Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

Oliver Cromwell, the Commonwealth, and the Triumph of Puritanism (1649-1660)

During the, ten years that followed the death of Charles, the history of England depended largely upon the conduct of one man, Oliver Cromwell.

Oliver Cromwell


The country gentlemen, neither poor nor noble, together with the trading and manufacturing classes, formed the backbone of the Puritan cause, and like most of the leading Puritans, Cromwell sprang from this middle class. In appearance he was a strongly built man about 5 feet 10 inches, with a fine head. His face was not handsome, but his large, rough-hewn features had a kindly expression, as you can see in his portraits. His nose was large, his eyes a blue-grey, his mouth large and firm; he wore his hair long, as was usual in his time. He dressed plainly and sometimes carelessly, but even his enemies admitted his dignified bearing on all great occasions.

Cromwell himself was descended from the sister of Thomas Cromwell, the famous minister of King Henry VIII. He was educated at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, entering the University on the very day on which Shakespeare died at Stratford. Afterwards he went to Lincoln's Inn, London, according to the custom which made the study of law common amongst English gentlemen. He inherited two small estates near Huntingdon, which he managed himself. He married the daughter of a well-to-do city merchant, and at twenty-nine was elected Member of Parliament for Huntingdon.

From the first, long before the Civil War, Cromwell's chief interest lay in supporting the cause of the Puritan religion. It is, in fact, in the lives of individual men, such as Cromwell, Eliot, Pym, Hutchinson, Fairfax, and hundreds more, that we see how much religion had to do with the revolution. Cromwell spent much time in prayer and Bible-reading and in hearing sermons. He subscribed to maintain Puritan preachers or lecturers, for many of the clergy were not to the liking of their Puritan congregations.

Of his conduct down to the death of the king, after what has been related in the last chapter, little more need be said. Indignant as he was with those who, he thought, had caused the second civil war, his personal feelings towards Charles softened. He risked his own popularity with the army and the Independents in trying to secure terms for the king and to preserve his life. But he shared the same superstitious feelings as most of the army leaders, and believed that it was God's command that the king should be brought to trial. When he was convinced that the execution of the king was a duty imposed by God, he struck down all opposition until the deed was done.

With the death of the king a new chapter in Cromwell's career opens. Hitherto the revolution had been destructive. But in every revolution a time comes when new forms of government must be created and new rulers set up.

Cromwell was no anarchist; he was not even a Republican like Ludlow, whose sole idea was "that the nation might be governed by its own consent." His chief aims were to secure "liberty of conscience" for what he called the "people of God," by which he meant all Protestants. He believed in order and good government, and wished to see Parliament once more restored to what it had been before the war. But he recognized that for the present a strong authority must be set up.

In February, 1649, the House of Commons voted that the House of Lords was useless, dangerous, and ought to be abolished. The House of Commons at that moment was simply the Rump, that is, the members left after Pride's Purge, and not even all those, for some had not come back after the king's execution. On February 8th the office of king was voted, by the same authority, to be unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous. And after thus getting rid of the king and the lords, an Act established the English Commonwealth or Republic. It was intended that a new Parliament should be elected in due course, but for the present the remnant of the old Long Parliament was to make the laws, and a council of forty-one—of whom only about fifteen sat regularly—was to see the laws carried out.

For three years this was the Commonwealth of England. It was surrounded by enemies. The royalists were ready to rise. The Scots were preparing to invade England. The extreme democrats, called the Levellers, the most famous of whom was John Lilburne, were ready to overturn the Government and set up a pure democracy, that is, a government of annual Parliaments elected by manhood suffrage, every man having a vote, and with Parliamentary control over everything.

Oliver Cromwell


Considering its great difficulties, the new Council of State managed its affairs well. It had an army of 44,000 men, the best troops in Europe. The navy was strengthened, new ships were built, the sailors were better paid and better fed than ever before, and England began to be a great sea power.

But it was useless to pretend that it was a popular Government. Even the liberty and worship that was allowed was hateful to the Presbyterians. Without the powerful army the Government could not have existed a single week. The expenses were greater than they had ever been under Charles I. Heavy taxes had to be levied, and the Royalists were ruined by having to pay heavy fines.

The first trouble came from the Levellers. Cromwell saw that they must be put down. "I tell you," he said, thumping the Council table, you have no other way to deal with these men but to break them or they will break you." Lilburne, the leader, was sent to the Tower, but mutiny broke out in the army. Three of the ringleaders were shot in Burford churchyard. The rest were pardoned, and the trouble was over for the present.

The next business was to finish the war in Ireland, which had begun with the Irish rebellion of 1641. The Royalist forces were led by James Butler, Earl, Marquis, and finally Duke of Ormonde, and after the king's execution he had proclaimed the Prince of Wales as Charles II. The situation was one of hopeless confusion when Cromwell sailed for Ireland in August, 1649, having been delayed four months by the task of equipping his army of 12,000. Ormonde and the Royalists were now allied with the native Irish, and if they had acted promptly, they might have swept the Parliamentary forces out of Ireland. But Ormonde was kept too busy with his enemies to face Cromwell on his arrival. He could only throw a garrison into Drogheda, which Cromwell slaughtered without mercy, when he stormed it on September 10th. Wexford and Dundalk were soon captured. Waterford held out until 1650, when Cromwell sailed for England, leaving the rest of Ireland to be subdued by his lieutenants.

His next workday in Scotland. The danger from Scotland was far greater than from Ireland, for already, in 1648, the Scots had sent a great army into England, which only Cromwell's astonishing success at Preston had defeated. The danger was imminent. But Cromwell won a great battle over Charles II and the Scots at Dunbar (September 3rd, 1650), and delivered his final blow at Worcester on the same day in the following year.

The young king escaped after Worcester with a troop of Scottish horse. The Earl of Derby directed him to a safe retreat at Boscobel. Here, with Colonel Careless, he spent a day in a large oak-tree, whilst the woodman Penderel and his wife kept watch. Soldiers passed near in search of Royalist fugitives, but the king was not discovered. From Boscobel, mounted on a miller's horse, and in a threadbare coat and breeches of coarse green cloth, he rode to Moseley, accompanied by the six brothers of the Penderel family.

In the night, Charles proceeded to Bentley disguised as the servant of Mistress Lane, and three days after reached Abbotsleigh. After many adventures, aided by loyal friends who risked their lives to save him, he reached Bridport, hoping to get a ship. But the shipmaster was suspicious, and Charles had to hide, first near Salisbury, and then make his way to Brighton, where a loyal merchant got him a vessel, and the owner—although he had discovered who his passenger was—carried him across to the Norman coast.

Cromwell and Milton


Worcester was the last stage of the Civil War in England, and Cromwell now turned his attention to the government of the country, while General Monk reduced Scotland to a province of England, and thus for the first and only time conquered it. Whatever may have been his views in earlier days, Cromwell now realised that the country needed a strong ruler. After all the anarchy of the last few years, no government of any sort could exist without the help of the sword. He realised, what the men of the Rump did not realise, that the existing (so-called) Parliament was a sham; that it exercised its powers simply by leave of the army; and that until the whole nation was at peace with itself the army would be the real ruler of the country.

These ideas were shared by a majority in the army, so that Cromwell was able to count upon its support. But the Rump, instead of dissolving itself in order to make room for a new Parliament that the army leaders had been asking for ever since the king's execution, now proceeded to pass a bill to ensure all its members a seat in the new Parliament without re-election. Cromwell lost patience. He dissolved the Rump and was declared Lord Protector of the Commonwealth by another Parliament.

Despairing of a "healing and settling" by Parliament, Cromwell determined at all costs to keep the nation from civil war. Plots were forming. The leader of the Scottish mutineers was sent to the Tower. General Harrison, the man who fed on prophecies and believed the second coming of Christ was at hand, had to be put in prison to prevent another rising. The leader of the Levellers was seeking to raise a rebellion against "the tyrant Cromwell." Royalists in the West were proclaiming Charles II. Swiftly Cromwell crushed out these dangerous fires and, boldly throwing off all appearance of legal right, he began to act as a great Constable set by God to keep order over the nation.

He now used the army as his police officers and divided England into ten or twelve large districts, over each of which he set a major-general. For about two years, whilst Cromwell used despotic power, the major-generals kept the whole of England under military rule. Dangerous Royalists were placed under arrest; special taxes or fines (10 per cent. of their property) were levied from former Cavaliers. Races, cock-fights, and bear-baitings were prohibited to prevent seditious meetings. Ale-houses were closely watched and many were closed; rogues and vagabonds were put into the stocks. The old ejected clergy of. the Anglican Church were forbidden to act as chaplains or tutors; the use of the Common Prayer Book was forbidden; newspapers were restricted.

To the Cavaliers it seemed a reign of terror. Yet, except for the repression of the Anglican and Catholic worship and the fines levied on the old Cavaliers—acts for which long afterwards the Puritans paid dearly—the stern rule of the despotic protector and the major-generals was a time of peace and prosperity.

An Act was passed to give servants, apprentices, and scholars a holiday once a month. Cromwell himself hunted, hawked and played bowls. Education was encouraged, and the protector wished to set up a new university for the North of England either at York or Manchester, and he actually founded a college at Durham. If the Anglicans were hardly treated, the new sects had great liberty. George Fox won Cromwell's sympathy, and by his protection went on with his preaching and prophesying, founding the Society of Friends, commonly called Quakers.

Whatever may be said in defence of Cromwell's rule by the major-generals as a measure to prevent the outbreak of civil war, it was the most unpopular of his acts, and it made Englishmen hate the name of a standing army for two generations. For the common people and the Cavaliers resented the interference with their daily habits. The country gentry were indignant at the fines they had to pay.

Cromwell himself disliked this military despotism, but he believed that it was necessary. It was his firm intention to retain power until the nation was "healed and settled," and could once more be governed lawfully by a king through Parliament. In September, 1656, he called a second Parliament, but took care to exclude a hundred of the most troublesome members. Next year he withdrew the major-generals. The Parliament by "the Humble Petition and Advice" begged him to assume the title of king and to rule by a Parliament of two Houses, It was not a mere name that they were thinking of. They believed that the new-fangled Governments of the last few years would never take root, but that if the old Government of King, Lords and Commons could be restored, with Cromwell as king, the country would get used to it.

Cromwell would have accepted the crown, for he had long been convinced that a king, under some title or other, was necessary. But his strongest supporters, the army officers, were opposed to the name, and he was unwilling to risk the loss of their support. He was now installed "protector," and there was a ceremony, almost like a royal coronation.

But like all the previous schemes, it was destroyed by the quarrels of the various sections of Parliament and army. For when the two Houses met, all the old red-hot Republicans in the Commons broke out again in disputes. Fearing that the divisions in Parliament were encouraging the Royalists once more to rebel, Cromwell urged them to cease their quarrels.

When he heard that the Republicans were making claims that had never been made before, nor have ever been made since, Cromwell in anger took coach to the House of Lords, summoned the Commons to the Painted Chamber, and put an end to their sitting. "I do dissolve this Parliament," he said, "and let God be judge between you and me."

For seven more months Cromwell reigned alone, but his strength was exhausted. The long campaigns of the Civil War had more than once brought him to death's door, but he had recovered. He was now nearly sixty, and the incessant work and the terrible anxieties which the constant struggles with his Parliaments caused him, wore him out. "A great place, a great authority, is a great burden," he said. "I can say in the presence of God I would have lived under my woodside, to have kept a flock of sheep, rather than undertake such a government as this is."

Whilst a great storm, long remembered, was raging over London, his mighty spirit, humbled like a little child's, was passing away. He prayed for "God's cause and God's people." "Thou hast made me, though very unworthy, a mean instrument to do them some good and Thee service. And many of them have set too high a value upon me, though others wish and would be glad of my death. But, Lord, however Thou dost dispose of me, continue and go on to do good for them. Give them constancy of judgment, one heart, and mutual love, and go on to deliver them. Teach those who look too much upon Thy instruments to depend more upon Thyself. Pardon such as desire to trample upon the dust of a poor worm, for they are Thy people too. And pardon the folly of this short prayer, even for Jesus Christ's sake, and give us a good night, if it be Thy pleasure."

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the Chapel of Henry VII, amongst kings; for he had been a king and more than a king. No statesman ever had greater trials to endure and none ever devoted himself more whole-heartedly to serve his nation.

In spite of all the unpopularity of the Puritans, the nine years of Cromwell's rule had made the Commonwealth Government secure against all foes from without. The army was an invincible host, such as no English king had ever previously commanded. The navy was such as Charles I had only dreamt of. Early in the days of the Commonwealth the Dutch had given shelter to Charles, insulted the English representatives, allowed the English ambassador to be murdered, acted as lords of the sea, and refused all the proposals for friendship put forward by the Commonwealth. A short war, in the course of which the Commonwealth greatly strengthened the navy, soon taught the Dutch to respect the English flag.

The Navigation Act (1651) closed the English and Colonial ports to Dutch ships; and Robert Blake fought for two-years against the famous Admirals Tromp and Ruyter. Admiral Tromp fought a drawn battle against Blake, off Hastings, and drove him into the Channel, flaunting a broom at his mast-head. But Blake soon drove the Dutch to their own shores, and, after further fighting, a favourable peace was concluded. The English admirals, Blake and others, chased Prince Rupert from the seas, where he had begun to wage a semi-piratical war on English ships.

General Monk and Lord Fairfax


Cromwell made the courts of France and Spain bid for his support; he demanded from Spain freedom to trade with Spanish America, and freedom of religion for Englishmen in all Spanish dominions. "You might as well ask for my master's two eyes," declared the Spanish Ambassador; so Cromwell turned to the French alliance and sent out a fleet to the West Indies. That expedition was a failure, but on its way back the fleet seized Jamaica. Blake in the Mediterranean put down the pirates of Tunis. He also destroyed the Spanish West India fleet at Santa Cruz in Teneriffe—the greatest naval victory since the Armada.

The prestige of the Commonwealth was so great abroad that the French, at Cromwell's wish, compelled the Regent of Savoy to stop the persecution of the Protestants in the Vaudois. Six thousand Ironsides went to help the French against Spain, and won a great victory at the Dunes outside Dunkirk. The reward for this was that the English held Dunkirk, until Charles II was pleased to sell it, a few years after his Restoration.

Foreign nations looked upon Cromwell's Government as a firmly settled power, and the exiled wanderer, Charles, with scarcely bread enough to eat, shifted about from place to place. The Royalists had almost ceased to hope, when Cromwell died. Even then they could effect nothing until the quarrels of the Republicans themselves opened the door for the king.

Cromwell had named his eldest son, Richard, as his successor: But it was not long before General Monk, the governor of Scotland, marched to London, and proclaimed a free Parliament, which invited Charles II to return as king.

On his birthday, May 29th, Charles entered London: Everywhere flags were flying, bells and music sounding. "But in the midst of the general joy, one spot presented a dark and threatening aspect. On Blackheath the army was drawn up to welcome the sovereign. He smiled, bowed, and extended his hand graciously to the lips of the colonels and majors. But all his courtesy was vain.

"Betrayed by their general, abandoned by their leaders, surrounded as they were by a nation in arms, the gloomy silence of their ranks awed even the careless king with a sense of danger. But none of the victories of the New Model were so glorious as the victory which it won over itself. Quietly and without a struggle, the farmers and traders who had dashed Rupert's chivalry to pieces, who had mastered the Parliament, and held even Cromwell in awe, became farmers and traders again, and were known among their fellow-men by no other sign than their greater soberness and industry."