, powerful as Cromwell was at this stage, he didn’t just transition straight to ruler of Britain after Charles died. It was the Rump that now held supremacy, and Cromwell was fine with that. They supported his army, and, besides, history still had one major task for him. In 1650, Cromwell was sent to end the Irish war.
The Irish rebellion had been bubbling away in the background the entire time England was in chaos. Now the chaos was seemingly over, it was only natural England would want its wayward province back. Sadly, to achieve this aim, Cromwell did some truly some terrible things.
Cromwell’s massacres at Drogheda and Wexford are still remembered for their cruelty. Both involved Cromwell besieging a town, then offering no quarter to soldiers or civilians. Thousands and thousands died. While some historians have suggested the scale of suffering was exaggerated, there’s little argument that both sieges constituted atrocities.
Still, they did end the Irish Rebellion, and Cromwell returned to England in 1650, just in time to land himself in the mess of the Third English Civil War. That year, Charles’s son, Charles II reopened his father’s pact with the Scots and was proclaimed King of Scotland. Parliament demanded the Scots be crushed, but Thomas Fairfax refused to attack first. So Cromwell was made commander in chief and sent north. In September, 1651, he finally defeated the Scots at the Battle of Worcester. It was the end of the Civil Wars in Britain.
So, what does a general who has won three civil wars and crushed a rebellion do in peacetime? Luckily for Cromwell, a different sort of war was now brewing. In Westminster, the Rump was going mad with power. Through 1652-53, it passed no useful legislation, except to make itself immortal. The Rump had come into being as a stopgap, a temporary measure until the wars were over and new elections could be called, and now they were voting to end elections permanently.
By April 1653, Cromwell had had enough. In a delicious historic irony, he led troops into Westminster, echoing Charles’s own breach of Parliament 11 years earlier. At gunpoint, he told the Rump: “you have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … In the name of God, go!”
The Rump gone, Cromwell gave Parliament one last shot. In July 1653, he convened a new National Assembly. Popularly known as Barebone’s Parliament, it’s 144 members were handpicked for their “saintliness”. Cromwell expected them to rule his new, Puritan Britain as enlightened men. Instead, they voted to dissolve themselves and hand all power to Oliver Cromwell.
The Lord Protector – History Repeats Itself
Cromwell is often portrayed as a power-hungry tyrant. But all evidence indicates he really did try to refuse absolute power. In the end, though, he capitulated. The 15th Century title of Lord Protector was revived for his reign, and a new constitution drawn up. Known as the Instrument of Government, it split power between Cromwell, a 15-man Council of State, and a new Parliament of 400 elected representatives from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.
This was actually kinda progressive. Never before had Scotland or Ireland been guaranteed their own MPs and seats, albeit only 30 each. Not that this mild progressive bent stopped the Parliamentary wheels from soon falling off.
Elections to the First Protectorate Parliament were held freely, resulting in a swathe of Presbyterian, anti-Army, freethinking, and Royalist MPs being returned. Oh, and some members of the Rump, who really weren’t big Cromwell fans. Cromwell had hoped the new parliament would pass necessary legislation to move England off a war footing. Instead, they set about reducing Cromwell’s powers. When they tried to reduce the Army too, that was it. In January 1655, Cromwell dissolved Parliament.
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This new dissolution came as word was leaking out about Cromwell’s secret 1654 deal with Catholic France to ally against Spain. Once again, English taxes were being used to finance boneheaded adventuring by an overbearing monarch who dissolved parliaments like it was going out of fashion. The irony was lost on absolutely no-one, and many of Cromwell’s allies began to turn against him.
Still, he wasn’t broadly unpopular just yet, as a guy called Penruddock discovered in March 1655. Sure that Cromwell’s rule was about to collapse, Penruddock organized a Royalist uprising intended to put Charles II on the throne. He gathered men and set off across England, rallying locals to his cause… only for locals to shut their doors to him. Panicked, his men ran for their lives. Penruddock’s dismal uprising was crushed before it even began.
Penruddock’s Uprising may have been amateur hour, but it gave Cromwell the excuse he needed to scrap the new constitution and set up a military dictatorship. England and Wales were split into 12 districts, each under the control of a despotic Major-General. Hugely unpopular, the system lasted barely a year before Cromwell was forced to scrap it and revive Parliament in September 1656. Only the Second Protectorate Parliament wasn’t freely elected. Purged of Cromwell’s enemies, stuffed with toadies, it finally voted in February 1657 to make Cromwell King.
Yes, King. The very thing Cromwell had fought so hard to rid Britain of. To be absolutely fair, Britain’s entire system of government relied on a king or queen to give royal assent and wave things through, so having one was something of an urgent legal matter. Besides, Cromwell was already a king in all but name. He was referred to as “His Highness”, lived in Charles I’s old palace, and was handing out knighthoods to all of his friends. Of course he was a king!
On June 26, 1657, Protectorate Britain decided to make it official. Cromwell was crowned in a lavish ceremony that was almost in every respect a coronation. The only difference was that he kept the Lord Protector title instead of becoming king. If you’re struggling to see the difference, so were many of Cromwell’s old comrades.
In fact, they were struggling to see the difference between the Protectorate and the years of Charles’s Personal Rule. “King Oliver” was levying taxes to fight pointless foreign wars and dissolving Parliament at the drop of a crown. Yes, he did it again. In February 1658, the Second Protectorate Parliament voted to grow a backbone and readmit MPs excluded by Cromwell. And so that was it for the Second Protectorate Parliament.
The last few months of Cromwell’s life saw him withdraw from public affairs. His daughter Elizabeth died of cancer in early 1658, and it seems something in Cromwell, some vital spark, just vanished. He stopped receiving people or even really ruling. Perhaps he realized what he’d become and was disgusted by it. Perhaps not.
On September 3, 1658, the man who was almost King Oliver I passed away. That night, a terrific storm wracked England. Houses were torn apart and scattered by the winds. Ships sank beneath the roiling waves. It was said that the storm was Satan, come to take the Lord Protector’s soul.
Although the Protectorate would survive another year under Cromwell’s son Richard, it effectively died with Cromwell. Richard would last less than a year before being deposed and replaced with the revived Rump. The Rump would in turn barely reconvene before an Army general known as George Monck marched on London and ordered the Rump to readmit its excluded members. The Long Parliament was then revived just long enough to vote for its own dissolution. The new Convention Parliament that followed in 1660 immediately voted to restore Charles II to the throne.
So the English Interregnum ended. Charles II was on the throne, with the only new limitations on his powers being those proposed by the Long Parliament back in 1640. Everything that had happened in the intervening two decades – the three English civil wars, the Irish rebellion, the Protectorate – became effectively pointless. Cromwell had raised an army and killed a king. But, within two years of his death, his achievements had turned to dust.
On January 30, 1661, Cromwell’s body was disinterred, twelve years to the day of Charles I’s execution. Alongside the corpses of two other prominent Parliamentarians, it was symbolically hung at Tyburn gallows before being beheaded. As late as 1685, you could still see the Former Lord Protector’s head on a spike outside Westminster.
Was all that bloodshed for nothing? Without a doubt, Cromwell did some terrible things during his long career. He committed atrocities in Ireland, and his personal ambition turned what could have been the world’s first liberal revolution into a gigantic flop. It would fall to American and French revolutionaries over a century later to complete what the English had started.
But Cromwell was also a truly great general, a leader of men who could stand shoulder to shoulder with Washington or Bolivar. Without Cromwell, you have no Parliamentarian victory in the English civil wars. Without Parliament’s victory, none of the ideas that would later influence the Founding Fathers gain traction. Cromwell was an ogre, a despot, a fool, and a failure. He was also the man who killed a tyrant king and, in doing so, ushered in our modern world.