Why should we still study Cromwell today?

Historians explain why they consider studying Oliver Cromwell, and his place in history, is still relevant today, 400 years after his death.


Dr Alan Marshall is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at Bath Spa University and a specialist in the seventeenth century and, in particular, the intelligence and espionage of the time. He has written a number of books on the early modern period, including Oliver Cromwell, Soldier: The Military Life of a Revolutionary at War.

‘He is a man of the sword as well as of the tongue, and hence it is that he has climbed by such great strides’

Dr Alan Marshall

Noted the Venetian ambassador of Oliver Cromwell and most of all it is Oliver’s use of language that attracts me. There is the stern, forceful, Biblical, prose in his letters, and we can even hear, in the imagination at least, a rotund orality in his speeches, but it is the evidence of that ever-persuasive tongue that carried him upwards that inevitably leads us into continual speculations on both the man and his life. Cromwell, with his religious vision, hasty temper, military skills, pithy quotes, king-killing, and Machiavellian political nous, wins hands down for his complexity, as well perhaps for a unique ability to raise the hackles of both contemporaries and historians alike who dare to try to deduce his motives. And rightly enough I think, it might well be thought that this is in itself no small achievement: for Oliver is endlessly fascinating, and still provides us with a range of unending historical questions.”


Professor Blair Worden is Emeritus Fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford and an expert on the English Civil War. He writes on the political, religious, literary and intellectual history of England, especially of the seventeenth century, and is the author, among other books, of The Rump Parliament 1648-1653.

Professor Blair Worden

“Cromwell’s historical stature speaks for itself. An obscure figure until middle age, he rose to supremacy by destroying both sides in the civil war, first the king, then the parliament. His crack army won extraordinary victories, destroyed the ancient constitution, and conquered the three kingdoms of Britain. A minor power under the Stuarts, England was a great one during his protectorate. He has been the towering figure in national memory, adulated as hero and hated as villain. The challenge is to get behind the worship and the vilification and recover the inner man. What were the motivating forces that drove him, what the abilities that sustained him, what the limits that exposed his rule to swift destruction after his death? And, perhaps most difficult and interesting of all, what was the relationship between his political deeds and calculations and the religious beliefs he ardently professed and championed?”


Dr David Smith is a Fellow, College Lecturer and Director of Studies in History at Selwyn College, Cambridge and a specialist in the history of Parliament, the nature of monarchy and Royalism, and the career of Oliver Cromwell. He has published widely on the period, including Oliver Cromwell: Politics and Religion in the English Revolution, 1640-1658.

“Oliver Cromwell is a unique figure in British history. In a country that makes much of the continuity of its monarchy, Cromwell is the only example in our history (with the very short-lived exception of his son) of a republican head of state. He divided opinion among his contemporaries, and has continued to do so ever since. For some, he is a hero: a champion of liberty who stood up against the tyranny of Charles I. For others (especially in Ireland), he is a villain: a religious zealot and would-be dictator who brutally rode roughshod over anyone who opposed him. Some see him as idealistic and genuinely principled; others as a hypocrite and a Machiavellian power-seeker. One thing is clear: regardless of whether you love him or loathe him, it is impossible to ignore Oliver Cromwell. To me, this is the source of his unending fascination as an historical figure.”


Professor Peter Gaunt is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Chester and a leading historian of the military, political and constitutional history of mid-seventeenth century England. He has published widely on the period, including Oliver Cromwell in the British Library Historic Lives series, and is President of the The Cromwell Association.

Professor Peter Gaunt

“A figure who rose from obscurity and with no royal blood to become head of state and government is bound to fascinate and reward study. That en route he played a leading role in the overthrow of the established church and its replacement with a looser religious context, in the trial and execution of the reigning monarch and the abolition of monarchy and in the removal of the House of Lords and establishment of a republic makes him all the more attractive and intriguing in my eyes. And while many other early modern heads of state have left little personal (as opposed to official) source material for historians to use, with Cromwell, at least the Cromwell of the 1640s and 1650s, we have such rich and abundant letters and the texts of speeches that we can – or we think we can – gain real insights into Cromwell the man. But after saying all that, I confess that one of the reasons I was drawn to studying him for my doctorate was much more prosaic. While I like Cromwell the active soldier and military leader, the campaigner and religious visionary, I was and am more interested in Cromwell the politician and statesman and in his role in the reconstruction and operation of government during the 1650s. I have some Latin but it is not strong and thus I was drawn to studying Cromwell’s Protectoral regime and government in part because, due to legislation passed earlier in the 1650s, the official language of record during the Protectorate was English not Latin.”


The late Professor Barry Coward (1941-2011) was President of the Cromwell Association for ten years from 1999. He was a critical admirer of Cromwell and his name will be forever linked with his magisterial The Stuart Age: a history of England 1603-1714. This lecture was given at the launch of the Cromwell Collection in Huntingdon Library in 2002, and is an engaging insight into why Cromwell was so fascinating to Barry Coward.

Why Study Cromwell?

Professor Barry Coward

I have to thank John Goldsmith for giving me the title of this little talk: ‘Why Study Cromwell?’, although as I’ve thought about that question during the last few days and scratched my head wondering how on earth I can cram into a brief 30 minutes talk all the many reasons why Cromwell is worth studying, I can tell you that ‘thanks’ was not always the word that came to mind! I quickly came to the conclusion that I could not possibly cram them all in and so I won’t attempt to do so. What I will do is pick out some reasons that I think might make you study Oliver Cromwell; then I’ll end by telling you some reasons why I study the man.

The first of the three or four reasons that I have to put to you that might make you (in particular) study Cromwell is that, since most of you are presumably locals who live in these parts, you might be interested in studying the life of a local boy, who (of course) was born in this town and who lived in this region for most of his life. If that is the case, it occurs to me that you might be interested in studying the life of (as they say) ‘a local boy who made good’. Actually one of the reasons why this local aspect of Cromwell’s life is so fascinating is that by the time that he had ‘made good’ and had begun to climb to a position of supreme power as ruler of Britain and Ireland in the middle of the seventeenth century, he was far from being ‘a boy’. For the first 40 years of his life from his birth in this town in 1599, he only left East Anglia to visit London three times. So in 1640 when he came (as it were) onto the public national stage for the first time he was hardly a boy; he was a middle-aged man; and (what’s more) he could hardly be said to have ‘made good’. In fact, his life in Huntingdon and East Anglia between 1599 and 1640 was not a resounding success. Far from it.

The only part of Cromwell’s life that could be called successful when he lived in these parts was his family life. As far as one can see, his marriage to Elizabeth Bouchier, which produced nine children, appears to have been blissfully happy. I use the phrase ‘as far as one can see’ advisedly in the light of some recent events, but no-one has ever come up with evidence to doubt that Oliver Cromwell’s domestic life was a very happy one. Admittedly, the historical evidence of the private Cromwell is thin on the ground, but in the few letters that survive between Mr and Mrs Cromwell, husband and wife wrote to each other with great affection. ‘Thou art dearer to me than any creature, let that suffice’, Oliver wrote to his wife when he was away on a military campaign in Scotland in he early 1650s. ‘My Dearest, I could not satisfy myself to omit this post, although I have not much to write; yet indeed I love to write to my dear, who is very much in my heart’. In 1650 there is a solitary letter from Mrs Cromwell to Oliver. ‘Truly’, she wrote, ‘my life is but half a life in your absence’. And despite all the probing of his enemies (and there were many) no-one ever found evidence of marital infidelities, but only evidence of domestic contentment.

But other aspects of the Cromwells’ life when they lived in these parts were not quite as happy. When he lived in Huntingdon he was hardly well-off, just about maintaining a position as a minor gentleman, and in 1630 he lost out in a struggle for power in this town, and in the following year he decided to sell the majority of his property here and to decamp to St Ives, where he became a tenant farmer, suffering a very definite demotion out of the gentry class. Significantly, during the early 1630s, the steady flow of Cromwell babies stopped, perhaps a sign of the prolonged crisis his economic and public life was undergoing. Although in 1636 things picked up, when Oliver received a bequest of property from his maternal uncle, including a comfortable house in Ely, where he moved to and where life did get better so that Cromwell could call himself legitimately a gentleman again, his position in gentry society was very precarious. Also, although, probably because of his distant family relationship with more powerful people, he got elected as MP for Cambridge in the two parliamentary elections of 1640, at that time he was a political lightweight. At the point when he left East Anglia for London in 1640 he was a man only on the fringes of the gentry class, with a record of economic troubles behind him, and hardly any political experience. With hindsight it’s possible to see him now about to be launched on a journey that would take him to fame and fortune, first as an opponent of King Charles I in the English Civil War when it began in 1642 and ending up as the ruler of Britain and Ireland. But it’s only hindsight that allows us to see that. What makes the local story of Oliver Cromwell so worthy of study, then, is that there is so little that we know of him when he lived in these parts that marked him out as someone who was going to make a big splash on the public life of Britain and Ireland.

A second reason why Cromwell is worth studying that might appeal to you is that you might be interested in the military side of his career after 1640. There are, I think, at least two aspects of his military career that make it worth studying. One is simply the remarkable fact that he became a successful soldier at all. That he became one of the greatest generals of the Civil War is not in doubt. Very quickly after the start of the war in 1642 he established himself as a brilliant cavalry commander, first in this part of the world as a kind of minor ‘warlord’, galvanising weak-kneed East Anglians to defend themselves against the royalist forces of the earl of Newcastle, then leaping to national fame as second-in-command to the earl of Manchester in the army of the parliamentary Eastern Association that was raised in these parts, then as cavalry commander of the parliamentary New Model Army formed in 1645, and then later as the commander-in-chief of successful English expeditionary forces in Ireland and Scotland between 1649 and 1651. His contribution to some royalist defeats on the battlefield were extraordinary. Marston Moor, July 1644, and Dunbar, September 1650, are just two examples of battles won (in part at least) by Cromwell’s military genius. But what is remarkable about Cromwell’s success as a soldier is that he had had no military experience whatsoever before 1642. Unlike some other Englishmen he had not fought in the contemporary Thirty Years’ War in Europe, which raises the mouth-watering question: how did he do it?

That’s one aspect of his military career that makes it well worth studying. Another is the way that his military career (general Eisenhower-like) launched him into a very successful career in the world of politics. Before the war he was politically insignificant, and in what political experiences he had had (like those in the local politics of this town) he’d been a loser. Remarkably, during the Civil War of the 1640s he seems to have acquired major political skills, and even very early in the war in 1643-44 it’s significant that the royalist press and news-writers thought he was of sufficient political importance to single him out for satirical comment, poking fun at his low-born origins, using the legend that Cromwell’s family were common brewers of ale, which they symbolised by depicting Cromwell with a huge red nose. Like Steve Bell’s depiction of John Major as a man who wore his underpants over his trousers, the image bore no relation to reality, but it took on a life of its own, so that, for example in a royalist play published in 1648, called A Case for Nol Cromwells Nose, the action begins with a crier looking for the dead bodies of Cromwell and Fairfax, and yelling out to others that Cromwell will easily be identifiable by ‘his refulgent copper nose, which he ever kept well burnisht, that so he might not be constrained to trouble the devil to light him, or grope out his way to hell’. Biting, cutting satire like this reflects that the royalists feared him as a significant political opponent. By the later 1640s Cromwell had become a major political figure, about to play an even bigger role in executing the king in 1649 and then in 1653 becoming Lord Protector of Britain and Ireland, which raises the fascinating question that is relevant to other countries and other times (whether in mid-20th- century America or late 20th-century Pakistan): how and how does military success open up doors to a career of major political influence?

And that is (I hope) a neat link to a third reason for studying Cromwell that might appeal to you, because his successful political career brings forward some more riveting questions of wide interest. Cromwell’s rise is, by itself, a remarkable story, of course. It’s the story of a backwoods, politically-inexperienced man, who when he came to parliament in 1640 seems to have had the political guile of Dennis Skinner i.e. none. But it’s also the story of a man who quickly learned political skills that enabled him to see off political opponents (and not only those on the royalist side, but those on his own side as well), skills that were necessary for him to climb up to the top of the greasy pole of political power. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that by the mid 1640s Cromwell had become a master of the art of political guile and subtlety, that he had undergone (shall we say) the transformation from a Dennis Skinner to a Harold Wilson or a Peter Mandelson. If you’re in any doubt about this, just look at the way in the winter of 1644-45 he (and his political allies at Westminster) used smear tactics to end the military career of the earl of Manchester (Cromwell’s one-time comrade with whom he had now fallen out). Often in his public speeches Cromwell portrayed himself as a political innocent, wet behind the ears, who had somehow or other risen to the top of the political world. ‘I would have been glad [he once said] to have been living under a wood-side, to have kept a flock of sheep, rather than to have undertaken such a place as this was’. I’m sceptical of this image that he created of himself. I think that at times Cromwell worked very hard to get his hands on the reins -the control levers- of power.

But (and this is one of the many reasons why Cromwell the politician is so interesting) Cromwell combined the political guile and political ambition of a Peter Mandelson with the pursuit of high ideals. I’ll mention some of these ideals in a minute, but the point I’m making now is that Cromwell’s political career is a role model for politicians in that it shows that the pursuit of high ideals is not incompatible with low political wheeling and dealing. Historians often make the mistake of dividing politicians into either visionary idealists or self-seeking unscrupulous men. This is a false dichotomy as Cromwell’s career shows. Cromwell was both; he was not averse to using ‘low’ political tactics to gain power for himself, but he did so, not solely to gain power for its own sake, but to do something with it.

Well what did he want to do with power once he got hold of it? This raises two more interesting aspects of Cromwell the politician: interesting because they are two aspects that can nowadays appeal to people of very different political persuasions. On the one hand, there is much about what Cromwell said and did to make him attractive to those of you whose political preferences lie on the authoritarian, reactionary side of politics. On three occasions, for example, in 1653, 1655 and 1658 he dissolved/expelled parliaments angrily, and on the first of these occasions (on 20 April 1653) he did it by using a display of naked military force, taking a file of musketeers into the chamber of the House of Commons before sending MPs packing. For a time in 1655-56 he imposed military rule on the country by dividing it into regions each ruled by a Major-General, and during this period he was not always careful to follow the rule of law. In 1655 George Cony, a London merchant who refused to pay customs duties on the currants he imported on the grounds that they had not been authorised by parliament, was thrown into gaol along with his lawyers. In a Protectorate proclamation in October 1655, Cromwell declared that ‘the Supreme Magistrate’ should not be ‘tied up to the ordinary rules’, and in September 1656 he made a speech justifying extra-legal action by saying that ‘if nothing should be done but what is according to law, the throat of a nation may be cut, till we send for some to make a law’. For those of you who have an authoritarian streak in your make-up, Cromwell is very well worth studying.

But (and this is what is so fascinating about the man) there are also aspects of Cromwell’s aspirations that those who have more radically-inclined, liberal political views can also find very appealing. Ironically, the expeller of parliaments, on other occasions appears as the champion of parliamentary liberties. When he told the first parliament he met as Protector in September 1654, ‘a free parliament … is that which I have desired all my life, I shall desire to keep it so above my life’, he was restating a principle that was not an empty one, since he fought for it (and put his family as well as himself at great risk for it) for many years after 1642. And when he became Protector in December 1653 the Protectorate constitution, the Instrument of Government, made provisions for the calling of regular parliaments even if the Protector and Council failed to do so.

Moreover, there is a lot in Cromwell’s professed religious ideal, as well as in his constitutional ideals, to appeal to those in the 21st century who have radical, liberal inclinations. Of course, Cromwell’s vision of ‘religious tolerance’ is very different from the vision of religious tolerance espoused by modern liberals. It had very definite limits (excluding Catholics of course), but his vision allowed a greater degree of religious tolerance for different religious views (including Jews) than many of his contemporaries. ‘If men will profess…in the name of God encourage them…to make use of the liberty given to them to enjoy their own consciences’, he told the second Protectorate Parliament in 1656. Earlier during his military campaign against the Scottish Presbyterians who controlled Scotland in 1650, he had bombarded them with paper declarations arguing in favour of greater religious liberty. ‘Are we to be dealt with as enemies, because we come not to your way?’, he wrote to the Scots in 1650. ‘Is religion wrapped up in that or any one form?’. ‘I beseech you (he wrote to them on another occasion), in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken [in having a monopoly of religious truth]’.

And there’s also something else that those with modern liberal views might find attractive in Cromwell’s political vision, and this is his repeated emphasis on social justice, his aspiration that society should operate fairly. Perhaps the most clear, ringing declaration of that liberal aspect of Cromwell’s political philosophy is this passage from a letter he wrote to the Speaker of the Commons on the day after his miraculous victory over the Scots at Dunbar in September 1650. Follow up military victory with radical reform was his message to MPs. ‘Relieve the oppressed, hear the groans of poor prisoners in England; be pleased to reform the abuses of all professions; and [and this is a truly remarkable radical statement] if there be anyone that makes many poor to make a few rich that suits not a Commonwealth’.

Whatever your political persuasion, there is something in Cromwell’s life for you, which is one reason (I suspect) that people vote in droves in modern polls for Cromwell as ‘the Man of the Millennium’ or (most recently) ‘a Great Briton’.

All these, then are valid reasons why you might find Cromwell worth studying. His career illustrates a lot about the history of this locality, about the connections between war and politics and about the nature of politics and politicians that are not just relevant to the seventeenth century. And to that list I might also add the power of religious ideology in politics that is in some parts of the world (whether in northern Ireland or in the Islamic world) is still as strong nowadays as was in the days of Cromwellian Britain. And I study Cromwell because I’m interested in all those things and the fascinating questions that arise out of them. But there are also two other aspects of Cromwell’s life and its consequences that bind me to the study of Cromwell even more securely than any of the things I’ve mentioned so far. Could I spend my last few minutes telling you what are these two aspects of Oliver Cromwell. These are two aspects that encapsulate two central historical questions that push history (as it should be pushed) beyond mere story-telling into the fascinating and debatable area of historical analysis.

The first of these two aspects is an historical puzzle that can be put very simply: how can historians reconcile the contrasting aspects of Cromwell’s life and his aspirations and put them into the head of one man? How can one reconcile Cromwell the upholder of parliamentary liberties with the man who used soldiers to expel parliaments? How can one reconcile Cromwell the campaigner for religious toleration with the man who stood by (and in at least one case at Drogheda in Ireland in 1649 encouraged) his troops to massacre Catholics? How can one reconcile the Cromwell who had a major role in executing Charles I in 1649, which was followed by the abolition of monarchy itself, with the Cromwell who in 1657 seems to have seriously considered restoring monarchy in the person of King Oliver I? ‘Can these inconsistencies be reconciled, and, if so, how?’ is the first of these two major questions that for me make the study of Cromwell and his life a source of unending interest.

I hope that you would not expect me now (given the constraints of time) to give you an adequate answer to that major conundrum. If I had more time, I’d attempt to do it by focusing on Cromwell’s religious mentality, his zeal to bring about in Britain and Ireland a godly, cultural revolution. What he had in mind was not a reformation of the political and social order, because Cromwell was in many ways a social and political conservative who wanted to restore social and political normality after the trauma of the past decade. The reformation he wanted to bring about was a reformation in the way people thought and lived their lives. He wanted to purge sin from society and people’s lives, which is a very radical aspiration as well as one very difficult to accomplish (as I hope you’ll agree). I think that this is an aspiration he probably formed when he lived in this part of the world in the 1630s when the economic and political crisis he faced then was probably accompanied by a crisis of conscience, a spiritual crisis. He came to believe that his own and the nation’s prosperity and well-being in the future would not come about unless that godly reformation was effected. Since, I’ve been trying in this little talk to let Cromwell speak for himself whenever possible, here’s how he put that point to MPs in parliament in September 1656: ‘I am confident [he said] that the liberty and prosperity of this nation depends upon reformation … make it shame to see men to be bold in sin and profaness and God will bless you’. I think that for Cromwell that was the bottom line. If he felt that his actions would lead to the loss of God’s blessing, he abandoned them and took actions that he thought would regain and keep God’s blessing, and this explains what he did in 1649 and 1657. In 1649 he came to believe that making a settlement with Charles I would make God angry and that God required the execution of Charles, the sinner, the Man of Blood. In 1657 he eventually came to believe that becoming King Oliver I would be flying in the face of God’s judgement, and so he turned down parliament’s offer of the crown and continued republican rule in Britain and Ireland. That’s just a hint of how I begin to resolve that first major puzzle of Cromwell’s life, but you can read a fuller explanation of it in what I’ve written in my Oliver Cromwell (Longman, 1991) and in my more recent book, The Cromwellian Protectorate (Manchester University Press, 2002)

Which leaves another (my last) reason why I study Cromwell. And this is importance of the question of what impact the meteoric rise to power and influence of this minor East Anglian farmer had on the future development of Britain, Ireland and the world. Again, clearly I have not got time to address that question, merely to raise it. But I hope I’ve got time to squeeze in a central point about the way that question should be answered. Cromwell and his times must be studied if you want to understand modern Britain and Ireland. This minor figure from East Anglia decisively shaped the country after his death. But my point is that what this Cromwellian imprint was is not clear-cut. What it was is open for debate. My view is that far too much about the development of Britain and Ireland after his death can be credited to, or blamed on, Cromwell’s influence. The Cromwellian period was not the turning point after which parliamentary constitutional monarchy triumphed in England/Britain. The monarchy that was restored in 1660 was very strong and was strengthened by the fact that many potential opponents of the crown were very loathe to push that opposition lest it lead to another replay of Civil War and a threat to turn the world upside down; lest it lead to the emergence in Britain of another Cromwell. Nor was the Cromwellian period the turning point that the country set on a ‘modern’ path towards religious toleration and the triumph of the Age of Reason. The Church of England that was restored in 1660 was very intolerant one and the English parliament in and after 1661 erected a system of religious/political apartheid that deprived non-Anglicans of political rights.
The impact that Cromwell had on the future is not clear-cut. But, make no mistake about it, Britain and Ireland (and perhaps also the wider world) was different as a result of Oliver Cromwell.

For what it’s worth my discussion list of what Cromwell at least helped to change would include four major things. One is the completion of the Protestant Ascendancy of Ireland i.e. the ascendancy in the hands of Protestants of much of the land and power in Ireland that lasted until the 1920s in the south of Ireland and much longer in the north. The second is the emergence of England (from 1707 Britain) as a major international power for the first time, which was achieved in part by the Cromwellian precedents of union with Scotland, the creation in the 1650s of a major world-class navy and the financial and administrative systems that enabled England/Britain to become a powerful ‘fiscal/military state’ that put the country among the top Super Powers of the world from the later 17th century right through to about 1956. The third Cromwellian imprint was on the country’s political culture, which became increasingly characterised by wider popular involvement in political debates and a greater degree of ideological divisiveness, some of the origins of which (at least) are to be found in the Cromwellian period.

And lastly the most important Cromwellian imprint of the future of all in my view is the creation of the Church versus Chapel divide that has been such a prominent feature of the politics and society (as well as the religious life) of this country from the later 17th century right through to the present day. Cromwellian ‘tolerance’, limited though it was, led to the splintering of English Protestantism into shattered pieces, Presbyterians, Independents, Baptists, Congregationalists and so on and, like Humpty Dumpty, they could never be put together again after 1660. I think that Oliver Cromwell is probably spinning in his grave (wherever that is, because that’s another Cromwellian puzzle!) as he contemplates what happened after his death, because this splintering of Protestant unity is the last thing he wanted to happen. He wanted to restore Protestant unity not destroy it. But, despite what he wanted, what he did helped to open up a fundamental fracture in the polity and society of this country between Anglicans and Nonconformists -between Church and Chapel- a divide that is fundamental to our understanding of the history of modern Britain.

And that is perhaps a pointer to the last reason that I’ll give you to persuade you to study Cromwell, which is that Cromwell’s life provides a lesson, a moral, which is that, hard though people might work to influence affairs while they live, the consequences of their actions are often very different from the ones they intend.

(The above lecture was given by Dr. Barry Coward, President of the Cromwell Association, at Huntingdon Library on 25 October 2002 at the launch of the Library’s Cromwell Collection.)