In every age there are heroes, who, willingly or unwillingly, burst onto the stage to give direction and leadership to the leaderless, order to chaos, and flame to fuel.
One such man is Oliver Cromwell. A man of destiny, who rose to power not anticipating his ascent to greatness, but when confronted with the challenge before him, seized it with two hands, with faith in his Maker to guide him to a successful end.
This man, Cromwell, the man who was destined to become Captain over all England, had his background in relatively humble circumstances. He was born into a family of gentry, and, though, as Cromwell states, he was "neither in any considerable height, nor yet in obscurity", there was no inkling of the fact that he would become ruler over all the British Isles in his middle age. He was descended from the sister of Thomas Cromwell, the devoted servant of King Henry VIII and a zealous champion of Protestantism, the religion that our hero would even more zealously uphold throughout his entire life.
At the age of 18, Cromwell lost his father, and his plans to go to university and study law were thrown into confusion. Returning to his family home, he concerned himself with looking after the family he was now head of, and these paternal obligations thrust upon him at such a young age prepared him for the important task of governance.
By 21, the young Cromwell is married already, and what a catch - to Elizabeth Bourchier, daughter of a London merchant. Through this marriage, Cromwell was connected to all sorts of influential individuals in the increasingly influential English middle-class. Soon our hero was in Parliament as MP for Huntingdon. and witnessed the turbulence surrounding the Petition of Right and the subsequent shutdown of Parliament by Charles I. This lasted 11 years.
By the 1630s our hero is in trouble. After a local dispute in his hometown of Huntingdon concerning the changing of the town's charter, Cromwell is exiled from the town of his birth and sets up his livelihood in St. Ives, a little while away. Cromwell is learning to pay the price for being forthright about his opinions. He slips temporarily below gentry status, becoming a yeoman - a farmer who is free but not wealthy. In his straitened circumstances, he has a religious experience. He becomes a Puritan, dedicated to the things of God, intensely prayerful and supportive of the preachers in his district. His outlook on life is shaped for the rest of his life. His harsh experiences of being cast out from his place of birth for the crime of his convictions and losing his social status present him with a disciplining hardship, which accustoms him to the fluctuations of life and teaches him the importance patience and prayer.
By 1640 Cromwell is back in Parliament as MP for Cambridge. He was lucky to find a seat so close by and in such favourable circumstances for effecting influence over the nation, with Charles I short of money to fight the Bishops' War with the Scots, and Parliament determined to lay out its grievances over the 11-year tyranny Charles has effected over the nation.
By 1642, civil war has broken out, and here Cromwell comes into his own. Before a single shot has even been fired, our hero had raised an armed troop made up of men from his native Cambridgeshire, and with them, prevented a shipment of plate from Cambridge reaching the king. This potentially treasonous action was an example of Cromwell's bravery and daring, and his determination to carry out in full a course of action once he had decided it was the right one, without looking back or fretting about the consequences. Although he was not able to participate in the Battle of Edgehill, numerous battles over the civil war saw Cromwell taking a prominent role. This man, unlearned in tactics or strategy and notable in nothing but his inexperience, made himself into the greatest general of the civil war.
Cromwell, through inspirational leadership and determined conviction, made his followers, through incessant drill, worthy cavalrymen, the nucleus around which the New Model Army was built. It took a man of his vision to claw past the cobwebs of sectarian division and see clearly the necessity of acquiring good soldiers no matter what their creed. Baptists and Quakers fought alongside their fellow Protestants, committed to the cause of Parliament. Cobblers rubbed shoulders with lawyers, and all were united in the great fight for liberty against tyranny. At Gainsborough in 1643, it was Cromwell who secured victory and killed the royalist commander, Charles Cavendish. At Marston Moor in 1644, it was the genius of Cromwell and his skillful command of cavalry which led to a crushing parliamentarian victory and the end of a significant royalist presence in the north of the country. Yet these gains were frittered away by an incompetent and directionless military administration composed of aloof aristocrats unwilling to go all in to secure total and crushing victory for the parliamentary cause. Cromwell clashed with the Earls of Essex and Manchester and their indolent, timid approach to waging war against a man they still regarded as their King, though Cromwell personally voiced that he had no qualms about shooting the King like any other common criminal if need be. After heated discussion and debate Parliament assented to Cromwell's proposals. Essex and Manchester were sacked, and Fairfax and Cromwell placed in charge of the parliamentary war effort. The New Model Army was born. This heroic army, born out of civil struggle, would win the war for Parliament and bring the King, that "man of blood", to judgement.
At Naseby, the final showdown between Parliament and the King was held. Despite the valiant attempts of Prince Rupert, it was Cromwell who once again shone, repelling the cavalry of Langdale and making a daring flank attack on the Royalist forces. The result was a crushing and complete victory, which ended the Royalist hopes in England. Charles was taken prisoner and would not return to freedom, but would die a traitor's death, and not even the treachery of the Scots and a second civil war in 1648 would save him from certain doom. Our hero was instrumental in seeing to it that this "man of blood", who had betrayed his country a thousand times over, tyrannised his people and enlisted the support of foreign powers in order to restore his despotic administration, was punished for his crime, and so the story of Cromwell the regicidal villain has gone down inthe history books. But it was with the greatest reluctance that Cromwell came to the decision, indeed, he had wished mercy for the king, but the blood shed in the second civil war and continuing evidence of the king's treachery made him firm in his decision to see to it that the author of England's troubles be "destroyed out of the land".
But the war was not over yet. 1649 sees our hero going into Ireland, where, despite the slander of propagandists and villainous rogues over the years, Cromwell's troops conducted themselves in a civilised and gentlemanly fashion, exercising righteous retribution against a couple of intransigent towns named Drogheda and Wexford, which marked a departure from the otherwise stringent standards of conduct that marked this brilliant campaign. Cromwell achieved what no one in British history had managed to achieve - he pacified Ireland. And he pacified it so thoroughly that it gave no more serious trouble for many more decades. 1650 sees him going off to Scotland to crush the Scottish Royalists and those treacherous Presbyterian Covenanters (named "Engagers") that had pledged their allegiance to the defiant Charles II.
The conquering hero, this Puritan Caesar, returned home to be garlanded and praised. He who had once been a humble, insignificant gentleman was now the greatest man in all England, the man who had one the civil war for Parliament and who had pacified the entire British Isles. Now was the question of who would govern this great polity, united for the first time in its history. The Rump Parliament had tried but failed to give England the leadership it needed. Its members were self-interested and their energies had flagged. After years of deceit and double-dealing, it was time to act. One of the greatest scenes in English history unfolded on 20th April 1653 when our brave boy Oliver marched in with two files of musketeers to proclaim "You are no Parliament!", and dissolve those who were the cause of England's misgovernance.
The Barebone's Parliament, or Nominated Assembly, was a tragi-comic exercise in futility which was rightfully dissolved in its turn. It became clear that England needed a man of Cromwell's genius, sagacity and plain, gentlemanly common sense if it was ever to be stable. So was inaugurated the Protectorate, which, despite its troubles, marked, in many ways, a golden age in British history. Religious toleration at home, military victories abroad, a respect internationally unparallelled until the 18th century. Yes, there was resentment over high taxation, over military rule, over zealous enforcement of religiously-inspired legislation against Christmas and the like, but if the country was to be stable, harsh measures were required. The only way that a land modelled on religious toleration could work was if the state was strong enough to crush the sectaries and prevent the intolerant Presbyterians in Parliament from doing away with the regime's reforms. This necessitated a large military and therefore higher taxation.
We cannot ignore the fact that all this did not necessarily make Cromwell popular. But the greatness of a man does not depend on his popularity. A perusal of the letters and speeches collected by Carlyle will show any detached observer that this was a genuine man, who only wanted the best for England and for the souls of those in his care. Many disgruntled, unappreciative subjects made attempts on his life, but all were frustrated. Cromwell no doubt saw the hand of God in this as with all other things. But he had not planned all this. There was no Machiavellian master-strategy on his part to catapult him to greatness and dictatorship. "No man goes so high as he who knows not whither he is going." Truer words were never spoken when speaking in estimation of the life of this man, this Colossus in English history. The luxury of Hampton Court and Whitehall did not cause Cromwell to forget his origins, to forget from where destiny had taken him. This was not a man ever interested in fame or power or popularity, not that it matters in the great scheme of things, for greatness found him, a man who was worthy of it. He thought little of the mob, remarking on the crowd that had come to see him crowned Lord Protector that they would cheer just as heartily to see him hanged. And this much was true, indeed, prophetic, because his corpse was barely cold when the restored monarchy of Charles II had his corpse dug up and hung, drawn and quartered like that of a traitor. His bones lie scattered, yet his legacy remains a strong and pertinent one on the consciousness of the people of this island nation. For years, his name has been associated with religious zealotry, military dictatorship, genocidal brutality and Machiavellian villainy. Yet from the 19th century onwards comes a tidal wave of re-evaluation of the life of this great figure. No one can deny that he made England great, that much even his determined enemies have conceded. Edward Hyde, life-long royalist, remarked with obvious admiration that:
“It was hard to discover which feared him most, France, Spain or the Low Countries, where his friendship was current upon the value he put upon it. And as they did all sacrifice their honour and interest at his pleasure, so is there nothing he could have demanded that either of them would have denied him.”
The Dutch ambassador told Charles II in 1672 that:
"Cromwell was a great man, who made himself feared by land and sea".
And the royalist poet Andrew Marvell remarked:
"De Witt and Cromwell each had a brave soul
I freely declare, I am for Old Noll
Though his government did a tyrant resemble
He made England great and her enemies tremble."
Let us observe how Cromwell not only secured liberty for his subjects at home, but also abroad. How he secured toleration for the massacred Protestant Waldensians of Savoy, and how he put a stop to the arrogance of Catholic Spain. How he championed the cause of the Huguenots, and captured the imagination of the Protestants of all Europe.
And, in closing, let us quote Cromwell himself, and let this great man have the last word, and let us see how filled with sincerity and profound love for his nation was this hero of our history:
"Lord, though I am a miserable and wretched creature, I am in covenant with Thee through grace. And if I may, I will come to Thee for Thy people.
Thou hast made me. Though very unworthy, a mean instrument to do them some good…and many of them have set too high a value upon me, while others wish me and would be glad of my death.
Lord, no matter how thou dispose of me, continue to do them good….Forgive their sins and do not forsake them, but love and bless them.
Give them consistency of judgment, one heart, and mutual love, and go on and deliver them with the work of reformation and make the Name of Christ glorious in the world.
Teach those that look too much on Thy instruments to look more upon Thyself. And pardon those who desire to trample on the dust of a poor worm, they are Thy people too.
Pardon the folly of this short prayer and give me rest for Jesus Christ’s sake, to whom, with Thee and Thy Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, for now and forever, Amen"