Work by students

The Reluctant Dictator
by Sarah Horton, Staffordshire University Academy

A.J.P Taylor describes Cromwell as a ‘reluctant dictator.’ How far do you agree with this portrayal of Cromwell’s leadership?


Taylor’s view is that Cromwell was a dictator but only because of circumstances that necessitated his control rather than because of a long-standing lust for power. While it is difficult to deny that Cromwell committed many acts – dissolution of parliaments, rule by ordinance, the Irish conquest and taking the limitless role of Lord Protector – that could portray him as a dictator, it is perhaps more accurate to refer to him as a relatively authoritarian ruler, rather than an out and out tyrant, because as D.L Smith states, he would have had ‘no means to be totalitarian in the modern sense.’ Assessing the extent of Cromwell’s reluctance as this authoritarian, however, is a more difficult task. His reluctance in committing regicide, shown in his various attempts to secure Charles’s abdication, suggests he was a reluctant ruler, let alone dictator, and would preferred to have been led by a monarch, as long as that monarch was not Charles. However, his actions upon taking power are contradictory. He was an initially a reluctant “king-killer” and took the position of Protector out of necessity following an unsuccessful Commonwealth period. It could also be said that Cromwell firmly believed that God had shown him favour; he interpreted all his successes as providence and so took the role of Protector out of the belief that he was the best person to further a godly reformation. However, upon becoming leader, he began taking actions based on personal beliefs, which projected if not a dictatorial regime, then at least a severely authoritative one. Ultimately, therefore, while Cromwell initially took leadership out of reluctance, it is important to emphasise that this reluctance possibly became corrupted by power and, in his later years, he began to enjoy and exploit his power, implementing his personal beliefs upon the nation from pleasure rather than necessity.

His actions in Ireland are perhaps the strongest proof of Cromwell’s willing authoritarianism. While it is fair to suggest that his mercilessness is sometimes exaggerated to the point of implausibility, it is difficult to deny that, with little provocation or justification, he took an active lead in the massacring of many Irish citizens in order to further the enforcement of his control over the multiple kingdoms. Here, Cromwell shows a desire to establish unquestionable control across the nation that suggests very little reluctance. If anything, he uses his position of power to commit terrible destruction in order to extend and legitimise that power.

Furthermore, his Major-Generals experiment, in which the country was divided into twelve regions overseen by the army, highlights an aim to control England under a military dictatorship. It began with Cromwell’s Instruction to the Generals, which stated that they should ‘enforce the laws against drunkenness, blaspheming…[and] plays’. While for a religious zealot, these rules seem fairly lenient, to enforce them upon regions where leisure pursuits, such as gambling and the theatre, were essential releases from demanding work, suggests little interest in the consensus and well-being of the nation. Furthermore, Cromwell’s reliance on military men as the main law-enforcers – he also uses them to close down the Rump Parliament – indicates a dictatorship of sorts, as many ordinary people would have opposed military views, something evidenced in the opposition from local elites – though this could have been bitterness at losing their statuses. Cromwell ultimately ruled for the good of himself and a few others, rather than for the country. Furthermore, the forbidding tone of the Instructions suggest very little reluctance and is evidence for how Cromwell willingly utilized his position of power, in an intimidating manner, to extend and enforce his religious beliefs across the nation.

Furthermore, Cromwell is still recognised as having been a dominant figure in the more dubious, authoritarian aspects of rule, despite distancing himself from them at the time. For example, it has been believed that Cromwell guided the hands of particularly reluctant regicides – though there is little proof for this – in signing Charles’s death warrant. There are also suggestions that Cromwell played a greater hand in Charles’s arrest, which was officially discharged by Captain George Joyce, than he admitted. Evidence for this is presented in Robert Ward’s 1649 source, in which he mentions a deep rift between Cromwell and Joyce. There is also an exclusion of 12 members from Parliament in 1654 that Cromwell distances himself from and an incident in the same year in which Cromwell supposedly forced members of parliament to contractually agree that his four fundamentals remain in the Instrument of Government. These active participations in controlling governmental decisions illustrate a determination to ensure his personal choices were implemented, regardless of the majority opinion.

Finally, Cromwell’s dissolution of both the Rump and First Protectorate Parliament demonstrate a strong desire to eradicate anything that could obstruct his control. While it could be argued that his dissolution of the Rump was for noble reasons, namely the fact that they refused election and rejected change, it indicates elements of a dictatorship. He believed the Rump were not the right people to have a say in the country, which raises the question as to how Cromwell had the right to decide who should have a say. This promotes an undemocratic ideology and vanity that equals, if not outstrips, that of Charles I. Similarly, Cromwell had a ‘messianic confidence,’ as Starkey puts it, in his belief that God’s providences had given him the right to act on the country’s behalf. Similarly, Cromwell dissolved parliament when he did not get his way. In fact, it appears as if Cromwell overstepped the boundaries of the constitution even more than Charles did, as now there was a written constitution – The Instrument of Government – to overstep. This dissolution of parliament – and, later his decision to remain Lord Protector, a role that gave him greater power than King – suggests Cromwell was willingly tyrannical and sought, above all else, to achieve his own ends.

However, here it is perhaps important to note that Cromwell attempted on several counts to work with parliament – he even established the Barebones himself. While Cromwell personally selected Barebones members based on shared religious zeal, they did not share every political opinion, suggesting Cromwell had no problem co-operating with representative parliaments for the good of the country. Smith also suggests that he ‘warmly welcomed each new parliament during the 1650s, hoping that it would bring England nearer to the ‘promised land.’ If this is to be believed, there is a clear argument that Cromwell only dissolved parliaments out of reluctant necessity, rather than from a desire to further his power. This is evidenced in the length of time he let the Rump – a distinctly incompetent self-perpetuating parliament – run before he dissolved them. This implies that Cromwell was less a willing dictator and more one who both worked with – and dissolved – parliament purely for the good of the nation.

Cromwell’s refusal to be King also highlights his disinclination to autocracy. The fact that he takes two months to agonise over his decision rather than seizing it instantly, suggests that he was not overly keen on extending his power as a dictator. Whilst Smith states that the military’s opposition to Cromwell as King was a major factor in his refusal of the offer, it could also be argued that, while his opposition had been solely to Charles rather than the monarchy, he was aware of how hypocritical a regicide taking the crown would seem and perhaps only considered it in the first place out of a desire to legitimise his leadership to the people. The fact that he appears to listen to others’ opinions, perhaps even gauging the consensus of the nation, suggests he was not wholly driven by his own desires. His refusal to take this hereditary position of power implies he may never have intended to be a dictator and was wary of taking a title that would officially mark him as one or afford him the power of one. Therefore, if he was a tyrant, he was certainly reluctant to acknowledge it.

Here, it is important to assess what seems to have been Cromwell’s strongest driving force: his religious zeal. Throughout his rule he often only appears to act upon what he believes are God’s signals, which translate into a desire to do God’s bidding. His approval of regicide stems from his belief that God opposed Charles by twice ensuring his defeat; his dissolution of the Rump in favour of an Assembly of Saints was to further God’s word; his seizing of leadership upon Charles’ absence was because he thought he could best ensure God’s aims were fulfilled. Ultimately, it can be argued Cromwell did hold devout religious principles – his actions in promoting and enforcing religious tolerance are evidence for this – and that the only reason he committed regicide was because he believed Charles was a King ‘against whom the Lord had witnessed.’ There is evidence, particularly in his negotiations for abdication over execution, that Cromwell was a ‘reluctant regicide’, a term coined by John Morrill. It is suggested that only God’s providences proved strong enough to inspire Cromwell to action, which implies that while Cromwell was always initially reluctant and ideologically opposed to being a dictator, he excused his own authoritarian actions as being the will of god.

An interesting addition to this former point is the fact that Cromwell appears to have opposed dictatorships at every turn. He led the trial and execution of Charles I, who he saw as a dictator and, as Taylor puts it ‘disliked almost as much the dictatorship of the Rump.’ It appears unlikely that a man who had so defiantly resisted tyrants throughout his political career should ultimately, willingly become one. The fact that Cromwell appears to possess ideology starkly opposed to dictators – he promotes democratic co-operation in his rhetoric – suggests that his progression if not to a dictator, then at least to an authoritarian, was one of extreme reluctance, unawareness even. It may have been that he became so entangled in stabilising the nation after the execution of the king, possibly something for which he felt responsible, that he became blinkered to the fact that he had begun to act solely on personal beliefs and was, effectively, becoming the type of leader he had so opposed. The fact that he had initially started out with such optimistic ideals of uniting the crown and parliament once again in ‘mutual trust’ suggests he had no intentions of becoming a dictator and perhaps not only reluctantly accepted the role but didn’t even realise he had accepted it.

Overall, the evidence suggests that there were extremely authoritarian, if not quite dictatorial, elements to Cromwell’s rule. There are times when he enacts his early principles, by refusing to be King, but the evidence implies that he later became corrupted by power, losing sight of his initial ideals to ultimately wield, as Smith comments, ‘the most extensive power ever possessed by an English ruler.’ While much of his hesitations appear to have been eradicated by his devotion to God and his signals, it has been suggested by historians, including Taylor, that Cromwell was too keen to find personally favourable signs within God’s providence and, though his religious beliefs appear genuine, he was carried away by his spirituality and ultimately began to utilise God’s signals to justify his power and the enforcement of his personal beliefs. Therefore, while he was initially reluctant to take power – and there are elements throughout his rule that reiterate this reluctance – he soon extended his power to lengths that suggest little hesitation and little prompting from anyone but God, who he perhaps unwittingly used as a motive for his actions. Cromwell ultimately, perhaps unknowingly, became a very active and wilful authoritarian.