1649 - 1658


There is definitely an association between John Knox and Oliver Cromwell. Knox, in his book The Reformation of Scotland, outlined the whole process without which the British model of government under Oliver Cromwell never would not have been possible. Yet Knox was more consistently covenantal in his thinking. He recognized that civil government is based on a covenant between the magistrate (or the representative or king) and the populace. His view was that when the magistrate defects from the covenant, it is the duty of the people to overthrow him.

Cromwell was not a learned scholar, as was Knox, nevertheless God elevated him to a greater leadership role. Oliver Cromwell was born into a common family of English country Puritans having none of the advantages of upbringing that would prepare him to be leader of a nation. Yet he had a God-given ability to earn the loyalty and respect of men of genius who served him throughout his lifetime. John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress served under his command in the English Civil War, and John Milton, who penned Paradise Lost, served as his personal secretary.

Cromwell's early years were ordinary, but after a conversion experience at age 27, he was seized by a sense of divine destiny. He became suddenly zealous for God. He was a country squire, a bronze-faced, callous-handed man of property. He worked on his farm, prayed and fasted often and occasionally exhorted the local congregation during church meetings. A quiet, simple, serious-minded man, he spoke little. But when he broke his silence, it was with great authority as he commanded obedience without question or dispute. As a justice of the peace, he attracted attention to himself by collaring loafers at a tavern and forcing them to join in singing a hymn. This exploit together with quieting a disturbance among some student factions at the neighboring town of Cambridge earned him the respect of the Puritan locals and they sent him to Parliament as their representative. There he attracted attention with his blunt, forcible speech as a member of the Independent Party which was made up of Puritans.

The English people were bent upon the establishment of a democratic parliamentary system of civil government and the elimination of the "Divine Right of Kings." King Charles I, the tyrant who had long persecuted the English Puritans by having their ears cut off and their noses slit for defying his attempts to force episcopacy on their churches, finally clashed with Parliament over a long ordeal with new and revolutionary ideas. The Puritans, or "Roundheads" as they were called, finally led a civil war against the King and his Cavaliers.

When he discerned the weaknesses of the Roundhead army, Cromwell made himself captain of the cavalry. Cromwell had never been trained in war, but from the very beginning he showed consummate genius as a general. Cromwell understood that successful revolutions were always fought by farmers so he gathered a thousand hand-picked Puritans - farmers and herdsmen - who were used to the open fields. His regiment was nicknamed "Ironsides" and was never beaten once, although they fought greatly outnumbered - at times three to one.

It was an army the likes of which hadn't been seen since ancient Israel. They would recite the Westminster Confession and march into battle singing the Psalms of David striking terror into the heart of the enemy. Cromwell's tactic was to strike with the cavalry through the advancing army at the center, go straight through the lines and then circle to either the left or the right milling the mass into a mob, creating confusion and utterly destroying them. Cromwell amassed a body of troops and soon became commander-in-chief. His discipline created the only body of regular troops on either side who preached, prayed, paid fines for profanity and drunkenness, and charged the enemy singing hymns - the strangest abnormality in an age when every vice imaginable characterized soldiers and mercenaries.

In the meantime, Charles I invited an Irish Catholic army to his aid, an action for which he was tried for high treason and beheaded shortly after the war. After executing the national sovereign, the Parliament assumed power. The success of the new democracy in England was short-lived. Cromwell found that a democratic parliamentary system run by squires and lords oppressed the common people and was almost as corrupt as the rulership of the deposed evil king. As Commander-in-Chief of the army, he was able to seize rulership and served a term as "Lord Protector."

During the fifteen years in which Cromwell ruled, he drove pirates from the Mediterranean Sea, set English captives free, and subdued any threat from France, Spain and Italy. Cromwell made Great Britain a respected and feared power the world over. Cromwell maintained a large degree of tolerance for rival denominations. He stood for a national church without bishops. The ministers might be Presbyterian, Independent or Baptist. Dissenters were allowed to meet in gathered churches and even Roman Catholics and Quakers were tolerated. He worked for reform of morals and the improvement of education. He strove constantly to make England a genuinely Christian nation and she enjoyed a brief "Golden Age" in her history.

When Charles I was beheaded, the understanding was that he had broken covenant with the people. The view of Cromwell and the Puritans was that when the magistrate breaks covenant, then he may legitimately be deposed. The Puritan understanding of the covenantal nature of government was the foundation for American colonial government. This was true of Massachusetts and Connecticut and to a lesser extent in the Southern colonies. When the Mayflower Compact was written, the Pilgrims had a covenantal idea of the nature of civil government. This was a foundation for later colonies established throughout the 1600s. These covenants were influenced by what Knox had done in Scotland and what the Puritans had done in England.

The Civil War was not a class war, but rather the culmination of disenchantment of Parliament with the monarchy. Charles had persecuted Puritans and had long-since clashed with Parliament. The War saw fighting between the two sides - Parliament (nicknamed the 'Roundheads' due to their severe haircuts) and the Cavaliers (the king and his followers). Cromwell rose from captain to Lieutenant General in three years, the leader of his army - the Ironsides. He refused to compromise with the loyalists, later forming the New Model Army.

When the Cavaliers were defeated in the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644 it proved to be the turning point. However, it was not until the Battle of Naseby (1645) that Charles was forced to surrender. The War continued to rage on however with the last armed conflict occurring at the Battle of Stow-on-the-Wold in 1646. The Roundheads quarreled - they could not agree on what the next step should be. Some wanted to keep the monarchy, the army wanted a republic and others still wanted religious tolerance for everyone (apart from Catholics and Anglicans!). Also, Parliament was very slow to pay the soldiers.

The King tried to play the game of putting each side against the other, which backfired on him. Many by this stage had lost faith in the King. Charles fled to Scotland but the Scots turned him over to Cromwell in 1646. Cromwell debated about what to do with the King, but he was finally instrumental in signing the paper which declared Charles a traitor and led to his execution outside the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall on January 30th, 1649. England now had no monarchy.

Parliament now had power, but Cromwell soon found that he had just as much difficulty controlling the members, as had the Stuart kings. Initially, he left civil affairs to the MPs and a council, while he traveled to Ireland to crush a rebellion there. Cromwell was now titled 'Lord General and Commander in Chief of the Commonwealth and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland'. In Ireland, Cromwell ordered the massacres in Drogheda and Wexford, and the English colonization of Ireland. He then traveled to Scotland to crush dissenters there. Oliver Cromwell's armies were widely acknowledged as unstoppable.

Returning to England he found the Parliament (named the 'Rump') in disarray. He dissolved them in 1653, effectively destroying both the monarchy and parliament. Arrogantly, he believed he was carrying out God's will. The army drew up the 'Instrument of Government', where Cromwell was declared 'Lord Protector' for life. He stopped the Dutch War (based on arguments between the English and Dutch on trading) and an English army fought (allied with France) against Spain, where they won Jamaica and Dunkirk. Uprisings in England were commonplace, so Cromwell divided England into twelve regions to be ruled by a member of the army. He also closed theatres, treated drunks and blasphemers harshly, decreed that recreation was forbidden and Sunday was declared a day of worship. Cromwell had thus become a military dictator.

By 1656, many of the powerful classes wanted to return to the 'old ways', so they created a new Parliament, a new House of Lords and offered Cromwell the title of King, which he contemplated but later refused. He died on 3rd September 1658 from malaria, leaving his son Richard as his successor. The son was no match for the father however, and England returned to the monarchy in 1660, crowning Charles I's son (also Charles) as king.

Cromwell's body had been embalmed and secretly held in Westminster Abbey. It was exhumed on January 30, 1661 (on the anniversary of Charles I's execution), taken to Tyburn and his body was hung from the gallows (before being buried ~ now believed to be in the Marble Arch area of London), while his head was stuck on a pole at Westminster Hall. The head remained there through most of Charles II's reign, and is now believed to be buried near Cromwell's old Cambridge College.

Oliver Cromwell had gone from commoner to Lord Protector, the most powerful man in England. On the way he had massacred many people, had annihilated the monarchy (which was later re-established) and had championed the Puritan cause. To this day, historians and laypeople have conflicting opinions about this man who rose to power from humble beginnings. Some see him as the defender of principles, liberty and the advocate for religious tolerance. Others denigrate him as a murderer, bigot and omnipresent tyrant. Despite these conflicting opinions however, it is not difficult to be in awe of a man who became the ruler of England, nor is it beyond the imagination that such a position was so relatively easily achieved.


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