Oliver Cromwell Essay - Critical Essays

Cromwell, Oliver


Oliver Cromwell 1599–1658

Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

The following entry provides critical discussion of the conversations, letters, and speeches of Cromwell, particularly after his rise to prominence in 1640.

The Puritan Oliver Cromwell is regarded as one of the most influential leaders in England's history. Although his rule over Britain lasted only five years and was ended by the Restoration of the monarchy of King Charles II, Cromwell's actions and ideas laid the groundwork for the laws and mores of modern England. Many of Cromwell's most memorable ideas are expressed in his letters as well as his speeches to Parliament.

Biographical Information

Born in Huntingdon, England, Oliver Cromwell was the fifth of ten children and the only surviving son of Robert Cromwell and Elizabeth Steward Cromwell. Little is known with certainty about Cromwell before his rise to power in the 1640s. His parents were wealthy and influential in Huntingdon until the early seventeenth century, when the family fortunes declined.. Cromwell himself studied but did not graduate from Cambridge University. On August 22, 1620, he married Elizabeth Bourchier; the couple had nine children. In the late 1620s he was briefly involved in local politics, eventually serving in London as one of Huntingdon's Members of Parliament. In 1640 he represented Cambridge in the Long Parliament. This Parliament was so-called for the length of time that at least a remnant of it served intermittently from 1640 until 1660—well after Charles I's execution in 1649 and also after Cromwell's death in 1658. Cromwell's speeches in Parliament display his contempt for what he regarded as the corruption of the Anglican bishops and for his growing criticism of King Charles. Later, during the civil wars against Charles, Cromwell established an efficient, "New Model Army." He rejected mercenary soldiers in favor of recruiting religious zealots and outfitted his troops in body armor (which earned him and his troops the nickname "Ironsides,") he was able to defeat the royalist forces. After Charles I's execution, and backed by his loyal army, Cromwell became increasingly influential in Parliament—at one point dissolving it and ruling the country himself with the aid of advisors. Asked repeatedly by his supporters to become king, Cromwell refused, accepting

instead the title of Lord Protector, first in 1653, then renewing the title with elaborate ceremonies in 1657. As Protector, Cromwell's foreign policy reflected his devout Protestantism. He made peace with Protestant Holland and treaties with Sweden and Denmark. He sided with a France that was at least partially Huguenot against Catholic Spain. When he died in 1658, Cromwell was buried in Westminster Abbey. After the Restoration of the monarchy Cromwell's body was exhumed, hung, and decapitated in 1661 on command of King Charles II along with living leaders of the Revolution.

Major Works

Cromwell's principal literary achievements are his letters, speeches, and transcripts of remembered conversations he had with supporters and adversaries. His speeches were first collected by the Scottish essaying Thomas Carlyle, in 1845. Carlyle edited them heavily but enthusiastically filled gaps in the transcripts with his own conjectures as to what Cromwell might have said or meant to say. As critic Ivan Roots observes, Cromwell's letters are both "formal and informal," revealing "the private man" (as Carlyle describes him), and "the war's and fortune's son," (as depicted by Cromwell's supporter, the poet Andrew Marvell). Ironically, as Roots also observes, Cromwell did not leave behind written versions of his own speeches, as he composed many of them impromptu in Parliament with the aid of only a few notes. Likewise, Cromwell's conversations have of necessity been preserved only through the memory of their hearers, but, as Roots remarked in the Preface to his own collection of Cromwell's words, both speeches and conversations "can be presented with reasonable confidence as a basis for an assessment of Oliver as an orator, his style, and the thrust and content of his attempts to persuade and dissuade groups.…"

Critical Reception

Critics assert that Cromwell's words, like his actions, reveal him to have been a deeply religious person who believed that God's Providence rather than any talent of his own was guiding his and ultimately his country's destiny. Some critics have remarked that while Cromwell delivered his speeches passionately, he did so without adroitness or technical skill. Some have also noted that while Cromwell was not a naturally gifted orator, he developed a certain talent for public speaking with the sheer number of speeches he delivered. A contemporary critic and one-time admirer, Edmund Ludlow, condemned Cromwell as a hypocrite who gave verbal promises of equality for all religions even though he in fact believed that equality for all would result in chaos. Some historians suggest that while he censured both Catholics and Anglicans, Cromwell practiced religious tolerance for most groups, for example, welcoming the return of the Jews to England, and by turning a blind eye to the meetings of Catholics, Anglicans, and Quakers.

Principal Works

Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, 2 vols, (correspondence and speeches) 1845

Speeches of Oliver Cromwell 1644-1658 (speeches) 1904

The Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell. 4 vols, (correspondence, proser, speeches) 1937-47

Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (speeches) 1989


Maurice Ashley (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Cromwell's Religion," in The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell, Hodder and Stoughton, 1657, pp. 39-56.

[In the following excerpt, Ashley characterizes Cromwell as a man who felt moved by Providence to reestablish the correct balance between Church and State in England.]

Puritanism reached its zenith in the middle of the seventeenth century, and when the dissenters were expelled from the Church of England in the reign of King Charles II, non-conformity became part of the British way of life, indelible and unforgettable. Because Oliver Cromwell was so eminent a figure and a champion of the Puritan cause, it is easy to imagine that he was the creator rather than the creation of that extraordinary force in British history. But when Cromwell died in 1658, the Puritan movement was already over a hundred years old—for the Reformation itself had been the mother of dissent.

At first the Puritans were little concerned either with theology or politics.1 The early English Protestants in the reign of King Henry VIII, while they insisted upon the value of the Bible, translated into English, as the ultimate moral authority, and upheld the doctrine of a Christian's justification by his faith rather than his behaviour, were loyal to the Crown and repudiated any revolutionary ideas. However, after Roman Catholicism had been restored for a time in the reign of Queen Mary I, a transformation came over English religious opinion. For when Queen Elizabeth I succeeded her sister upon the throne and decided again to renounce the authority of the Pope, she was obliged to rely upon the services of a number of English churchmen, who had taken refuge overseas during the reign of Queen Mary, had sat at the feet of the continental Protestant reformers, and imbibed radical notions about the relations of Church and State. Some of the returned exiles then fancied introducing into England the Presbyterian scheme of Church government that was being practised in Geneva under the direction of the French theologian John Calvin; but the majority aimed simply at continuing, if at a faster speed, the purification of the Church which had been begun under the first Tudors. Most of these Protestant enthusiasts sought to refashion the English Church after the model framed in the reign of King Edward VI rather than to translate the discipline of the Swiss Church to a less rarefied climate. All of them were determined to destroy every remnant of 'foul idolatry', to ban all vestments—even the humble surplice—images, symbols, or 'popish' ceremonies, and to place upon the Holy Communion no miraculous interpretation. They wanted, as they put it, not merely to unhorse the Pope, but also to take away his stirrups so that he should never be in the saddle again. Secondly, they lifted the reading of the Bible, now translated into English by Protestant zealots (indeed, William Tyndale, the first English translator, has also been described as the first English Puritan), to the forefront of their religious exercises. Lastly they regarding preaching as the linch-pin of the public services. For them the Bible came before the Prayer Book and the preacher before any public act of worship. Exhortation in the pulpit and prayer in the home: such was the handy and unadorned machinery of their eager faith.

The Calvinist doctrine of predestination was accepted by nearly all English Christian leaders, thinkers, and teachers in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It was not in any way a specifically Puritan doctrine. The belief that God chooses of His own inscrutable volition to 'save' some and to condemn others to perdition, that men are 'justified' by their faith and only show forth their salvation by their lives, was no party creed. Articles drawn up at Lambeth in 1595 (four years before Cromwell was born), under the presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury, asserted that God had from everlasting predestined some people to life and had reprobated others to death, and that it was not in the power of any man to be saved by his own efforts. The Elizabethan archbishops and bishops, virtually without exception, were Calvinists in theology, and Calvin's Institutes were recognized text-books in the universi ties. When, in December 1604, the Archbishop of York acknowledged the receipt of instructions from King James I to proceed against the Puritans, he expressed dislike for their 'fanatical zeal,' but pointed out that they agreed with the Church 'in the substance of religion.' The doctrine of predestination could be read in the Book of Common Prayer and described in the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, therefore, what the Puritans were urging was not any change in doctrine but simpler services and more preaching. They complained, in John Milton's words, that 'the hungry sheep look up and are not fed.' Most of the clergy were not educated men and did not preach, but read homilies out of prescribed books. This was largely for economic reasons. In theory the Church was entitled to receive 'tithe,' a tenth of the produce of the land, but in fact the parish clergy were in general badly paid. Most livings were quite inadequate to maintain a learned man. The property rights of lay patrons stood in the way of improvement. Vicars were allowed only the 'small tithes' that were hard to collect plus the beggarly stipends paid by lay rectors who had come to own the 'great tithes.' Thus many clergy were little better off than agricultural labourers, and were frequently compelled to supplement their incomes in other ways—by cultivating the soil or even keeping an inn.2 To fill the gap created by such 'blind mouths,' lecturers would be hired by Puritan laymen to preach and expound the Bible. And in parishes where the clergy themselves were Puritan-minded (being appointed by Puritan patrons), they would meet the laity and discuss portions of the Scripture with them on week-days. Thus Puritanism spread, to the dismay of the Queen. She was equally opposed to the provision of lectures and to the weekly meetings or 'prophesyings,' as both seemed to her to be subversive of order in Church and State. She incited her archbishops to suppress prophesyings and discourage excessive preaching. By 1585 these Puritan activities had been checked but not eradicated.

It had not been until towards the middle of the Queen's reign that two new manifestations of the Puritan spirit were disclosed. One was a movement directed against the bishops and the other a trend towards asceticism. The attack on the bishops was launched by a Cambridge university professor, Thomas Cartwright, an able theologian, popular preacher, and facile writer, who was deprived of his professorship for his views in 1570 and afterwards expelled from his Fellowship. He asserted that the episcopacy as a disciplinary body had no basis in Scripture and ought to be cut away rootand-branch. Archbishops, who came—indirectly—from the bottomless pit of Hell, should be abolished altogether; bishops should be confined to preaching and teaching; and the clergy ought to be elected by their congregations, while presbyters or elders were the proper persons to enforce discipline in the Church. By the fifteen-eighties, though their advocate was cast into prison, these theories had taken a grip upon many English Protestants.3 Secret synods known as 'classes' met in many parts of the country, including Cambridge itself, with the object of adapting the Anglican services to the Presbyterian pattern. It was urged by the critics of the episcopacy that the bishops were for the most part 'pluralists'—that is to say, they held a larger number of offices than they could possibly fill honestly—and that many of them exploited their properties, for example by alienating their land or letting it cheaply to relatives and friends. In fact, the Elizabethan bishops were far from being either lazy or corrupt.4 But the Queen battened upon their incomes, and they were often driven to doubtful devices to maintain their positions and meet their expenses. Their characters were by no means bad—they were not habitually absentees from their sees, and they were frequently aware of the need of Church reform. Yet among the middle classes there was much jealousy of their powers and possessions and of the enforcement of discipline by their courts. The right of the bishops' and archdeacons' courts to punish sexual offences and to interfere with testamentary dispositions was far from popular.

As to asceticism, it would be wrong to regard it in the years of Cromwell's youth as exclusively typical of the Puritans. Asceticism, after all, was common enough in the medieval Church, and was practised by monks and friars up to the eve of the Reformation. Indeed, logically those who believed most ardently that they were predestined by special election to eternal life need not have been overanxious about their personal behaviour. No system of penances or indulgences was prescribed for them. Their militant belief in their calling to serve the Lord had little in common with the contemplative frame of mind cultivated in the monastic cell. Yet in fact the character of the Puritans as seen in their surviving letters and diaries was built out of a close concentration on the ethical life, upon a search after altruistic standards, and upon the avoidance of all suspicion of sins. The motive force for their self-denial was 'the desire to experience the immediate feeling of satisfaction which came from approaching an ideal state of mind.'5 They did not regard the living of a good life as a sign or proof of their election, but being conscious of their vocation, they delighted to follow the pattern of God's will as they saw it. They had not been forbidden the pleasures of food or drink or music or the married life by their master, John Calvin, or his disciple, Thomas Cartwright. But their very certainty of salvation drove them to undertake the sternest duties and the most minute self-examinations, and induced them to set a shining example to the reprobate.

Oliver Cromwell's parents, as we have seen, were quiet Protestant gentry who unquestionably acquiesced in the prevailing doctrine that all Christians are elected by grace to salvation, that men could not earn their passage to Heaven but only take it once it was booked. Oliver attended the Free School in Huntingdon, of which the master was a friend of his father, the very strict predestinarian, Dr Thomas Beard. There was also an assistant master who may have done much of the actual teaching. At any rate, the curriculum consisted of spelling, reading, and arithmetic, and of a great deal of Scripture, including the study of the Psalms and Biblical history. The Authorized Version of the Bible had been completed in 1611 when Oliver was twelve, and was read by him both at school and at home. How thoroughly he knew the Authorized Version and the Psalms is attested by all his later speeches. He seems to have read a book written by Dr Beard called The Theatre of God's Judgment Displayed, first published in 1597 and several times reprinted; and he was impressed by Sir Walter Ralegh's History of the World, which appeared in 1614 and was based upon almost the same argument as Dr Beard's book. The argument, illustrated in each case with incredible ingenuity, was that the system of rewards and punishments administered by the Almighty in the hereafter also applied 'even in this life.' The rulers, princes, and great ones of the earth were far from exempt from God's judgment; indeed, being more hardened to sin than most, in the end they received the direst punishments. Dr Beard is said to have sought 'to teach morality by fear.' Oliver feared God, but not man. What moved him both in Beard's teaching and Ralegh's History were the numerous examples of eminent persons who neglected to search their consciences and ensure that they rightly understood God's will. When he came to govern himself, he would make no such mistake. 'He that ruleth over men,' he told the Nominated Parliament of 1653, quoting the Book of Samuel, 'must be just, ruling in the fear of God.'

He met a splendid example of this Protestant hyperconscientiousness during the short year he was in residence at Cambridge. Oliver was admitted into Sidney Sussex on April 23, 1616, as a Fellow Commoner. In those days there were three kinds of students—scholars (the poorest but the nursery of dons), pensioners, and a privileged and well-to-do minority, the Fellow Commoners. Only three other Fellow Commoners were admitted in the same year as Cromwell. They had to pay fees and other dues, to present the College with a piece of silver plate upon their arrival, they had the right to eat with the Fellows at the High Table, and undertook in return not to corrupt either the Fellows or the scholars. In order that he might be instructed in religion and God's truths, Cromwell slept in the same room as his tutor, Dr Richard Howlett, who had been elected a Fellow in 1610 and later became a Dean in Ireland. The Master of the College, Dr Samuel Ward, was a distinctive figure in the world of theology and churchmanship. A learned Calvinist, he held fast by the virtues of restraint and was rigid about standards of behaviour. On the other hand, he was a notorious 'pluralist,' so much so that his friends remonstrated with him about the number of offices he had collected and made little jokes about it behind his back. Pluralism did not worry Dr Ward, but everything else did. When he was a stuttering young don he confided to a diary his perplexities over his carnal musings and dreams, his 'wicked and adulterous thoughts' when he went to the fair, his gluttony at the table, his laziness about getting up in the morning, his drinking late at night, his neglect of his prayers, and in general his 'overmuch delight' in the transitory pleasures of this world. All that was natural enough in a Cambridge divine in his early twenties. But the habit of detailed self-examination continued throughout his life. When, after Cromwell had left Sidney, Dr Ward took it into his head to venture into the seas of matrimony in middle age, he carefully listed in his diary the pros and cons in regard to his prospective bride. To console himself lest his suit should fail, he noted that 'the party was worldly minded' and might 'not be forward in religion'; and he regretted that she had shown 'a want of discretion, or love, or both, in not signifying before our coming that she could not condescend to the Mayor'; while he found it 'a great private check not to be respected in my first love.' Still he took the plunge and married a widow. Dr Ward brooded as much over the 'sins of this land' as over his own love life, over its profaneness and irreligion, the excesses in apparel and drinking, the 'disobedience and contempt for authority among the younger sort' and 'the toleration of notorious offenders.' But perhaps he forgot, as a respectable middle-aged clergyman might easily forget, the days when he himself had gone 'to the tavern with such lewd fellows, albeit I knew them not.' He would have found the entry in his diary.

Two years after Cromwell left Cambridge, Dr Ward was invited by King James I to be one of the English delegates at the Synod of Dort, a conference on religion between English and Dutch theologians. At the Synod, Ward was careful to see that 'nothing should be defined which might gainsay the Confession of the Church of England.' On their return, after a solemn feast, he and his fellow delegates were received graciously by the King at Greenwich, and Ward aspired to a bishopric for his trouble (though he did not obtain it). But when King Charles I, who, unlike his father, had not been brought up in the Calvinist theology, came to the throne, Dr Ward was much afraid that 'popery would increase' through the influence of Charles' Roman Catholic Queen, and he resented the fact that after he himself had been Vice-Chancellor, that unpopular royal favourite, the first Duke of Buckingham, was foisted upon the university as its Chancellor by order of the King. Ward picked out as an occasion for mourning that day when the Archbishop of Canterbury first urged that the surplice should be worn in his old College of Emmanuel: 'God grant,' he prayed, 'that worse things do not follow the so strict urging of this indifferent ceremony. Alas, we little expected that King James would have been the first who permitted of it to be brought into our College…. 'Later he expressed his distaste for Archbishop Laud's 'innovations,' though he did not hesitate to write to him to ask his permission to continue to be a pluralist. He also protested against Laud's claim to exert his authority over the university at all. When another Cambridge divine (John Nevile of Pembroke Hall) had the boldness to preach justification by works instead of by faith and to argue that the outward act of baptism took away sin, Ward rebuked him for 'gross heresies.' He consistently controverted 'the error of free will.' He maintained that the Thirtynine Articles plainly averred 'a gratuitous predestination of some and not of all.' He bewailed the signs of weakening in the full-blooded Calvinist beliefs in the sixteen-thirties. To him mankind had plainly been divided by Christ into 'those...

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Christopher Hill (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Oliver Cromwell and English History," in God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, The Dial Press, 1970, pp. 251-76.

[In the following excerpts, Hill observes that Cromwell's ideas have had lasting effects on the minds of the English people, influencing their subsequent behavior toward the monarchy and their beliefs regarding religion, the middle class, and liberty.]


Twenty months after Oliver Cromwell's death Charles II sat once more on his father's throne. The intervening period had shown that no settlement was possible until the Army was disbanded. Richard Cromwell lacked the prestige with the soldiers...

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John Gillingham (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "A Lovely Company," in Cromwell: Portrait of a Soldier, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1976, pp. 44-63.

[In the following excerpt, Gillingham relies on Cromwell's letters and conversations to illustrate his development as a revolutionary soldier and as the leader of a loyal army.]

On 29 August 1642, just seven days after King Charles raised his standard at Nottingham, Cromwell mustered his troop of horse at Huntingdon. Even in these small beginnings Cromwell's speed and decisiveness of action is apparent. A fortnight later he was ordered to join the main Parliamentary army under the Earl of Essex at Northampton. The Earl had some experience of war on the...

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Ivan Roots (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Introduction to Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, edited by Ivan Roots, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1989, pp. ix-xxiii.

[In the following excerpt, Roots asserts that the occasional incoherence and ambiguity of Cromwell's speeches indicate that he spoke "extempore," without the benefit of formal written preparation, and that some of his ambiguity might also have been intentional.]

Though Oliver Cromwell seems essentially a man of action, even one dedicated to the sword, he was also very much a man of the word, whether written or spoken, informal or ceremonial. We are fortunate that so many of his utterances and communications, certainly since he began to assume some...

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M. A. Barg (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Oliver Cromwell," in The English Revolution of the 17th Century Through Portraits of Its Leading Figures, Progress Publishers, 1990, pp. 115-211.

[In the following excerpt, Barg uses Cromwell's speeches to examine his final, troubled years in power and relies on the theories of Carl Marx and Friedrich Engels to explain Cromwell's attitude toward the poor and the bourgeoisie.]

It seemed that the victorious sword of Cromwell had definitively consolidated the republic of the Independents. The danger of a royalist intervention had been eliminated. The military art of the general had been convincingly demonstrated twice, at Dunbar and Worcester, and had...

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Johann Sommerville (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Oliver Cromwell and English Political Thought," in Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, edited by John Morrill, Longman, 1990, pp. 234-58.

[In the following excerpt, Sommerville analyzes Cromwell's speeches for evidence of his belief in Providence as a rationale for rebellion, seizure of power, and the execution of King Charles I.]

… [What] was the political thought of Oliver Cromwell, and what were its ideological roots? There were, of course, a number of such roots, and not just one. Among the most important were a group of ideas about God's Providence, which deeply affected Cromwell's attitudes towards history, and towards politics. At times, too,...

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Peter Gaunt (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "The First Civil War, 1642-1646," in Oliver Cromwell, Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 43-66.

[In the following excerpt, Gaunt employs letters and speeches to demonstrate Cromwell's evolution as military leader and politician during the Civil War of 1642-1646.]

I was a person that from my first employment was suddenly preferred and lifted up from lesser trusts to greater, from my first being a captain of a troop of horse. And I did labour as well as I could to discharge my trust, and God blessed me as it pleased Him. And I did truly and plainly,—and then in a way of foolish simplicity, as it was judged by many great and wise men, and good...

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Further Reading

Ashley, Maurice. "Cromwell and the Coming of Civil War." In The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell, pp. 76-91. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1957.

Charts Cromwell's early days in Parliament, the conflicts between Charles I and Parliament, and Cromwell's actions against what were regarded as Charles I's excesses.

——. "Cromwell the Avenger: The Second Civil War and the Execution of King Charles I." In The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell, pp. 196-214. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1957.

Focuses on Charles I's determination to win back the English throne, the renewal of fighting as a result, and...

(The entire section is 475 words.)