Friday, August 06, 2010

John Morrill, Oliver Cromwell

John Morrill, Oliver Cromwell, Oxford University Press, 2007.

The Cromwell fortune and name derived from Cromwell’s great-grandfather, Morgan Williams, …who had had the good fortune to marry the elder sister of Henry VIII’s great minister Thomas Cromwell before the latter’s rise to greatness. Williams and his son Richard were beneficiaries of this relationship… In slightly defiant gratitude (Thomas Cromwell having been beheaded in 1540) Richard changed his family name to Cromwell. Conscious of the circumstances, Oliver, throughout his life and even as lord protector, occasionally described himself as Williams alias Cromwell. (1-2)

Cromwell’s marriage was to be long and stable. There were nine children: five boys and four girls. … Little is known of the relationship between Oliver and Elizabeth beyond the unmannered deep affection of their letters to one another in the early 1650s… (5)

There is evidence that Cromwell was suffering from physical and mental stress by 1628. He took the waters at Wellingborough for severe stomach cramps, and the papers of Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, a London doctor, record his seeking treatment on 19 September 1628 for valde melancolicus (depression). According to a much later report, in 1628 or 1629 he experienced the religious conversion which henceforth dominated his life… (5)

…in 1631 he became a tenant of the godly Henry Lawrence, just after Lawrence had become one of the patentees of Connecticut in New England, and had committed himself to moving to this colony as soon as he could; Cromwell’s selling up and moving when he did could well indicate his intention to move there with him. (7)

There may have been many reasons why Cromwell did not go with him, but one is almost certainly the happenstance that in January 1636, just as Lawrence was emigrating, Oliver’s childless and widowed maternal uncle Sir Thomas Stewart died. … His income increased dramatically to some (lb)300 a year. The tide had turned. (8)

Cromwell’s personal fortunes—and his health—had waned in the 1620s, reached a low plateau in the early 1630s, and had waxed in the later 1630s. providence had smiled on him. If in the years in and immediately after his conversion he had served God by his suffering, he was about to find out how he could serve him by his doing. (10)

He was a man born on the cusp of the gentry and the middling sort who became a head of state. He was a general whose brutal conquests of Scotland and (particularly) Ireland have cast a long dark shadow. He was a king-killer who agonized about whether to be a king; a parliamentarian who used military force to break and to purge parliaments. He was a passionate advocate of religious liberty who stood by and let books be burnt and blasphemers be publicly tortured. (10)

His faith and trust in God made him fearless. And more than once he spoke his mind too forcefully and was reproved by the house (as in his unvarnished attack on episcopacy in February 1641). Sir Philip Warwick memorably recalled him as wearing a plain cloth suit, and plain linen shirt, its collar spotted with blood. It is an image of a man short of change of clothes and without a servant to shave him: a man on the margins socially and not entirely at east with himself. As a result he was dropped from the opposition front bench speaker’s panel after May 1641. He remained a useful man on committees, pushing for religious reform and a strong line against the Irish rebels. But as time went on he spoke less and less in the full house. (12)

In the high summer of 1642 king and parliament were increasingly provoking one another into trial by battle. The Rubicon was finally crossed when Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham on 22 August. He had written on 25 July to the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University inviting the colleges to assist him by the ‘loan’ of their plate. Cromwell was sent down by the Commons to prevent them from doing so. On 10 August, accompanied by perhaps 200 lightly armed countrymen who had volunteered to help him. … He went on to intimidate his was into Cambridge Castle and to seize the arms stored there, and halt the movement of silver. At a time when most Englishmen were dithering and waiting upon events, it was a bold and unhesitating act. (13)

The most striking aspect of Cromwell’s letters from the summer of 1643 was his insistence that no religious test be applied to those volunteering for service. He needed more men, and the more committed to the cause the better. (16)

Both Exeter and Oxford surrendered on extremely generous terms, with the royalists made liable only to minimal fines, lower than those set by parliamentary ordinance. It is worth noting Cromwell’s strong support for these generous terms. He wanted to win the war as quickly as possible not humiliate the losers. (26)

Like a classic negotiator he understated to each party the disaffection of the other towards it. And the result, late in May, was disaster. Having assured the houses that the army would disband quietly if its legitimate concerns about arrears and indemnity were addressed, Cromwell watched in horror as the Commons voted the immediate disbandment of most of the army on the basis of meager concessions. (32)

On 7 June 1647, at Childerley House near Cambridge, Cromwell had his first interview with King Charles. He was to have several more during August and September. From mid-July, … (34)

Cromwell was then pivotal to pushing several of those bills, especially a toleration bill, which repealed the Elizabethan statutes requiring church attendance and permitted anyone who wished ‘to hear the word of God preached elsewhere’. (35)

The post-war settlement to which Cromwell was now firmly committed assumed a divided sovereignty between king and parliament. There were many who felt that this was no longer sufficient. Foremost among these were the London pamphleteers shortly to become known as the Levellers. These men argued with ever greater force for a literal ‘agreement of the people’, whereby all householders would sign up to put themselves under a new form of government in which all those who exercised authority—above all the chief and lesser magistrates, and members of parliament—were accountable to those who elected them. (36)

Cromwell responded by saying that there were many problems with Charles—‘we all apprehended danger form the person of the king’—and that there could be no safety in such a person ‘having the least interest in the public affairs of the kingdom’, but they should not jump to the conclusion that ‘God will destroy these persons’ (kings in general) or ‘that power’ (monarchy). He did not rule out depositions, but he did not see any immediately divine encouragement to proceed with it (ibid., 1.378-82). (38)

Putney seems to have been a turning point for Cromwell. He came to realize that his brokering a settlement with Charles was not acceptable to large sections of the army, and he may well have recognized that the king had not been negotiating in good faith. On 12 November his growing distrust was massively reinforced. Charles, breaking his word, escaped from Hampton Court and fled to the Isle of Wight. There was plenty of contemporary speculation that Cromwell encouraged him in this escapade, but there are compelling reasons for doubting it. (40)

At Cromwell campaigned in 1648 there was a dramatic development in his religious thinking. His letter to his cousin Elizabeth St John in 1638 describing his religious conversion had been saturated in biblical images, but his letters throughout the 1640s used the Bible only as glancing asides. Suddenly in 1648 his letters become meditations on how particular scriptures were helping him to find his way through the constitutional mire. (44)

It was not that Cromwell had any constitutional scruple about a trial and deposition, even about execution; rather he had the overwhelming sense that such action would be counter-productive, that there would be an internal and intentional reaction so violent as to sweep away those who had engineered it. (47)

For six weeks Cromwell worked for a settlement without a regicide, but once he concluded that Charles would not abdicate, not only the king’s trail but his death became inevitable. To try to put someone else on the throne so long as the king lived was even worse than to attempt, in the face of the inevitably backlash across the British Isles and western Europe, to establish a kingless Commonwealth. (48)

The only credible story of this kind is the testimony of Philip Warwick that as Cromwell looked down on the dismembered royal corpse, he murmured: ‘Cruel necessity’. God’s providences were not always comfortable. (48)

Rather surprisingly, in the years immediately after the regicide Cromwell’s name receded form public view… (50)

Cromwell did not commit to paper his ideas for the settlement of the kingdom in the wake of the regicide. He had come to see the need to eliminate Charles I but there is no evidence that he believed in the permanent eradication of monarchy. (50)

Cromwell’s religious views are better chronicled but not straightforward. He was always in favour of a national church to which the great majority should be attached. … He believed that all sincere protestants who wished to dissociate themselves from that national church and worship God in the light of their own consciences should be permitted to do so. He came over time to define more precisely but not necessarily more strictly how to prevent the liberty he strove to promote from being (in his own eyes) abused. He was suspicious of all clerical claims to special or reserved powers, and believed that gifted layment should be allowed to preach and lay people to prophecy. He believed that membership of the national church should not privilege anyone in the distribution of offices and responsibilities in civil and military affair. (52)

The central tension in him which cruelly tugged at him in the internal forum was that ‘between on the one hand his taste for constitutional respectability and on the other his hunger for godly reformation’ … Enthusiasm for godly reformation was not the criterion he adopted when he sought to determine the character and composition of the Rump government. … From the moment he returned to London on 6 December 1648 Cromwell was desperate to broaden the basis of support for the new regime. (55)

Cromwell was appointed in May 1649 to be lord lieutenant of Ireland and to be general of the army there, … He had three principal objectives in crossing to Ireland. The first was to eliminate the threat of military support for Charles II from those loyal to him… The second was to carry through the confiscation of land from all those involved in rebellion against the English parliament since 1641 and the redistribution of confiscated land to those who had invested … The third was to reform the institutions of Ireland not only (or specifically) to introduce the instruments of English civility, but to improve on them. (59)

Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland 1649-50 is the stuff of legen—legend rooted in part-truths. In forty weeks… Blood was shed on only five occasions even though several towns defied him for days or weeks. (60)

Two episodes from this phase of his careers have given rise to the black legend: his sack of Drogheda and of Wexford. At Drogheda on 11-12 September Cromwell stormed a town that had refused a summons and his troops killed perhaps 3000 royalist troops in hot and cold blood, all the Catholic clergy and religious he could identify (mainly in cold blood), and an unknown number of civilians (probably all in hot blood). He followed the laws of war as they had operated in Ireland for the previous century and not as he had operated them in England. The royalist commander, Sir Arthur Aston, was clubbed to death, and 300 of his men, who had surrendered to mercy (that is, put their lives at the discretion of their vanquishers), were executed. Cromwell justified the massacre on three grounds. The first was by reference to the laws of war. The second was that it was as ‘a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood’ (Letters and Speeches, 1904, letter 105, 17 September 1649). This was an inappropriate reference to the massacres of 1641-2: Drogheda had never been a confederate town… And third, he justified the massacre on the grounds that it would terrorize others into immediate surrender and thus save lives in the long run. (61)

In Wexford on 11 October his troops stormed a town still negotiating surrender articles (although with deliberate tardiness); again more than 2000 people were slain, including a larger number of civilians. The fact that as the assault began the defenders sank a hulk in the harbour, drowning 150 protestant prisoners-of-war, and that the Cromwellians found the bodies of more prisoners starved to death in a locked chapel, heightened their fury. Cromwell neither ordered nor sought to halt the indiscriminate killing that followed. Those soldiers who were not killed were sent to be slaves in Barbados. Drogheda was Cromwell’s Hiroshima, and Wexford was his Nagasaki. These massacres did not bring an end to the war, only to atrocity. Resistance elsewhere led to more selective enforcement of the laws of war. (62)

For having got his strategy completely wrong, Cromwell displayed a tactical brilliance beyond anything shown by other commanders in these wars. Very early on 3 September, well before first light, he launched the greater part of his force against the right wing of the Scots, and having broken the stiff resistance of that wing, he wheeled to his right against the centre and eventually against the left of the Scots and destroyed them. It was the greatest of his victories. He claimed that 3000 Scots were killed and 10,000 were captured. Before the battle it was said that Cromwell was so tense that he bit his lips until blood covered his chin. He began the battle by emitting a great shout: ‘let God arise and his enemies shall be scattered’ (Psalm 51). After the battle, he laughed uncontrollably. Normally God had given the victory to the side that had providentially brought the greater number of the field. Never had God made himself so visible so immanent. (65)

For the remaining four years and nine months of his life Oliver Cromwell was to exercise as lord protector ‘the chief magistracy and the administration of the government over [the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland and of the dominions thereunto belonging] and the people thereof’ (Gardiner, Constitutional Documents, 406). As lord protector for life he had some freedom to act on his own, as in proroguing and dissolving parliaments once they had met for the prescribed minimum five-month period. He used this power in January 1655 and February 1658, on neither occasion consulting his councilors. But in most matters of governance he was constrained to act with and through the majority will of a council of state consisting of between thirteen and twenty-one members, over whose membership he had limited control. (83)

Cromwell’s public performance became more king-like. But whenever he described his own role he downplayed it. He described himself as a good constable, set to keep the peace of the parish. He likened himself to a watchman set on a watchtower to espy threats to security and peace. He reiterated that he had not called himself to the place that he occupied, saying that he saw it as a duty laid upon him by God and not as something he sought and enjoyed (Speeches, 40, 4, September 1654; 133, 13 April 1657; 174, 25 January 1658). With every speech there was less expectation that England was moving closer to the attainment of those things made possible by overthrow of Stuart and Episcopal tyranny, and more frustration at the lack of progress towards those goals. By the final speeches he was old, tired, and disillusioned. (91)

He encouraged the Amsterdam rabbi Manasseh ben Israel, in his embassy to London, to plead for the formal readmission of the Jews, and when it became clear that a majority of the council would not support it Cromwell ruled that since their exclusion had been based solely on a royal edict, he could readmit them without consulting council or parliament. (95)

His own personal obsession, the expedition to seize Hispaniola (Dominica), was a disastrous failure, the occupation of Jamaica being taken as no substitute. Cromwell saw in that failure a rebuff form God, and it troubled him that God was displeased with him. (98)

The abject failure of the royalist risings in the spring of 1655 showed how acquiescent the England had become, but it also showed how little active support Cromwell could count upon among the county elites. If few rose in arms to challenge the regime, few rose in arms to support it. Everyone outside the army waited upon events. Cromwell was persuaded by Major-General Lambert to embark on a bold experiment. If people disliked the regime because there were too many soldiers and too much tax, then let both be halved and replaced by efficient, well-trained and equipped ‘select militias’, made up mainly of demobilized veterans and paid for by a 10 per cent ‘decimation’ tax on the income of all convicted royalists. And let the scheme be under the management of eleven senior officers (the major-generals) each responsible for a bloc of countries, and assisted by bodies of activist shire commissioners. To Lambert’s brief Cromwell added his own: they were to wage war on vice and promote the reformation of manners. It was in that aspect of their work that he took a close personal interest. / When the scheme came under remorseless attack in December 1656 and January 1657 it was principally because the major-generals, and the decimation tax they collected, were unconstitutional and against law custom. To levy discriminatory taxation on ex-royalists was a clear breach of the Indemnity Act that Cromwell had campaigned for so vigorously in 1652. (100-101)

The ends justified the means. There was in Cromwell no respect for the past, no sense of the integrity of the law, legitimation to be found in antiquity or custom, just as there was no legitimacy to be found in majoritarian consent. God looked to the future not the past. (101)

He defended the making of law outside parliament: ‘if nothing should ever be done but what is according to law, the throat of the nation may be cut while we send for some to make a law’ (Speeches, 100, 17 September 1656). … It was for attitudes such as these that the lawyers and pragmatic gentry of his second parliament sought to make him king. For (although given their wars with Charles I this was not without irony), a king was shackled by the past, required to act in accordance with ancient law and custom, and bound to seek the consent of the people through parliament in the making of law, the establishment of penalties, and the granting of taxation. … Cromwell was in large part offered the crown not to further enhance his authority but to circumscribe the power of the protectorate itself, as well as the power of its ill-defined executive, legislative, and judicial bodies. (103)

Cromwell form early on indicated a willingness to accept everything except the title. Parliament tried to bluff him into it by maintaining it was all or nothing. In the battle of wills that followed the house cracked first. Cromwell was to become king in all but name. (103)

He waited upon a clear sign from God (a great victory over the Spaniard?) and it never came: ‘God has seemed providentially not only to strike at the family but at the name… He hath blasted the title…I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again. (ibid., 137, 13, April 1657) (104)

Then the dusk of life in, and with the dusk a sea-mist. The last few months were months of idling. Cromwell’s health declined steeply, and he became much preoccupied by the terrible suffering and death from cancer of his beloved daughter Elizabeth. Despite rumour at the time that what the assassin’s bullets had failed to achieve, insidious poisons did achieve, it is overwhelmingly likely that the malarial fevers that had troubled him at time of stress ever since the early 1630s came back to haunt him and triggered a chest infection and pneumonia from which he died. (105)

Under the ‘Humble petition and advice’, Cromwell had the duty to nominate his successor. There was no other mechanism for the transfer of power. Amazingly there was no written designation. John Thurloe reported that he had been told that there was one sealed up but that he could not find it. Can Cromwell have been so careless? He had seen too much of sudden death to be unmindful of his own mortality. Indeed he carried a loaded musket with him whenever he went out for fear of assassins and once, in 1654, he almost killed himself when his musket exploded as he was dragged behind some bolting horses. Conspiracy theories—that Thurloe broke the eal of the written nomination, did not like what he read in it (the likely names were John Lambert of Charles Fleetwood), and destroyed it—should not be lightly dismissed. However, recent discoveries in the shorthand letters of William Clarke strengthen the case for Cromwell’s having made a lucid and clear nomination of his eldest surviving son, Richard, in the presence of witnesses, during his final hours. (106)

A body purporting to be Cromwell’s was hanged in its cerecloth for several hours, then decapitated. The body was put into a lime-pit below the gallows and the head, impaled on a spike, was exposed at the south end of Westminster Hall for nearly two decades before being rescued during the exclusion crisis. (107)

Recognizable for what? Cromwell was not a great thinker. In 1638 he told his young cousin that ‘if here I may serve my God either by my doing or by my suffering, I shall be most glad’ (Letters and Speeches, 1904, letter 2, 13 October 1638). It was his motto and his epitaph. He did not enjoy power. It was thrust upon him. He was not especially intelligent, and was quite unintellectual, lacking a deep understanding of law, of the classics, of theology. He had a deep sense of being propelled by God into leading his people towards a promised land. He had an imperfect sense of what the promised land would look like, and only a magpie instinct for picking up the latest bright and shiny idea of how to make the next move towards it. (120)

He could never make the adjustment form war where the objective was always clear and the victory unambiguous. The pragmatism and compromise of the political arena constantly dismayed him and ground him down. (121)


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