Cromwell: Warts & Everything

Born in Huntingdon, and educated in the school house that now forms the Cromwell Museum, Oliver Cromwell rose from relative obscurity to become the most powerful British figure of his age.

Oliver Cromwell as child
Oliver Cromwell as child

A minor landowner in Huntingdon, St Ives and then Ely, he served as an MP for Huntingdon in the Parliament of 1628 and Cambridge in the Parliament of 1640,and became identified with those who sought to limit the powers of the King and oppose the powers of the established Church of England in favour of more freedom for Protestant groups.

The Civil War between the King and Parliament proved the making of Oliver Cromwell. Though he seems to have had no prior military experience, his personal courage and religious conviction allied with exceptional organisational abilities and an understanding of warfare allowed him to rise from the rank of a cavalry captain to Lieutenant-General of the New Model Army, which he helped to create. He played a key role in the battles of Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645), which secured victory for Parliament in the First Civil War and was in sole command of the army that won the decisive victory at Preston (1648).

Oliver Cromwell at prayer before battle
Oliver Cromwell at prayer before battle

With the army now established as the dominant force in British politics, Cromwell now found himself in a very powerful position. He was a signatory to the execution of King Charles I and supported the establishment of a Commonwealth ruling through the ‘Rump’ parliament of the House of Commons and a Council of State, of which he was a member. He led a violent military invasion against Ireland (1649-50), then defeated the Scots at Dunbar (1650), before crushing the Royalist forces at the battle of Worcester (1651).

The battle near Boston
The battle near Boston

Cromwell wanted a new political and religious settlement for the country. But when Parliament, faced with political infighting and the emergence of extreme new religious groups, failed to deliver, Cromwell twice felt compelled to dissolve it. In 1653 he became Lord Protector for life and King in all but name, though in 1657 he refused the Crown. His administration sought to expand British power overseas, including America, while generally maintaining religious toleration at home, including the readmission of the Jews.

After Cromwell’s death his son proved a weak successor, and in 1660 the monarchy was restored under Charles II. Cromwell’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and posthumously executed. What is believed to be the remains of his skull is now interred in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell

Here we have the man who founded the precursor of our modern army and was undefeated in battle; a man who executed a King and refused the Crown, and whose legacy is the primacy of the House of Commons, but yet who ruled as a military dictator and twice dissolved Parliament. A man who persecuted Catholics in Ireland but who believed in freedom of conscience and religion, encouraged diversity of Protestant worship and readmitted those of Jewish faith. Oliver Cromwell remains a controversial and compelling figure. His actions must be seen within the context of his time, but they continue to impact on our lives today. Help us interpret and debate his ongoing legacy.