Oliver Cromwell, “Warts And All”


The only interruption in the long history of the English Monarchy occurred in the years 1649-1660. The reasons were economic, social, political, and religious. While some historians of recent bent have downplayed the part of religion in the struggle —perhaps because they are irreligious— its significance cannot be denied. One group in particular, who saw the happenings here on earth as merely a prelude to the much greater glory of the hereafter were the Puritans, so named not by themselves but by their enemies, who saw it as a joke.

They also believed that God did not choose just anyone to inherit his Kingdom, but rather those who made it their life’s work to try and understand the goodness of God. Central to this belief was the tenet that humankind needed no help from Bishops or Priests to help them reach their goal, but that any man or woman had direct access to God. This could be described as dogmatism but was in truth no more dogmatic than the other prominent faiths of their day. In more modern times, one has only to read the words of H.L. Mencken, who said that “Puritans are people who are worried that somewhere, somebody might be having a good time,” to know that Puritans are a much misunderstood group.

One of these Puritans was a man named Oliver Cromwell, a man so great, he would lead the fight in removing the King of England from his throne (and remove the King’s head as well) and then take the lead in establishing an English Republic, and actually rule that Republic for five years with the title of Lord Protector.
Cromwell was not born into the Puritan faith. Indeed, his parents referred to the Puritans as “too Methodist,” and Cromwell, as a young man, apparently ag-reed, as it was during these early days that he became known as the terror of the local ale houses. His mother became alarmed that he might fall into a life of dissipation and shipped him off to study at a training facility known as The Inns of the Court, where he studied law and became a serious young man.

When he actually found Jesus Christ is not known but since he fell in love with and married Elizabeth Bourchier at about this time, there may have been a connection. One thing for sure, Crom-well went from being a man to whom religion meant little to a man to whom religion was everything. His marriage to Elizabeth was one of love and devotion even though they spent much time apart. Oliver Cromwell was about to become an important man.

It was an event that occurred in 1625, the death of King James l, that began Cromwell’s ascent to immortality and make him one of the most loved and conversely, one of the most hated men in English history.

Archbishop William Laud

King James’ successor, Charles l, who assumed the throne at age twenty-four, was an arrogant man who believed he ruled by divine right. He seemed to have a knack for making bad decisions; the first was to take a wife who was Roman Catholic. The fear of Popery had always been prevalent in Protestant England, not only with the Puritans but also the Church of England. Charles exacerbated the situation by getting involved in an expensive war with Spain, while quarreling with France at the same time. Parliament was becoming increasingly concerned, as was a young member named Oliver Cromwell.

While ignoring Parliament was of concern to Cromwell, the major sticking point was Charles’ insistence that he ruled by divine right. Cromwell and his Puritan brothers and sisters believed that only Jesus Christ ruled by divine right and this belief was nonnegotiable. When Charles informed Parliament that he had the right to make laws without their consent, the situation grew even more tense. Puritan Oliver Cromwell began to pray, and the more he prayed, the more he began to see himself as God’s Instrument.

Three months later Cromwell and his associates in Parliament presented The Petition Of Rights to Charles, who accepted the petition but still declared that he ruled by divine right and had to answer only to God. But the intransigence of Charles over the issue of the rights of Parliament was actually secondary as far as Cromwell was concerned. He knew he had two enemies, Charles l and The Church of England. The separation of Church and State did not exist in seventeenth century England, and when Archbishop Laud declared that Puritanism must be checked, that only the Church of England would decide the proper mode of worship, Cromwell and those of like mind responded with The Committee On Religion. They were not going to bow to Charles l or the Church of England.

It’s hard to fathom why some historians today in-sist that The English Civil Wars did not have a religious component. One thing for sure, to Oliver Cromwell and those who rode into battle with him, it was about religion. And the more battles Cromwell participated in, the more it became apparent—he was much more than a Puritan and a politician—he was a natural soldier.

The decade of the 1630’s was a difficult one for England and for Charles Stuart, and the more he tried to hang onto power through devious and disingenuous means, the closer he came to losing his throne.

In addition to his problems in England, he was dealing with rebellions in Scotland and Ireland. The Irish rebellion caused much consternation with reports of a massacre of Protestants by Catholics. Most historians today agree that the reports were exaggerated, but at the time, passions were high. The persecution of Puritan leaders by the Church of England was laid at Charles’ doorstep and when the Long Parliament of 1640 was dissolved by Charles, it became obvious that things would not be settled by words but rather by canon, rifle, sword and pike. When it was over, Stuart had lost his throne and his head and Oliver Cromwell, who came from England’s middle class would be the most powerful man in England.

The English Civil Wars were not between the haves and have nots as reported by some. In other words they were not class wars. Indeed, much like the American Civil War, communities, families, and even religions were divided. The combatants were called Parliamentarians and Royalists; yet many titled men wanted to be rid of Charles Stuart and fought with the Parliamentarian army, while some of the poorer sections of the country remained staunchly with the King. But one group did not have divided loyalties.

The Puritans who rode into battle with Oliver Cromwell were called Roundheads, because of their pageboy haircuts. They had no doubt what they were fighting for—the right to worship God as they saw fit. Their commander came to be known as Ironsides, be-cause of his fierceness in battle. They knew of Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek—but as far as they were concerned they were battling Satan— thus justifying the killing of the enemy.

Illustration of Prince Rupert’s cavalry charging at Edgehill, the first battle of the English Civil War. Painting by Harry Payne, 1901

Cromwell had no formal military training but like Nathan Bedford Forrest, he had no equal as a cavalry officer. They rode into battle with the cry: Lord of Hosts Attack! One Royalist commander declared: “If Crom-well charged hell he would take it.”

Cromwell’s most prominent battlefield opponent was Prince Rupert, nephew of Charles Stuart, and it didn’t take long for Cromwell to see the weakness of Rupert’s cavalry charges; after a charge his men were so spread out it took too long to reform. “The bee stings but once,” said Cromwell. Cromwell had his Roundheads reform quickly. By the time Rupert’s men returned to the battle, Cromwell had charged again and annihilated the enemy. Couple skill with conscience; the Roundheads did not plunder after a battle because they were godly men; and the Roundheads were without equal on the battlefield.

The Parliamentarian Army’s commander was Lord Fairfax, and in the beginning this professional soldier had doubts about a novice like Cromwell, but as Ironsides proved his mettle in battle time after time, Fairfax soon changed his mind.

Some recent historians seem reluctant to give Cromwell credit for winning the English Civil Wars, preferring to give Fairfax most of the credit. However they don’t take in to account that even after Fairfax left the struggle, (he didn’t think Charles l should have been executed) Cromwell continued to win.

It was at the Battle of Edge Hill on October 23, 1642, that Cromwell and his Roundheads first gained the reputation for never retreating. “They never ran before an enemy, but would stand firmly as one and charge desperately,” one observer said. On May 13, 1643, at the town of Grantham, the Roundheads were the only force on the field yet routed their opponents. By the end of 1643, only Fairfax was more highly regarded on the field of battle than Cromwell.

Charles I, Hunting Excursion by Anton Van Dyck, 1635

On January 18, 1644, twenty thousand Scotsmen and Presbyterians marched into England to do battle with Charles Stuart. They were not exactly welcomed by Cromwell as he knew they had an ulterior motive. The Scots had always thought the English throne should belong to them and their price for joining the fight, besides 100,000 pounds, was the signing of a covenant by the Parliamentarian army stipulating that once the war was won Presbyterianism would become the dominant religion in England. Cromwell resisted signing for two reasons—he didn’t think any religion should dominate—nor did he think the Scots were needed. After a sixteen month delay he signed after being promised that all faiths would be respected.

The Battle of Marston Moor on July 2, 1644, was the largest ever fought on English soil. With the help of the Scots, the Parliamentary army actually outnumbered the Royalists. Still, it was Cromwell who saved the day, as after retiring from the field with a neck wound, he returned to the fray and brought victory. The victory was bittersweet for Crom-well as he lost a nephew in the battle after losing his son Oliver in a previous fight.

It was after the victory of Marston Moor that Cromwell saw the possibility of removing Charles Stuart from his throne. In a sense this became his greatest battle. Not everyone favored losing their security blanket, the King. They’d always had one and it was difficult to envision not having one. Defeat him—yes, but remove him! But Oliver Cromwell, now a Lieutenant General was wielding more influence than ever. It was through his influence that the Parliamentarian army became the New Model Army, whose training and fighting ability grew rapidly. And when Charles Stuart, who seemed to be his own worst enemy, committed treason, even his supporters knew he must go.

1901 engraving after the painting by Ernest Crofts of Oliver Cromwell leading troops at Marston Moor during the English Civil War

It was after the Battle of Naseby on June 14th, 1645, handily won by the New Model Army, that Cromwell and his allies came into possession of a cabinet full of letters from Charles Stuart’s Queen, busy in France trying to recruit soldiers to come to his aid. Stuart had committed treason by this act and had given Oliver Cromwell all the ammunition he needed to get rid of him.

When Cromwell returned to Westminster to address The House of Commons in January of 1646, his star was shining brightly. Soon, all the Royalists in Parliament had left and Cromwell’s friends and fellow officers took their seats. The Puritans, once looked down on, had power now, and, as often happens, began to wield it injudiciously, causing some who were looking forward to being rid of Charles begin to pine for his return.

Archibald Campbell 1st Marquis of Argyll

In essence, the Puritans began taking the fun out of the lives of the average Englishman. They banned Christmas celebrations, plays and other entertainments were canceled. Oliver Cromwell was not involved in these changes (he still had battles to fight) but he got the blame.

This was not lost on Charles l who was now essentially a prisoner of the Presbyterian Scots, who hoped to gain influence in England through Charles, who had accepted their terms if he could regain his throne. But Stuart had also promised the Puritans that all faiths would be respected if they would restore him to the throne. His actions ended a feud between Parliament and the New Model Army who had not been paid in a long time and refused to go to Ireland to put down a Catholic uprising. Suddenly, all eyes were on Stuart again and he was soon a prisoner of the New Model Army. Stuart had unwittingly solved the feud between Parliament and the soldiers and just in time for the Second Civil War.

The Second Civil War was fought mainly in Scotland where Cromwell soon defeated a combined army of English Royalists and Engager Scots who had the goal of restoring Charles to the throne. After the Second Civil War, Cromwell came to terms with a Scottish Chieftain, Marquis of Argyll, who had not approved of the Engager Scots going south to do battle with the New Model Army. Cromwell signed an agreement with Argyll that stated than no Engager Scot would ever hold office in Scotland again. The Second Civil War was over and the sand in the hour glass had run out for Charles Stuart.

On the 27th of January, 1649, Charles Stuart was condemned to death as a tyrant and a traitor. There was a report that Oliver Cromwell laughed as the axe fell, but this was not true. He wasn’t even there.
But now another Charles came on the scene and Oliver Cromwell would have to defeat him on the battlefield if he was to keep the success he had won.

Charles ll decided that even though he could not attack England, securely in the hands of The New Republic, he could attack through Scotland and Ireland, picking up allies as he headed south. The attack was doomed to failure. The Scots and Irish never got along, so made poor allies, and Charles ll found out that he would pick up few allies along the way. All he did was force Oliver Cromwell to attack Ireland, where he would gain the reputation of monster that is still prominent today and has made him a bogeyman to all Roman Catholics.

It happened at the walled city of Drogheda which had the River Boyne running through it. There were 2300 Irish soldiers (but not necessarily Catholic) inside the walls, under the command of Sir Arthur Aston, a Roman Catholic.

Cromwell sent word to Aston to surrender, otherwise he would not be responsible for the consequences. Aston put up a spirited defense and Cromwell lost many good men. Cromwell decided to lead the final charge himself. This he did through a breach in the wall, all the while screaming—no quarter!!, a common practice in the seventeenth century. But Crom-well had never fought this way before. Surely, his hatred of Catholics and his desire to seek revenge for the supposed massacre years before is what drove him. The results were horrible. Every tenth Irishman was put to the sword and the Curse Of Cromwell would forever be heard on Irish lips.

Cromwell always said that his behavior at Drog-heda would end up saving lives as other Irish garrisons quickly surrendered rather than face him in battle. However, it’s difficult to believe his reasoning since there was no way he could know that other garrisons would surrender. And had they not would they also have been put to the sword?

But Charles ll was not through. There were still those in Scotland willing to use him to gain influence in England and the son, like the father, was willing to promise anything to claim the crown. So when these Covenanter Scots named Charles ll King of Scotland in 1651, Cromwell knew the Scots had to be defeated.

One has to understand seventeenth century England and Scotland to understand what was taking place. Today and for three hundred years, Scotland and England have been the same country. But in 1649, the two countries were bitter enemies.

J. Nalson’s Record of the Trial of Charles I from 1688

It was at this point that Lord Fairfax divorced himself from the new Commonwealth government. He hadn’t approved of Charles Stuart’s execution, and since his wife was a Royalist and a Presbyterian, despite Crom-well’s begging, he would not participate.

But in a military sense, Cromwell didn’t need Fairfax as he easily defeated Charles ll and his Scottish army and sent the newly crowned King of the Scots scurrying back to France where his mother waited. The Third Civil War was over and Oliver Cromwell had fought his last battle. He would soon yearn for the simplicity of the battlefield.

Cromwell could have been named King but he steadfastly refused since he and his men had fought to bring an end to the monarchy. He accepted the title of Lord Protector, making some angry as they still longed for the old days. Cromwell’s England could not be called a true democracy but it was as close as England had ever come to one.

When Cromwell returned from the wars it was suggested he sit for a portrait. He’d always had a large wart on his chin and when the artist asked whether he wanted to include the wart, the Lord Protector replied: “Sir paint me as I am, warts and all.” It’s a saying that has stood the test of time.

As far as Cromwell was concerned the Civil Wars had been fought for religious freedom and he set about to make it happen. There had been no Jews in England since 1290. Cromwell invited them back and they came. He envisioned a state church that welcomed all religions though he could never completely become tolerant of Catholics. He did talk with Catholics which was something Anglican England never did.

To keep peace and prevent plotting against the government the country was divided into eleven sections governed by friends of Cromwell’s who had the title of Major Generals. They would bring much grief to Cromwell due to their heavy-handed methods.

Cromwell dissolving the Long Parliament by Andrew Gow, 1907 Courtesy of Mackelvie Trust Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

Since Cromwell refused to be King this meant that he had to deal with a Parliament that often disagreed. However he did push through five main constitutional results that were never reversed. No longer could the Protector or King levy taxes without the consent of The House of Commons. Nor could the King arrest legislators without showing cause as had been done before. And since Parliament won the Civil Wars it became a permanent part of the Constitution. The Church of England had to recognize that dissenters had rights and were a valued part of society. And perhaps the most important change of all: capital punishment could be meted out only for murder and treason.

One cannot help but wonder, that if Cromwell had lived a longer life, whether the monarchy would have ever been restored. Had he lived ten more years the populous may have been so used to a Republic the idea of having a king again may have been repugnant.

But his health was never good. Even on the battlefield he’d battled Vivax malaria, kidney stones and boils. Oliver Cromwell died on September 3, 1658. His son, Richard was not strong enough to provide the leadership required and Charles ll would gain the throne.

Even after his death his enemies could not let Cromwell rest. On January 30, 1661, the coffin containing his body was taken from Westminster, put on a sled, and taken to Tyburn, where his bones were taken out of the coffin and hanged. The corpse was then decapitated and the head mounted on a pole atop Westminster Hall. Wherever Cromwell was he no doubt smiled and forgave his enemies.

The royal family of England apparently has never forgiven Cromwell either. In 1911, Winston Churchill wanted to name a ship The Cromwell but George the Fifth said ‘no.’ As late as 1950, a motion to name a college after Cromwell was defeated.

Don Haines is a retired Registered Nurse and Freelance Writer who lives in Woodbine, Md. His work has appeared in several hundred Christian and secular magazines.

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Ashley, Maurice. The Battle of Naseby and The Fall of King Charles. New York: Saint Martins Press, 1992.
Fraser, Antonia. Charles ll: His Life and Times. London: Geo. Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd., 1993.
Marshall, Alan. Oliver Cromwell: Soldier: The Military Life of a Revolutionary. London: Brassey’s, 2004.