Cromwell: Hero of Liberty or Military Dictator?

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The legacy of Oliver Cromwell is one rivalled by very few English statesmen. His military successes enabled the establishment of the only British republic to date, whilst securing Scotland and Ireland’s places in the Commonwealth. His ascension to Lord Protector in 1653 marked the advent of a period of political stability that the nation required after decades of conflict between Parliament and King Charles I.

Yet Cromwell was a brutal ruler. Motivated by his zealous Puritan beliefs and deluded notions of divine providence, he enforced a policy of religious despotism, resulting in a state that was intolerant of religious freedom. His rule was fundamentally hypocritical, as he became all but a dictator, despite his rejection of the absolute power of monarchs. As a result of these polarising perspectives, Cromwell has held a contentious position in political discussion. In truth, although there is substance to the idea that he was the father of British democracy, Cromwell’s exploits in Ireland and totalitarian regime prevent him from being regarded as a just ruler.

Oliver Cromwell was born into a family of landed gentry on 25 April 1599. Little is known of his early life, apart from the fact that he underwent a personal crisis in the early 1630s. At that time, Cromwell had been married to Elizabeth Bourchier for ten years, with six children, and had been a member of Parliament for a year before King Charles I dissolved it in 1629. After being called before the Privy Council over a land dispute in 1630, Cromwell was forced to sell his properties and move to a nearby farmstead. This appears to be a turning point in Cromwell’s life, as this stripping of aristocratic status resulted in a period of deep introspection, eventually leading Cromwell to adopt an extreme interpretation of Puritanism.

Cromwell returned to politics in April 1640, when Charles I finally recalled Parliament after an 11 year hiatus, seeking permission to raise taxes to fund resistance against a Scottish rebellion. Parliament, including Cromwell as the member for Cambridge, was enraged at the king, claiming that he was abusing his power and becoming tyrannical. The war that broke out in August 1642 resulted from the culmination of years of conflict between Parliament and the monarchy over who held ultimate authority; Charles’ recent actions had swayed many to believe that he sought to create a system of personal rule, thus making Parliament obsolete.

Despite having very little military experience, Cromwell led a cavalry regiment under the Earl of Manchester’s army for the first three years of the war. Finding success in the battles of Gainsborough and Marston Moor, he was promoted to Sir Thomas Fairfax’s second in command when the New Model Army was established in 1645.

This new Parliamentary army was revolutionary. It had a professional officer class, standing regiments, and a just promotion system, making it far more effective than the amateur levies commanded by the Royalists. However, with these game-changing innovations came a tough choice for Cromwell. For Parliamentary officers could not now simultaneously be members of Parliament – he decided prudently to hold onto military power, giving up some of his political influence for control over a large portion of the military.

Cromwell proved to be a talented leader, and was able to use religious fervour to his advantage. While the Royalists had the king as their figurehead, Cromwell’s soldiers believed that they were performing their duty to God by fighting. He equally displayed ruthlessness in war, showing no sympathy to deserters or captured Royalist soldiers. His efficient and disciplined cavalry wing outmatched its Royalist counterpart in many of the battles that shaped the war.

Most crucially, the Battle of Naseby on 14 June 1645 resulted in the destruction of the bulk of Charles I’s army, removing any chance of a Royalist victory. Cromwell’s leadership contributed significantly to this decisive victory, with his cavalry wing flanking the Royalist infantry after a swift defeat of the Royalist cavalry.

In May 1946, King Charles I finally surrendered, and the process of formalising an agreement began. However, the King repeatedly rejected Parliament’s proposed governments, and the Second Civil War broke out in the form of a Scottish invasion in July 1648. Cromwell, now leading the New Model Army, met the Royalist Scottish forces at Preston on 17 August. Having been defeated at several engagements, Charles was left with no hope of recovering his throne, and the remaining Royalists gradually surrendered to the New Model Army.

The choice of gaining military power over retaining political influence showed itself to be pivotal to Cromwell in the ‘Pride’s Purge’, a military coup d’état in December 1648, in which all members of Parliament not in support of the New Model Army were removed, some of whom were arrested. Subsequently, the remaining members agreed that King Charles I had committed treason and signed his death warrant. After Charles I’s execution on 30 January 1949, the Commonwealth of England was declared, with Parliament holding supreme control over the new republic.

The Commonwealth was an oligarchy formed of members who had been approved by the New Model Army, and therefore by Cromwell, who had been appointed as first chairman of the Council of State. Although there was a movement of ‘Levellers’ who advocated for equal suffrage for all, this was suppressed, with Parliament only granting voting rights to landowners. In this way, the Commonwealth did have democratic aspects; however, owing to Pride’s Purge, the army had absolute control.

Following an Irish alliance with King Charles’s son, Charles II, Cromwell launched an invasion of Ireland in 1949. Royalist forces quickly collapsed under the New Model Army, and Cromwell committed to establishing a colonial settlement of the whole of Ireland.

However, the conquest was marked with brutality, and the repeated slaughter of civilians and surrendered soldiers occurred throughout the war. Moreover, reports of captives, civilians, and priests being slaughtered in a church at Drogheda became notorious throughout Ireland and intensified guerrilla warfare in captured areas, making the conquest even more deadly. The effect of the invasion was devastating, with a survey taken six years after the conquest determining that 40% of Ireland’s population had died since the start of the war, predominantly through famine and plague.

After the conquest, Cromwell enforced an English settlement of Eastern Ireland, involving ethnic cleansing in some regions. Settlers seized Irish properties, and a mass exodus occurred, as most Irish Catholics fled or were forced out to the West. This was not uncommon practice for colonial settlements of the time; however, the massacres of civilians in the sacking of towns were notably cruel even by the contemporary standards of warfare.

Cromwell’s subsequent conquest of Scotland was far less brutal. Just months after the conquest of Ireland, Charles II was named King by Scottish rulers, leading Cromwell to mobilise the New Model Army and invade Scotland. Although Charles II managed to escape to France, the conquest was a resounding success. Cromwell now held military control over the entirety of the British Isles.

When Cromwell returned to London in April 1653, Parliament had become factional and vacillating, leading him to storm the Houses of Parliament with a band of soldiers and dissolve Parliament himself. Instead, a small provisional Parliament was established, although this would soon be disbanded out of fear of a growing group of apocalyptic radicals among its members. Then, on 16 December 1653, Cromwell was appointed Lord Protector, essentially granting him absolute power.

It is difficult to see Cromwell as a man with great democratic principles given the sequence of events that led to establishment of the Protectorate, as he achieved the position through military force and removed those who opposed him by dissolving Parliament, just as Charles I had done before him. Because of this, many contemporaries viewed his ascension as nothing more than the usurpation of monarchical power, not the downfall of a tyrannical system. Parliament even offered him the crown in 1657, which he turned down, claiming: I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust”.

The Protectorate would last for five years under Oliver Cromwell, bringing about a time of relative stability and recovery from the damage of the civil wars. It could be argued that at the time, England needed the security of a sole ruler, as it was clear that the political system of the republic was not able to administer a nation effectively. While Cromwell was conquering Ireland and Scotland, Parliament couldn’t agree on crucial issues such as election dates or the establishment of a new national church.

Winston Churchill wrote that despite being a “representative of dictatorship and military rule”, Cromwell was nonetheless the “sole agency by which time could be gained for healing and regrowth”. Oliver Cromwell was by no means a just ruler, and his actions in military campaigns were inexcusable, yet his ascendancy to Lord Protector brought the stability and peace necessary for recovery across England after years of chaos.

Cunningham, J., 2010. Oliver Cromwell and the “Cromwellian” Settlement of Ireland. The Historical Journal, 53(4), 919–937.

Worden, B., 2010. Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 20, 57–83.

Churchill, W. 1956., A History Of the English Speaking Peoples Vol.2 The New World