Oliver Cromwell was born on April 25, 1599 in Huntington, England to a Robert Cromwell and an Elizabeth Steward.
Cromwell was known as a military leader and as a politician but he is probably best known as the individual responsible for the overthrow of Charles I and the temporary institution of republicanism in England. He served as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Cromwell was born into the landed gentry class. His grandfather, Sir Henry Williams had amassed a great deal of wealth by confiscating monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII when he broke with the Church of Rome.
There is very little record of his early life. He was baptized on April 29, 1599 at St. John’s Church and he attended Huntington Grammar School and after that he attended Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge but there is no evidence that indicates that he graduated.
On August 22, 1620 at St. Giles-without-Cripplegate, London he was married to an Elizabeth Bourchier. Together they had nine children.
Through his father-in-laws connection, Cromwell became acquainted with and under the influence of the earls of Warwick and Holland. In the future they would both become critical in Cromwell’s future military and political career.
During the late 1620’s and early 1630’s there is evidence that Cromwell went through a personal crisis of some sore although there is no evidence to indicate exactly what that crisis was.
In 1628, Cromwell sought out the services of a physician, Theodore de Mayerne for depression.
In 1631, Cromwell sold most of his properties in Huntington and bought a farmstead in St. Ives. In British society, this was a major step down for him. This “step down” seems to have had a significant emotional and spiritual impact on Cromwell. In 1638 he wrote one of his cousins, the wife of Oliver St. John that he was “the chief of sinners” and that he had been called to the “congregation of the firstborn.” The letter was also filled with bible quotations indicating that Cromwell’s conversion from the Church of England to Puritanism was well underway if not complete.
In 1636, Cromwell inherited some properties from his uncle as well as his job as a tithe collector at the cathedral in Ely. This increased his income enough to allow him to return to the gentry class that he had left earlier in his life. By this time he was a committed Puritan and he established ties with leading Puritan families in London and Essex.
In the years of 1628 and 1629, Cromwell was a Member of Parliament representing Huntington. He made little if any impression. He made only one speck against a bishop and the speech was not received well by his fellow members.
Charles I dissolved Parliament in 1629, Charles I ruled without a parliament for eleven years.
Due to a shortage of funds because of a Scottish rebellion called the Bishop’s Wars, Charles called parliament back into session in 1640. This was known as the Short Parliament because it only lasted for three weeks. When this session ended in 1640 is when Cromwell moved his family from Ely to London.
Another Parliament was called in 1640 and this one lasted for two years and is remembered as the Long Parliament. Cromwell was again a member and he was put in charge of presenting a petition asking for the release of a Puritan named John Liburne, who had been arrested for importing religious tracts from Holland.
In this parliament, Cromwell had linked himself with “godly” groups in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords who favored “godly reformation”, an executive checked by regular parliaments and a slight extension of personal liberties. In this parliament, Cromwell helped to draft the Root and Branch Bill which advocated abolishing the episcopacy
Because the Long Parliament and Charles I was unable to resolve their differences, the First English Civil War broke out in the autumn of 1642. Cromwell recruited a cavalry troop at Cambridge and participated in the stalemated Battle of Edgehill on October 23, 1642. By 1643 his troop was made into a regiment and became part of the Eastern Association under the command of the Earl of Manchester. Cromwell gained experience and on July 28, 1643, he was part of the decisive victory at the Battle of Gainsborough. After this battle he was made Governor of Ely.
At the Battle of Marston Moor Cromwell was a Lt.-Colonel of Horse. This battle was a decisive victory for the parliament.
His major contribution was that his cavalry was able to break the ranks of the Royalist cavalry and after that was able to attack the Royalist infantry from the rear which allowed the Parliamentarians to win a decisive victory. Cromwell led his cavalry through the entire engagement and was only slightly wounded in the neck.
As a result of this victory, the Parliamentarians now had control of northern England but the Royalist army was far from defeated.
Because the Parliamentarian army was unable to capitalize on their victory at Marston Moor Parliament passed the Self-Denying Ordinance in 1645. This ordinance forced members of the House of Commons and Lords to choose between civil office or military command. As a result of this ordinance, every Member of Parliament except Cromwell chose to keep their seats in Parliament.
The measure also ordered that the army was to be remodeled away from local units into a national army. In April of 1645, the newly remodeled army took the field with Sir Thomas Fairfax in command and Oliver Cromwell as Lt.-General of cavalry and second-in-command of the entire army.
In June 1645, the Battle of Naseby occurred. In this battle the New Model Army virtually destroyed the King’s main army and on July 10, 1645, at the Battle of Langport, the last sizable Royalist army was defeated. On May 6, 1646, Charles I surrendered ending the First English Civil War.
At the conclusion of the war there was an issue on what exactly to do with the surrendered king. A majority of both houses supported a measure that would pay off the Scottish army that had assisted them; disband the New Model Army and the Scottish Presbyterian model taking over from the Church of England.
Cromwell opposed this mostly because he didn’t want to replace on ecclesiastical hierarchy with another. He opposed both of these churches; he was a Puritan in and out.
The New Model Army was owed a great deal of money and negotiations between them and the Parliament did not resolve the issue and on June 1647, a cavalry troop under the command of Coronet George Joyce seized the king from Parliament’s imprisonment.
Parliament was unable to negotiate a political agreement with the King and in 1648; the Second English Civil War broke out when Charles I attempted to regain power by force of arms. Cromwell put down an uprising in south Wales and after that he went to the northern part of England and engaged a far superior pro-Royalist Scottish army who had invaded England. Even though Cromwell was outnumbered two to one, Cromwell won a decisive victory.
Because Parliament was once again attempting to negotiate a political agreement with the King; Cromwell believed that both the King and Parliament had ceased to have God’s support. He believed that he and the army were now the instruments of God. Cromwell believed this because of the victorious battles that he had recently won.
In December of 1648 an event occurred called Pride’s Purge. All members of Parliament who supported negoiting with the King were prevented from talking their seats in Parliament. The remaining members including Cromwell supported trying the King for treason and having him executed.
The trial of Charles I began on January 20, 1649 and ended on January 27, 1649 with a conviction and a sentence of death. Charles I was executed on January 30, 1649.
After the death of Charles I, England was declared a republic known as the Commonwealth of England. Parliament held both executive and legislative powers and there was a Council of State that had some executive powers as well. Cromwell was a member of both Parliament as well as the Council of State.
Meanwhile, the Royalists had regrouped in Ireland and Cromwell was selected by Parliament to lead a campaign against them in Ireland. In July of 1649 Cromwell departed from Bristol it commence the now infamous invasion of Ireland.
Parliament believed that the Royalist-Irish alliance was the biggest threat to the Commonwealth. Even though Ireland was fractured between different groups they felt that this alliance was a direct threat.
Cromwell’s hostility towards the Irish wasn’t just political, it was religious too. He was passionately opposed to the Roman Catholic Church because he felt that they put the papacy over the Bible and to him that was heresy. He also blamed all Catholics for the persecution of Protestants on mainland Europe as well. This hatred was deepened by the Irish Rebellion of 1641, when the Irish were alleged to have massacred English and Scottish settlers in Ulster who were placed there by Henry VIII when he had left the Church of Rome. It was as a result of these factors that Cromwell’s invasion took the brutality that it did.
As previously stated, Cromwell’s invasion was particularly brutal. After the Siege of Drogheda in September of 1649 when the town was taken over 3,500 people were massacred including all the men, prisoners and all of the Roman Catholic priests. Cromwell believed that this was a righteous act committed against “barbarous wretches.”
At the Siege of Wexford in October of 1649 another 3,500 people were massacred including 1,500 civilians.
After Cromwell had negioated with Irish Protestants to switch sides and fight with his forces word came to him that Charles II had landed in Scotland and the Scots had declared him King. Cromwell departed for England on May 26, 1650 to meet this new threat but many of Cromwell’s troops remained in Ireland for another three years to continue the fight with the Irish.
The fight continued on and in April of 1653, the last Catholic controlled town, Galway surrendered to Parliament forces. As a result of Irish capitulation, the public practice of Roman Catholicism was banned and all Roman Catholic priests were murdered when found.
Another result of the Parliamentary victory was the Act For The Settlement of Ireland 1652. This act gave all Catholic-owned land to English and Scottish settlers. Any remaining landowners were relocated to the province of Connacht where the land was much poorer. Under Commonwealth rule, Catholic land ownership dropped from 60% to a paltry 8%.
When Cromwell left Ireland to fight Charles II in Scotland he was much less brutal with the Scots as he was with the Irish. This was mostly due to religion. He believed that the Scottish Presbyterians, he believed feared the right god, but were only “deceived.” He made an appeal to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to not ally themselves with Charles II but the petition was denied. This made war inevitable between the Commonwealth and Scotland.
At the Battle of Dunbar, Cromwell destroyed the main Scottish army and killed 4,000 soldiers and captured another 10,000.
In 1651, Charles II made a last attempt to invade England and capture London while Cromwell was occupied in Scotland. At the Battle of Worchester, on September 3, 1651, the last remaining Scottish loyalist army was destroyed. Charles II was almost captured but he was able to escape to France where he would remain in exile until 1660.
During the Commonwealth years, Scotland was ruled directly from England and the military occupied Scotland during all of the Commonwealth years except for the Highlands region. The Highlands was sealed off with a line of fortifications in order to prevent them from interfering with Commonwealth rule. The Highlands are where most of the Scottish troops were recruited from to fill the Scottish Royalist ranks.
Followers of the Presbyterian Church were allowed to practice their faith but the Scottish Church did not have the backing of the civil courts as it had previously.
From 1649 until 1651, Parliament had split into factions. With no king and Cromwell away fighting the war there was no unifying force to unite Parliament.
When Cromwell returned, he wanted Parliament to establish new elections and to unite England, Scotland and Ireland into one political entity. He also wanted Parliament to recognize one national church. Furthermore Cromwell demanded that Parliament set up a 40 man caretaker government then dissolve itself. Of course, Parliament refused to do this.
Cromwell became angry and on April 20, 1653, he cleared the Parliament chamber by force and dissolved Parliament.
On July 4, 1653 a new assembly was seated. It was called the Barebone’s Parliament. This assembly was short lived and it was dissolved on December 12, 1653 because it was feared that Royalists were going to take control.
After the Barebone’s Parliament was dissolved, a new constitution was brought forth. It was known as the Instrument of Government. This constitution made Cromwell Lord Protector for life. He was sworn in on December 16, 1653. At the ceremony he wore plain black clothing but in reality that was probably the only departure from an actual monarch that he used. He signed his name, “Oliver P.” the “P” standing for protector. This was nor unlike the signatures of monarchs during this era. He was also addressed as “Your Highness” as well.
Cromwell believed that he had two main objectives as Lord Protector. The first objective was to heal the wounds of the nation after the controversial regicide and two civil wars. He did not introduce many reforms but he did reduce direct taxation a little bit and he ended the First Anglo-Dutch War.
Cromwell’s second objective was for spiritual and moral reform. He set up committees to judge whether preachers and schoolteacher were up to the moral standards that the Puritans believed in. If someone was found to be sub standard, they were replaced with someone else and there individuals were regularly monitored as well.
After another Royalist uprising in March of 1655, Cromwell divided England into sectors, with a major-general in charge of the region. These generals were answerable only to him. Cromwell called them “godly governors”.
Not only were these godly governors sent to control the area, but they were also there to monitor the morality of the citizens. This was done by utilizing small groups of radical Puritans who monitored the activities in the county in which they resided.
In 1657, Cromwell was offered the crown by Parliament. He agonized over the decision for six weeks before declining. He believed that God was opposed to the monarchy. Instead, he was reinstalled as Lord Protector on June 26, 1657 at Westminster Hall. The office of Lord Protector was not to be a hereditary office. Cromwell did have the right however to name a successor.
On September 3, 1658 at age 59, Oliver Cromwell died and his son Richard succeeded him. Richard did not have the power base in Parliament or the army to maintain control. He resigned in 1659. In 1660, the monarchy was restored and Charles II returned to England from exile in France.