The fact that Cromwell was the first private individual to have occupied the highest position in a major European state and had dramatic impact upon his contemporaries all over the British Isles has continued to fascinate historians and political scientists even in modern times.
A country gentleman by birth and a Puritan by faith, Cromwell, whose great-grandmother was the older sister of the Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell, became the member of Parliament for his hometown Huntington in the parliament of 1628–29.
He first gained fame during the second session of the Long Parliament (1641-42), where he urged Parliament to fight against the treacherous plot of King Charles I against the House of Commons, and to take control over the army, which had been sent to Ireland to suppress the Catholic rebellion.
After the English Civil War broke out, 43-year-old Cromwell joined the Parliamentary Army in the summer of 1642, leading a cavalry unit composed of lightly armed volunteers with devotion and capacity but without noble blood.
In the battlefields Cromwell, although an inexperienced commander, led his highly disciplined soldiers to successive victories over the Royalist Army in East Anglia. In January 1644, he outmaneuvered the Bohemian prince Rupert, the nephew of King Charles I and a war veteran in continental battles, and defeated the Royalist cavalries at the Battle of Marston Moor.
Because of his military successes, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general in charge of cavalry in the parliamentarian New Model Army under the leadership of the general Lord Thomas Fairfax. In 1646, Cromwell played a decisive role in securing the surrender of the Royalists at Oxford, which ended the First Civil War.
During the interval between the two civil wars, Cromwell was the only general to be allowed to hold his parliamentary seat. He made a few attempts to persuade his colleagues, especially the radical Puritan members of Parliament, to reach a compromise with King Charles I, but his conciliatory efforts were frustrated by the king’s refusal to give up his dream of divine kingship.
After the Scottish Army intervened into English affairs, the Second Civil War broke out, and General Cromwell was forced back to battle against the joint forces of the English Royalists and the Scottish Presbyterians.
In August 1648, he executed brilliantly the Battle of Preston Pans, which resulted in the complete defeat of the Scottish interventionists. After cleansing the Royalist remnants in northern England, he marched back to London.
One day before his arrival, Colonel Pride, persuaded by Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, who was supported by officers of the New Model Army, had purged 110 hostile members from the Long Parliament.
The Pride’s Purge scared another 160 members away and left a “rump” (merely enough for a quorum). The Rump Parliament voted to rename England as a commonwealth on January 4, 1649. In the Rump Parliament, Cromwell became a relentless advocate for trying to convict King Charles of war crimes and for being a traitor to the English people. The king was executed on January 30.
England was formally declared a commonwealth on May 19, 1649. General Cromwell, his colleagues in the army, and the Rump abolished the kingship, the House of Lords, and the Stuart administrative institutions with the intention of reconstructing the state of people with all original just power under God. In reality, the commonwealth was governed by the Council of State, accountable to the Rump and elected by and among its members.
In August 1649, Cromwell landed his army in Dublin against the Irish rebels, who had proclaimed Charles II, the son of Charles I, their new sovereign. Within a year, Cromwell defeated the rebels in their strongholds of Drogheda and Wexford.
In the following years, the New Model Army devastated all of Ireland, where about one-third of the people were killed either as a result of the war, the persecution of Catholics, the forced ethnic relocation of the Celts, or starvation.
In May 1650, after assigning Henry Ireton to govern Ireland, Cromwell marched to Scotland, where Charles II had been crowned king. Since Lord Fairfax refused to be involved in the Scottish campaign, Cromwell was commissioned the general of the New Model Army, and thus assumed the highest leadership position of the commonwealth.
Cromwell first defeated the Scottish army at Battle of Dunbar in 1650, and then crushed the Scottish monarchists led by Charles II at the Battle of Worcester in northern England in September 1651. The subjugation of Scotland finally concluded the civil war in the British Isles and resulted in the expansion of the Commonwealth to include both Scotland and Ireland.
However, added to the 600,000 Irish victims of the war were 60,000 Scottish and 200,000 English deaths. In Europe, such a death toll was unprecedented at the time and might have only been exceeded during the world wars of the 20th century.
At home, Cromwell was preoccupied by the restoration of law and order in England. He imposed restrictions on uncompromising Catholics and Anglicans, and at the same time promoted a policy of toleration toward all non-Anglican Protestants and Jews.
However, a Puritan himself, he did not give Protestants freedom to materialize their sectarian claims in the Commonwealth. He excluded Ranters and Quakers from the policy of toleration, because they were too ecstatic and mystic in practicing their faith and too defiant of the state authority.
Of his fellow Puritans, he first dispersed the diggers for their radical demand for land reform, he then destroyed the rebellious levellers in the New Model Army for their mutinies and advocacy of equal right to both men and women, and, finally, he suppressed the militant fifth monarchists, who attracted many Puritan officers and soldiers in the army, for their accusation that he “took the crown off from the head of Christ, and put it upon his own.”
Cromwell was an ardent providentialist, inspired by the faith in divine wisdom to guide his policies. He was also a pragmatist, who sought to organize different religions within the framework of a Puritan-styled Church of England.
Therefore, he sincerely hoped that his moderate policy of religious tolerance would ultimately ease the century-long religious frictions among his people and transform their inner religious conscience into a civil obligation of obedience of authority in the name of public order.
Some of his fellow Puritans, though in the minority, were determined to establish a godly kingdom on earth. The constant clashes between Cromwell and his power base often rendered his policies impracticable in the Commonwealth.
Cromwell’s foreign policy was brilliantly designed and executed. A staunch antipapist, he did not execute English diplomacy in hopes of a lasting peace with its Catholic rivals on the Continent. However, the Navigation act of 1651 redirected English foreign policy from settling old scores with Catholic France and Spain to meeting new challenges from Calvinist Dutch dominance of international trade and commerce.
The act required all international trade of England, both imports and exports, be carried in English ships with one exception: Ships of a country exporting its native-produced goods might be permitted. This act eventually excluded all foreign ships, especially the targeted Dutch ships, from trade profits from the emerging British Empire.
The First Dutch War broke out in 1652. Within two years, the antagonistic navies fought nine battles. In 1653, Cromwell ordered a blockade of the Netherlands, and forced the Dutch to agree to a peace dictated by England. A peace treaty was signed in 1654, which recognized English supremacy in the Channel.
While the Dutch War was in progress, unrest at home continued to mount with a growing demand for extending voting rights and redistributing property. In April 1653, Cromwell dissolved both the Council of State and the Rump Parliament, replacing them with a new council and the so-called Barebone’s Parliament, comprising 140 members from the New Model Army and local congregations. This government survived for about nine months and was abandoned in December 1653.
Soon, the army leaders drafted a new constitution, the Instrument of Government, which entrusted the state authority to Cromwell as Lord Protector, eventually enabling the general to exercise his personal rule over England with the support of the military elites.
In next five years, despite English victories over the Dutch in 1654 and over the Spanish island of Jamaica in the West Indies in 1655, Cromwell’s personal rule garnered less and less popular support from the English people.
He made a few attempts to restore a parliamentary government, but apparently never figured out how the medieval constitutional formula “King in Parliament” could be adapted to his faith in people’s power under divine guidance.
When the general and Lord Protector died in September 1658, his son Richard (1626–72) succeeded him in title and power. Without possessing his father’s charisma, determination, or ability, Richard resigned in May 1659. The army took over the government of the Commonwealth, and its leaders began to contemplate restoring monarchy.
In April 1660, General Monck, one of Cromwell’s lieutenants, quietly persuaded the temporarily reinstated Rump Parliament to invite Charles II back to England, and then dissolve itself. The Long Parliament was finally closed. The bloody and unnatural war that had ravaged England for about two decades was finally over, and the Commonwealth was dead.
Cromwell’s legacy was temporarily suspended when his body was exhumed from its grave and hanged on a gallows in a macabre form of legal retribution by the monarchists. His spirit, however, would certainly come back in the efforts of other modern revolutionaries.