Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell; illustration by Hugo Guinness

When in 2002 the BBC held a national poll to identify the greatest Briton in history, the tenth place, well below notables like Winston Churchill and William Shakespeare, was taken by Oliver Cromwell. It is not obvious why he should have got even as far as that. Admittedly, Cromwell had a spectacular career. A country gentleman from Huntingdonshire and a keen Puritan, he was a member of Parliament in 1628–1629 and again from 1640 onward. A strong critic of King Charles I for his anti-Calvinist policies, his attempt to rule without Parliament for eleven years (1629–1640), and his sundry illegalities, Cromwell became a prominent figure when the civil war between the monarch and his opponents broke out in 1642.

He rose to be a highly successful general who played an important part in defeating Charles I and (once it became clear that the king had no intention of abdicating) securing his prosecution and execution in January 1649. As the new republic’s commander-in-chief, Cromwell subdued Ireland in 1649–1650 and conclusively defeated the Scots at Worcester in September 1651. In December 1653 he was appointed to the highest office in the land, Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland. He and his son Richard, who succeeded him after his death in 1658, were the first and only nonroyals to have been England’s head of state. The Anglican Church, with its bishops, deans, and chapters, was abolished, and although the Presbyterian system, which replaced it, was also a national church, there was in practice a great deal of tolerance. The Baptists, Congregationalists, and Quakers were among the sects that achieved permanence during this period.

All this made Cromwell a hero in the eyes of later Protestant Nonconformists, who admired him for his hostility to an episcopal church and for his championing of religious toleration. He also won much posthumous respect among future democrats for his famous assertion that “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.” Nevertheless, despite all the upheavals and the new loyalties briefly created during those years, the monarchy and a wealthy, established Church of England returned for good in 1660.

For all Charles I’s faults, his execution was widely seen as a lamentable murder. In 1660 the Restoration Parliament declared him a martyr. He was added to the calendar of Anglican saints, and prayers were ordered to be said annually in his memory. There was a determined search to find, arrest, and condemn to a hideous death the “regicides”—the men who had signed the warrant for the king’s execution. Cromwell’s body or, more accurately, the one that was believed to be his (for it was widely rumored that another body had been substituted for his and that he lay in his daughter Mary’s family vault in Newburgh Park, in the North Riding of Yorkshire) was exhumed from its grave in Westminster Abbey and taken to Tyburn, the usual place of execution, where it was hanged for several hours and then decapitated. The headless body was buried in a lime pit, and the head was impaled on a spike and exposed for more than two decades at the south end of Westminster Hall.

For two centuries after his death, the name of Cromwell was vilified by royalist and Anglican propagandists. His brand of godliness, which had involved much public self-denunciation as “the chief of sinners,” became increasingly unfashionable in the Age of Reason, and his rise from minor gentleman to king in all but name, with unaccountable power much greater than Charles I ever enjoyed, inevitably provoked accusations of self-seeking hypocrisy. For Edward Hyde, later Earl of Clarendon, the author of the influential History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (completed in 1672 but published posthumously in 1702–1704), Cromwell was “the greatest dissembler living.” In his posthumously published Memoires (1701), another royalist MP, Sir Philip Warwick, described Cromwell as “the great Hypocrite,” and the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume in his much-read History of England (1754–1761) unambiguously labeled him “the usurper.”

Oliver Cromwell is therefore a challenging subject. The first serious historian to examine his career, the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, came to the conclusion that “this Cromwell was one of the greatest souls ever born of English kin,” but that a book about him was “impossible! Literally so.” Carlyle had included him in his essay On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), but in mid-December 1843 he gathered together everything he had written about Cromwell and hurled it into the fire. Renouncing the idea of writing a biography, Carlyle turned instead to an edition of Cromwell’s letters and speeches. His Life and Letters of Oliver Cromwell appeared two years later. It was an immediate success. As a contemporary journalist observed, it “burst on the world as a kind of historic revelation.” “At a single stroke,” claimed another writer, it “completely reversed” the verdict of history.


The prevailing image of Cromwell as a ruthless hypocrite was destroyed by Carlyle’s publication of his often incoherent speeches, in which, rather than delivering a prepared text, he was obviously thinking aloud and trying to convince himself of the truth of what he was saying as he went along. “Cromwell, emblem of the dumb English,” wrote Carlyle, “is interesting to me by the very inadequacy of his speech.” His utterances, moreover, did not exculpate him from the charge of occasional deviousness. But they also revealed him to have been intensely religious, with a strong sense of being directed by God, though he was frequently tortured by doubts and uncertainties.

In his impressive new study, The Making of Oliver Cromwell, Ronald Hutton reminds us that throughout his life Cromwell was “impulsive, and given to fits of savage temper, brooding withdrawal and boisterous good humour.” With his family and friends he enjoyed unsophisticated pleasures like throwing cushions and carpets at one another. He was emphatically not an intellectual. But Hutton is unduly dismissive when he says that as an adult, Cromwell never showed any personal interest in scholarship. This overlooks the letter to his son Richard in which he recommends Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World: “It’s a Body of History; and will add much more to your understanding than fragments of Story.”

Hutton is a professor at the University of Bristol and a distinguished historian of paganism and folklore, as well as of seventeenth-century British politics. Over the past thirty years he has also been a member of the Sealed Knot, a club whose members dress up on weekends and reenact civil war battles. It is, one suspects, his experience with them that leads him to emphasize the smell that must have arisen from nearly 30,000 unwashed soldiers at the Battle of Marston Moor who, like their horses, had to relieve themselves where best they could.

Hutton’s book is intelligent, well documented, and stylish. It covers the first forty-eight years of Cromwell’s life, including his military career in the first civil war (1642–1646), when he served in the parliamentary forces under the Earl of Manchester and contributed decisively to their victories at Marston Moor in July 1644 and Naseby in June 1645. By stopping in 1646, however, Hutton leaves out the story of how Cromwell went on to become not just a highly successful general but the most powerful man in the country. To pave the way for the king’s execution, in December 1648 he purged the Long Parliament (which had been in session since 1640), and in April 1653 he forcibly dissolved it altogether. In December 1653 he was sworn in as head of state for life, with the title of Lord Protector. In 1657 Parliament formally offered him the kingship, which had been vacant since Charles I’s death, but after some hesitation, and for reasons about which we can only speculate, he declined.

Cromwell’s meteoric ascent must have come as a great surprise to those who had known him in his earlier life. He had a grammar school education and spent fourteen months at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, which he left immediately on his father’s death. (There was nothing unusual in those days about gentlemen leaving university too soon to qualify for a degree.) But although Cromwell became an MP for Huntingdon in the Parliament of 1628–1629, there is no evidence that he took any interest in national politics during Charles I’s personal rule in the 1630s. He was elected to the Short Parliament in 1640 as MP for Cambridge, but it was not until the opening days of the Long Parliament, later that year, that he came to prominence. Clarendon, who was a fellow MP at the time, wrongly asserted that as late as November 1641, Cromwell was “little taken notice of.” In fact, he had been an active parliamentarian from the start, working to secure the release of the Leveller John Lilburne, moving the second reading of the Bill for Annual Parliaments, and helping Sir Henry Vane to draft what proved to be an unsuccessful bill for the abolition of bishops.

The future royalist Sir Philip Warwick remembered coming into the House of Commons one morning in November 1640 “well clad” (“for we courtiers valued our selves much upon our good clothes”) and perceiving a gentleman speaking who was unknown to him and “very ordinarily apparelled” in “a plain cloth suit, which seemed to have been made by an ill country tailor. His linen was plain, and not very clean; and I remember a speck or two of blood upon his little [throat] band.” Yet, though his countenance was “swollen and reddish” and his voice “sharp and untunable,” his eloquence was “full of fervour.” This unprepossessing figure was “very much hearkened unto.”


Warwick also recalled how in later years Cromwell, “having had a better tailor, and more converse among good company,” acquired “a great and majestic deportment and comely presence.” “From a very mean figure of a man in the beginning of this Parliament,” he rose to “prodigious greatness before the end.” “No one climbs so high as he who knows not whither he is going” was the contemporary adage. But there were many who in retrospect would have agreed with Philip Warwick that the kingship had been Cromwell’s objective throughout.

Sometime in the late 1620s or, as Hutton suggests, in the early 1630s Cromwell had undergone a dramatic religious conversion; it is not clear exactly when. But thereafter his fervent, born-again religiosity was extreme, even by the standards of the age. On his deathbed he recalled that his trust in Christ had saved his life in May 1639, when his seventeen-year-old son Robert died of smallpox, an event that, in his words, “went as a dagger to my heart.” In November 1641 he supported the Grand Remonstrance, a long indictment of King Charles I’s misdeeds, culminating in a demand that the king’s counselors be approved by Parliament. Cromwell felt so strongly about it that, as he confessed to Lord Falkland, if the Remonstrance had been rejected, he would have sold all he had the next morning and never seen England again. Presumably he would have gone either to the Netherlands or, more probably, to one of the American colonies.

As it was, the Grand Remonstrance was passed on November 23, 1641, by a vote of 159–148. But relations between Crown and Parliament continued to deteriorate, and armed conflict broke out in the autumn of 1642. Cromwell raised a company of sixty cavalry and, for no obvious reason, was promoted from captain to colonel. He became the leading horse commander in the Eastern Association, the parliamentary army raised in August and September 1643 that drew its personnel from the six East Anglian counties, and in January 1644 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general and recognized as second-in-command of the entire army.

Since the beginning of the civil war, Cromwell had never been in doubt that God was on the side of Parliament. Reporting the defeat of the royalists in the Battle of Marston Moor, he wrote that “it had all the evidences of an absolute victory obtained by the Lord’s blessing upon the godly party principally.” The even more decisive parliamentary victory at Naseby the following year he saw as “none other but the hand of God; and to him alone belongs the glory, wherein none are to share with him.”

At the same time Cromwell was less clear as to how, and in what sort of church, God should be worshiped. He certainly wished to get rid of the Anglican hierarchy of bishops, deans, and chapters, but he was less certain about what alternative system of ecclesiastical government should replace it. Parliamentary opinion was divided between support for the Presbyterians, who wanted a hierarchy of congregations, classes, provinces, and national assemblies, and the Independents, who preferred greater autonomy for individual congregations. Cromwell was said to have remained undecided, remarking to two fellow MPs that, in matters of religion, “I can tell you, sirs, what I would not have, though I cannot what I would.”

His ecclesiastical policy in the mid-1650s, when he was the head of state as the Protector, suggests that he favored a national church, but with a good deal of freedom for individual congregations and with toleration for Protestants of other denominations. But Hutton rightly notes that there is a distinct lack of evidence during the 1640s for Cromwell’s own theological opinions, other than his consistent support for independency and liberty of conscience.

Because Hutton’s biography doesn’t go beyond 1646, many of Cromwell’s most controversial actions, including the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the brutal subjugation of Ireland in the early 1650s, remain to be discussed. In a second volume, which he does not promise but which his readers will eagerly demand, he will have to deal with the massacres in September and October 1649 of the garrisons of Drogheda and Wexford in Ireland. Cromwell defended the slaughter at Drogheda as “a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood.” This was, of course, an outrageous interpretation, for the atrocities that Cromwell had in mind were the Ulster massacres in 1641, of which the defenders of Drogheda were wholly innocent.

The truth is that Cromwell had become what Hutton calls a “Puritan jihadi.” With a “violent temper and aggressive manners,” he seems to have taken a distinctly Manichaean view of other people, polarizing the world between the imagined agents of good and the alleged doers of evil. For the latter there was to be no mercy and they were to be treated with savagery. Unlike his fellow parliamentary general Sir William Waller, who spoke of “this war without an enemy,” Cromwell demonized the royalists. At Belton in May 1643, he took joy in “doing execution” upon them as they fled from the battlefield, and he recounted with relish the killing of Lord Charles Cavendish, a dashing cavalry commander, as he lay wounded on the ground. As for the defeated royalists at Marston Moor, they were, for him, “God’s enemies,” and “God made them as stubble to our swords.”

Hutton is right to say that Cromwell “had a savage streak in his nature” and that he “enjoyed inflicting death, injury or humiliation on those against whom he had taken.” At Naseby he allowed the foot soldiers of the New Model Army to commit hideous atrocities against the enemy’s female camp-followers, killing over a hundred and disfiguring others by cutting noses and slicing cheeks.

Cromwell also had a strong tendency to be economical with the truth. As Hutton shows, he regularly gave all the credit for a victory in battle to his own troops (and by implication himself), while airbrushing out the contributions of his colleagues and their troops. He represented the parliamentary triumph at Marston Moor, for example, as the work of his cavalry alone, dismissing General Alexander Leslie’s three regiments as “a few Scots in the rear.”

Unexpectedly, Hutton often turns away from the insoluble problems presented by Cromwell’s career to a different subject altogether. In his introductory note, he explains that one of the objectives of the book is to express his sense of “the beauty and variety of the English landscape and its seasons.” Accordingly, he frequently turns to descriptions of the landscape when the evidence for human action is lacking. Though admirable, it is not clear what this has to do with Cromwell, about whose aesthetic sensibilities little if anything is known. But we can confidently guess that he was much more likely to have scanned a new landscape with a farmer’s interest in the state of the crops or a soldier’s tactical eye for the best place from which to attack than to have been a Capability Brown avant la lettre. Hutton, by contrast, is an aesthete and a close observer of the natural world. Vivid and precise, his sensitive pieces of landscape appreciation are remarkably eloquent.

They start early in the book, where the sparsity of records for the first two thirds of Cromwell’s life forces Hutton to shift his attention to the physical environment in which the future Protector grew up. He describes the Great Ouse, a river with numerous islands, bends, and channels: “In high summer its waters would have been a mass of quivering reflections.” (There are rather a lot of “would haves” in this book.)

Its edges would be crowded with coarse clumps of comfrey and figwort, giant dock leaves and fragrant foamy meadowsweet, and with moorhens, bumblebees, dragonflies, orange-billed swans with cygnets, bright beetles and lizards.

Later Hutton tells us that in July 1643, when Cromwell set out to relieve Lord Willoughby of Parham, who was surrounded in Gainsborough by royalist forces, his route lay through

sprawling fields of ripe wheat and barley, rough green pastures, copses of trees carpeted with ferns and fungi, swift brown and white butterflies, and great gentle hillsides unrolling to disclose more vistas of field and wood. If the weather was warm, those vistas would have been bluish with haze; if showery, towards evening the shadowed valleys and copse-patched hillsides would have been landscapes of jade and violet.

He suggests that when Cromwell rode out of London on his spring campaign in 1645,

there would have been yellow catkins on the hazels, grey buds on the willows and black buds on the ashes, but the trees in general would still have been leafless and the grass withered and bleached on the sheep runs. Now as he returned, spring was almost gone, with fresh grass in the fields and emerald leaves showing in sprays against the grey trunks of the woods, while flowers of half a dozen kinds had opened on the field banks and the floors of copses.

In July 1645 Thomas Fairfax’s parliamentary army marched over Salisbury Plain toward Dorset. “It was,” writes Hutton,

the season in this land of blue and yellow flowers and small blue butterflies. The toiling soldiers would also probably have seen droves of the most notable inhabitants of the plain at the time: the largest flightless birds to have survived in Britain into modern times, the yellowish-brown and whiskered bustards, big and tasty as turkeys (which was why they did not survive much longer).

Hutton is particularly sensitive to skyscapes. The parliamentary attack on the Devonshire town of Bovey Tracey took place on January 8, 1646. It was, writes Hutton,

another freezing winter night, and the constellations of the season—Orion with his jewelled belt and sword, and red upraised hand and blue-white foot, the great sparkling green eye of his dog Sirius, red-eyed Taurus the bull, the clustered shimmer of the Pleiades, and the ice-white heavenly twins, Castor and Pollux—would have shone above the parliamentary troopers as they carried out the action.

These astral evocations have their charm, but they take us away from the story. So in the last paragraph of the book, Hutton sums up his view of Cromwell: “He was courageous, devout, resolute, principled, intelligent, eloquent, able, adaptable and dedicated, but also self-seeking, unscrupulous, dishonest, manipulative, vindictive and bloodthirsty.” These qualities, he continues, “were all woven together, in a single seamless whole, at the centre of which lay an acquired sense of a special relationship with God, which informed and justified all.” It is hard to improve upon this assessment.