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Oliver Cromwell: conservative revolutionary Why do we remain so remarkably ignorant about the turbulent period of the Civil Wars and its chief protagonist?

Not as dour as he looks. Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) by Robert Walker. Credit: Robert Alexander / Getty

Not as dour as he looks. Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) by Robert Walker. Credit: Robert Alexander / Getty

October 30, 2019   5 mins

Brexit has brought forward no end of analogies with Britain’s past, especially its Civil Wars of the 17th century. Despite this, the wider public remain remarkably ignorant of this period and its chief protagonist — Oliver Cromwell.

A man of remarkable and ruthless achievements — victor of the Civil Wars, first to unite Britain and Ireland, the first commoner to be Britain’s Head of State and architect of a global empire — Cromwell remains an elusive figure.

Most of the public will have heard of him and some will know of his role in the trial and execution of Charles I, but both Cromwell and his turbulent age have little purchase among the British people, unlike, say, the Tudors or the Victorians. It is as if France knew little of its Revolution or America nothing of its Founding Fathers. Yet what a fascinating character he is.

As Lord Protector from 1653 to 1658, Cromwell managed to hold together a fractious and fragile alliance of politicians and soldiers. He was at heart a conservative committed to hierarchy and order, which met with the approval of most MPs, who were of Presbyterian bent and sought an established church, albeit one without bishops. But, an Independent in his religious views, Cromwell was also genuinely committed to liberty of conscience, which allied him with the “Saints” of the army, who, guided to victory by divine providence, believed England an elect nation, the new Israel.

Cromwell would die with this alliance still in place. But it was dependent wholly upon his personal authority and, having refused to accept the offer of Crown made by civilian MPs, in part because of the army’s opposition — “I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again”, he told Parliament in 1657 — the possibility of a smooth succession grounded in the Ancient Constitution of King, Council and Parliament became ever less likely.

And so Cromwell’s son Richard inherited the tenuous title of Lord Protector but not the loyalty of his father’s allies. Soon after, Charles II was restored, and Britain’s experiment in republicanism was over.

The figure who had made it possible was a manic depressive of relatively humble beginnings, who had proven himself a military leader of genius and a pragmatic politician whose Parliaments were a perpetual disappointment.

Impossible to pin down, he was a man of considerable personal tolerance. When John Biddle, a distinguished, though controversial, biblical scholar, had come under suspicion for denying the Trinity, the Protector had intervened personally to save the life of a man he thought “full of modesty, sobriety and forbearance, no ways contentious”. Banishing Biddle to the Scilly Isles in October 1655, Cromwell allowed him “a hundred crowns per annum for his existence”.

Though Cromwell was more concerned with political order than religious toleration when the crux came, his personal interventions in private religious matters were striking. Quakers were released on his instruction, and the trial and brutal punishment of the Quaker James Nayler in 1656 made Cromwell question the political role of his Major-Generals. Cromwell paid for the funeral of the Anglican Archbishop Ussher at Westminster Abbey in April 1656. He also refused to restrict admission to Catholic services at the Venetian ambassador’s residence and was friends with the aristocratic Catholic Kenelm Digby, whose father had been implicated in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Despite his dour “warts and all” image, the Protector was something of an aesthete. Cromwell and his family moved into the suite of rooms that had served as the Royal Apartments in Whitehall in April 1654, probably after a rushed — and expensive — renovation, for they had been neglected since Charles I left London in January 1642. John Embree, Cromwell’s surveyor-general, spent more than £10,000 a year on refurbishments throughout the duration of the Protectorate, a sum comparable with the Stuarts’ annual expenditure.

Clement Kinnersley, Cromwell’s keeper of the wardrobe, was lavish in his spending. Between February and November 1654 he paid out more than £12,000 on such items as a bed for the Whitehall apartments, “after the Indian fashion”, most of which had been part of the royal collection, along with an array of paintings and tapestries. Whitehall, after all, was part of the public face of the regime, where ambassadors and emissaries from across Europe would seek an audience with Cromwell. Whatever the ideology of the Commonwealth, it would seek to offer similar splendour to its allies and rivals across the Continent.

Hampton Court, built on the Thames to the west of London by Henry VIII’s chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, was Cromwell’s weekend retreat, where he would gather his family and closest allies. Its renovation was a challenging project, with leaking roofs and negletced garden, but Cromwell and Embree had ambitions for the site. A huge marble fountain was brought from Somerset House to become the focus of Cromwell’s private garden. Originally commissioned as the centrepiece of an assembly of classical figures, like the Banqueting House, it was designed by Inigo Jones for Charles I in the 1630s.

This “Diana Fountain” could hardly be less puritanical in its symbolism, decorated with nymphs, dolphins and sea monsters, the supporting cast to a statue of the goddess Diana atop. The Puritan Mary Netheway was appalled by “those monstres” and wrote to the Protector to remind him that that “while the altars of the idols remained untaken away in Jerusalem, the wrath of God continued against Israel”.

The tapestries at Hampton Court, a particularly expensive form of decoration, are far from puritanical, depicting the sinful, adulterous figures of Vulcan and Venus. Those in the aptly titled Paradise Room went even further in their dabbling with morally dubious narratives, celebrating the Triumphs of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Cromwell’s collection of paintings was no less decadent in its themes. Gentileschi’s Besabe, or Bathsheba washing herself, was unlikely to fulfil puritan requirements of decorum, while Andrea Schiavoni’s Madonna and Child with St Elizabeth and Luca Cambiaso’s Assumption of the Virgin Mary were deeply Catholic devotional works, which sat ill with Cromwell’s professed Calvinism.

Cromwell loved music. The Royalist Antony Wood reported that the Protector especially enjoyed works by John Hingston, who had trained two boys to accompany him in “Mr Deering’s printed Latin songs for three voices”.

Chamber music was popular, usually in the form of a consort of viols, always a sociable form of conversational music making, with its inwardly circular arrangement of players, though a new instrument from the Continent, the violin, also made the occasional appearance. Wind bands were accompanied by organs, including one removed on the instructions of the Protector from Magdalen College, Oxford to Hampton Court, where Cromwell employed a Mr Farmulo as his own “virginal musician”.

Much of this will come as a surprise, though what remains least understood about Cromwell is, perhaps, his conservatism, which often dragged him into conflict with his more radical supporters. Above all, it was Charles I, his head turned by the new ideology of European absolutism, who was the innovator. Cromwell preferred to hold to some form of the Ancient Constitution — though he bowed to “cruel necessity” on more than one occasion, for none of his Parliaments came close to his ideal. Nor, ultimately, did his nation, which he had hoped was rather more saintly than it actually was. In that, he has a more recent historical parallel.

Consider this: an East Anglian, nonconformist, philosemite, suspicious of, though not fundamentally opposed to, monarchy; a unionist uncomprehending of Ireland, a courageous advocate of military action, who left considerable problems of succession to those who came after them? It appears that Margaret Thatcher was cut from similar cloth to the Protector. And it may take just as long for a statue near Parliament to be raised to her.

Paul Lay is Editor of History Today. 


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