Oliver Cromwell Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.