Since his death as Lord Protector in 1658 his life, ambitions, motives and actions have been the subject of thorough investigation and intense debate. Whatever the position which is taken on Cromwell; sometimes considered as "Chief of Men" or "Brave Bad Man", he remains a key figure in one of the most troubled periods of British history.
When Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon in 1599, there was nothing to show that he would become one of the most influential men in the history of Britain. His parents belonged to the lower ranks of the gentry and he grew up to be a famer and minor landowner. His father was an important local figure. He was a local landowner, a Member of Parliament for Huntingdon, and a magistrate. He was not directly related to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister, but a distant relation through marriage and the family still had lands that he had been given. In his 30s, he went to London to represent his family in Parliament. He sent his son to Huntingdon Grammar School, and then, in 1616, to nearby Cambridge University, studying at Sidney Sussex College. But the next year Cromwell's father died and his mother was devastated. Cromwell had to look after the family estate, so he left university and returned to Huntingdon.
Cromwell faced severe financial struggles. These were, to a large extent, caused by the high taxes that they had to pay. However, they noticed that much of their taxes went on huge extravagance at the king's court, and this caused them a lot of anger. Cromwell was elected Member of Parliament for Huntingdon in 1640.
He turned strongly to Puritanism and became known for his outspoken views on the monarchy and the Church. However, it was his success as a soldier in the Civil Wars that lifted him to power. Clothed conservatively, he possessed a Puritan fervour and a commanding voice, he quickly made a name for himself by serving in both the Short Parliament (April 1640) and the Long Parliament (August 1640 through April 1660). Charles I, pushing his finances to bankruptcy and trying to force a new prayer book on Scotland, was badly beaten by the Scots, who demanded £850 per day from the English until the two sides reached agreement. Charles had no choice but to summon Parliament.
Cromwell, like many other MPs, also opposed the extravagance of the court and the authoritarian way in which the king tried to govern. The gulf between the king and parliament grew wider over the next couple of years. Any chance of compromise evaporated and, in 1642, Civil War broke out.
Although Cromwell had no previous training as a soldier, as a cavalry officer he rose through the ranks of the Parliamentarian Army to become one of its leading commanders. He also supported lower-class men being promoted to commands, if they were godly and capable, making a stir among the generals! Cromwell introduced new ideas, imposing strong discipline on his soldiers.
Cromwell was good at tactics and strategy. He was key in parliament's victory at Marston Moor in 1644 and Naseby in 1645. Cromwell appeared to have an amazing ability to make his men believe in themselves; his certainty that they had God on their side led to their success as a fighting force. A settlement was reached with the defeated king, with many discussions about what should happen to the country. However, Charles secretly made an alliance with the Scots and called on 'his' people to rise up against those who had defeated him. From that time on, Cromwell came to believe that it was impossible to negotiate with the king in good faith. Soon, Civil War had broken out again, and Cromwell's insistance on keeping the New Model Army together was proved to be the correct approach. In December 1648, Cromwell pushed for the full trial of the king. He now felt that the king had committed treason against his own people. On January 30th, 1649, having been found guilty, the king was sentenced to death. Cromwell's signature was third on the death warrant.
In December 1653, Cromwell was appointed Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. His aim was to heal the wounds of the nations, and to try to bring all groups together under his rule. He worked for religious toleration throughout the land, even readmitting Jews into the land after centuries of exclusion. Indeed, even Roman Catholics were better off under Cromwell than they had been before.
He had a new parliament elected from local Church congregations in 1653. This parliament was nicknamed the 'Barebones Parliament', after one of its leading members. It proved quite unable to help him govern the country, as it was more concerned about discussing a new (and much more radical) constitution. It also opposed many of his policies, such as religious toleration. In 1655, he dissolved parliament. A new parliament, elected in 1656, was equally unsuccessful and he dissolved this in 1658.
He became very ill in 1658, partly due to the death of his beloved daughter, Elizabeth. On September 3rd, he died. A state funeral was held in November, with many thousands paying their respects. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Cromwell's life as a statesman, and the first ever non-Royal ruler of England, seems extraordinary when one thinks of his humble beginnings. During his time as Lord Protector, England enjoyed a greater amount of personal religious freedom than it had for years before or after; laws were made to be more humane and judges more honest. However, he also clamped down on drinking, gambling and playing games on a Sunday, which made him unpopular with many ordinary people.
Cromwell could be ruthless in battle and his brutal actions in crushing opposition in Ireland were to cause great bitterness between the Irish and English. Yet there have been very few men able to hold such great power as Cromwell had, without abusing it - and even fewer would have turned down the chance to become king of England!
Oliver Cromwell died on 3rd September 1658. He named his son Richard as successor. The English army was unhappy with this decision. While they respected Oliver a skilful military commander, just country farmer. His son became Lord Protector but he could not handle the deteriorating situation in the country, and anarchy threatened. In May 1659, the generals forced him to retire from government. Richard stepped down from government and went abroad. (Later, Richard would return quietly to England, where he lived in retirement in East Anglia for many years.)
As a result of the Restoration in 1660, Cromwell's body was disinterred from the tomb of kings in Westminster Abbey and was hung from the gallows at Tyburn. His head was put on display in London for many years to come.
Since his death in 1658, his motives and actions have been the subject of much debate. Whatever you feel about the man and his actions, for good or bad, his importance in one of the most troubled times of British history is not in doubt.