In the royalist ranks at a re-enactment of the Battle of Maidstone, 1st June 1648
In the 1860s Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace that modern society had dismissed "the divinely ordained subjection of the will of a nation to the one chosen vessel, and the subjection of the will of that chosen vessel to the Deity" (War and Peace P 1410). He also notes that people want to go back to their old ideas. Although the idea of a single person picked out by God to influence society had passed, historians still tended to pick out the influence of particular individuals to describe history. Oliver Cromwell, seventeenth century soldier and politician, was a prominent figure in a movement which deposed and then executed a king. This revolutionary movement wished to end the idea that a king was chosen by God and was above human law. But Cromwell was a deeply religious man who was always looking for signs from God to guide him in his actions, and who clearly believed that God put him where he was. Cromwell ended up becoming virtually a "divine right" king himself. Judgements of Cromwell are difficult. He was a man of contradictions. If history were a story leading to some kind of goal, then we could judge people in relation to how they contributed towards getting to that goal. But the story of Cromwell is not about historical development, or about making a judgment on a man. It is rather one of the most dramatic illustrations of the fact that history is more of an endless circle than a path towards what the puritans of New England saw as a "shining city on a hill".
Oliver Cromwell was born 25th April 1599 in Huntingdon near Cambridge, to Robert and Elizabeth Cromwell. A tradition arose that Oliver was born in the early hours of the morning. This birth time would have given him a more powerful horoscope, with the sun in Taurus and ascendant in Aries. As well as God being pulled in to give a sense of destiny to Oliver's life, there was no harm in using astrology as well. And if that wasn't enough, omens were found in the ancestry of his mother, Elizabeth Steward, daughter of a respectable Norfolk family. Elizabeth's ancestry was analysed to give a link to the Stuart royal family. Supposedly this link went back to the shipwreck of a Scottish prince on the Norfolk coast in 1406. Even though Cromwell was to grow up to be a man who helped execute a king, it helped to link him with kings in giving a sense of destiny to his life. But this was all many years ahead, and for now there was no need for stories of destiny. The Cromwells had ten children, seven surviving to adulthood. Six of these children were girls, so family ambitions were centred on Oliver. Although Oliver was the focus of family hopes, he seems to have been an ordinary pupil at Huntingdon Grammar School, where he was not noticeably intellectual, and preferred activities such as raiding apple orchards. He was, however, heavily influenced by headmaster Dr Thomas Beard, who wrote a book called The Theatre of God's Judgement. This book described God keeping a close eye on an individual's progress on Earth, and offering judgment, most clearly through the medium of battles won or lost.
In 1616 Oliver Cromwell went to Sidney Sussex College in nearby Cambridge. In an age divided by religion, the universities were used to push young men in a desired religious direction. With England now a firmly protestant country, Sidney Sussex supported the extreme protestant line known as puritanism. This dour religion seemed to have, as yet, little hold on Cromwell, who was only at Sidney Sussex for a year. In 1617 his father, a minor member of the gentry, died, forcing Cromwell to return home. Youthful exuberance continued unabated. The royalist Sir Philip Warwick wrote that "the first years of his manhood were spent in a dissolute course of life in good fellowship and gaming which afterwards he seemed sensible and sorrowful for" (quoted in Cromwell, Our Chief Of Men by Antonia Frazer P23). It was marriage that finally began to calm the young man down. On 22nd August 1620 he married Elizabeth Bourchier, daughter of a wealthy City of London magnate. A once dissolute young man now started to turn into a pillar of the community. 1628 saw him voted as one of two Huntingdon MPs. While senior members of Parliament argued the rights and wrongs of Charles I imposing taxes without Parliament's approval, new boy Cromwell was busying himself with the rights of Fen Land residents in the face of large scale drainage schemes. While being a minor player at this point, Cromwell nevertheless added his voice to hysterical calls for the king to condemn "popery". Charles I lost patience with his turbulent Parliament and dissolved it, deciding to rule alone.
With the final end of 1629's Parliament Cromwell returned to Huntingdon, and appeared to have a nervous breakdown. This seems to have been a severe event, and out of acute psychological distress, an extreme form of religious feeling seemed to arise. The idea of a dark night of the soul before conversion was an important idea in puritan thought at the time - the vulnerability of mentally distressed people to suggestion and manipulation by those offering certainty was of course not discussed. Cromwell emerged from his breakdown as a puritan, extreme in his views. His letters, according to biographer Antonia Frazer reveal a "high religious, almost manic strain of language" (Cromwell, Our Chief Of Men P38). A living was made farming, while in politics Cromwell refused to pay tax demanded of him by Charles I and continued his representation of Fen Land residents losing traditional rights of pasture because of drainage projects. The final blow dealt by this difficult interim period in Cromwell's life came in May 1639, with the shattering experience of his eldest son's death. The following year Charles I was forced to call the Short Parliament, and Oliver Cromwell went to Westminster a very different man to the one who had left eleven years before. Along with his new religious faith, Cromwell had developed a serious anger management problem. A number of ferocious outbursts were followed by a severe reprimand from senior MP Edward Hyde.
January 4th 1642 was a dramatic day in Parliament. The Commons had been discussing the creation of an approved list of advisors from which King Charles would be forced to draw. This was too much for Charles, and the 4th of January saw him arriving at the House of Commons to arrest MPs leading opposition to him. But John Pym, John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig, Denzel Holles and William Strode had been warned of the king's approach and had fled. Charles left London and headed for Nottingham. Civil war between supporters and opponents of the king was now approaching. In mid August 1642 Cambridge colleges put together a quantity of silver plate to send to Charles I to help fund his campaign. Cromwell immediately marched on Kings College to ensure the plate went to Parliament. There was a struggle in the lanes outside Cambridge, with Cromwell successfully taking the treasure for Parliament. This was to be Cromwell's first experience of life as a military leader. Once the Civil War formally started on 22nd August 1642 Cromwell became the captain of a troop of cavalry at Huntingdon. Without previous experience he quickly proved an effective and determined commander. Taking no notice of social niceties he recruited tough men who had strong religious faith, creating a formidable, committed force. Following a good showing in a battle outside Grantham in 1643, a promotion to lieutenant-general followed in January 1644. He worked hard to secure payment for his men, and showed surprising toleration in who could serve with him. Writing to Major-General Lawrence Cranford, a strict presbyterian, he said: "I advised you formerly to bear with men of different minds from yourself; if you had done when I advised you to it, I think you would not have had so many stumbling blocks in your way" (quoted Frazer P116). Cromwell's position was enhanced further by his performance at the Battle of Marston Moor on 2nd July 1644, when his cavalry took on troops led by the royalists' best commander Prince Rupert. After Marston Moor Cromwell played a prominent role in creating the New Model Army, which was to win the climactic battle of Naseby on 13th June 1645 at Market Harborough. This was the last time the royalists had a chance of winning the war. Cromwell saw all of these victories as God's way of telling him that he was on the right track. By 1646 it was all over, and King Charles was in custody.
Into 1647 Cromwell was ill and depressed. In a time of war goals are clear, victories and defeats defined. Now an exhilarating sense of crusade against supposedly corrupt royal power was replaced by peace time squabbles, between the Army and Parliament, and between different factions within Parliament. It was now much more difficult to discern God's wishes. It was probably a relief when in 1648 a royalist rebellion in Wales meant that Cromwell was living a soldier's life once again, leading men into battle at Chepstow Castle and Pembroke Castle. But all too soon for a soldier like Cromwell, peace returned with all its doubt and confusion. The Army was more radical in politics, wanting representative elections, while Parliament was more cautious. Relations between the Army and Parliament became so bad that on 6th December 1648 there was in effect a military coup. Colonel Pride took his men from their camp in Hyde Park, marched the short distance to Westminster and simply excluded all MPs the Army did not approve of. This left what was known as the Rump Parliament. Serious confusion now replaced the feeling of righteous crusade. Charles I had been deposed because it was claimed he was behaving in a "tyrannical" fashion in ignoring the rights of Parliament. Now the Army was being used to exclude all awkward MPs, which could also be viewed as tyrannical behaviour and an ignoring of the rights of Parliament. The Army realising the power it had began to call for the execution of Charles I. Cromwell, initially at least was arguing to save him. The ironies of accusing the king of "arbitrary and tyrannical government" must have been apparent to any sensible person. Charles was being tried by an unrepresentative government manipulated by military force. The king's trial began on 20th January 1649 in Westminster Hall. Although Cromwell had begun this process as a diffident defender of the king, in the face of confusion and doubt Cromwell reverted to his military certainty. By Friday 26th January a warrant for Charles I's execution had been produced, and Cromwell's name appears third on the still surviving document. It seems likely that Cromwell used force to get the other necessary signatures. As Antonia Frazer says: "... stories of force , whether moral or physical used to get signatures, are sufficiently widespread to point to a maniacal determination to get this measure through, allowing nothing to stop him" (Frazer P286). King Charles I was executed outside Banqueting House on 30th January 1649. Just opposite Banqueting House is the archway of Horse Guards Parade. If you look carefully at the clock over the arch you will see a black mark on the clock face. This commemorates the time of execution, which was 2pm. On 17th March 1649 the monarchy was abolished, on 19th of March the House of Lords was abolished, and in May the Commonwealth was established. It seemed like this was a time of fundamental change.
But apparent change didn't really change anything. Initially Cromwell enjoyed the harsh certainties of battle when he went to Ireland to fight royalist and catholic rebels there. His reputation took heavy damage in battles at Drogheda and Wexford. Crowmell gave inflammatory speeches about the supposed iniquities of catholics, and thousands of civilians were massacred. Cromwell also managed a victory against the odds in Scotland at Dunbar in September 1650. But following these triumphs, peace time left Cromwell increasingly bewildered. The Rump Parliament, even in being heavily manipulated by force, still did not do what Cromwell and other leading figures in the government wanted. The Rump MPs seemed only interested in maintaining their own position. On 20th April 1653, on hearing that the Rump Parliament was going to pass an act against its own dissolution, Cromwell arrived at the House of Commons in a rage. After screaming and yelling insults at the gathered MPs, he used soldiers to clear the chamber and dissolve Parliament. Such upheavals were now part of everyday life. By 1653 England already seemed to be wanting to return to monarchical rule, and ironically it was Cromwell who stepped up to provide it. On Friday 16th December 1653 Cromwell was made lord protector, in a ceremony "as ritualised as anything that had taken place in the age of kings" (Frazer P450). By March 1657, against the background of parliamentary bickering, Cromwell was actually being offered the kingship by the House of Commons speaker. While this offer was eventually turned down, a great deal of royal pomp and ceremony continued to surround the lord protector. By January 1658 plans were in place to bring back the House of Lords, as a counter balance to the Commons. All of Cromwell's manic energy seemed to have taken him around in a circle. The last years of his life must have been a time of reflection. Capacity for reflection was there in his personality. Alongside determination and capacity for decisive action, there were episodes of depression and indecision. On top of the strange way things had worked out, August 1658 was to see the death of Cromwell's daughter Bettie, a disaster from which the old man could not recover. Cromwell was to die, possibly of a combination of malaria and blood poisoning caused by a bladder stone, on 3rd September 1658.
People with the religious outlook of Cromwell were looking for a glorious culmination to their journey, when in fact the journey of Cromwell suggest there is no end. Few stories in history show the circular nature of history so clearly. All of Cromwell's efforts recreated what he struggled so hard to overthrow. He might as well not have bothered and taken it easy. Cromwell was buried in Westminster Abbey with full royal honours. Only two years later the wheel had turned completely. Richard Cromwell, the protector's son had proved unsuited to ruling and had gone to live abroad. Charles II was invited back from exile. While Charles was of a naturally forgiving nature, the Parliament of 1660 was baying for blood. Parliament's great champion was disinterred, beheaded, with the body buried at Tyburn. The head by a circuitous course ended up at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where it remains today in a secret location known only to college authorities. Cromwell spent his life trying so hard to give the impression that God put him where he was. And yet if that was true God was a bit confused because he made Cromwell into the king he felt it was his divine mission to oppose. The story of Cromwell is interesting in itself, and in the way it reflects on the nature of history, and the nature of human aspiration. Tolstoy, who I called upon at the beginning of this article, did not believe that individuals were ordained by God to lead, but he did nevertheless see a strange sense of destiny in history. He saw a tide in human affairs that sweeps people along with it. Whatever drives those tides swept Oliver Cromwell one way and then back again, like a wave on the shore.