“I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”
~~ Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England ~~
On this day in 1599, was born one of the most remarkable, charismatic and controversial Englishmen ever to draw breath. Why is this still so some 350 years after his death? Probably the best one-stop shop for a layman`s knowledge on Cromwell is still Antonia Fraser`s, Cromwell: Our Chief Of Men, which gives a concise and detailed examination of the great man`s life, his motivation and achievements. And his life is an achievement of some wonder: until King Charles`s catastrophic fall-out with parliament, when he went with cap in hand to ask for monies to wage war, and basically found his MP`s telling him to go…….` Talk to the hand`, Cromwell was an obscure country gent from the wilds of Cambridgeshire serving out his political time in the House of Commons along with everyone else. But underneath this gentleman`s apparently normal demeanor, beat the ferocious heart of a religious libertarian, and a believer in a government fully accountable to the people; on the minus side, his detractors claim he used excessive violence in his conquest of Ireland and Scotland, and ( this in itself is heavily contested) violently anti- Catholic. But beyond the propaganda of both sides, he is a common man, who understood the aspirations and problems of the common man; a man who was born in very modest circumstances, yet rose to command the armies of parliament and never lose a battle, remove a King`s head from his body, and become head of state of an English Republic. He abolished the Star Chamber, that loathsome state sanctioned body, which imprisoned, tortured and executed perceived enemies of the monarch, as well as allowing a free press for the first time in English history. The social impact of this was profound; books, newspapers, and most commonly, pamphlets, flourished and allowed the spread of literacy among the ordinary people of the streets, who before this had been encouraged in their ignorance by a ruling elite elite fearful of a literate population. Before Cromwell, ignorance was indeed bliss for the common man, but he unleashed the power of knowledge and free speech, and the impact was electrifying. “We study the glory of God, and the honour and liberty of parliament, for which we unanimously fight, without seeking our own interests…………I profess I could never satisfy myself on the justness of this war, but from the authority of the parliament to maintain itself in it`s rights; and in this cause I hope to prove myself an honest man and single- hearted.”
Antonia Fraser`s book is very luxuriously and richly written, and though it is aimed primarily at the general reader, it still packs a lot of detailed and intelligent information. It`s a long book, but is enjoyably accessible and unpretentious, but doesn`t attempt to claim it`s at the interpretive cutting edge: such as the religious movements Cromwell engaged with, and in depth dissections of the philosophical, political and social implications of events such as the seminal Putney Debates, where Cromwell and representatives of his victorious New Model Army discussed the future of the new society they had won for the people, with radical political and religious groups. Her book is not one for those asking why? But is valuable as a good source of information on how Cromwell gets from A to B and explains the twists and turns in his career very clearly and simply.
“You are as like the forming of God as ever people were……….you are at the edge of promises and prophecies……….If God is on everyone`s side, I wager, He must sometimes wonder who is on His………..Take these baubles away!
In July 1653, Cromwell addressed the so called, `barebones parliament`, and harangued them for their financial and political incompetence. He threw the symbol of parliament`s sovereignty, the mace, onto the floor of the commons and ordered the removal of the members of parliament who reclined at their ease upon the benches, and shut the shop down. His great experiment in parliamentary democracy had failed. In the four years after the execution of the king, Cromwell had secured and extended the power of the Republic, while leaving parliament to it`s own devices to rule; but it was like allowing children access to the biggest sweet shop in the world. The controlling hand of a prime minister was needed to offer guidance: but such a concept was alien to the 17th century; someone needed to assume and exercise complete control, it was all that people could understand.
“Weeds and nettles, briars and thorns, have thriven under your shadow, dissettlement and division, discontent and dissatisfaction , together with real dangers to the whole….You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
To some, Oliver Cromwell is an unpleasant ogre, bent on personal advancement from an early age, and prepared to inflict any amount of hurt on those who were in his way; for others, for all of his faults, he was the man who broke the chains of monarchical tyranny and sowed the seeds of modern democracy. I go with the latter view: he admitted himself that he was no angel, and was constantly at war with himself, but like all of us, he was a product of his place and time and cannot be judged on any other criteria. A thought or deed which to us may seem callous and cruel, in another age would be normal behaviour. What he gave to the whole world was democratic rule of law and freedom of speech; everyone considered equal under the law, and with complete access to the law no matter what their station in life. The experiment came too early in an England still unable to psychologically adapt to republican rule of representatives of the people, for the people; but fast forward another hundred or so years, and we find those same basic concepts of a free democracy in the constitution of the new United States of America.
“Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint your picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughness, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me; otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.”
These words to the painter Lely, are not those of a power crazed despot, but of a modest man, who was thrust unwillingly from obscurity, to uphold the rights of the people against the rich and powerful who would wish to ignore, or remove them for their own personal convenience and gain. We still struggle against such vested interests today. For me, Oliver Cromwell is indeed our Chief of Men, and the greatest ever Englishman.