‘A brave bad man’: how far do you agree with Edward Hyde’s assessment of Oliver Cromwell?

by Jerome Gasson, Runner–up in the 2017 Cromwell Association essay prize competition.

In some ways, it is rather unhelpful trying to assess Cromwell as ‘brave’ and ‘bad’. Whether Cromwell was good or bad is just as much a moral question as a historical one. It is also difficult to critique Cromwell’s bravery, as he did not shy away from the action in a political or military sense. However, it is possible to evaluate Hyde’s assessment of Cromwell in other respects. Taking the History of the Rebellion as a whole, by ‘brave’ and ‘bad’ Hyde seems to be characterising Cromwell as a ‘great man’ – an able schemer who managed to bend the will of the three (former) kingdoms to suit his political ends: ‘to reduce three nations, which perfectly hated him, to an entire obedience … was an instance of a very prodigious address’.1

This is an active area of debate. On the one hand, there are various events throughout the 1640s and 50s that might suggest that Cromwell was plotting for political dominance, and the focus on the Protector as a dictator figure by some historians suggests that he was in control of events.2 On the other hand, it is possible to see Cromwell as an unambitious innocent – ‘no man rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going’3 – and Cromwell’s inconsistencies in the 1650s can be explained by his lack of control over even the central government. This essay will critique Hyde’s assessment of Cromwell as a ‘great man’ in command of events through three key episodes in Cromwell’s life – his rise from obscurity, the execution of Charles I and the Protectorate. By evaluating Cromwell’s motivations and role in these events, this essay will attempt to show that while Cromwell certainly exhibited ‘bravery’ on the battlefield, Hyde’s assessment of Cromwell is largely unjustified.

The circumstances of Cromwell’s rise to prominence are good evidence that Cromwell was not greedy for power from the start. In the History of the Rebellion, Hyde argued that his rise from obscurity must have involved deceit: ‘from a private and obscure birth … [he] raise[d] himself to such a height … no man brought to pass what he desired more wickedly’.4 The Royalist exile James Heath wrote that ‘ ’Twas at the time of his Adolescency that he dreamed … that he should be king of England’5, but this is clearly just a slander to blacken Cromwell’s name and there is no evidence that he had higher aspirations until the Self-Denying Ordinance, which made all MPs and Lords renounce their command in the army. However, Cromwell was later granted an exemption. Historians such as Richard Wilkinson cite this as proof that Cromwell ‘behaved deviously’ because he ‘undermined Manchester, his C-in-C’.6 The result of the ordinance was extremely advantageous to him, as he became the only man in both the army command and Parliament and it removed his superiors the earls of Essex and Manchester.

However, it appears that the Self-Denying Ordinance was primarily for self-defence rather than political advancement. He was under attack from the Earl of Manchester due to his own negligence at the Battle of Newbury, so the Ordinance appears to be a sacrifice that Cromwell was prepared to take to bury the quarrel and preserve his political career.7 In any case the resignations of Essex and Manchester were not just from Cromwell’s actions, because they were unwilling to serve under the non-aristocratic Sir Thomas Fairfax in the ‘New Model Army’ that was created at the same time.

So Cromwell was prepared to take risks, but this is far from plotting his own rise to power. In addition, previous military success was not purely down to personal ‘bravery’ or ‘badness’. Cromwell’s victories in the First Civil War were mostly against numerically inferior opposition. The famous discipline of the ‘ironsides’ cavalry unit that he commanded from 1642 was just as much down to Cromwell’s leadership as the religious fervour of the troops.8 In addition, although personal charisma was important in Cromwell’s election for the Long Parliament, we should not forget the fact that his followers were very important in making him eligible to stand in the first place by petitioning to get him created a freeman of Cambridge.9

Cromwell’s most wicked act in Hyde’s eyes appears to be in signing Charles I’s death warrant. But the idea that he was a ‘bad’ man trying to engineer Charles’s downfall is wrong. The circumstances of the negotiations do seem to point to some sort of conspiracy – for example Cornet Joyce’s kidnap of the king from Holmby house just five days after a meeting with Cromwell. This backs up Graham Goodlad’s point that it is ‘hard to dismiss allegations that he was a calculating politician‘.10 But at the same time it is difficult to see how Cromwell was directing events. Austin Woolrych is correct to argue that ‘it is surely inconceivable that Cromwell should on his own initiative have ordered an operation which involved the army so deeply… without informing its commander-in-chief [Fairfax]’.11 Cromwell did not necessarily gain from the abduction, and much to lose: Fairfax was so incensed that he was not told of the affair that he immediately court-martialled Joyce.

Another episode that made contemporaries suspicious of Cromwell’s motives was Charles’s escape to the Isle of Wight, where it appears that Cromwell might have frightened Charles into escaping captivity, thus relieving him of continuing unpopular negotiations with Charles (the Heads of the Proposals were seen as too lenient by the rank and file). Hence, Andrew Marvell’s Horatian Ode (1650), which praises Cromwell but also notes his trickery:

… twining subtle fears with hope
He wove a net of such a scope
That Charles himself might chase
To Carisbrook’s narrow case
That thence the royal actor borne
The tragic scaffold might adorn.12

But the sequence of events leading to Charles’s execution was not as smooth as Marvell makes out. The flight to the Isle of Wight was in November 1647, over a year before Charles’s execution, and negotiations with Charles still seemed viable (the treaty of Newport). Moreover, Charles’s execution was largely due to his own political stupidity and this forced Cromwell to be a regicide.13 He refused to admit defeat in the civil wars, meaning that he tried to use military force to regain control (the Engagement) rather than taking negotiations seriously.

So Cromwell was ‘brave’ in taking the unprecedented step of signing a monarch’s death warrant, but he was not necessarily the one forcing through Charles’s execution. He was only one of 53 regicides and in 1648 he lingered for much longer than was necessary in Pontefract (‘we of the Northern Army are of a waiting posture’14) such that he conveniently arrived in London five hours after Pride’s controversial purge. Charles’s execution was ‘cruel necessity’,15 rather than wicked deed that Cromwell had been plotting from the start.16

When Cromwell was Protector, although it appears that Cromwell was the ‘brave’ man in charge of events, he was very much acting in response to powerful pressures from below. Henry Brailsford argued that the years 1653-8 were ‘a totalitarian dictatorship’ and ‘an efficient police state’.17 But the military aspect to Cromwell’s rule (especially pronounced in the years 1655-7 with the rule of the Major-Generals) did not make the Protectorate a dictatorship; rather it was an increased military influence in government. It is true that Cromwell did send out personal instructions to the Major-Generals which did amount to intrusive government – for example to suppress ‘horse-races, cock-fighting, bear-baiting, stage plays or any such unlawful assemblies’18 – but in reality, he was never totally in control. In one of his speeches Cromwell complains that the army has been too influential in policy making:

‘They had made him their drudge, upon all occasions … you thought it was necessary to have Major-Generals … who bid you go to the house and there receive a foil?’19

It is true that in this speech Cromwell was rhetorically trying to assert his independence by attributing all the failure of the republican regimes to the army, but the point remains that Cromwell thought that the army was wielding undue political influence, and this was a plausible reason behind many of his actions.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that the army was the only body exercising influence on Cromwell’s policies. Woolrych is right to point out Cromwell’s ‘instinctive constitutionalism’. Cromwell was definitely a leader but we should not forget that the Protector’s power was limited by the Constitution so. For example Cromwell allowed himself to be overruled by the council in the matter of excluding members from the second Protectorate Parliament.20

In this essay, I have tried to argue that Cromwell was not the ‘brave bad man’ as described in Hyde’s History of the Rebellion. This does not mean that Cromwell was a weak man with third-rate talents. He did show that he was an exceptional military commander through his victories in Scotland and Ireland, and he managed to stay in power in the 1650s because he genuinely gained the respect of army and civilian bigwigs. But it is wrong to over-emphasise Cromwell’s ‘greatness’ and liken him to a Caesar or a Napoleon.21 Unlike many other revolutionary leaders, he seems to have been singularly unwilling to take power. When it was available to him after the dissolution of the Rump, he gave power to a Nominated Assembly and he tried to avoid interfering in its affairs.22

In conclusion, it is worth re-evaluating Hyde’s original statement. While Hyde is no rumourmonger like some other royalist historians,23 he does seem to have been influenced by royalist wishful thinking and anti-republicanism. Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that Hyde wanted to characterise Cromwell as a ‘brave bad man’. This interpretation makes out Cromwell as personally responsible for the entire republican experiment so it ignores the painful fact that Charles’s execution was a political necessity accepted by most ordinary people. Thus Hyde’s assessment of Oliver Cromwell, while not wholly inaccurate, is definitely flawed.

1 Lord Clarendon, The History Of the Rebellion, ed. W Dunn Macray vol. 6 (Oxford, 1958) p94

2 For an overview, see A. Woolrych ‘The Cromwellian Protectorate: A Military Dictatorship?’ History, 75 (Blackwell 1990), reproduced in Cromwell and the Interregnum, ed D. Smith (Blackwell 2003), pp.63-89

3 This is a quotation from Cromwell himself

4 Lord Clarendon, The History Of the Rebellion, vol. 6 p91

5 J. Heath, Flagellum, or the Life and Death, Birth and Burial of O. Cromwell, the Late Usurper (1663). A full text can be found here (last accessed 04/07/17).

6 R. Wilkinson, ‘Oliver Cromwell’, in History Review no. 27 (1997)

7 See A. N. B. Cotton, ‘Cromwell and the Self-Denying Ordinance’ in History, vol. 62 (1977) pp.211-231

8 Hence Cromwell’s famous praise of the ’plain russet-coated captain who knows what he fights for and loves what he knows‘ Oliver Cromwell, letter to William Spring, September 1643, in T. Carlyle, Oliver Cromwell’s letters and speeches (London, 1904), p154

9 See J. Morrill, ‘Rewriting Cromwell: A Case of Deafening Silences’ in Canadian Journal of History, vol 38, no.3

10 G. Goodlad, Oliver Cromwell, (Humanities-Ebooks, 2007) p41

11 A. Woolrych, Britain in Revolution (Oxford, 2002), p363. See also B. Coward, Oliver Cromwell, (Harlow, 1991) p50

12 A. Marvell An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s return from Ireland, (1681), quoted for example in T. Yoshinaka, Marvell’s Ambivalence: Religion and Politics of Imagination in Mid-Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 2011) p108. For a commentary of the lines, see pp.108-9

13 See G. Goodlad, ‘Charles I: Author of his own Downfall?’ in History Review Issue 63 (2009)

14 Oliver Cromwell, Letter to Robert Hammond (25 November 1648)
(last accessed 04/07/17)

15 Attributed to Cromwell and recalled by the Earl of Southampton. See J. Spence, Anecdotes (London, 1820), p275

16 See ‘Oliver Cromwell, the Regicide and the Sons of Zeruiah’, from The Regicides and the Execution of Charles I, ed. J Peacey (Palgrave, 2001), reproduced in Cromwell and the Interregnum, pp.17-36 for an overview of Cromwell’s attitudes towards the regicide.

17 H. Brailsford, The Levellers and the English revolution, ed. Christopher Hill (Stanford, 1961) pp.241 and 492

18 Instructions to the Major Generals in J. Kenyon (ed), The Stuart Constitution: Documents and Commentary (Cambridge, 1986), p323

19 i.e. the 2nd Protectorate Parliament’s vote of no confidence (‘foil’) in the Major Generals through the rejection of the Decimation Tax bill. The speech is quoted in the diary of Thomas Burton MP at www.british-history.ac.uk/burton-diaries/vol1/pp382-385 (last accessed 04/07/17)

20 See Peter Gaunt’s essay ‘Oliver Cromwell and His Protectoral Councillors’ in Historical Journal, 32 (Cambridge, 1989) reproduced in Cromwell and the Interregnum, pp.93-119 (especially pp.113-115 for the mass exclusions) for an overview of their role.

21 ‘We must look to Caesar or Napoleon to find a parallel’ – C.H. Firth, ‘Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans in England’, in Documents and Debates of Seventeenth Century England, ed. J. Wroughton, (Palgrave, 1980) pp.43-44

22 Woolrych, ‘The Cromwellian Protectorate: A Military Dictatorship?’, p65

23 e.g. James Heath (Flagellum)

List of Works Cited

Brailsford, H., (C. Hill ed) The Levellers and the English revolution, (Stanford, 1961)

Burton, T, Diary (7 March 1657) at
(last accessed 04/07/17)

Carlyle, T., Oliver Cromwell’s letters and speeches (London, 1904)

Clarendon, E., The History Of the Rebellion, ed. W Dunn Macray vol. 6 (Oxford, 1958)

Cotton, A., ‘Cromwell and the Self-Denying Ordinance’ in History, vol. 62 (1977)

Coward, B., Oliver Cromwell, (Harlow, 1991)

Cromwell, O., Letter to Robert Hammond,
(last accessed 04/07/17)

Goodlad, G., ‘Charles I: Author of his own Downfall?’ in History Review Issue 63 (2009)

Goodlad, G., Oliver Cromwell, (Humanities-Ebooks, 2007)

Heath, J., Flagellum, or the Life and Death, Birth and Burial of O. Cromwell, the Late Usurper (1663).
(last accessed 04/07/17)

Kenyon, J. (ed), The Stuart Constitution: Documents and Commentary (Cambridge, 1986)

Morrill, J., ‘Rewriting Cromwell: A Case of Deafening Silences’ in Canadian Journal of History, vol 38, no.3

Smith D. (ed), Cromwell and the Interregnum, (Blackwell 2003)

Spence, J., Anecdotes (London, 1820)

Wilkinson, R., ‘Oliver Cromwell’, in History Review no. 27 (1997)

Wroughton, J., Documents and Debates of Seventeenth Century Britain (Palgrave, 1980)

Woolrych, A., Britain in Revolution (Oxford, 2002)

Yoshinaka, T., Marvell’s Ambivalence: Religion and Politics of Imagination in Mid-Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 2011)