Oliver Cromwell was an English military and political leader who overthrew the English monarchy and temporarily turned England into a Republican Commonwealth and served as Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland; Cromwell's life and character has several different elements, each of which merits perusal; the key themes are Cromwell the Soldier, for it was his military prowess that propelled his extraordinary rise to power; Cromwell the Politician as his skilful manoeuvring maintained his position, and Cromwell the Devout as it is religion which arguably was the motivation that drove him from the 1630's onwards.
Cromwell's early Life:
Oliver Cromwell was born, on the 25th April 1599, into a family which for a time was one of the wealthiest and most influential in the Huntingdon area; he was educated at Huntingdon grammar school, which is now the Cromwell Museum, and then at Cambridge University.
Cromwell's inheritances from his father, who died in 1617, and later from a maternal uncle were not great, his income was modest and he had to support an expanding family, widowed mother, wife and eight children; he became a minor East Anglian landowner and made a living by farming and collecting rents, first in his native Huntingdon, and then from 1631 in St Ives and from 1636 in Ely.
He ranked near the bottom of the landed elite, the landowning class often labelled 'The Gentry' which dominated the social and political life of the county; until 1640 he only played a small role in local administration and no significant role in national politics and remained relatively obscure for the first 40 years of his life; it was the civil wars of the 1640s which finally lifted Cromwell from obscurity to power.
Cromwell the Soldier:
From the outbreak of Civil War in summer 1642, Cromwell was an active and committed officer in the parliamentary army; he was initially a captain in charge of a small body of mounted troops, but in 1643 he was promoted to colonel and given command of his own cavalry regiment.
He was successful in a series of sieges and small battles which helped to secure East Anglia and the East Midlands against the royalists; at the end of the year he was appointed second in command of the Eastern Association army, parliament's largest and most effective regional army, with the rank of lieutenant general; during 1644 he contributed to the victory at Marston Moor, which helped secure the north for parliament, and also campaigned with mixed results in the south Midlands and Home Counties.
In 1645 to 1646, as the second in command of the newly formed main parliamentary army, the New Model Army, Cromwell played a major role in parliament's victory in the Midlands, sealed by the battle of Naseby in June 1645, and in the south and south west; when civil war flared up again in 1648 he commanded a large part of the New Model Army which first crushed rebellion in South Wales and then at Preston defeated an invading Scottish Royalist army.
After the trial and execution of the King, Cromwell led major military campaigns to establish English control over Ireland from 1649 to 1650 and then over Scotland from 1650 to 1651, culminating in the defeat of another invading Scottish Royalist army at Worcester in September 1651; in the summer of 1650, before embarking for Scotland, Cromwell was appointed lord general, commander in chief, of all the parliamentary forces.
This was a remarkable achievement for a man who had no military experience before 1642 and he consistently attributed his military success to God's will; historians point to his personal courage and skill, to his care in training and equipping of his men and to the tight discipline he imposed both on and off the battlefield.
Cromwell the Politician:
Cromwell's military standing gave him enhanced political power, just as his military victories gave him the confidence and motivation to intervene in and to shape political events; he started out as an obscure and inexperienced MP for Cambridge in 1640, but by the late 1640s he was one of the power brokers in parliament and he played a decisive role in the 'revolution' of winter 1648 to 1649 which saw the trial and execution of the King and the abolition of monarchy and the House of Lords; as head of the army, he intervened several times to support or remove the Republican regimes of the early 1650s.
Eventually, in December 1653, he became head of state as Lord Protector, although he held that office under a written constitution which ensured that he would share political power with parliaments and a council; as Lord Protector for almost five years, until his death on the 3rd September 1658, Cromwell was able to mould policies and to fulfill some of his goals.
He headed a tolerant, inclusive and largely civilian regime, which sought to restore order and stability at home and thus to win over much of the traditional political and social elite; abroad, the army and navy were employed to promote England's interests in an expansive and largely successful foreign policy.
Cromwell the Devout:
Cromwell life and actions had a radical edge springing from his strong religious faith; a conversion experience some time before the civil war, strengthened by his belief that during the war he and his troops had been chosen by God to perform his will, gave a religious tinge to many of his political policies as Lord Protector in the 1650s.
Cromwell sought 'Godly Reformation', a
broad programme involving reform of the most inhumane elements of the
legal, judicial and social systems and clamped down on drunkenness,
immorality and other sinful activities; he also believed passionately
in what he called 'liberty of conscience', that is freedom for a range
of Protestant groups and faiths to practise their beliefs undisturbed
and without disturbing others; several times he referred to this religious
liberty as the principal achievement of the wars, to be strengthened
and cherished now that peace had returned; others, however, viewed these
religious policies as futile, unnecessarily divisive or a breeding ground