Oliver Cromwell: Hero or Villain?

Labelled everything from a towering champion of social justice to a canting hypocrite, Oliver Cromwell has rarely lost his ability to divide opinion since his death. Here, John Morrill assesses how history has remembered him...

'Portrait of Oliver Cromwell', (c1653?).

Oliver Cromwell has never enjoyed a better press than in the past 30 years. Almost all the biographies currently available in bookshops treat him as a man of towering personal integrity. True, he was capable of self-delusion, and indeed was dangerously assured that he was God’s chosen instrument, but here was a man who, according to many modern commentators, believed in broad terms in social justice, equality before the law and the accountability of governors to the people. Here was a leader with a more advanced belief in religious liberty (at the very least to “all species of protestant”, as he put it) – a liberty that not only meant freedom of worship but equal access to education, the professions and public service.

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Cromwell was a military leader who was never defeated, a political leader who took the tough decisions, the man who orchestrated the Regicide in the winter of 1648–9 and, for the last five years of his life, a reluctant head of state serving as lord protector under two different paper constitutions. To many, his greatness is undoubted, notwithstanding the fierceness of his religious faith. Only the Irish, remembering the Drogheda and Wexford massacres, revile him.

Cromwell was also, of course, hailed as a hero and a champion of liberty during his lifetime – not least by the poet and polemicist John Milton, who wrote:

“Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud

Not of war only, but detractions rude,

Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,

To peace and truth thy glorious way hast ploughed,

And on the neck of crowned Fortune proud

Hast reared God’s trophies, and his work pursued”

But he was also reviled. Embittered royalists and a significant number of parliamentarians regarded the brutal military putsch that removed most MPs from parliament [‘Pride’s Purge’] – and which led to the staged trial and execution of Charles I – as a betrayal of all they had fought for. Many Commonwealthsmen shared their enmity, believing that Cromwell’s use of military force to dissolve the Rump parliament in April 1653 and his decision to become lord protector within a paper constitution written by his army colleagues, had betrayed the cause he had fought to establish. They were to take their revenge in their memoirs.

Even old army friends changed their minds about him.

“I believe firmly that the root and tree of piety are alive in your Lordship, though the leaves thereof, through abundance of temptations and flatteries seem to me to be withered much of late,” wrote Colonel Duckenfield, a regional commander and governor of the Isle of Man, to Cromwell in 1655.

If one event symbolises Cromwell’s fall from grace, it occurred on 30 January 1661, eight months after Charles II’s restoration to the throne, when his corpse was removed from Westminster Abbey, dangled from a gibbet at Tyburn and his head prominently displayed on a spike for everyone to see.

However Royalist invective soon gave way to a damning silence. The Whigs did not seek to rehabilitate him and Tories preferred not to dwell on what could happen to kings.

A portrait of Oliver Cromwell, c1653. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
A portrait of Oliver Cromwell, c1653.  (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Short-lived anonymity

As personal memory faded, and death carried away those who could testify from experience (and as the tracts of the 1640s and 1650s, locked away in private libraries, were lost to several generations of writers), Cromwell became less known than at any later period. Yet his anonymity was short-lived. When Britain was once more sucked into major wars in the 1690s, memories of the previous military dictatorship were revived by the systematic publication of the memoirs of many of the men at the heart of that period: Bulstrode Whitelocke (a leading lawyer), Richard Baxter (a ‘godly’ minister), Denzil Holles (a veteran Presbyterian politician), Edmund Ludlow (a republican army commander), the Earl of Clarendon (who was Charles II’s principal adviser in exile and at the Restoration). They were all, with the exception of Ludlow, men who both admired and deplored Cromwell.

Their memoirs set the tone for 18th-century discussions. Gentlemen of letters were unanimous in regarding him as dangerous and fanatical, although the Tories were far more contemptuous of his legacy than the regretful Whigs. While John Hampden and John Pym, leaders of the Long Parliament at the beginning of the Civil War, were the respectable voices against royal and episcopal tyranny, Cromwell was a vicious extremist. As David Hume put it, he was the “most frantic enthusiast… most dangerous of hypocrites… who was enabled after multiplied deceits to cover, under a tempest of passion, all his crooked schemes and profound artifices”.

So how did Oliver Cromwell make the long journey from hate figure to the celebrated character in British public memory that he is today? His rehabilitation can be closely linked to the publication of Thomas Carlyle’s Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell in October 1845, a text that was to remain continuously in print for exactly 100 years. At a conservative estimate more than 100,000 copies were sold and many of them were handed down from generation to generation.

Carlyle’s work is a passionate defence of Cromwell’s sincerity, of his faith in God, in his living out his vocation and his mission. And while deficiencies of scholarship and Carlyle’s own obtrusive interpolations disfigure his text, it did not dull its impact. Suddenly faced with a Cromwell who had an unreflective belief in spiritual aristocracy and a rough-tongued, cloudily articulated integrity, many Whigs abandoned their conventional distaste. Thousands more thought about Cromwell for the first time. Carlyle’s book emboldened the views of Congregationalist historians like John Forster who had earlier taken a more cautious line. Now – in the best available summation of Carlyle’s champion – he hailed the new Cromwell as “no hypocrite or actor of plays… no victim of ambition, no seeker after sovereignty or temporal power. That he was a man whose every thought was with the Eternal – a man of a great, robust, massive, mind and an honest, stout, English heart”.

Thomas Carlyle’s Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell also marked the beginning of a period when Cromwell made an unparalleled transformation into popular culture. He was memorialised not only in print but on canvas, in woodcut and engraving, and in marble and bronze. Visually, he became one of the most familiar of Englishmen, more recognisable to more people than all but a handful of English monarchs or British public figures. The statue by Hamo Thornycroft, bible in one hand, sword in the other, which has stood on Cromwell Green in Westminster since the tercentenary of his birth in 1899, is among the most iconic in the country.

Contemporary portraits have been endlessly reproduced. These generally show Cromwell as a soldier, as a martial man of God, evoking (sympathetically or unsympathetically) his puritanism, either through the characteristic plain style of his collars protruding from his armour or the act of holding a bible. The first statue of him by Noble was erected in Manchester in 1875, followed by three more statues in his tercentenary year at Westminster, Warrington and St Ives. More surprisingly he is memorialised in stained glass, in prominent windows in the Victorian Congregationalist Churches in both Cambridge and Oxford.

Cromwell is also remembered in music. A folk song bearing his name was edited by Benjamin Britten in 1938, while a nursery rhyme, which can be traced back to the late 17th century, begins, “Oliver Cromwell lay buried and dead, hee-haw, buried and dead”. Yet the most extraordinary piece is undoubtedly the rendering of a John Cleese prose poem by the Monty Python team in 1989 that tells the life of Cromwell set to the music of a polonaise by Chopin.

Isaac Foot, prominent Liberal politician of the 1920s and 1930s, established in 1935 the Cromwell Association, which has worked effectively to extend knowledge of the lord protector and of his age by erecting memorial plaques on battlefields and other Cromwellian sites, and holding an annual service of thanksgiving by the statue next to the Palace of Westminster. The Association has collected many artefacts associated with the man and these form the basis of the collection held by the Cromwell Museum, which is in the Huntingdon schoolroom he once attended. It is doubtful if any other non-royal Englishman has ever been so diversely commemorated.

Cromwell is also memorialised by name. Winston Churchill could not persuade George V to christen a battleship in his honour in 1915, but he did create the Cromwell tank when he was prime minister. More than 250 roads in Britain are named after Cromwell – no lay person other than Wellington approaches him in this respect.

As you’d expect from one of the most controversial characters in English history, Cromwell has exercised the imaginations of numerous dramatists, novelists and poets. The earliest play bearing his name was produced in 1752 and others followed, including one by Victor Hugo in 1828. He was the anti-hero of Henry William Herbert’s Oliver Cromwell: a Historical Novel (1838), and he had more than a walk-on part in Captain Marryat’s children’s classic Children of the New Forest (1847). For the most part, he is portrayed as a grim, self-righteous puritan, a literary equivalent of William Frederick Yeames’s painting And When Did You Last See Your Father?, which shows parliamentarian soldiers quizzing a young boy about the whereabouts of his Royalist father.

Cromwell is just as prominent in film and TV. His appearances on the silver screen include the Hammer Horror Witchfinder General (1968) and Cromwell (1970), which improbably cast the Irish tearaway-actor Richard Harris as the hero. TV dramas in which he figures include John Hopkins’s Cruel Necessity (1962) and the 1970s serialisation of Children of the New Forest.

Cromwell remains a deeply contentious figure. Yet when in 1999 Radio 4 ran a phone-in to find the greatest Briton of the second millennium, he came third. And this was no flash in the pan, for when BBC TV ran a similar contest in 2002, he made the top ten. More than 150 biographies of Cromwell have been published over the past 150 years, the overwhelming majority of them favourable. So it would appear that his own words, pleading for liberty, have in the end proved more influential than the testimony of his contemporaries that he was a canting hypocrite. But, history being history, the tide is bound to turn…

John Morrill is professor of British and Irish history at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Selwyn College. He is author of Oliver Cromwell (OUP, 2007).

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This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘The Stuarts’ bookazine