Historical Biography: Oliver Cromwell

Learn about the life of Oliver Cromwell, his role in the English Civil War and time as Lord Protector of the Realm.

Oliver Cromwell is one of the most colourful of people in British history, establishing himself as both a skillful military leader and astute politician. He helped to win the English Civil War for the Parliamentarians and steadied the country afterwards with a series of sensible political and social reforms.

Born in Huntingdon, England in 1599, Oliver Cromwell was brought up in a family that was reasonably well off, but had by no means the wealth to scale the social ladder which, at the time, brought a certain power with it. Strong religious beliefs were present in the household; the family were Puritans (English Protestants that wished to simplify and regulate forms of worship).

A good education was affordable, so Cromwell schooled at Huntingdon Grammar, during which time his father died, and Cambridge University. He graduated and became a small landowner, earning a crust farming and collecting rent. He became a respected figure amongst local Puritans from around 1527 when a call from God saw him emerge as a religious leader and foremost in the running of the church.

Two years earlier Charles I had come to power. Soon he came to be considered as an oppressor of the Puritans, sometimes having them randomly assaulted with no apparent motive other than oppression. Essentially he was a Catholic who wished to impinge certain rituals and ceremonies upon the Church of England. Then, in 1629, he dissolved Parliament, deeming it would be better to rule England by himself. Throughout the 1630's he didn't call Parliament once, which obviously made him very unpopular with them. At the same time Cromwell had joined Parliament as MP for Cambridge and in 1640 events began that would form the destinies of Charles and himself in extremely contrasting ways.

That year Charles ended the Bishop's Wars with Scotland staring defeat in the face. The wars were so called because he was attempting to force a prayer book upon the Scottish that promoted episcopacy (government of the church by bishops). Scotland demanded £850 per day from the English, so Charles was forced to call Parliament to discuss the demand. Parliament, having not been called for over a decade decided it was time to bring Charles to book; after all, he had in many eyes abused his powers.

First, they refused to fund him the money that the Scots demanded. Secondly, they passed through the Triennial Act making it compulsory for Parliament to be summoned at least once every three years. Finally they declared three Tudor Institutions illegal. They were Fiscal Feudalism, the Court Of the Star Chamber and the Court of High Commission. All these institutions were designed to make the monarchy more powerful and enable it to collect funds in what many considered an unfair manner. It was a big blow for Charles.



Worse was to follow though. The army and navy were placed under Parliamentary supervision. Charles though, knew he had support, with some people demanding the religious reforms that he was the champion of. With this in mind, he marched into Parliament to arrest the leader of the house, John Pym, and his conspirators. They had long since fled though, leaving the King looking foolish in front of all the politicians, Oliver Cromwell included.

The King realised he must act quickly, so hurried North in 1642 to amass an army to battle against the Parliamentarians, who were also known as the Roundheads (because of the short manner in which they cropped their hair).

Civil war erupted. Cromwell offered his services to the Roundheads, supplying them with horses. At the battle of Edge Hill though, the Royalists, also known as the Cavaliers, overpowered the disorganised Parliamentarians. Cromwell continued to improve as a soldier though and in 1643 was promoted from Captain to Colonel. It was at this time that he was entrusted with his own unit of cavalry. He trained them thoroughly and they became known as the New Model Army, such was their proficiency. Coupled with Cromwell's excellent tactics they often defeated opposition forces that greatly outnumbered them. At the end of 1643, Oliver Cromwell had been promoted to second in command, holding the title of Lieutenant General.

Defeats for the Royalists at Marston Moor in 1644 and then at Naseby a year later signalled the beginning of the end for Charles I. Meanwhile Cromwell had risen from lowly MP to military mastermind in the space of two years, a feat he attributed to the work of God and his unwavering religious beliefs.

By 1646 Parliament ruled England, but civil war still raged. English society fragmented into several splinter groups. Puritans disputed religious beliefs with Episcopalians. The Levellers, intent on demolishing specific economic social groups, became a major force, whilst rebel Cavaliers still roamed the countryside.

In 1648, due to a growing unrest in the capital, the Long Parliament was reduced by the army to a hardcore of staunch Puritan supporters. It became known, rather facetiously, as the Rump Parliament. Many areas of government, such as the Monarchy, Privy Council, Courts of Exchequer, Admiralty and the House of Lords were dismantled to give greater control to the Rump. The beheading of Charles, after the Scots had betrayed him by handing him over to the English completed the stabilization process.

However, the Scots and the Irish weren't happy. The majority of the Emerald Isle were Catholic and so refused to succumb to Protestant ideology. The Scots meanwhile, wished Charles II of the House of Stuart to become new King of England. Cromwell knew that both countries were a danger to his Puritan cause, so led his troops into battle once more, killing many Irish and defeating the Scottish enemy. Those Irish that were not killed were moved permanently to Connaught in the Act of Settlement, 1653. These occurrences signalled a victory for Cromwell - the end of the Civil War.

In the same year though, the Rump Parliament was dissolved after falling out with the army. In its place a Parliament of Puritan Saints proved to be an unworkable practice. Oliver Cromwell decided to rule alone, as Charles had done more than twenty years earlier, and took on the title of Lord Protector of the Realm. Unlike Charles' tyrannical rule, Cromwell sought to eradicate inhumane elements of the legal, judicial and social systems. High standards of morality were demanded from all social classes, a result of Cromwell's strong religious beliefs. His policies are considered to be sensible and compassionate compared with other leaders of that era. Cromwell's rule also saw a successful foreign policy, with a strengthening of the Navy and a promotion of England's interests.

Oliver Cromwell ruled the country for five years and died peacefully in 1658. By that time though, the monarchy had been restored in all but name and two years later Charles II was pronounced King Of England. It proved that, at the time, Parliament couldn't exist for a sustained period without a ruling monarch also.

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