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Oliver Cromwell

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Cromwell was the dominant figure in the Puritan Revolution of 1640-1660, first as a military commander, then as an advocate of the trial and execution of Charles I in 1649, and finally as a political leader trying unsuccessfully to find the formula for a permanent settlement.

Early Life

Oliver Cromwell was born on April 25, 1599, in Huntingdon. His father, Robert, was descended from the Williamses, a Welsh family that had profited from the dissolution of the monasteries and a fortuitous marriage to the sister of Henry VIII’s secretary, Thomas Cromwell. A grateful nephew, Oliver’s great-grandfather, adopted the famous name. Oliver’s mother was Elizabeth Steward of Ely.

Cromwell’s early life was typical of the English gentry. His family’s Puritanism was reinforced by his education at Huntingdon under Dr. Thomas Beard and at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (1616-1617), where it seems he was more interested in horses than scholarship. He probably attended the Inns of Court in London, learning enough law for a country gentleman. After his father’s death in 1617, Cromwell returned to Huntingdon and the family estate. In 1620, he married Elizabeth Bourchier, the daughter of a London merchant. Their long and happy marriage produced four sons and four daughters. In 1631, he sold the family property at Huntingdon and rented land at St. Ives, and in 1636 he inherited property from an uncle and moved to Ely. There, he played a modest but noteworthy role in public affairs. In 1628, Huntingdon elected him to Parliament, where he made a speech on Puritanism, participated in the creation of the Petition of Rights and, in 1629, witnessed the session’s tempestuous conclusion. In 1630, as a justice of the peace for Huntingdon, Cromwell supported the rights of commoners. In 1637, he defended the rights of men who could be hurt by a project to drain the Fens. Cromwell’s Puritanism became a deep, abiding faith with a Calvinist sense of sin and of salvation by grace. He sought earnestly to do the work of God, not in order to earn salvation but as a grateful response (although success, as Beard had taught, could also be a welcome assurance).

Life’s Work

Had there been no Puritan Revolution, it is unlikely that Cromwell’s greatness would ever have been realized. In 1640, Cambridge elected Cromwell to the Short Parliament and then to the Long Parliament. He supported the Root and Branch Bill, limits on the king’s command of the army, and the “Grand Remonstrance.” His rise began in 1642, when both the king and Parliament became increasingly militant in their dispute. He raised a troop of cavalry, gave money for the defense of Parliament, and militarized his constituency of Cambridge. At the indecisive Battle of the Edgehill (October 23, 1642), he saw the army’s need for men such as himself, who knew what they believed and were willing to fight for it. In 1643, while Parliament was negotiating the Solemn League and Covenant, obtaining the support of the Scottish army in exchange for a promise to reform religion in England along Presbyterian lines, Cromwell’s cavalry grew to a regiment of more than one thousand men and gained experience in a number of skirmishes. The Ironsides, as they were soon called, were unique for their religious and fighting spirit, for their discipline, and for the devastating effect of their charge. Cromwell’s regiment turned the tide at Marston Moor (July, 1644), giving Parliament its first major victory.

Cromwell urged the creation of a professional army on a national basis and advocated the removal from the army of officers who were reluctant to defeat the king. The fighting force which subsequently developed came to be known as the New Model Army. In order to rid it of incompetent amateurs, the Self-Denying Ordinance was enacted in April, 1645, which ordered Members of Parliament from both houses to surrender their commissions. As a Member of Parliament, Cromwell was technically...

(The entire section is 2,769 words.)