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The Truth About Oliver Cromwell

Worden’s long account of Cromwellian Oxford might seem parochial. Its abundant detail will certainly fascinate the locals, who can look up their particular college and see what happened to its members in the period of Puritan rule.3 But the subject raises much larger issues. In seventeenth-century England most of the country’s spiritual and political leaders were educated at Oxford or Cambridge. To control that education was to shape the nation’s character. That was why William Laud, Charles I’s archbishop, devoted much of his time to being a hyperactive chancellor of Oxford, and why the philosopher Thomas Hobbes concluded that the instruction of the people in the correct political principles “dependeth wholly, on the right teaching of youth in the universities.”

The parliamentary victory in the Civil War was followed by three successive “visitations” to the universities designed to purge them of royalist sympathizers and replace them by heads and fellows of colleges sympathetic to the new regime. Cromwell, who was a Cambridge man and held that, without learning, “no commonweal could flourish,” was elected chancellor of Oxford in 1651. His name can still be seen on the Bodleian Library’s table of benefactors. But he never visited the place after his election. He bestowed a good deal of university patronage in his first year, but subsequently intervened in appointments less frequently than Tudor and Stuart monarchs had done. Instead, he put the chancellorship into commission and left the running of the university to his chosen vice- chancellor, John Owen, a prominent Independent minister, who had been intruded as dean of Christ Church, Oxford’s richest college. Through Owen and his close ally Thomas Goodwin, another Independent, who had been intruded into the presidency of Magdalen College, Oxford exercised a decisive influence upon the staffing and character of the Cromwellian church.

Owen and Goodwin both believed that “one main end of the university” was the production of ministers to save souls; and that Oxford’s thorough reformation was necessary to achieve this goal. Yet here, as elsewhere, there was, as Worden points out, an enduring tension in Cromwellian policies between the desire to achieve reform and the pressing need to give the regime a broader basis by reconciling others to it.

Owen’s attempts at the moral reform of the university were largely unsuccesful. He tried to abolish academic dress as “totally superstitious,” but the only effect was that those academics who had previously been indifferent to caps and hoods now went out and bought them. Owen’s defeat on this issue was hardly surprising, for he was reputed (unjustifiably, thinks Worden) to wear cambric bands, a velvet jacket, breeches with colored ribbons, and, according to one contemporary jester, “enough powder in his hair that would discharge eight cannons” (a heavy pun on the canons of Christ Church who had been expelled from their positions).

Owen’s great rival was John Wilkins, warden of Wadham College, and patron of the little circle of natural philosophers whose meetings in the 1650s foreshadowed the foundation of the Royal Society. Wilkins worked to preserve the political independence of the university but had powerful connections, for in 1655 he married Cromwell’s sister. The diarist John Evelyn thought that he did so

to preserve the Universities from the ignorant Sacrilegious Commander & Souldiers, who would faine have ben at demolishing all…places & persons that pretended to Learning.

In fact, as Worden emphasizes, “the Puritans came to reform Oxford, but also to preserve it.” Although they believed that “great learning” could “coexist with monstrous wickedness,” they wanted to make the “nation…more learned, for the saving of souls.” There were radicals who wanted root-and-branch reform of the universities, by getting rid of “monkish” colleges, ending the study of dead languages and scholastic philosophy, and introducing more utilitarian subjects, but they had no influence on Oxford, which continued in its traditional ways.

The conclusion of Worden’s fine-grained account is that Oxford found Puritan rule acceptable because it restored order and held the university’s more radical critics at bay. But the idea of a serious program of reform was never embraced. Some of the clergy educated in Cromwellian Oxford became Dissenters after 1660, but many others were High Churchmen and opponents of Puritanism. At the Restoration, John Wilkins was made a bishop and the university became a bastion of royalism and the Anglican Church.

The same limits to revolutionary commitment are revealed in Worden’s discussion of English republicanism. The years between 1649 and 1660 were the only period in English his- tory when the country was governed without a monarch. But such an outcome had never been envisaged by those who went to war in 1642. As late as 1648 Parliament was still expressing its commitment to government by the three estates of King, Lords, and Commons. The death of Charles I did not itself create a republic, for, as Cromwell allegedly said, the plan was to cut the King’s head off with the crown still on it. It was only the failure to find an acceptable successor that led to the abolition of the monarchy six weeks later. A mere handful of MPs were republicans on principle. The establishment of the Commmonwealth came about for pragmatic reasons, not ideological ones.

Worden’s distinctive insight is to point out that, although republican arguments did not cause the abolition of the kingship, they arose from it. By 1657, when Cromwell was offered the crown, there was substantial opposition from some of his old army associates. This opposition was, for the most part, not so much republican as anti- Cromwellian. But hostility to Cromwell’s dictatorship gradually turned into hostility to single rule as such. John Milton, for example, had once thought that monarchy was possible if a sufficiently virtuous leader was available. But by the end of the Protectorate he was hostile to all forms of single rule. In 1659 there were self-styled “commonwealthsmen” and the word “republican” came into general use. After the Restoration, when the term became one of abuse, it was wrongly asserted that “republican” principles had been responsible for the revolution.

As a further example of how new ideas arose after the Civil War rather than before, Worden cites the coupling of “civil and religious liberty.” He reminds us that the original meaning of “religious liberty” was a theological one: “Christian liberty” was freedom from sin through Christ. This liberty of the soul was wholly unrelated to politics. As John Calvin had remarked, “Spiritual liberty may very well agree with civil bondage.”

Worden traces the shift from this older notion to the recognizably modern conception of religious liberty as freedom to believe and worship according to one’s conscience. Cromwell himself endorsed the growing myth that it was the demand for civil and religious liberty that had brought about the Civil War. After his death the two liberties were regarded as the essence of the “Good Old Cause.” Worden comments that “like most outcomes of the Puritan Revolution, the conjunction of civil and religious conceptions of liberty was remote from the original goals of the parliamentarians.” It would, nevertheless, prove enduring. The inseparability of “civil and religious liberty” became a stock slogan in Whig and liberal discourse after the revolution of 1688. As John Witherspoon, president of Princeton University, declared in 1776, there was “not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire.”

Throughout God’s Instruments the reader is conscious of the dominating presence of Oliver Cromwell, as enigmatic a figure to posterity as he was to contemporaries. Worden has been working for decades on his biography and most of the essays in this book are best understood as necessary preliminaries to that great goal. They illuminate the Protector’s religious convictions and they analyze the foundations of his rule. They do justice to his enduring belief that he had been specially chosen by God to save England and to his equally infuriating habit of asserting that he had never sought his own advancement. He claimed to have known nothing in advance of the plans to purge Parliament in December 1648 or to make him Protector in 1653 or to offer him the kingship in 1657. Above all, Worden emphasizes his constant search for an enduring settlement, his readiness to conciliate his opponents, to hold back the more confrontational reformers, and to maintain a balance between the civilian and the military supporters of the Protectorate.

Worden’s view is that the Protectorate was doomed to failure because it never achieved legitimacy. The king’s execution was only possible because the Long Parliament had been purged in the previous month of those MPs likely to oppose it. Cromwell would never have become Protector without the military coup that preceded the Instrument of Government, the constitution that granted him executive power. His council was important “only because the generals sat on it.” His first Parliament challenged the legal basis of the Instrument and had to be dissolved. His second went the same way. The primary attraction of the restoration of Charles II was that it offered the first “full and free” Parliament for a decade.

Yet though Cromwell never got parliamentary consent to his rule, his prospects in 1658 were perhaps brighter than Worden suggests. In the last years of the Protectorate, Cromwell had broadened the basis of his rule by attracting back the Presbyterians whom he had alienated in 1649 and securing the passive obedience of many of the old royalist families. He was quietly increasing the power and participation of civilians in his regime and growing less dependent on the army for domestic security. In the amended Petition and Advice—in effect a second constitution—he had the basis for a permanent settlement, not least in its specification that no part of the public revenue in peacetime should be raised by a land tax. The later years of Charles II would prove that, so long as they escaped direct taxation, England’s landed classes could live happily enough without a Parliament. The Protectorate’s great est weakness was its dependence on heavy taxes to finance the (otherwise very successful) war against Spain. But these fiscal demands would have diminished in 1659, when Spain and France made peace and the war came to an end.

When Cromwell was offered the kingship in 1657, the more prescient royalists were terrified lest he should accept, for they knew that that would mean the end of the Stuart monarchy. Fortunately for them, he declined. Had he lived longer, it is almost certain that he would have been offered the crown again and very probable that he would have accepted it. If that had happened, one of his descendants might well be sitting on the English throne today, for, as the later seventeenth-century historian Gilbert Burnet observed, the nobility and gentry would have been “in a great measure satisfied when they saw a king and a court again,” and none of the discontented army leaders could have staged a successful revolt.4

  1. 3

    When I arrived at St John’s College in 1957, the then president was still grumbling about the rule of his intruded predecessor, Thankful Owen, president from 1650 to 1660. 

  2. 4

    A Supplement to Burnet’s History of My Own Time, edited by H.C. Foxcroft (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902), p. 232. 

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