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Who was Oliver Cromwell?

Updated on December 3, 2016

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), was born in Huntingdon, the son of a country squire. As a young man he became an ardent Puritan, and after marrying a merchant's daughter he entered Parliament in 1628. During the eleven years when no parliament met he lived quietly at home, but took his seat in the Long Parliament of 1640. There, through his fervent speeches, this plain man in sober ill-fitting clothes emerged as a leader of the extreme Puritans. When the Civil War broke out, he helped to secure East Anglia for Parliament and fought at Edgehill as a captain of horse. With no previous military experience, he nevertheless saw the weakness of the parliamentary army and he went back to East Anglia to raise and train a disciplined force of cavalry devoted to him, to the Bible and to Parliament's cause.

At Marston Moor, 1644, Cromwell and his Ironsides turned defeat into victory. His criticisms of fellow-generals then led to the formation of the New Model Army and at Naseby, 1645, he played a major part in destroying the Royalist infantry. He and Fairfax then cleared up pockets of resistance to bring the war to an end. In the ensuing quarrel between Parliament and the Army, Cromwell took the Army's side, crushed a Royalist rising in Wales and defeated the Scots at Preston in 1648. Convinced that God's will required the execution of the King, he signed the death warrant that took Charles I to the scaffold.

The Irish campaign of 1649 left a terrible stain on Cromwell's reputation. At his orders hundreds were put to the sword at Drogheda and Wexford and this merciless cruelty can only be explained by his fanatical conviction that he was God's servant sent to root out Roman Catholicism. Next he destroyed Charles I's alliance with the Scots by his victories at Dunbar and Worcester (1651). He was now the most powerful man in England and in 1653, having lost patience with the corrupt Rump Parliament, he forcibly dissolved the House and replaced it with an assembly known as Barebone's Parliament.

When this proved unworkable, the Army drew up the Instrument of Government to make Cromwell Lord Protector. After quarreling with his first Parliament, he put the country under the rule of eleven major-generals, but they proved so unpopular that he called a second Parliament, which offered him the crown. This he refused, though for the remainder of his life he was in fact king in all but name. Although he introduced a measure of religious toleration, restored order and encouraged trade, his rule was mainly unsuccessful for it rested upon force and he, the one-time Parliamentarian, had become a greater tyrant than Charles I had ever dared to be.

In foreign affairs he pursued a vigorous policy, trying to form a Protestant League of Europe, capturing Jamaica and winning victories in Flanders and at sea against Spain, so that England became respected abroad as she had not been since Tudor times. The strain and difficulties of his position told heavily on Cromwell's health; he had a morbid fear of assassination and the death of his favorite daughter grieved him deeply. He had striven earnestly for his country's welfare but he knew he had failed to establish a system that would last and he died, worn out and dispirited, on 3 September 1658.

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