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Oliver Cromwell. Source: Soerfm / Public Domain

The Life, Achievements and Atrocities of Oliver Cromwell


Oliver Cromwell was an English military leader and politician who lived during the 17th century. He is best-remembered for serving as the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland. This commonwealth was a republic, and Cromwell was both the head of state and head of government.

This republic did not last long, as the monarchy was restored not long after Cromwell’s death. Needless to say, Cromwell’s anti-monarchic actions made him despised by the Royalists, who were able to exact their revenge on him when they returned to power. The Royalists were not Cromwell’s only enemies, as the Lord Protector invaded Ireland, which had freed itself from English rule.

The Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland is recorded to have been extremely brutal, and Cromwell is still a much-hated figure in that country. Nevertheless, like his overall legacy, Cromwell’s responsibility for the atrocities committed in Ireland is still a matter of debate among historians.

The Early Life of Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell was born on the 25th of April 1599 in Huntingdon, Huntingdonshire, a district in Cambridgeshire. He was the only son of Robert Cromwell and Elizabeth Steward. Arguably the most famous member of the Cromwell family after the Lord Protector was Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell served as Henry VIII’s chief minister and was promoted to the earldom of Essex. When he fell out of favor with the king (due to the marriage he arranged for the king and the German princess, Anne of Cleves), Henry had him executed in 1540. Despite having the same surname, Oliver was not a direct descendant of Henry VIII’s chief minister.

The Lord Protector’s great-great grandfather was a man by the name of Morgan Williams, who had married Katherine, Thomas’ sister. The couple’s three sons took the surname Cromwell in honor of their maternal uncle. The eldest of the three was Richard, Oliver’s great-grandfather.

One of Richard’s sons was Henry, who also took the surname Cromwell. Henry was a member of one of Queen Elizabeth’s parliaments, as well as a local landlord and justice of the peace, and was eventually knighted. With his first wife Henry had 11 children, Robert (Oliver’s father) being one of the youngest.

Not much is known about Cromwell’s early life and he was a relatively obscure figure for the first 40 years of his life, until he rose to prominence during the English Civil Wars. Among the things we know about Cromwell’s early life is that he received his education at the local grammar school in Huntingdon (which today houses the Cromwell Museum) before going on to study at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

Engraving of a young Oliver Cromwell. (Hansmuller / Public Domain)

Engraving of a young Oliver Cromwell. (Hansmuller / Public Domain)

In 1617, when Cromwell was only 18 years old, his father died and he returned home, without obtaining a degree. This was due to the fact that apart from his widowed mother, Cromwell had seven other unmarried sisters and the responsibility of supporting them fell upon his shoulders.

Cromwell is said to have studied law briefly at Lincoln’s Inn in London during this period. It is thought that while he was in the capital, he met Elizabeth Bourchier, the daughter of Sir James Bourchier, a wealthy London merchant. When Cromwell was 21 years old, he married Elizabeth and the couple subsequently had nine children, though only six of them survived till adulthood.

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell's wife Elizabeth Bourchier. (Franzy89 / Public Domain)

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell's wife Elizabeth Bourchier. (Franzy89 / Public Domain)

In 1931, Cromwell relocated to St. Ives, a town in Cambridgeshire, and five years later moved once again, this time to Ely (also in Cambridgeshire), as he inherited some property from his maternal uncle. This inheritance lifted Cromwell’s status in society. Around the same time, Cromwell became a Puritan (possibly due to his wife’s influence, as her family members were active Puritans), which he considered to have been a ‘spiritual awakening’.

The Reign of Charles I

Since 1625, England, Scotland, and Ireland were ruled by Charles I, the second British king from the House of Stuart. Charles was not a very effective ruler and his reign was marked by various disputes and controversies. For instance, Charles had refined tastes and was a great patron of the arts.

In addition to sponsoring Flemish painters like Anthony van Dyke and Peter Paul Rubens, Charles also amassed a great collection of paintings by Raphael and Titian. The post of Master of the King’s Music, which is still in existence today, was also established by Charles. The holder of this post was responsible for the supervision of the king’s band of musicians.

King Charles I in his robes of state. (DrKay / Public Domain)

King Charles I in his robes of state. (DrKay / Public Domain)

Unfortunately, all these expenditures increased the crown’s debts and the crippling lack of money became a problem for the country. More serious were the beliefs held by the king. Charles believed strongly in the divine right of kings, which put him at odds with Parliament.

In addition, the king was in favor of the high Anglican form of worship, which placed great emphasis on elaborate rituals. This further widened the rift between the king and Parliament, as the House of Commons was dominated by Puritans, who were more in favor of plainer forms of worship.

Oliver Cromwell’s Part in the English Civil Wars

All these grievances eventually led to the outbreak of the First English Civil War in 1642. The issue that directly sparked the war was the disagreement between Charles and Parliament with regards to the handling of the Irish Rebellion, which broke out the previous year. The king and Parliament were not able to set their differences aside and argued over who was to take control of the army that would be sent to fight the rebels.

In August 1642, Charles raised his standard at Nottingham and mobilized for the war on his own. This marked the beginning of the English Civil War, which was fought between those loyal to the king (known as the Cavaliers) and those who sided with Parliament (known as the Roundheads).

By the time the First English Civil War broke out, Cromwell was already involved in politics. In 1628, for instance, he was elected as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Huntingdon. Nevertheless, it seems that he did not make a huge impact on national politics, and his tenure as an MP was short, Parliament being suspended in the following year by the king.

In 1640, Cromwell was elected to Parliament once more, this time as MP for Cambridge. As a devout Puritan, Cromwell naturally chose to fight on the Parliamentarian side. Although he had no formal military training prior to the war, Cromwell would distinguish himself in the field of battle over the course of the conflict.

Cromwell is regarded to have led one of the earliest military actions of the war, when he led 200 lightly-armed volunteers to stop the king’s men who were carrying away silver plates from the colleges of Cambridge. Cromwell rose through the ranks swiftly. In 1642, he was a captain, in early 1643, a colonel, and by the end of the same year, placed in charge of the cavalry of the Eastern Association army, the second most important of the regional armies.

The victory of the Parliamentarian New Model army over the Royalist army at the Battle of Naseby on 14 June 1645 marked the decisive turning point in the English Civil War. (The Illusional Ministry / Public Domain)

The First English Civil War ended in 1646, when Charles was forced to surrender to the Scots. Nevertheless, the Second English Civil War broke out two years later, when negotiations between the Parliamentarians and Royalists to work out a settlement ended in failure. Cromwell was part of the Rump Parliament, whose members believed that the only way to end the civil war was to try the king and have him executed.

On the 20th of January 1649, Charles was brought before a specially constituted high court of justice in Westminster Hall, charged with high treason, and sentenced to death a week later as a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy. He was beheaded three days later. Cromwell regarded the regicide to be ‘an act of justice, and the will of God’.

The trial of Charles I on 4 January 1649. (Btphelps / Public Domain)

The trial of Charles I on 4 January 1649. (Btphelps / Public Domain)

Although the king was dead, his heir, the future Charles II, was still alive, though in exile, and the monarchy still had its supporters. In fact, as a consequence of Charles’ execution, support for his son was galvanized in Scotland and Ireland, and the Third English Civil War soon began. The remaining Royalists had regrouped in Ireland and formed an alliance with the Irish Confederate Catholics, and this was perceived as the single biggest threat to the newly-formed Commonwealth.

The Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland

Therefore, Parliament launched a military campaign against Ireland, which was led by Cromwell and hence known as the Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland. The conflict lasted from 1649 to 1653 and Cromwell led the invasion force at the beginning of the war, from the 15th of August 1649 till the 26th of May 1650.

Despite being in Ireland for less than a year, Cromwell is said to have been merciless in his dealings with the local population, whom he detested as being primitive, savage, and superstitious. Cromwell remains a despised figure in the Irish psyche and his ruthless conduct during the war is still remembered in the country till this day.

One of the most infamous battles fought at the early stages of the war was the Siege of Drogheda, which lasted from the 3rd to the 11th of September 1649. Drogheda is located about 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of Dublin and was one of the fortified towns that the Irish had retreated into following their defeat at the Battle of Rathmines in early August that same year.

A 19th-century representation of the massacre at Drogheda, led by Oliver Cromwell, 1649. (OrgeBot / Public Domain)

A 19th-century representation of the massacre at Drogheda, led by Oliver Cromwell, 1649. (OrgeBot / Public Domain)

The town was protected by high, thick walls, and its governor, Sir Arthur Aston, refused to surrender to Cromwell, as he was confident that the town could withstand a siege. Cromwell began to bombard the town walls with artillery on the 10th of September and breached them the next day. The defenders succeeded in repelling Cromwell’s troops twice, until Cromwell himself led the assault and overwhelmed them.

Once inside the town, Cromwell’s forces are said to have massacred the townspeople, murdering Catholic clergymen, soldiers, and even civilians. In one instance, a group of defenders barricaded themselves in the steeple of St. Peter’s Church and Cromwell’s forces set fire to the church, thereby burning them alive.

The governor too met a grisly end, he was reported to have been bludgeoned to death with his own wooden leg. The few soldiers who survived are said to have been transported to Barbados as slaves. The massacre at Drogheda is alleged to have claimed the lives of 2,000 to 3,000 people.

The atrocities at Drogheda are recorded to have been repeated at Wexford the following month and at Clonmel in May 1650, just before Cromwell’s return to England. In the former case, Cromwell’s forces are purported to have stormed and sacked the city while its defenders were trying to negotiate a surrender. Due to the atrocities perpetrated during the Conquest of Ireland, Cromwell has been labelled as a ‘war criminal’, and his actions considered by some to be ‘genocidal’ or ‘near genocidal’.

Nevertheless, there are some who have tried to rehabilitate Cromwell’s reputation and argue that he was not guilty of the charges leveled against him. Tom Reilley, for instance, claimed that Cromwell was ‘framed’, and lays the blame on Sir George Wharton and John Crouch, two Royalist propagandists.

Reilly’s case relies on other lines of evidence as well, for instance, Cromwell’s own words, as well as a reassessment of the primary sources. Even if Reilly were correct in his assessment, it would nevertheless be an uphill task to change the current Irish view about Cromwell.

Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector

The story of Cromwell does not end in Ireland. Apart from the Irish, the Parliamentarians were also at war with the Scots, who had proclaimed Charles II as their king in 1649. The Scots were defeated at Worcester on the 3rd of September 1651, the last major battle of the English Civil Wars. The king fled to France and Parliament was now in control of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

In 1653, the Rump Parliament was dissolved and replaced with Barebone’s Parliament, which lasted for several months. In December 1653, Barebone’s Parliament was dissolved and Cromwell was appointed as Lord Protector, which he remained until his death in 1658. During this period, Cromwell was offered the crown by Parliament, which he refused.

A contemporaneous satirical view of Oliver Cromwell as a usurper of monarchical power. (Kim Traynor / Public Domain)

A contemporaneous satirical view of Oliver Cromwell as a usurper of monarchical power. (Kim Traynor / Public Domain)

Nevertheless, the Lord Protector may be described as being a king in all but name, though not an absolute monarch. This was due to the Instrument of Government constitution, which decreed that should Cromwell decide to call or dissolve Parliament, he must receive a majority vote from the Council of State. This established the precedent that the monarch cannot govern without Parliament’s consent and is still upheld in the UK today.

Oliver Cromwell died on the 3rd of September 1658 after his health declined during a bout of malarial fever, which he had been suffering from since the 1630s. A violent storm struck England during the night of Cromwell’s death and his enemies claimed that it was the devil taking the Lord Protector’s soul away. Cromwell was buried in Westminster Abbey.

In the following year, the monarchy was restored, Cromwell’s corpse was exhumed and posthumously executed on the 30th of January 1661. His corpse was publicly hanged and beheaded. While the body was thrown into an unmarked pit, Cromwell’s head was displayed on a spiked pole above Westminster Hall for several decades.

The execution of the body of Oliver Cromwell. (PeterSymonds / Public Domain)

Subsequently, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the skull became an object of curiosity and was occasionally put on public exhibitions. In 1960, the skull, which was determined by scientific analysis to be genuine, was buried in an undisclosed location in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cromwell’s old college.

Top image: Oliver Cromwell. Source: Soerfm / Public Domain

By Wu Mingren

Updated on January 5, 2021.


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T1bbst3r's picture

He saw himself more of a roman emperor than a king I think, as on the coinage, his head was dressed in olive leaves.
He came to power through control of the military you see and suppressing mutinies and riots.
He also moved squatters out of the common lands, gave it to farmers and forced a lot of now homeless people into towns to work for employers through erosion of their rights.
Industrialists would have liked him, that's a bout it!

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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