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OLIVER CROMWELL: REVOLUTIONARY AND TYRANT
Write Dope on Pnuk part 64
Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon in 1599, a minor member to a middle class family that were landowners in the eastern counties. When he was seventeen he entered the University of Cambridge, but he stayed for less than a year. After managing his father’s farm for a while he went to London to study law and it was there he met the woman he married. In 1628 he was elected as Member of Parliament for Huntingdon, but with the King’s dissolution of Parliament in 1629 Oliver returned to Anglia. Through the early 1630s he farmed around St. Ives and then, following a legacy from an uncle, bought land around Ely and lived in the former vicarage near to the Cathedral.
In the mid-1630s Oliver became a committed Puritan and with the restoration of Parliament in 1640 was elected as the MP for Cambridge. When the Civil War started in 1642 Cromwell was made a Captain of Horse in the Eastern Association under the Earl of Manchester.
Charles’ dissolution of Parliament in 1628 was one of the first steps on the route to the Civil War, as this introduced his personal rule over Britain. In 1633 Charles appointed William Laud, previously Bishop of London and before that head of an Oxford College, to the seat of Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud was High Church and so opposed to everything that Puritans might stand for. In 1634 Charles extended the tax known as Ship Money from just the coastal counties to the whole country. One of the leaders of the challenge to Ship Money was John Hampden of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire. He was also a cousin of Oliver Cromwell. The lawyer Oliver St. John presented Hampden’s case against the tax at the Court of Exchequer. During the Commonwealth, after the Civil War, St. John (then married to Oliver Cromwell’s cousin Elizabeth) became the Lord Chief Justice and lived at Thorpe Hall in Peterborough.
Charles’ first conflicts though were to be in Scotland, where there was rioting in 1637 against the introduction of Laud’s prayer book. The Scottish assembly adopted a National Covenant in 1638, rejecting the religious changes and the following the year there was the first Bishops’ War, unpopular in England and so Charles was forced to sue for peace. The 1640 Parliament was called by Charles to debate this crisis in Scotland but it refused to grant him the money to suppress the Scots. Charles dissolved the Parliament after only a month and marched north again to fight the second Bishops’ War. He was again defeated.
Charles recalled Parliament that then impeached his hated advisor, the Earl of Strafford, on charges of treason and had Archbishop Laud imprisoned. Parliament then passed a law that required the regular calling of Parliament. In 1641, amidst anti-Catholic rioting in London, Strafford was tried and executed and then the High Commission (by which the Bishops could impose their will on the country) and the Star Chamber (by which the government dictated to the local Justices of the Peace) were abolished. Charles travelled to Scotland to try and negotiate peace with the Covenanters and a rebellion broke out in Ireland between the native Catholic population and the Protestant settlers. In February 1642 Charles’ queen, Henrietta-Maria fled to the continent with the crown jewels to try and raise support for her husband. The following month Parliament issued orders for the counties to raise troops. In June King Charles was doing the same. After such battles as Edgehill and Lansdown Hill, by September 1643 Parliament signed an alliance with the Scottish Covenanters and the King’s Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (the Earl of Ormond) had signed a truce with the Irish rebels, the Confederates.
Oliver Cromwell meanwhile was proving himself to be an able officer in the Parliamentary Army. Through 1643 his ‘Ironside’ troops kept on winning, especially in July 1644 when he proved a valuable addition to the combined Roundhead and Covenanter force that won at Marston Moor.
In April 1645 Parliament passed the Self-denying Ordinance that meant that members of the Parliament, both peers and commoners, were excluded from holding posts of military command. The aim was to allow the professional soldiers to control the campaign free of the political and religious arguments that had previously divided the force. This meant that Cromwell (himself still an MP) could reform the entire Roundhead force into the New Model Army. Instead of the regional groupings, a single unified structure was in place that (theoretically) paid the troops regularly and promised promotion based on merit rather than patronage. The commanding officer was Sir Thomas Fairfax. Cromwell (given an exemption from the Ordinance) was able now to position his own faction into positions of influence and power within the army.
Over the next year the Parliamentary forces won victories including Naseby and in May 1646 Charles surrendered to Scottish Covenanters. The following January they handed Charles over to Parliament (in return for £400,000) and in June the New Model Army seized him from Holmby House in Northamptonshire. With Charles in its control the army now issued (in August) a series of demands relating to extending the right to vote, religious tolerance, decentralised power, accountability of ministers, and changes to the structure of the Church of England. Amongst the troops within the New Model Army there were politically members who were known as Levellers. In October they issued their own manifesto that included giving the vote to all adult men (but not women), elections every two years and further religious tolerance. Over the October and November period the Army Council met to discuss the Levellers demands at St. Mary’s Church in Putney. Thus they became known as the Putney Debates. The discussions ended when Charles escaped.
Charles now entered into an alliance with a faction of the Covenanters known as the Engagement. The Civil War started again with a Royalist rebellion in Kent and then the Engagement invaded England on Charles’ behalf. Cromwell then led his troops to victory over the Scots at Preston and in December the military forcibly removed moderates from Parliament. On 30 January 1649, following a weeklong trial, Charles was executed.
Britain was now a Commonwealth and in March Gerard Winstanley lead his Diggers to plant crops on George’s Hill in Surrey. Other communes were established including one (in 1650) at Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. While these were co-operatives inspired by a solid principle, more individualist anarchist mystics known as Ranters also started to appear. Meanwhile in the Army a Leveller inspired revolt of May 1649 was suppressed. From amongst the mutineers three were selected by lot to be executed. One of the Levellers’ leaders, John Lilburne, ended up spending so long in the Tower of London that he christened a daughter Tower.
Cromwell sailed to Ireland in August 1649 to suppress the Catholic rebellion. This was to result in the infamous storming of Drogheda. After a day of pounding the walls, Cromwell ordered in his men and he himself believed they had put 2000 to the sword. A further 100 were in St. Peter’s Church and he had the building set on fire. A further group were starved out of their tower, the officers then being executed, and amongst the common rebels one-in-ten were killed, the rest sent as slaves to the West Indies. Estimates suggest that around 4000 Confederate troops died in Drogheda. Next Cromwell attacked Wexford, Ross, Cork, and other towns. So in May 1650 he returned to England. However in February 1649 Charles II had been proclaimed King in Scotland and so in July 1650 Cromwell led an army over the border. At Dunbar the English killed 3000 and captured 10,000 Scottish soldiers. The war lasted until September 1651 when, after the battle of Worcester, Charles II fled for France.
Having united the Commonwealth through bloody wars, Cromwell’s next act in April 1653 was to overthrow the Rump Parliament and replace it with the Nominated or Barebones Parliament (named after Praisegod Barebones, one of its more Puritan members). This though did not last long and he quickly dissolved this and made himself Lord Protector with a Council below him. In 1655 Britain was thus under a military dictatorship, with the country divided into eleven regions, each controlled by a major general.
The Protectorate was a very different place to the country that Charles had ruled. The House of Lords had been abolished. The structure of the Church of England destroyed. A wide range (though not all) of religious belief and practice was tolerated, indeed rather than cause a debate over allowing Jews back into Britain, Cromwell chose to ignore it. There was freedom in the press. However Cromwell also fought wars against Holland and Spain (through the latter we came to rule Jamaica).
On September 3 1658, three hundred and fifty years ago, Oliver Cromwell died and the scene was set for Charles II to regain the throne. He could only do this with the support of Parliament and this set a precedent that Parliament chooses the Monarch, as would be repeated in 1688. Oliver though, in 1661, was dug up and his body hung at Tyburn. Later cut down and beheaded, his head adorned a spike on Westminster Hall for twenty years before being blown down in a storm, was rescued, passed around and finally buried in the grounds of his old college in 1960. His widow, Elizabeth, retired to live at the manor house in Northborough (known locally as the castle) just north of Peterborough and is buried in the local churchyard.
Across our region (eastern counties) we have many reminders of the life of Oliver Cromwell, a great revolutionary leader but also a tyrant, a pattern so often repeated.
The most important place to visit is The Cromwell Museum on Grammar School Walk, Huntingdon (PE29 3LF), as it has many fascinating artefacts from his life and times. Next is Oliver Cromwell’s House at 29 St. Mary’s Street, Ely (CB7 4HF), close by the Cathedral. Oliver’s grandfather Sir Henry owned Hinchingbrooke House and it was here that, when Oliver was only a few months old, Sir Henry’s pet monkey carried the baby up to the roof. Hinchingbrooke House is on Brampton Road, Huntingdon (PE18 6BN). Oliver’s uncle owned Ramsey Abbey and this is now in the National Trust. It is advisable to contact all these first to check on opening times.
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