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About this book

Little integrates the latest research from younger and established scholars to provide a new evaluation and 'biography' of Cromwell. The book challenges received wisdom about Cromwell's rise to power, his political and religious beliefs, his relationship with various communities across the British Isles and his role as Lord Protector.

Table of Contents


Another book on Oliver Cromwell—and especially one that claims to provide ‘new perspectives’—perhaps requires a certain amount of justification. Famously, Dr Johnson abandoned his plan to write a ‘Life of Oliver Cromwell … on discovering that all that can be told of him is already in print’, and, more than two centuries on, it is easy to agree with him.1 John Morrill, in his study of Cromwell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, calculates that since the protector’s death in 1 658 ‘more than 160 full-length biographies have appeared, and more than 1000 separate publications bear his name’.2 These works vary in quality and interpretation, of course, and it can be argued that each age has created its own image of Cromwell, from the Machiavellian villain of the Restoration and the non-conformist hero of the nineteenth century to the great dictator of the 1930s and 1940s and the betrayer of revolution of the 1970s.3 The most recent interpretation, which emerged during the 1980s and continued into the early years of the twenty-first century, emphasises Cromwell’s religious motivation as the key to understanding the man and his career.
Patrick Little

1. 1636: The Unmaking of Oliver Cromwell?

Three hundred and fifty years after his death, Oliver Cromwell remains an enigmatic figure: a man of action, but prone to moments of indecision; fiercely loyal, but prepared to abandon his allies when it suited him. Students of Cromwell’s early years must also confront an evidential problem, as the sources for the first two-thirds of his life comprise only a handful of letters and a smattering of information about his birth, education, marriage, some of his contacts and interests.1 Few statesmen leave a copious archive of their youth, but while Cromwell’s origins clearly had a significant impact on his later life—his regiment of ‘ironsides’ and the protectoral court were populated by a fair number of his relations and early acquaintances—he was remarkably sparing with personal reminiscences about his formative years. One wonders whether Cromwell’s reticence over the obscurer parts of his life suggests that he had something to hide.
Simon Healy

2. ‘One that Would Sit Well at the Mark’: The Early Parliamentary Career of Oliver Cromwell, 1640–1642

Informal parliamentary activity in the mid-seventeenth century is a huge, ill-defined and badly documented subject. Much went on outside the personal gaze of the Speaker, and its importance is obvious because key indicators of it survive, such as the crowds in Westminster Hall, the invention of printing for parliament from 1641 and the scale of petitioning in 1641–1642, which must have been accompanied by massive personal lobbying. The daily experience of any rank-and-file parliament-man in the early phase of the Long Parliament is often hard to re-create, that of a rank-and-file member who during the life of that same parliament achieved fame and notoriety in equal measure, and whose later reputation has been fashioned by centuries of contestation, harder still. Although Oliver Cromwell had played a part in two previous parliaments, the assembly that gathered in November 1640 was the first in which he was visibly active in a number of roles. Inevitably, students of this period in Cromwell’s life have pored over his conduct in search of signs of future greatness, or hallmarks of his character and career, good or ill. Among these might be listed his commitment to godly Protestantism, his impatience with the hesitant or uncommitted, his predilection for ‘networking’ and his social marginalisation. The first two of these attributes can be measured by Cromwell’s own pronouncements and by the official record, but a judgement on the latter two must hang upon an assessment of parliamentary behaviour as a whole.
Stephen K. Roberts

3. ‘Lord of the Fens’: Oliver Cromwell’s Reputation and the First Civil War

It was during the first civil war that Oliver Cromwell became famous. His rising fame rested primarily on his reputation for military success: he had thwarted royalist activists and taken control of Cambridge in the summer of 1642, before the civil war officially began; he defended the Eastern Association when elsewhere parliamentarian fortunes were suffering; and he was rapidly promoted, from captain to colonel. His military success raised his political prestige, and this, combined with his prominence in parliamentary circles, made him an obvious candidate for membership of the committee of both kingdoms that directed parliament’s military campaigns from early 1644. His military successes continued thereafter, culminating in the nationally significant battle of Marston Moor in July 1644. By then he had been promoted to lieutenant-general and second in command to the earl of Manchester, general of the Eastern Association’s army. Cromwell, rising rapidly in reputation and power, became seen as the unbeatable military hero who had turned the tide in the largest battle of the civil war. He was also a rallying point around which the Independent faction (which had emerged after the victory at Marston Moor) assembled to face down the Presbyterians and their Scottish allies.
S. L. Sadler

4. ‘A Despicable Contemptible Generation of Men’?: Cromwell and the Levellers

A discussion of Oliver Cromwell’s relationship with the Levellers would at first appearance offer a decidedly limited opportunity to say something distinctively new about his career. The nature of that relationship is seemingly well established, and not without good reasons do historians traditionally regard it as one of mutual animosity. In 1647 the Levellers were the first of Cromwell’s contemporaries to launch a sustained assault on his personal reputation,1 and by the 1650s a number of them were embroiled in ill-fated efforts to assassinate him. As a result, Cromwell denounced the Levellers as ‘a despicable contemptible generation of men’;2 ensured that they suffered frequent and lengthy periods of imprisonment; and had their leader, John Lilburne, twice stand trial for his life. Indeed, a powerful historiographical tradition that stretches back well over a century casts the two as mortal enemies, as the representatives of two incompatible concepts of government that lay at the heart of the English revolution: the reign of an authoritarian godly clique and direct rule by ‘the people’. In 1649, we are told, theocracy ultimately triumphed over democracy when Cromwell’s intense fear of popular government led to his routing of almost 1000 mutinous soldiers and the execution of three of their ringleaders at Burford.3 All this only serves to reinforce the existence of a reciprocal enmity between Cromwell and the Levellers. Yet what undoubtedly made that loathing all the more embittered and virulent on both sides was that their relationship had once been so very different.
Philip Baker

5. Cromwell and Ireland before 1649

Oliver Cromwell’s ten-month stay in Ireland is perhaps the most controversial period of his entire career. The arrival of the English expeditionary force at Dublin in August 1649 made a decisive difference to a war that had dragged on for almost eight years. The siege of Drogheda, to the north of the Irish capital, ended in the cool, calculated massacre of almost the entire royalist garrison there; the siege of Wexford in the south-east brought yet more indiscriminate killing as Cromwell’s troops ran amok. The port of New Ross quickly surrendered; Waterford held out and was bypassed; and Cromwell had arrived in the south-western province of Munster by the onset of winter. In 1650 local campaigns saw the taking of the Confederate Catholic capital of Kilkenny by storm, and culminated in the bloody siege of Clonmel, where Cromwell’s troops were repulsed with significant casualties. The Irish war continued for three more years, but it is generally agreed that by the time of Cromwell’s departure in May 1650 the Catholic Irish had been broken. The job of stamping out the last pockets of resistance, and of clearing the land for English settlers—recently described as ‘ethnic cleansing on a scale unknown in western European history’—was left to others.1 Cromwell was in Ireland for just 40 weeks. It was a brief interlude in his 18-year public career, but one that has tarnished his reputation in the eyes of later generations, not least in Ireland, where nineteenth-century nationalists turned Cromwell into the exemplar of English prejudice and inflexible bigotry, and helped to create a ‘black myth’ that endures to this day.2
Patrick Little

6. Oliver Cromwell and the Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms

During the negotiations for the surrender of Edinburgh Castle in September 1650, an earnest debate took place between Oliver Cromwell and Sir Walter Dundas, governor of the castle, regarding the Scottish ministers sheltering within its walls. Two major issues were debated: the ministers’ freedom to preach the gospel and the obligations of both the English and the Scots under the Solemn League and Covenant. In a letter to Cromwell, Dundas declared: ‘The contents of these papers do concern the public differences betwixt you and these of the three kingdoms, who have faithfully adhered to the Solemn League and Covenant.’1 ‘These of the three kingdoms’ not merely referred to the ministers in Edinburgh Castle, who remained loyal to a covenant whereby the subscribers pledged to promote and defend the reformed religion in England, Scotland and Ireland, but also referred to an actual ‘covenanted interest’ in all three kingdoms.2 Not only did the ministers lament the treatment of their own religion at the hands of Oliver Cromwell and his English army in Scotland, they also feared for ‘the ministers of Christ in England and Ireland’.3 Scottish covenanters saw themselves as part of a wider covenanted interest, with adherents in all three kingdoms; they thought that the welfare of the covenanted people of the other two kingdoms was just as important as their own.
Kirsteen M. Mackenzie

7. Oliver Cromwell (alias Williams) and Wales

Oliver Cromwell was ‘God’s Englishman’, and his stature as an English national hero has remained largely untarnished since the nineteenth century. Yet he also had important links with Wales which have been almost completely ignored in both popular and academic literature.1 This chapter teases out some implications of these neglected intersections of Cromwell’s life with Wales and ideas of Welshness. It does not, however, argue for any intense ‘special relationship’ between Cromwell and the principality. He rarely mentioned Wales in his letters and speeches, and only (briefly) visited the principality twice: in the spring of 1648 when he journeyed through south Wales to suppress the royalist risings in Pembrokeshire, and again in July/August 1649 while en route to Ireland. Nevertheless, his particular interest in religious reform in the principality constitutes an important running thread through Cromwell’s political career from his emergence in the House of Commons in the early 1640s to his rule as lord protector.
Lloyd Bowen

8. The Lord Protector and his Court

Oliver Cromwell, Britain’s archetypal republican, presided over a distinctly regal court. The tone for what would follow was set by his first inauguration as lord protector. On 16 December 1653, Cromwell went in procession by coach from the ex-royal palace of Whitehall to Westminster Hall, a building indelibly associated with royal ritual, the revered traditions of English law and, of course, the deposition of kings. In the preceding days, it had been agreed that, under the new Instrument of Government, ‘the supreme legislative authority’ was to ‘reside in one person’, the lord protector.1 Cromwell was now to assume that office. In the court of chancery at the southern end of the hall, he listened as the Instrument was read out and then took his oath of office. ‘His highness’ was then invited to sit on a chair of state. The commissioners of the great seal presented him with that seal, while the lord mayor of London offered up to him the pearl sword of the city and the cap of maintenance.2 This was not exactly a coronation, but, even so, there were some who did detect in it some obvious continuities.
Andrew Barclay

9. John Thurloe and the Offer of the Crown to Oliver Cromwell

When the ambassador to France, Sir William Lockhart, wrote this in April 1657, it had been nearly two months since the question of making Oliver Cromwell king had first been raised in the House of Commons, and the people of all three nations were waiting anxiously for the lord protector to make up his mind. Would he choose to become King Oliver or not?
Patrick Little

10. ‘Fit for Public Services’: The Upbringing of Richard Cromwell

Conventional wisdom suggests that Richard Cromwell was neither fit for public life, nor destined to assume the protectoral mantle. His career during the 1640s and 1650s is often thought to have involved rural retreat, if not crypto-royalism, and this has helped to foster the image of ‘the pretended protector’, ‘the meek knight’, ‘Queen Dick’, and ‘tumbledown Dick’.1 Anthony Wood dismissed him as ‘the mushroom prince’, while Gilbert Burnet, who considered Oliver Cromwell’s sons to be ‘weak but honest men’, wrote that Richard was ‘not at all bred for business, nor indeed capable of it’.2 George Bate, meanwhile, claimed that ‘his genius was so far from affecting rule’, and that ‘he would have been content rather to have led a private life in peace, free from hatred and danger’.3 J. H. Jesse claimed that Richard’s ultimate failure as protector could be explained largely by the fact that he was ‘unacquainted with the arts of government and the intrigues consequent on power’, and that he was ‘without even the impulse of ambition’; while François Guizot concluded that Richard was ‘a man of timid vacillating and undecided character, with no religious or political convictions or passions’.4
Jason Peacey
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