The dark truth about Oliver Cromwell
The victor of the Civil Wars described himself as pious, honest and selfless. But, as all too many victims of his lies and malice would have attested, the reality was often more sinister, writes Professor Ronald Hutton
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Historical trends may ebb and flow but Oliver Cromwell never goes out of fashion. This brilliant general and statesman has proved a source of enormous fascination to generations of historians – and, more than 350 years after his death, that interest shows no sign of dimming. There can be few, if any, heads of the English state who have been studied as often and intensely as Cromwell. In the past three decades alone, he has been the subject of five full-length biographies, three studies of his career as a soldier, and a further three major collections of essays. Piled around these are numerous books and articles dissecting every episode of his remarkable career – from the causes of his radical Puritanism to his role in the execution of King Charles I.
Given Cromwell’s unique importance to English history, this tidal wave of words is hardly surprising. After all, his is the story of a sensational rise from obscurity to supreme power, of a soldier who never lost a full-scale battle, of the only English commoner to become the sovereign authority in the nation.
Cromwell’s pre-eminence is reflected in the statue that stands at the entrance of the House of Commons, and the fact that he has more streets named after him than anybody other than Queen Victoria and (perhaps) the Duke of Wellington. In 2002, a BBC poll voted him the tenth greatest Briton of all time, ahead of all monarchs except Elizabeth I.
Cromwell’s tremendous stature is not, however, the whole reason for the intense and sustained attention paid to him by historians. That has been propelled also by an uneasy feeling that the man himself is still eluding us. There is a disturbing chasm between Cromwell as he represented himself – as an honest, pious, patriotic, dutiful and selfless servant of his God and his nation – and as most of contemporaries saw him. Those, including many who knew him well, found him to be ruthless, devious and self-promoting, with a track record of abandoning or overthrowing people, ideas and institutions to which he had previously professed loyalty. So how have historians attempted to bridge the chasm between how Cromwell described himself, and how he was viewed by the people around him?
Historians’ continuing fascination with Oliver Cromwell is partly the product of an uneasy feeling that the man himself is still eluding us
Over the past 150 years, Cromwell’s biographers have largely discounted the criticisms and condemnation. This is chiefly because they have taken him at his own estimation, treating that vast body of his surviving words as direct access to the workings of his mind. It is beguilingly easy to use his letters and speeches as the scaffolding on which to hang a biography.
Over the past two decades experts have become more aware of this problem, but a solution is difficult to reach because of the complexity of the events in which Cromwell took part and the great quantity of records, and of conflicting and unreliable testimony, that they have generated. Matching Cromwell’s representation of events against these sources is a seriously daunting task.
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My first published work on Cromwell appeared in 1990 and, over the following two and a half decades, I turned over in my mind possible solutions to the problem. The one on which I settled for my new biography on Cromwell was to deal with his little-known early life and the first part of his public career, up to the end of the first phase of the Civil War in 1646. This is a span of time with a volume of material that could be treated in detail within a book of normal size.
The project confirmed to me that Cromwell had been a person of remarkable talents and great virtues. He was a superb military leader – efficient and charismatic – who inspired fervent loyalty in his soldiers because he made sure that they were paid and supplied and gave them a sense of common participation in a divinely ordained cause. He was also a fine parliamentarian, speaking effectively and persuasively, working well with political allies and winning the sympathy of a large number of fellow MPs. In both spheres, he consistently showed a remarkable aptitude for learning on the job, and remained unwaveringly committed to parliament’s cause in the Civil War, even in times of reverse and possible defeat.
Cromwell certainly enjoyed considerable good luck: in possessing a robust physical constitution; supporting the right politics at the right moment; escaping serious injury in military action; and receiving particular strokes of fortune that rescued his career’s upward trajectory whenever it seemed likely to falter. In each case, however, he made the most of his opportunities.
Cromwell’s passionate, Puritan religiosity was certainly genuine, and his conversion to it the defining experience of his life. It also made his career, linking him to a national and regional network of fellow believers, which got him into the Long Parliament (so called because it ran from 1640–60) and gave him a reliable group of political and military allies there. His attachment to the radical wing of Puritans – who loathed clerical power and wanted freedom for groups who wished to worship outside the national church – sprang from deep conviction but served up a practical dividend: it provided him with a following that his birth and wealth were not sufficient to attract.
All this is quite familiar to scholars of the period, but my research also revealed less attractive – and less often noticed – aspects of Cromwell’s personality. One is his relentless pursuit of self-promotion. He grabbed the attention of the Long Parliament, almost as soon as it was elected, by speaking on behalf of the famous radical Puritan John Lilburne, who had been imprisoned by the royal government. Cromwell had never met the man, but that didn’t prevent him from using his misfortune as an opportunity to further his career.
Listen: Ronald Hutton discusses Oliver Cromwell’s early life and career, exploring the brilliance and cruelty of the future Lord Protector, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Gaining recognition for his military prowess proved more of a challenge for Cromwell because his actions were for a long time minor, local and far from the capital. He solved it by securing the attention of supportive journalists who trumpeted his achievements nationally. We do not know if Cromwell briefed them himself or had a friend or follower do the job for him but the result was always the same: magnifying his contribution to military successes over that of his fellow commanders.
The taking of the towns of Lowestoft in March 1643 and Crowland the following month, and a clash at Belton in Lincolnshire on 13 May 1643, are all examples of actions in which Cromwell monopolised the credit for what were, in fact, team efforts. It was Norfolk dragoons who entered and subdued Lowestoft – but that didn’t stop every newspaper crediting the victory to Cromwell, one saying he had taken it in a “hot charge”. The first achievement of Cromwell’s regiment – quashing an attempted royalist uprising at St Albans in January 1643 – became part of his personal portfolio of successes, even though he does not seem to have been there.
In his own accounts of military actions, Cromwell adopted a standard tactic: of according all glory to God and extolling the achievements of his side in the plural form, without mentioning names, save those of his immediate subordinates. This served at once to give an appearance of modesty while completely eclipsing his fellow commanders.
Cromwell was also a master of massaging the truth in order to airbrush his missteps on the battlefield. Belton was a drawn skirmish at which he committed the elementary mistake of abandoning the field to pursue a fleeing enemy wing before the action was won. In his (published) report, it was a total, glittering victory.
His next battle, at Gainsborough on 28 July 1643, ended in disaster when an invading royalist army chased Cromwell’s party out of Lincolnshire, causing a town he had been sent to save to be lost. In Cromwell’s account of the episode, however, it was explicitly a glorious success. Following the genuinely stunning victory at Marston Moor the following year, Cromwell scorned the part played by his Scottish allies, dismissing them as “a few Scots in our rear”, despite the fact that they had given his cavalry wing its decisive numerical superiority.
After Marston Moor, Cromwell had less need to promote himself directly in this way, because he had a trusty set of admiring journalists who could normally be relied upon to eulogise him. In his service with the New Model Army, the national force established in 1645 that eventually won the war for his cause, there was no call for self-promotion, because his actions were always represented with admiration in all the official despatches to parliament. Like most Civil War propagandists, Cromwell also routinely gave the impression that in every action his enemies outnumbered his own men, so making the ensuing successes the more superlative. The rising Cromwell undoubtedly believed that the glory of God was best served by winning the maximum glory for himself.
This characteristic was accompanied by another tendency: to demonise his opponents. Throughout his career, Cromwell saw the universe as a battlefield between good and evil, in which he was invariably ranged on the side of good (and, by extension, the side of his deity). This view of the cosmos is built into evangelical Christianity – and so, inevitably, into Puritanism. In Cromwell’s case, however, it was reinforced by his personality.
No sooner had he manifested his religious conversion in 1635 than he was already referring to the executors of royal religious policy as “the enemies of God”. This trait carried straight into the burgeoning political and then military crisis of the 1640s (when tensions between the king and his critics erupted into outright conflict) for which he made a natural holy warrior. From the start, he was anxious to obtain savage retaliation against his ideological enemies, calling first for the prosecution of leading churchmen who had enacted royal policy and then for action against emerging defenders of the king.
When war broke out in 1642, Cromwell was able to employ physical violence in place of legal action, and revelled in it, exulting over “doing execution” on fleeing royalists at Belton and the killing of an enemy commander at Gainsborough. He gleefully reported how one of his captains slew the wretched man “with a thrust under his short ribs” as he lay wounded on the ground. A pamphlet eulogising his campaign around Stamford in July 1643 celebrated the slaughter of a band of armed countrymen near the town.
Cromwell gleefully reported how one of his captains slew the wretched man “with a thrust under his short ribs” as he lay wounded on the ground
All this led up to the prodigious massacre of the defeated royalists at Marston Moor, whom in his own account Cromwell systematically dehumanised in a pair of images that made them first mechanical and then demonic: “stubble to our swords” and “His [ie God’s] enemies”. This attitude to warfare was scripted by Old Testament accounts of genocide against heathen tribes, but these matched naturally with the savage streak in Cromwell’s own nature.
By the time of his campaigns with the New Model Army, he appears to have learned to rein in such savagery, becoming apparently more aware of the propaganda rewards of clemency. He applied punctiliously the New Model’s usual tariff of terms accorded to governors of royalist fortresses who offered to accept terms. This held good even at the Roman Catholic stronghold of Basing House.
But even here, Cromwell’s mercy had its limits. Aside from the governor, Basing House was treated with the greatest severity because it attempted surrender only after the attacking soldiers had got into the precinct. What’s more, Cromwell prepared his soldiers to inflict violence and retribution before the assault by quoting a biblical text which called for the cleansing of the land of idolators, declaring of Catholic images that “they that make them are like unto them” and so should be destroyed with them. His notorious massacre at the Irish town of Drogheda, later in his career, was long presaged.
And it wasn’t just royalists and Catholics who felt the full force of Cromwell’s brutality. His tendency to view his own ideological opponents as enemies of God was accompanied in turn by a readiness to dispose of members of his own wartime party who had become inconvenient. There was an early illustration of this trait in a botched attempt in his youth to get his uncle declared a lunatic so that he could obtain immediate access to the old man’s estate.
Once the Civil War was under way, Cromwell had better success with a trio of upper-class officers whom he found to be liabilities as fellow commanders in 1643: Lord Grey of Groby, John Hotham, and Lord Willoughby of Parham. Grey got off lightest, as Cromwell simply denounced him behind his back to fellow parliamentarians and got him rebuked and ordered to cooperate.
Hotham proved an ideological opponent as well as an incompetent commander, and so was arrested and charged with treachery – he was dragged from his bed to prison in the middle of the night by Cromwell’s musketeers. Hotham was ruined as a politician and a soldier but Cromwell wasn’t satisfied until he had hounded him to his death. Hotham had brought down his father in his fall (persuading him to flee to the royalists with him), but Cromwell pressed a vendetta against both men, first by testifying at the trial of the son and then by fighting attempts to postpone or reprieve the execution of the father. He was successful in getting both beheaded.
John Hotham was ruined as a politician and a soldier but Cromwell wasn’t satisfied until he had hounded him to his death
Willoughby, the most capable and least culpable, was the hardest to dislodge, but Cromwell managed it by a campaign of defamation within parliament in which he told blatant untruths, charging the former with inefficiency and mismanagement in the defence of Lincolnshire. As a result, Willoughby lost his military command.
Cromwell’s final and most eminent victim of this kind was Edward Montagu, 2nd Earl of Manchester, his commander in parliament’s Eastern Association army in 1643– 44. The tactic was identical to that employed against Willoughby: a campaign of accusation to destroy the earl’s reputation both as a soldier and as a reliable supporter of the war itself. Once more Cromwell supported his charges with a catalogue of lies and misrepresentations. Manchester fought back with unexpected determination and made equally damaging allegations against Cromwell himself, the truth of which cannot now be established. Cromwell’s reaction was swift and decisive: to abandon the contest and support a solution that would result in Manchester and Cromwell both resigning along with most of the other generals.
From then on, Cromwell felled no more colleagues, because he didn’t need to. His superior in the New Model Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax, was the perfect commander for him: capable and dynamic, popular with his officers, and prepared to support Cromwell. It may be concluded, therefore, that Cromwell suffered from no inherent inability to accept subordination to another’s authority and no innate tendency to quarrel with anybody with whom he was partnered. Instead he targeted men who had become obstructive and inconvenient to him, and he did so with a high degree of ability and ruthlessness.
He also bore grudges. One example of this is his treatment of Robert Bernard, a smooth lawyer who outmanoeuvred and humiliated Cromwell at Huntingdon in his youth and so precipitated his abandonment of the Cambridgeshire town in which he had grown up. The petty and sustained malice with which Cromwell persecuted this man in 1643, when he became vulnerable to arrest and interrogation by Cromwell’s soldiers, is revealing. After the wretched fellow sent letters from himself and a parliamentarian magnate, protesting his innocence, in April 1643 Cromwell replied curtly that “we know you are disaffected to the parliament”, so accusing Bernard of being a traitor to the cause, without troubling to supply evidence.
These are the actions of a man in a critical period of his life – one that turned him from an obscure provincial into an enduring national figure. Even in this first and establishing phase of his career, a close reconsideration of the records reveals the complexity of Cromwell’s nature. He was as courageous, devout, resolute, principled, intelligent, eloquent, able, adaptable and dedicated as historical reputation has long made him. He was also, however, self-seeking, unscrupulous, dishonest, manipulative, vindictive and bloodthirsty. Above all, he is not somebody to be taken at his word.
Ronald Hutton is a professor of history at the University of Bristol and a leading authority on the British Isles in the 16th and 17th centuries. His new biography, The Making of Oliver Cromwell, is published by Yale in August
This article first appeared in the August 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine
Professor Ronald Hutton is the senior Professor of History at the University of Bristol, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Society of Antiquaries, the Learned Society of Wales, and the British Academy.