Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell; drawing by David Levine

All historians look at the past through spectacles of the present: those who believe themselves to be totally “objective” are often the most naïve in their acceptance of the values of the world in which they live. That is why history has continually to be rewritten: it is not the past that changes, but the present, and with it our attitudes to the past. We can smile when we read Macaulay describing Oliver Cromwell as a middle-class Englishman of the nineteenth century: “No sovereign ever carried to the throne so large a portion of the best qualities of the middling orders, so strong a sympathy with the feelings and interests of his people…. He had a high, stout, honest English heart.” Carlyle, worried by the threat of Chartism, depicted Cromwell as the hero who had saved his world from both absolutism and democracy. Even S.R. Gardiner called him “the greatest because the most typical Englishman of all time.” In the 1930s and 1940s W.C. Abbott compared Cromwell to Hitler and Stalin, and Dr. Ashley depicted him as “the conservative dictator.” There are almost as many Cromwells as there are biographers—and that is bidding high.

Yet there are special reasons why Cromwell is more controversial, and more elusive, than most great historical characters. He was the key figure in the turning point of English history. He is England’s greatest revolutionary, a regicide; and this in itself creates difficulties for those who—living in a post-revolutionary epoch—believe that “the Anglo-Saxon tradition” is predominantly non-revolutionary, one of progress by compromise and muddling through. The revolution over which Cromwell presided ended the Middle Ages in England and laid the basis for England’s world domination and for the industrial revolution: Germans who saw Cromwell as the herald of British imperialism had a point. His career was not insignificant.

More important, Cromwell played a dual role in the English Revolution: he was—as Guizot long ago put it—both its Danton and its Bonaparte. In his early phase he is magnificently quotable: “I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.” “The state, in choosing men to serve them, takes no notice of their opinions; if they be willing faithfully to serve them, that satisfies.” Promotion under him was based on merit, not rank, at a time when the royalist cavalry was described (by General Monck, who should have known) as “a rabble of gentility.” Despite his own upper-class origins, Cromwell was reported as saying he hoped to “live to see never a nobleman in England.” He cooperated with the extreme radicals in London and in the army to coerce Parliament and to bring the king to trial in the name of the people whom he had betrayed. Yet in his Bonapartist phase Cromwell rejected his former allies as “a despicable and contemptible generation of men,” “differing little from beasts,” who “wanted to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord”: they did not recognize property as one of the badges of Christ. “We would keep up the nobility and gentry,” he assured Parliament in 1656.

Cromwell was no democrat, clearly. The man who urged Scottish Presbyterians, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”; “your pretended fear lest error should step in, is like the man that would keep all the wine out of the country lest men should be drunk,” was also the man who told Irish Catholics, “If by liberty of conscience you mean a liberty to exercise the mass,…where the Parliament of England have power, that will not be allowed.” He was exceptionally tolerant, by seventeenth-century standards; but toleration was for those with “the root of the matter in them.” “I had rather that Mahometanism were permitted amongst us, than that one of God’s children should be persecuted.” It was owing almost solely to him that Jews were readmitted to England, from which they had been excluded for over three and a half centuries.

So there is plenty for historians to pick and choose from. For nearly two centuries after Oliver’s death he was denounced by conservatives as an ambitious hypocrite, using the revolution to attain personal power; and he was also denounced by theoretical republicans as the man who had betrayed the English republic, again from motives of personal ambition. His articulate defenders were nonconformists who emphasized the tolerance of his rule and men of letters who praised his achievement of making England a great power.

Yet Macaulay in 1828 noted the significant fact that “even to this day” Cromwell’s “character, though constantly attacked and scarcely ever defended, is popular with the great body of our countrymen.” In the West Riding of Yorkshire the phrase “in Oliver’s days” was still in common use in the early nineteenth century to describe a time of unusual prosperity. A northern ballad of the same period referred to Manchester men “in Cromwell’s days, by Fairfax led” fighting for Parliament and liberty. Plebeian radicals and early Chartists longed for “a second Oliver…to cleanse the Augean stable.” It was the subversive, anti-establishment Oliver who survived in folk memory, the destroyer of churches and manor houses. A Yorkshire parish recalled in 1716 that they had taken over the parson’s glebe land “in Oliver’s time.” When Carlyle visited the battlefield of Worcester, the scene of Cromwell’s final victory over the king, he met a laborer who wished to God “we had another Oliver, sir, times is dreadful bad.”


When the history of the English Revolution repeated itself in the American, French, and Russian revolutions, Cromwell became involved in the issues. John Adams, Patrick Henry, and Ezra Styles invoked the spirit of Cromwell; but in post-revolutionary America more emphasis was laid on the danger to the republic of a Cromwellian tyranny. In France St. Just quoted the precedent of Cromwell and the execution of Charles I, but added that Cromwell was no less a usurper than the king had been. Napoleon, consciously or not, echoed Cromwell on many occasions. In the early days of the Russian Revolution accusations of Cromwellian aspirations to personal power were thrown backward and forward, especially against Trotsky. Ironically it was Stalin who defended Cromwell against H.G. Wells’s implausible argument that “Cromwell acted in accordance with the constitution and in the name of constitutional order.”

But any comparison with Napoleon and Stalin reminds us of the distinctions that need to be drawn. Cromwell was a brilliant self-taught general, but he resisted the temptation, urged upon him by many of his contemporaries, to carry the revolution to Europe by fire and sword; and there was no holocaust of his former radical allies after Cromwell came to power. On the contrary, even after he had been installed as Lord Protector, and was head of a government which was moving in a conservative direction, Oliver still had long conversations with radicals like Edmund Ludlow, George Fox, John Rogers, George Wither. An unbalanced prophet like Arise Evans called on Oliver and stayed till midnight. “Shall I disown them because they will not put off their hats?” Oliver asked at a time when MPs were insisting on fierce persecution of Quakers as dangerous subversives. “Had it not been for the late Lord Protector, whose soul was merciful to tender consciences,” wrote Laurence Clarkson in 1659, “what a bloody persecuting day had been in England!” When that day came after the restoration of Charles II, men looked back to the “Oliverian days of liberty.”

Ireland remains the great exception, or apparent exception. Some things can be said on Oliver’s behalf. A historian has wryly pointed out that whenever the English were most actively engaged in establishing liberty for themselves at home they were equally busy depriving the Irish of theirs. Cromwell’s Irish policy was not personal but national. When he crossed to Ireland in 1649 the Irish revolt against English rule, which started before the civil war as a revolt against Charles I, had dragged on for eight years. So long as it continued, Ireland offered a backdoor to foreign intervention against the regicide republic, now isolated in monarchical Europe. The Thirty Years War on the Continent had ended in 1648, leaving plenty of mercenary soldiers in search of employment.

The government of the English republic decided that Ireland must be subdued quickly. Hence the massacres of Drogheda and Wexford, for which Cromwell is remembered in Ireland to this day. In accordance with the contemporary law of war a garrison which had prolonged resistance unreasonably, and so caused unnecessary loss of life, might, after due warning, be put to the sword: similar massacres had taken place in Germany during the Thirty Years War. But nothing of the sort had occurred during the English civil war. Oliver’s actions did bring the war to an end, quickly: Dr. R.S. Paul suggested that they were no better and no worse than the use of the atom bomb against Japanese civilians in 1945.

Cromwell’s attitude of contempt toward the Irish strikes us as deplorable, but again it was shared by the majority of his articulate countrymen, including gentle poets like Spenser and Milton. Only a few Levellers and other radicals spoke up for the native Irish. The policy of transplanting the Irish population to Connaught, in order to make way for English settlers, also has its horrible twentieth-century equivalents. Again, it was not Cromwell’s individual policy: transplantation was initiated by the republic before Cromwell was personally responsible for the government—though there is no reason to suppose that he disapproved. The policy was modified under the Protectorate because sufficient English settlers were not forthcoming, and those who were there wished to retain the native Irish as laborers and rent-payers.


Cromwell’s intolerance toward Catholicism relates to Ireland: in England Catholics were in fact more liberally treated under his rule than they had been under the monarchy. Again Cromwell’s attitude was shared by liberal Englishmen of his day. Milton’s generous toleration was equally withheld from Catholics—partly because (he argued) they did not recognize the Bible as the sole authority in matters of faith, unlike Protestants of all shades—and so in the last resort Catholics could not be argued with; partly because Roman Catholic worship, and in particular the Mass, was idolatrous; but more because Milton (and Cromwell) regarded Catholicism as an international political conspiracy rather than as a religion. In the 1640s the Irish rebels had in fact been commanded by the papal nuncio, Rinuccini, who freely used excommunication for political purposes. Irish readiness to rely on foreign support in their fight for liberation recalls the willingness of black Africans today to accept Soviet, Cuban, or Chinese help.

Where modern historians seem to be agreed—as against the picture of Cromwell which prevailed in the two centuries after his death—is that he was not merely personally ambitious. He was a soldier and military organizer of genius, but he proved a uniquely successful political leader because he combined the social prejudices of his class with—at least in the 1640s—a radical democracy of the spirit. “Since it was necessary the work must go on, better plain men than none.” To the end of his life he tried to defend Quakers and other radicals against the growing conservatism of his fellow revolutionaries.

During the past forty or so years, in addition to W.C. Abbott’s four-volume edition of Oliver Cromwell’s Writings and Speeches, there have been three biographies of Cromwell by Maurice Ashley, and one each by John Buchan, R.S. Paul, Dame Veronica Wedgwood, Peter Young, Antonia Fraser, and myself. (My God’s Englishman, incidentally, was first published not in London, as Professor Howell states, but by the Dial Press in America.) One of the very best studies, by M.E. Barg, still remains untranslated from the Russian.

It is not for me to query the need for another biography, particularly since Dr. Howell’s approach to his subject appears closer to my own than to that of any other historian. But scarcely any significant new facts have been discovered since C.H. Firth published his excellent biography in 1900. His successors can only reinterpret and rearrange. Dr. Howell would not, I think, claim to have any far-reaching reinterpretation to offer, but his book is a competent, compact, and concise summary of existing knowledge: he is never dull. He criticizes, rightly in my view, “those who maintain that Cromwell was a soldier only and not an adroit politician,” stressing the consummate skill with which he outmaneuvered more conservative MPs by the Self-Denying Ordinance of 1645, which got rid of the old-guard generals and allowed the New Model Army to be founded. (The fact that Cromwell himself was retained in command as an exception to the Self-Denying Ordinance could not have been predicted in advance: at the very least Cromwell ran the risk of ending his own military career as well as that of his rivals.) Dr. Howell’s Cromwell is no military innocent in a world of wily intriguers, but himself a thoroughly political animal.

Dr. Howell stresses more than most historians the significance of Cromwell’s opposition to the Dutch War of 1652-1654, which he saw as a suicidal conflict between two Protestant republics who ought to be united. His preference was for an anti-Spanish foreign policy, which foreshadows the imperial policy which England was to pursue for the next three centuries. Dr. Howell sees here a clue to Cromwell’s actions in the early Fifties. In general, his book becomes livelier and more original in dealing with the years after 1652. I find myself in especial agreement with his brusque dismissal of Professor Trevor-Roper’s idea that Cromwell’s failure as Lord Protector to get on with his parliaments “was simply a matter of management, that had he possessed the skill of Elizabeth…he could have curbed or channelled the opposition.” Professor Howell argues on the contrary, that

Cromwell’s reiterated laments about the lack of consensus were not simply self-serving apologies; they were accurate assessments of political fact. The more any Parliament approached what Cromwell wanted of it (that is, the less it was subject to army control and purges), the greater the proportion of the House which was implacably opposed to the regime. The more Cromwell attempted to force a consensus, by one means or another, the more impossible became the essentially illusory quest of converting a military dictatorship into a constitutional regime.

For the army on which he depended was still more radical than the traditional gentry whom Parliament represented. It is difficult to disagree with this summary.

Cromwell had enunciated his guiding principle in 1648: “If we cannot bring the army to our sense, we must go to theirs.” For without the army, the general and the Lord Protector would have become a civilian again, and God’s cause would have come to nothing. Cromwell ended as the prisoner of the army he had created. Two years after his death Charles II was back on the throne of his fathers, and Oliver’s corpse was exhumed and dishonored. But nothing in England was ever the same again as it had been before 1642—neither the monarchy, nor Parliament, nor the Church, neither commercial policy nor agrarian relations. Twenty-eight years after Charles II’s restoration, his brother James II was reminded that he had a joint in his neck—the lesson that Cromwell had taught kings. James fled, and the relations settlement under William III established something very similar to that which could have been reached in 1657-1658 if Oliver had been a free agent.

This Issue

June 9, 1977