Cromwell’s Cruel Commonwealth


By Will Barber Taylor

After Charles the First was captured by the Roundheads, he was put on trial. The trial was a show trial – the verdict of Charles’ death had already been decided and it was merely to make the people think that the King had got a fair shot as justice. Charles did his best to put up a defence; he claimed that by the divine right of Kings’ he had the moral authority to govern England as he liked and without interference from Parliament. He claimed that the whole trial was a farce and in itself treason. No one listened to him – why would they? Charles’ army had been beaten, his family had fled, and he was without money or influence. He had about as much authority as a runner bean twerking in a disco – in other words none.

On the 20th of January 1649, Charles was led from his prison cell out to his place of execution. He passed under the ceiling of the Banqueting House of Westminster Hall. The Banqueting House had been designed for Charles’ father, James I, and above where the doomed despot walked was a painted mural showing his father as a God, ascending to Heaven to be treated with the authority Charles had been all but stripped off. You can help but wonder how Charles felt then – probably, not too happy. Charles had decided to wear two shirts that day – he’d been told that it was particularly cold outside and didn’t want to seem like a Chilly Charlie on the execution block.

Charles made a long speech before his death about the responsibility of the crown and how evil Parliament was. Not too many people took much notice; they were there for the gore. It wouldn’t matter too much anyway; not long after Charles’ death a handy booklet was published which printed the King’s last words. A nice souvenir if you could get one!

Not long after his execution, onlookers were allowed to dip their handkerchiefs in the blood of the dead King. After hundreds of years of feudal rule, England was finally free of its King. Britain was a Republic – well, except for Scotland which had crowned Charles II not long after his Dad’s death or Ireland which, being mainly Catholic, hated the extreme Protestantism that Cromwell’s chums represented with Puritanism. Now Parliament could get to work on some exciting new changes which could make England a new and monarchless country!

Except, things don’t go like that. You see England was declared a Republic so in theory there couldn’t be another King – that wouldn’t make sense. Therefore, what was left of Parliament – purged of anyone who disliked the dirty death of the King or who didn’t agree with the policies of the Puritans were booted out. What was left was known as the Rump Parliament as there was only a small number of MPs left. The idea was that the MPs would get on with things and sort out the affairs of the country without any opposition or checks to stop them.

The Rump Parliament’s first problem came in the face of women. Whilst intrepid and adventurous women abounded during the Civil War, such as Henrietta Maria they were unusual in the fact that they were intrepid and adventurous. During the 16th century most women were expected to simply stay quiet and do housework.

However, following the execution of Charles I and the announcement of a Republic the women of England felt they had an opportunity to their voices heard. In 1649 they went to Parliament with a petition to declare that they were equal to men and that they should be allowed to have the same rights as them. Sadly, Parliament didn’t really care. They sent them away without so much as a bye or leave. The governing Puritan faction didn’t care much for independence or rights for all, as some thought. They cared about making Britain “religiously pure” – something which would have devastating effects on those who did not agree with them.

For a few years, the Rump Parliament struggled on and tried to act as if it could govern. It couldn’t. The country faced severe economic depression; partly due to the expense of the Civil War and partly due to other countries not wishing to trade with England and thus recognise the Commonwealth. They didn’t want to give their own citizen ideas. The Rump annoyed everyone; it taxed the wealthy land owners who considered it to be without legitimacy. It was not radical enough for the more fervent political supporters of the Republic. Everyone disliked it – however it was not directly opposed due to the fear of a Military Dictatorship. Things carried on like this until 1653 when Cromwell marched into the Commons with forty musketeers and declared that he was closing Parliament – Cromwell would rule with a few trusted advisors.

Surely this could not be? The entire Civil War had been fought by Parliament because of Charles I doing the same thing – yet there would be no great revolt against Cromwell. With no King and the army behind Cromwell, there wasn’t really much that Parliament could do but accept Cromwell as the man in charge. Cromwell was offered the crown several times – the thought being that if Cromwell was King, he would back away from Parliament. Somewhat ironic given that thousands had died to get rid of a King only to attempt to bring another back. Cromwell instead opted for the title of Lord Protector – a title associated with royalty but not as provocative as King.

As soon as Cromwell was Lord Protector, he began a series of changes to England to enforce Puritanism as the religion of state and to force society to conform to the belief that drove the Roundheads during the Civil War. The changes he would make would affect the lives of millions and echo throughout history as some of the most provocative and destructive.

Cromwell had already engaged in life changing events whilst the Rump Parliament sat. In 1649, with the Commonwealth established and Charles dead Cromwell was sent to Ireland. Ireland was seen as the main threat to the Commonwealth – it would be the best possible place to launch and invasion of England from and the mainly Catholic population hated Cromwell and the Puritans and were supporters of Charles I’s son, Charles II. Cromwell arrived in Ireland in August 1649 determined to take as many ports as possible to stop the Irish Royalists from using them as launch pads to invade England. Cromwell’s lieutenant in Ireland, Michael Jones, had been in charge of Dublin and had recently won the Battle of Rathmines. The battle had been a fierce one, ending with the Parliamentarian forces slicing down the fleeing Irish Royalists. Up to the 19th century an area near the site of the battle in Milltown was called “Bloody Fields” because Royalists were supposedly killed and then buried there after the battle.

Yet Jones’ massacre of the Royalists was nothing to what Cromwell would do. The Siege of Drogheda saw Cromwell massacre nearly 3,500 people after the town had surrendered. Cromwell simply saw this as retribution for the equally hideous massacre of Protestants in 1641 – one which was exaggerated by the English to stir up hatred for the Irish. He went on to say:

“I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches”

Cromwell went onto to commit a further massacre in Wexford where 200 women and children were slaughtered. During Cromwell’s time in Ireland, Irish Bishops attempted to convince the native population to not help Cromwell by stating that he intended “the destruction of the lives of the inhabitants of this nation.” Cromwell left Ireland in May 1650 to counter the threat of Charles II, who had landed in Scotland. Whilst many of the worst massacres happened after Cromwell left Ireland he was responsible for a policy which devastated the people of Ireland. Crop burning and starvation were used to force the Irish to submit to Parliamentary rule. Some 600,000 deaths were caused by this policy. 50,000 men, women and children were either evicted, murdered or sent as indentured servants – effectively slaves – to Barbados and Bermuda. When Cromwell would become Lord Protector he would continue a vicious attack on the Irish people -banning Roman Catholicism, executing any Roman Catholic priests and stripping any Irish Catholic of land and giving it to Protestant settlers. Because of Cromwell’s religious bigotry and zealous disregard for life that was not Puritan, the people of Ireland suffered and hated the English more than ever. To this day there is a saying which sums it up “Mallact Cromail” – The Curse of Cromwell. As one Gaelic poet put it at the time: “This was the war that finished Ireland.”

Cromwell was not so cruel to the people of Scotland when he arrived there in 1650. After all they were Presbyterians – not that far from being Puritans. Cromwell attempted to beseech the people of Scotland to abandon Charles’s son – who had by now been crowned King Charles II of Scotland – and unite with the Commonwealth as their religion was only slightly different to Cromwell. The Scottish didn’t take kindly to this and continued to support Charles II. With the threat of Charles leading an invasion force from Scotland into England, Cromwell sprang into action and marched on Scotland. Cromwell had originally wanted Sir Thomas Fairfax – the English Civil War’s chief commander – to lead the invasion of Scotland as he was a staunch Presbyterian. However, Fairfax refused because England and Scotland were joined in a solemn “league and covenant” meaning it would be “unjust” for Fairfax to lead a Parliamentarian army into Scotland.

As Cromwell led his army into battle he faced, as he had in Ireland, a weakened enemy. Like the Irish Royalists, the Scottish Royalist and Covenanters were far from united. Some distrusted Charles II’s commitment to the cause of the Scottish covenant; other were unsure whether they could take on Parliament and win. In any case, Cromwell marched with great confidence to Scotland in July 1650 to smash the Scottish forces.

Things did not go at all well. Sir David Leslie, commander of the Scottish forces was able to hold himself up in Edinburgh, denying Cromwell the pitched battle he desired. Leslie forced Cromwell to only get supplies by the port of Dunbar by destroying all farming land in the area near to the English camp. After months of stalling, Cromwell began to move towards Dunbar in early September 1650 as his men were starved. Yet as the English began to retreat Leslie made a great mistake – he attempted to attack them. Cromwell’s army was soon able to turn the situation around, defeat Leslie at Dunbar and go on to capture Edinburgh. Cromwell’s defeat of the Scottish forces was complete in one amazing stroke.

Whilst Cromwell battered the armies of the Scottish Royalists, Charles II and his supporters decided to make a pre-emptive strike on England. With Cromwell and most of the army in Scotland and the inadequate Rump Parliament in charge it seemed like the easiest thing to carry off. Right? Wrong. Charles’ army went southwards but Cromwell caught wind of their intentions and followed them down south. They met at Worcester, which whilst having been previously a Royalist stronghold was captured by Cromwell. The slaughter that followed was partly down to Cromwell’s cunning – he had realised that the Royalist forces of Charles would try and invade England and retake it for themselves at some point, so he had his forces readied and all suspected Royalists had their guns removed and were kept under surveillance. Sir Thomas Fairfax even came out of retirement to raise a militia of Parliamentarians to keep track of the Royalist army.

Once Cromwell had defeated the army, Charles II escaped by hiding in a tree leading to the popular name Royal Oak, in memory of the tree Charles hid in. Whilst he escaped across the Channel to France, Cromwell mustered his forces and returned to London where he was greeted as a hero. Not long after he dissolved Parliament and made himself Lord Protector.

Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector on the 16th of December 1653. Though he wore all black during the ceremony, to temper those who may have thought he was attempting to be a King, he began to sign his name “Oliver P” in the manner of Kings and was referred to as “Your Highness”. Cromwell was paid £100,000 a year by Parliament to be Lord Protector – now that would be equivalent to somewhere between £14 million and £3 billion.

Cromwell’s time as Lord Protector was one of fear and disillusionment. The ban on the celebration of Christmas – enforced in 1647 – continued. Cromwell banned meetings of the Kirk of Scotland, for fear that they would cause trouble for him in the North and continued to loot Ireland of recourses and people. In 1655, after a Royalist uprising, Cromwell divided England into military districts and appointed Army Major Generals to govern the different districts. The Major Generals could only report to Cromwell and were answerable only to Cromwell. The fear of Britain becoming a military dictatorship had come true.

Cromwell attempted to make peace with Europe. He made peace with the Dutch and allowed Jewish merchants and their families from Amsterdam people to live in England legally for the first time since Edward II’s reign – though Cromwell did this not out of kindness but to cement peace with the Dutch and in the hopes of converting the Jews and bringing about the Second Coming of Christ.

In 1657 Cromwell was offered the crown but after six weeks he refused. Instead, he was reinstated as Lord Protector in a ceremony that mirrored a coronation and he sat upon King Edward’s chair – that used by every single King of England since Edward the Confessor. Though Cromwell had supposedly fought against the power of the crown he was more and more taking it on – wearing a coronation style robe at his swearing in and carrying items such as the sword normally associated with a King. He even began to ennoble subjects as if he was a King – acting against the very system he had fought.

Cromwell, however, did not last long. In September 1658, on the anniversary of his triumph at Worcester, Cromwell died. He had been ill for some time and his early death is thought to have been partly brought on by the death of his daughter Elizabeth – who died not long after the death of her son, also named Oliver. Cromwell, though not a King, had his funeral based on that of James I and was buried in Westminster Abbey with great pomp and ceremony.

After Cromwell’s death, his son Richard – later known in life as “Tumbledown Dick” – became Lord Protector. Richard Cromwell was a sickly youth who, unlike his father, had no strong support in either Parliament or the Army. Richard’s brief spell as Lord Protector ended in disaster. He resigned the post a year after having inherited it from his father. When Charles II eventually returned to the throne Richard Cromwell left for Europe where he would visit many people under a pseudonym. During his time in Europe, he dined with the Prince of Conti who, unaware of his identity, remarked that Oliver Cromwell had been a “traitor and a villain” but he had at least he was a great commander and had great command unlike Richard who he described as “the basest man alive”. Richard Cromwell responded that he had been betrayed and slipped away the next morning.

After Cromwell’s death and the failure of his son to control either the army or Parliament it was clear that something would have to be done. Parliament fought between itself, jostling as to what should be done – should a fresh Parliament be called? Should Richard Cromwell be brought back as Lord Protector – if only temporarily? Eventually, in the bleakest days of the winter of 1659 – a decade since Charles I’s execution and the end of the Civil War – it was decided that his son, Charles II, should be convinced to come back from France to claim his throne. After all the suffering, after all the war and death Britain had gone back to having a King.

Charles II entered London on the 29th of May 1660 to cheers and applause. Both Charles I and Cromwell had brought horror and disorder to the country but Charles II’s return marked a new dawn. Charles was crowned on 23rd of April 1661 in Westminster Abbey. Only a few months earlier, on the 20th of January 1661 nine regicides had been executed and the corpse of Oliver Cromwell had been brought out of his resting place in Westminster Abbey so his decaying body could be hanged, drawn and quartered, his head placed on pole outside Westminster Hall. Cromwell’s Commonwealth was truly dead.

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