This article will feature in Issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

It is widely argued that Oliver Cromwell was simply a ‘king in all but name’ and no better than the tyrannical regime he helped overthrow. His army credentials served to enforce the idea that the English Republic was a military dictatorship characterised by the banning of Christmas, strict Puritanism and widespread oppression, particularly in Ireland. The fact that Christmas was made punishable by the Long Parliament in 1647, before Cromwell took power, is just one of the many myths surrounding Cromwell. In fact, it is more accurate to associate Cromwell with religious liberation, peace and political stability. Even his suppression of royalism was contextually sound and was nowhere near as cruel as is often argued.

Following the collapse of the failed regimes of the Rump Parliament and his own godly experiment, The Nominated Assembly, Cromwell finally accepted the fact that seemingly only he could unite a country divided by the effects of civil war and he was proclaimed Lord Protector in December 1653. Having clearly attempted to work with others before taking matters into his own hands, reveals that he at least never intended a dictatorship.

Cromwell’s first constitution, the Instrument of Government, could be said to be somewhat dictatorial, written by military man John Lambert and followed up with the subsequent rule of the Major Generals. The constitution was part of Cromwell’s quest for a ‘reformation of manners’ and was designed to punish ‘immoral’ behaviour among the general population. Among other things, it aimed to reduce drunkenness and sexual promiscuity, it is debatable how strictly this rule was enforced, and its effectiveness depended on the will and zeal of the individual Major Generals in each region. Furthermore, when it became apparent that this was unpopular and evocative of military power, it was repealed in favour of a new constitution.

The Humble Petition and Advice, published in 1657, restored political moderation to the Republic. It reinstated an upper chamber, a hereditary heir for Cromwell and even offered him the crown. The jump between different regimes and constitutions, though seemingly a symptom of political instability, was instead, as Cromwell realised, the only way to restore unity. Furthermore, his refusal to be crowned showed his intent to prevent the return of royal tyranny and maintain the legacy of the civil war. Cromwell continuously proved himself able to compromise and ensure peace and prosperity in a dangerously volatile nation.

Cromwell would not, however, compromise on ‘liberty of tender consciences’, religious toleration in 17th century terms. Despite being a ‘puritan’ and being surrounded by Anglican political elites, Cromwell worked hard to liberate the new non-conforming strands of Christianity that had been growing in popularity throughout the civil war. In 1656 he used his influence to protect James Nayler, a quaker arrested for blasphemy after re-enacting Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on a horse. Contrast this with the reign of Charles II in the next decade, when the 1662 Quaker Act was passed, leading to the deaths of 500 quakers in prison; and it is evident who did more for religious liberation. On top of this, in 1657, the Jews were readmitted to England where they had not been accepted since 1290. This religious toleration was only to last as long as the English Republic and the 1660s would be characterised by a series of penal laws designed to reverse this liberation and enforce compulsory Anglicanism.

The most contentious aspect of Cromwell’s rule is of course his suppression of royalist sentiment, namely his merciless approach to Ireland. It is often argued that the callousness with which he subdued Irish opposition was unprecedented, unnecessary and characteristic of a military dictatorship. If we take the massacre at Drogheda in September 1649, famously ordered byCromwell, this seems undeniably cruel. However, in accordance with military protocol at the time, particularly following the thirty years’ war, if an army breached the defending walls, as Cromwell’s army did, then it was expected that the garrison would surrender, or lives would not be spared. The Irish refused to surrender, meaning in the context of his day, Cromwell’s actions were arguably justified.

So effective was Cromwell in suppressing royalist sentiment that by the time of his death there was little desire to return to ‘normality’. Popular support for Cromwell was so strong that from his death in September 1658 until the recall of Charles Stuart in 1660, no fewer than seven regimes were set up and failed, revealing that the 1650s had been neither miserable nor a dictatorship. Only one significant royalist uprising took place under the leadership of George Booth in 1659, it failed almost immediately and proved that the return of the monarchy seemed to have come about more as a result of a desire for stability rather than any actual hardline royalism.

Cromwell managed to tread a middle path between the growing radicalism of the 1640s and concerns for a return to normality. He maintained peace at a time when the survival of any constitution was virtually impossible. He compromised in the face of opposition and suppressed royalism justly in order to ensure political stability and the continued survival of the Republic. This alone is a hugely significant achievement to which Cromwell added through the introduction of radical religious toleration. The strength of the English Republic at the time of his death and his political achievements show that Oliver Cromwell was vital to England’s peace and ‘progress’ at that time. He was certainly no dictator.

By Alexandra Luxford