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Oliver Cromwell

(1599—1658) lord protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland


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(1599–1658).

General and lord protector. It is still difficult to appreciate the unique character of Cromwell's career. In a country governed by custom, precedent, and the common law, Cromwell completely changed the ancient frame of government, reforming Parliament and imposing a written constitution. By conquest he incorporated the separate kingdoms of Scotland and Ireland into a single commonwealth with England. He remains the only British statesman whose entire career depended on the control and use of military power. Yet his achievement proved to be totally ephemeral.

A provincial gentleman from Huntingdon of modest means, Cromwell first became prominent in the second session of the Long Parliament (1641–2). Cromwell urged Parliament to assume control of both the army destined for Ireland and the home militia, and soon became identified with the war party. He made the forces maintained by the Eastern Association the most formidable of the parliamentarian armies. Cromwell's men contributed decisively to the victory at Marston Moor (July 1644).

Cromwell deplored the failure to follow up this victory effectively, denounced his own neighbour and superior officer, Lord Manchester, and helped pass the self‐denying ordinance. This barred peers and MPs, with exceptions of whom Cromwell was one, from commands and set up a central army, the New Model, of which he became second in command. At Naseby, Cromwell annihilated Charles's field army (June 1645). He next emerged as the chief military politician, eclipsing his superior, Lord Fairfax. Cromwell took the lead, first in representing army grievances, but soon in a wider sense claiming to speak and act as the embodiment of the ‘cause’ for which it had fought the war. In July 1647 the army issued the Heads of the Proposals, a manifesto for a new constitutional settlement, which it discussed with Charles. The manifesto did not go far enough to satisfy the more radical officers and men. Influenced by Leveller ideas, the radicals published an Agreement of the People: this was discussed in the Putney debates of the army council, a body representing all ranks and units.

During this period of rapid change Cromwell developed the techniques which enabled him to keep control over the army for the rest of his life. He could not depend on politicized radicals obeying orders. He had to break up networks of officers that could develop into challenges to his authority, he had to balance the factions—ambitious opportunists (like Lambert), religious fanatics (Thomas Harrison), professionals (Monck, Montagu). He learned that neglect of the interests and grievances of ordinary soldiers led to their politicization. Above all he knew that army unity must be maintained.

Early in 1648 royalist risings broke out and a Scottish army invaded on Charles's behalf. Cromwell and Fairfax reacted with great speed, annihilating enemy forces. Opinion in the army now accepted that as a ‘man of blood’ the king had to be punished. Cromwell clearly inspired the action that followed. Colonel Pride, backed up by armed soldiers, prevented MPs who were unacceptable to the army from entering the Commons. The purged House that subsequently worked with the army was known as the Rump. By killing the king the regicides made any future compromise impossible.

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Subjects: British History.


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