Was Oliver Cromwell the defender of liberty or a tyrant?


David Smith:  The question of Cromwell’s inability to achieve an effective working relationship with Parliament is, I think, one of the most fascinating of the English Revolution, and it poses a particular irony.  At the beginning of the Civil Wars, Cromwell had been deeply committed to Parliament and to the Parliamentarian cause.  He had been a Member of Parliament in 1628-9 and then again from 1640 onwards and during the Civil Wars, it seemed to him that Parliament was somehow synonymous with God’s cause.


We can hear this synchronisation between fighting for Parliament and fighting for God in a letter that he wrote to Colonel Valentine Walton on 6 September 1644.

“We study the glory of God, the honour and liberty of the Parliament, for which we unanimously fight, without seeking our own interests. … I profess I could never satisfy myself of the justness of this war but from the authority of the Parliament to maintain it, in its rights and in this cause I hope to approve myself an honest man, and single-hearted.”

As we hear there, the cause of God and the cause of Parliament were tied together and, yet, over the years that followed, this gradually came apart.  As we move through the late 1640s with the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, we then see after the Regicide Cromwell’s relationship with the Rump Parliament steadily deteriorating.  The Rump, that residue of the old Long Parliament, came to seem to Cromwell a body that was burnt out and exhausted.  Worse than that, it was a body that had actually started to betray God’s cause, so instead of God’s cause and Parliament being closely associated, they were now working against each other.


By April 1653, Cromwell had become convinced that the Parliament was no longer a Parliament for God’s people.  It was actually subverting the cause for which it had ostensibly fought.  So on 20 April 1653, Cromwell stormed down to the House of Commons and berated the Rump Parliament, telling them: “You have sat here too long for any good that you have been doing lately, in the name of God go!” – a phrase that has echoed down English history over the centuries ever since.


Two days later, Cromwell issued a declaration in which he gave his reasons for having taken this drastic act of dissolving the Rump.  In this declaration he declared:

“The Parliament had opportunity to settle a due liberty both in reference to civil and spiritual things and to the settling of the Commonwealth upon a foundation of justice and righteousness; but there more and more appeared amongst them an aversion to the things themselves, with much bitterness and opposition to the people of God, and His spirit acting in them.  It became most evident to the Army that this Parliament would never answer those ends which God, His people, and the whole nation expected from them; but that this cause, which the Lord hath so greatly blessed and borne witness to, must needs languish under theire hands, and, by degrees, be wholly lost; and the lives, liberties, and comforts of His people delivered into their enemies’ hands.”


At that moment, having dissolved the Rump Parliament, Cromwell probably had more raw power than at any other stage in his career.  It is interesting that, instead of assuming total power himself, he set about trying to create another assembly: he wanted to share power with some other kind of parliament.  He didn’t just want to collect all power in his own hands.

He fell back on an idea that had been developed by one of his Army colleagues, Major General Harrison, which was the idea of a Nominated Assembly consisting of Godly individuals.  This body comprising 140 selected people, people, as Cromwell put it, “with the root of the matter in them”, was modelled on the ancient Jewish Sanhedrin as described in the Old Testament.  Cromwell hoped that this assembly of the Godly would actually provide the sort of leadership that England needed to carry it forward to a Promised Land.


Now this assembly has sometimes been called the Nominated Assembly or the Little Parliament but I, personally, prefer the name Barebones Parliament, which is taken from the name of one of its members, Praise God Barebone.

I personally prefer the name taken from one of its members, Praise God Barebone – some of these Puritans had wonderful biblical names like this – and these 140 individuals were chosen to provide the leadership that England needed.

Well, Barebones Parliament met in July 1653 and Cromwell greeted it in a mood of great optimism but, ultimately, it proved to be a bitter disappointment.  It was soon internally divided and, within five or six months, it collapsed and dissolved itself.  It surrendered power – sorry, I’ll go back and do that again.  It surrendered power back to Cromwell and Cromwell, at this point, fell back on another plan for the constitution which was the Instrument of Government drawn up by another of his Army colleagues, Major General John Lambert.


The Instrument of Government is directly relevant to the question I am addressing, because it was a parliamentary constitution.  It provided for government by a single person and a parliament and that single person was to be a Lord Protector who would be Oliver Cromwell.

Now that was going to put a great premium on effective relations between the single person and a parliament and, if those relations deteriorated, it would be quite difficult to restore them.  Certainly, when Cromwell opened this Parliament, the first of the Protectorate Parliaments, on 4 September 1654, he was again in a mood of great optimism and hopefulness.  In an extraordinary speech that he gave that day, he praised England as an elect nation, as a chosen people and he called the Parliament to embrace its responsibilities in advancing England towards that Promised Land.


 In that great speech on 4 September 1654, he told members:

“You were told, today, of a people brought out of Egypt towards the land of Canaan; but through unbelief, murmuring, repining, and other temptations and sins wherewith God was provoked, they were fain to come back again, and linger many years in the wilderness before they came to the place of rest.  We are thus far, through the mercy of God.  We have cause to take notice of it, that we are not brought into misery, not totally wrecked; but have, as I said before, a door of hope open.  And I may say this to you: if the Lord’s blessing and His presence go along with the management of affairs at this meeting, you will be enabled to put the topstone to this work, and make the nation happy.  But this must be by knowing the true state of affairs; that you are yet, like the people under circumcision, but raw.”

Now we can hear in that remarkable call to embrace their destiny Cromwell really urging the Parliament to take matters forward in this very direct, very strong way but members shied away from that and instead began to tinker with the Instrument of Government.  They were unhappy with some aspects of the new constitution.  In particular, they felt that the powers of the Lord Protector were too sweeping and needed to be more clearly defined and, to some extent, curtailed.


            Cromwell became so angry with this that barely 10 days after the opening of the Parliament – sorry, I’ll do that again.  Barely 10 days after the opening of the Parliament, Cromwell imposed a recognition on members by which the members had to undertake not to tinker further with the constitution but to accept it in its existing state.  Some members were so angry at being told what to do that somewhere between 50 and 80 of them withdrew in protest.


If Cromwell had hoped that that might remedy the problem and, as it were, keep – [interruption] I am afraid that I will have to occasionally turn but if I try to do that when I am pausing, or pause and then do it, is that easier?  That is the last one I shall need to do for this particular item.  Remind me of what I was saying?

If Cromwell had hoped that this might remedy the situation and get members back on message, he was sorely mistaken.  The members persisted with tinkering with the Instrument of Government and in drafting a new parliamentary constitution that they believed would achieve a better balance between the powers of the single person and a parliament. Cromwell grew increasingly frustrated with this.  He felt that the Parliament was simply missing the point.  It was not embracing the responsibilities for which it had been called.


Now the Instrument of Government required him to let a parliament sit for a minimum of five months but, after five months had elapsed, he was free to dissolve it whenever he wished.  So Cromwell waited, he calculated when the earliest possible moment would be for him to dissolve the parliament.  The Instrument of Government did not specify whether this meant five lunar months or five calendar months, so Cromwell waited for the shortest possible interval, that is to say five lunar months, which took him to 22 January 1655, and on that day he caught members by surprise by going down to the Parliament and denouncing them, castigating them for what they had done or failed to do, and offered this bitter denunciation of the Parliament:

“Instead of peace and settlement, instead of mercy and truth being brought together, righteousness and peace kissing each other, by reconciling the honest people of these nations, and settling the woeful distempers that are amongst us – which had been glorious things and worthy of Christians to have proposed – weeds and nettles, briers and thorns have thriven under your shadow!  Dissettlement and division, discontent and dissatisfaction, together with real dangers to the whole, has been more multiplied within these five months of your sitting than in some years before! … I think it my duty to tell you that it is not for the profit of these nations, nor fit for the common and public good, for you to continue here any longer.  And therefore I do declare unto you, that I do dissolve this Parliament.”


You can hear in that extract from what was a very long speech Cromwell’s intense frustration with Parliament, his feeling that the Parliament had simply not lived up to the task for which it had been called.  As so often with Cromwell, he described what he was doing as his duty to God, something which, increasingly as his career went on, many people came to feel hard to believe in.

Now those opening months of 1655 were very frustrating for Cromwell.  They saw in March a Royalist uprising, Penruddock’s uprising in Wiltshire, and later on in the year they saw news of the failure of Cromwell’s campaign against Spanish power in and around the Caribbean – the so-called Western Design.


By the summer of 1655, Cromwell felt that it was time for a new departure in Government, something that no longer relied on parliaments but instead fell back on military rule.  So he introduced the regime of the Major Generals Rule in which England Wales were divided into 11 regions each governed by a senior Army officer.  However, that proved relatively unpopular, there was considerable resentment of it and, as his military endeavours against Spain took course, he was needing to assemble a new Parliament, so in 1656 the second Protectorate Parliament was assembled.

Now that Parliament really picked up where the previous one had left off and began to find ways in which to define and limit Cromwell’s powers.  They hit on one particular device which was perhaps supremely ironic, which was the idea of offering Cromwell the kingship.  It is, I think, perhaps the greatest irony of Cromwell’s career that this figure who had been so prominent in leading the Parliamentarian cause in the Civil Wars should, ultimately, be offered the kingship himself.


 Cromwell received totally conflicting advice.  The civilian politicians were almost unanimous in urging him to accept the kingship.  They pointed out that it would create a legitimate constitutional foundation for the regime and secure the future of the regime.  By contrast, Cromwell’s military colleagues were virtually unanimous in urging him to decline the kingship and, in the end, it was their advice that won out and Cromwell said that he felt, ultimately, that providence pointed him in the direction of turning down the kingship.  As he put it: “I will not build Jericho again”.

 He remained Lord Protector and, on that basis, he faced another Parliament early in 1658 but he found this one as frustrating to deal with as previous ones.  He felt that the members were not pursuing the vision of a Godly Commonwealth that he so much hoped for and, after just two weeks, in February 1658 he dissolved the Parliament.


His final speech to Parliament is caught in this next extract in which he declared:

“That which brought me into the capacity I now stand in was the Humble Petition and Advice given me by you, … which did draw me to accept the place of Protector.  There is not a man living can say I sought it; no, not a man nor woman treading upon English ground … I can say in the presence of God, in comparison with whom we are but like poor creeping ants upon the earth, I would have been glad to have lived under my woodside, to have kept a flock of sheep rather than undertaken such a government as this …Having proceeded upon these terms … I thought I had been doing that which was my duty, and thought it would have satisfied you!  But … you are not to be satisfied … I think it high time that an end be put to your sitting.  And I do dissolve this Parliament!  And let God be judge between you and me!”

Now I think what we can see in that and earlier speeches is that Cromwell wanted there to be a Parliament.  He felt that a Parliament was a necessary part of the Government of England but he consistently failed to find a Parliament where the majority of members shared his ideals, particularly his goal of liberty of conscience.  He found always that the members tended to be very cautious on that point.  They felt that if you extended liberty of conscience, then you risked unleashing errors, and heresies and blasphemies.  So Cromwell became frustrated with the Parliaments, felt that they were missing the point, felt that they were not embracing England’s destiny as a chosen people, as an elect nation.  He often drew a parallel between England and the people of Israel in the Old Testament, and he hoped that Parliament would be the agent for advancing that journey to the Promised Land.


Always he hoped for better.  Always his opening speeches to Parliament were extraordinarily hopeful and upbeat and optimistic, and yet always he ended up being disappointed.  I think it would be fair to say that, ultimately, this was a key part of his failure to generate lasting political stability during the Interregnum.  If he had been able to work more effectively with Parliaments, if he had been able to find a Parliament that would share his ideals, then he might very well have advanced further towards the sort of vision that he had but, as it was, he found that it was impossible to work with any of the Parliaments that he had to cooperate with.  Ultimately, as I think those final words of that last quotation, “and let God be judge between you and me” – as those words show – he ended up profoundly frustrated and disappointed in his relationship with Parliaments.