Did Oliver Cromwell’s death make the Restoration inevitable?


David Smith:  The question of whether Oliver Cromwell was a principled defender of civil and religious liberties or a bigot and a tyrant is one that has proved intensely controversial, not only among historians but right the way back to Cromwell’s own lifetime.  We can find a similar polarisation of opinion amongst his own contemporaries.  Indeed, there were some of his contemporaries who moved from one position to the other.  For example, some of the Levellers initially believed that Cromwell was a champion of liberty but, ultimately, came to see him as a bigot and a tyrant.

Cromwell was indeed full of paradoxes.  His character is one of great complexity and even contradiction.  I think it is worth saying that he did believe in civil and especially religious liberties.  If we look at his letters and speeches, we find that religious liberty especially is a constant theme.  In particular, he believed in liberty of conscience but he did not extend that to everybody.  He could be very bigoted, he could be tyrannical and he seems to have been very convinced of his own ability to read the mind of God, to interpret ‘providences’ by which he meant manifestations of God’s will in the events of this world.  He believed that entitled him to rule in certain ways that could seem very heavy-handed.  In 1647 he indicated a willingness to rule for the people’s good, not what pleases them, and that is something that became almost a hallmark of his rule in the years that followed.


So, there was a real tension between these different aspects of Cromwell’s character and we can see a sort of case study of how this worked: his treatment of the first Protectorate Parliament in 1654-5.  This illustrates very well both his commitment to liberty of conscience but also his willingness to turn quite high-handed when he wanted to.

If we begin by his speech in September 1654, we find him talking about certain things that were fundamentals and that liberty of conscience was something that he passionately believed in as a fundamental.  On 12 September 1654, Cromwell told the first Protectorate Parliament:

“But some things are fundamentals … Is not liberty of conscience in religion a fundamental?  So long as there is liberty of conscience for the supreme magistrate to exercise his conscience in erecting what form of Church government he is satisfied he should set up, why should he not give the like liberty to others?  Liberty of conscience is a natural right, and he that would have it ought to give it … Indeed that hath been one of the vanities of our contest.  Every sect saith: ‘Oh give me liberty!’  But give it him, and to his power he will not yield it to anybody else.  Where is our ingenuousness?  Liberty of conscience – truly that is a thing ought to be very reciprocal!”


Yet the Parliament failed to respond to that clarion call.  Instead of championing liberty of conscience, the parliament persisted in redrafting the constitution, reframing the Instrument of Government.  One of the things that they wanted to do in amending the Instrument of Government was to curtail the powers of the Lord Protector.  They felt that the instrument gave the Lord Protector too much power.  In particular, there were many members of this Parliament who believed that liberty of conscience was actually a very dangerous principle.  They thought that too much liberty would turn to licence and they feared that, if religious toleration was extended as widely as Cromwell wanted it to be, what would happen was that various atheisms and blasphemies and heresies would be unleashed.

Cromwell decided after less than 10 days that he would put a stop to this endeavour and he would tell the Parliament that they must accept the constitution exactly as it was written.  They must not tinker with it, they must accept it exactly as it was, including Cromwell’s extensive powers, and this was really a way of safeguarding the liberty of conscience principle but in fact the way that Cromwell did this was, in some ways, the antithesis of liberty, because what he did was to go down to Parliament, order the Parliament House to be locked and guarded by soldiers and only once members had accepted this undertaking to preserve the constitution as it stood would they be allowed to regain their seats.  Somewhere between 50-80 members promptly withdrew in protest at this very high-handed act but Cromwell thought that this was a perfectly permissible way of behaving, that it was okay to act in this heavy-handed way towards Parliament for a greater good.


And in a speech to Parliament that day, he told them:

“I must deal plainly with you: what I forborne upon a just confidence at first, you necessitate me unto now! … I have caused a stop to be put to your entrance into the Parliament House.  I am sorry, I am sorry, and I could be sorry to the death, that there is cause for this!  But there is cause: and if things be not satisfied which are reasonably demanded, I, for my part, will do that which becomes me, seeking my counsel from God.”

Clearly, for Cromwell the end could justify the means: if that meant using his powers and going somewhat beyond the laws, then that was permissible.  If national security was at stake or if a higher good like liberty of conscience was involved, then he seems to have believed that he could use his powers and treat people in really quite an authoritarian way.


That applied particularly to anything which involved the security of the nation.  There were many who would have been shocked to hear his words on 17 September 1656 where he justified breaching the law if necessary.  In that speech of 17 September 1656, Cromwell declared:

“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! … It is a pitiful, beastly notion to think that … if a government in extraordinary circumstances go beyond the law even for self-preservation, it is yet to be clamoured at.”

Now for many, that kind of statement was going a step too far.  It really was ruling for the people’s good, not what pleases them, and it might even be ruling for the people’s good, not what was according to law!  That side of Cromwell became progressively more marked as he got older but he remained very committed to the principle of liberty for the Godly: the Godly minority whom he regarded as the basis for turning the whole nation into a – I’ll do that again.  He remained very committed to preserving the liberties of the Godly: that Godly minority whom he regarded as the key to guiding the whole nation towards its destiny as a chosen people.


And although we might associate Cromwell particularly with some very illiberal acts, some very intolerant acts, one thinks in particular of his attacks on Irish Catholics and those notorious massacres in 1649 at Drogheda and Wexford, nevertheless there was another side to Cromwell.  There was a Cromwell who wanted to extend religious liberty as widely as possible, certainly amongst Protestant groups and Cromwell was actually much more tolerant towards sectarian groups like the Quakers or the Baptists – some of these groups that emerged during the English Revolution.  He was very much more tolerant towards them than were many of his contemporaries.


And in that same speech on 17 September 1656, Cromwell, once again, expressed his commitment to extending religious liberty to all those who were prepared to be peaceful and not to disturb the quiet of the nation.  As he said in that speech:

“Our practice since the last Parliament hath been to let all this nation see that whatever pretensions to religion would continue quiet and peaceable … should enjoy conscience and liberty to themselves; and not make religion a pretence for arms and blood, truly we have suffered them, and that cheerfully, so to enjoy their own liberties.  Whatsoever is contrary, and not peaceable, let the pretence be never so specious – if it tend to combination, to interests and factions – we shall not care, by the grace of God, whom we meet withal, though never so specious, though never so quiet … truly I am against all liberty of conscience repugnant to this.”

Cromwell wanted to embrace liberty of conscience so long as it did not disturb the peace but he wanted to liberate the Godly as much as possible and he hoped that they would be the seed within the nation who would turn the country towards godliness.  For the non-Godly, there should be a Reformation of Manners, as he called it, promoted particularly by the Major Generals in 1655-7, turning people towards Godly ways.  This is the Cromwell who has come down to us in the image of a Puritan killjoy, as somebody who stopped people having fun, somebody who wanted to close theatres, tear down maypoles, close unlicensed ale houses.  This is very much the Cromwell of Puritan legend.


But 2hat he was really trying to do was to get people to behave outwardly in a Godly way in the belief that that would ultimately turn their hearts and minds towards the same godliness, so it was a double-edged policy: you liberate the Godly and you coerce the ungodly through a Reformation of Manners into behaving as if they were Godly.

His real lack of toleration tended to manifest itself towards opponents of the Godly, and this is really what explains his policy towards Catholics, especially in Ireland, but it was really only those who he believed denied liberty – [interruption] – especially in Ireland where Cromwell absolutely denied toleration towards Catholics.


But elsewhere, he was very committed to liberty of conscience where it applied to those whom he regarded as Godly.  I think this can be understood in the broader context of Cromwell’s vision of England as a chosen people or an elect nation.  He was constantly drawing parallels with the people of Israel in the Old Testament and he saw England as a chosen people of God exactly like that.  Just as the people of Israel had escaped from slavery in Egypt by crossing the Red Sea, so the people of England had escaped from a form of slavery under Charles I by having the King executed.  They were now in the 1650s crossing the promised land.  It cast Cromwell very much in a role akin to that of Moses.

Inevitably, perhaps, there were critics who challenged him, who asked by what right he claimed to assume a role like that of Moses.  What was it about Cromwell that made him think that he had some kind of hotline to God that enabled him to discern God’s purposes better than other people and could Cromwell be challenged.


I think Cromwell always remained committed to the ends of Government, to the overarching purposes for which he was working but, as he once put it, he was not wedded and glued to forms of government and forms of government might vary according to the needs of the moment.  That might turn you into a very authoritarian phase, as we see with the Major Generals between 1655 and early 1657 but that was not necessarily incompatible with an underlying commitment to liberty of conscience.

Once we understand Cromwell’s overarching purpose in terms of England as an elect nation, England in parallel with the people of Israel in the Old Testament, this enables us to explain both his commitment to liberty of conscience and those episodes that we can see where he turns in a much more authoritarian way, sometimes leading him to act apparently highhandedly against Parliament.  If we see it in terms of his sense of England’s destiny, we can actually go a long way to resolving the apparent paradox of whether he is a tyrant and a bigot or a champion of liberties.


In a sense, the answer is that he was both.  It is not an either/or situation and this is what made Cromwell so very difficult for his contemporaries to come to terms with, because they could see examples of both kinds of behaviour: both the liberal and the authoritarian.  So his complexities as a personality, his contradictions as a personality mean that I think that a polarised answer, an either one thing or the other answer, is simply not appropriate when you are dealing with a character as complex as Cromwell’s.



And so this is a very polarised –

And so, when you are dealing with a character as complex and, to some extent, contradictory as Cromwell’s, a very polarised answer of either yes or no – champion of liberty or tyrant and bigot, either/or – this sort of answer is really not appropriate.  The answer indeed is that he was both and when we really get inside his world view, inside his goals of promoting England as an elect nation, we can understand why it was that he really was, as his contemporaries were all too aware, at times both tyrant and bigot and champion of liberties.