Cromwell, Lord Protector

Just over three hundred years ago, on December 16th, 1653, Oliver Cromwell took the oath as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. The occasion of the ter-centenary of this event summoned forth a number of articles in the Press. Maurice Ashley, in The Times (15-12-53) was shocked to find how far the materialist conception of history (though, of course, seldom acknowledged as such) has spread among the younger school of historians. He quotes an Oxford historian as having tried to show “that Cromwell represented ‘the men of the new wealth’ who purposed to overthrow the established ruling classes,” and goes on,

    “An older generation of university historians would rub their eyes at so fanciful an economic interpretation of history. Could any reader of Cromwell’s letters and speeches, they might ask, genuinely picture him as an upstart moved by jealousy and greed, or any student of contemporary tracts suppose that religion had not been a central fact in the puritan revolution?”

This article does not propose to discuss the place of Puritanism in the Great Rebellion; this has been done with consummate skill by Professor R. H. Tawney in “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.” But it is proposed to enquire how far the picture of Cromwell as the representative of the men of new wealth is a true one.

Marching with the Band in Front

It is of course possible for a leader or figurehead to be motivated (so far as he himself understands his motives) entirely by religious considerations, while his “followers” are acting to protect or advance their economic interests. “Followers” is put in quotation marks because in such a case the great mass of men making up the movement would not be followers at all; the leader only “marches with the band in front” like children do. The movement only follows such a person because it is in the interest of those making up the movement to do so. As soon as the” leader” gets out of step, he finds that the movement has pursued its own course, and he has been left a general without an army. For example, Mohammed, a religious fanatic got his big chance when the inhabitants of Medina invited him to come and rule over them. This they did not because of religious conviction, but because they wanted to share in the profits of religious pilgrimages, which were then going entirely to the great rival of Medina, Mecca. Five hundred years later, the call of successive Popes to the faithful to go on Crusade against the Saracens was successful not because of religious enthusiasm, but because there was a surplus of younger sons in the great landed houses who in this way carved out for themselves estates in the Middle East. In such cases, is the root cause of the movement in what inspires the lender, or in what inspires the “followers”? For as Sir Ernest Barker put it, “what makes national history most is the action not of lonely leaders, but of big battalions; and by big battalions I mean social groups.” (Introduction to L D. Jones’ ‘The English Revolution 1603-1714’)

Righteous judgment

Even if it is allowed, then, that the Great Rebellion was caused by the emergence of a new class of men made rich by large-scale trading, allied to the class of yeomen or small landowners who were found chiefly in the south-eastern counties, we must still consider if Cromwell himself was inspired mainly by puritanism. There is some evidence for this view, but more against it. First, the evidence for this view.

Certainly Cromwell, like the Kaiser, was always sure that God was on his side, When he was faced with the task of subjugating a rebellious Ireland, in 1649, he stormed Drogheda; of the 3,000 troops which had defended it, he himself wrote “I believe we put to the sword the whole number of the defendants, I do not think thirty of the whole number escaped with their lives. Those that did, are in safe custody for Barbadoes “—that is, were sold into slavery. This bloody work he described as ” a righteous judgment of God,” and he wrote back to the Speaker of the House of Commons more fully:

    “Sir, what can be said of these things? Is it the arm of the flesh that hath done these things? Is it the wisdom and counsel, or strength of man? It is the Lord only. God will curse that man and his house that dares to think otherwise. Sir, you see the work is done by a Divine leading.”

Cromwell then stormed Wexford, slaughtered the garrison there too, and wrote again to the Speaker that “God hath blessed you with a great tract of land in longitude alongst the shore.” It is curious that a full knowledge of this butchery does not prevent our modern Nonconformists claiming Cromwell as a blood brother, inspired by the Holy Scriptures.

Stubble to our swords

After some months of this, Cromwell left to his lieutenants the work of murdering and enslaving the Irish, and himself went north to deal with Scotland. Though at first the English army seemed in a perilous situation, Cromwell wrote “We have much hope in the Lord, of whose mercy we have had large experience.” On this occasion the Lord’s mercies took tangible shape in the battle of Dunbar, where 3,000 Scots were killed or injured, and 10,000 captured. After the battle Cromwell boasted that “the Lord made them as stubble to our swords.” Further evidence may be found in the well-known fact that before the battle Cromwell gave the command to sing a Psalm; surely this means that he was motivated by religion? But on further consideration, one observes that Cromwell chose none of the bloodthirsty Psalms, of which usually he was inordinately fond; for example, Psalm 110 (the Lord “shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries”) or Psalm 69 (“Let them be blotted out of the book of the living”)—or many more. Psalm 117, which Cromwell chose, is a very mild one, with nothing to recommend it—except its brevity; of all the 150 Psalms, this is the shortest, having only two verses. The moral perhaps is that if Cromwell hadn’t been attentive at Sunday School, he might well have chosen Psalm 119, which has one hundred and seventy six verses; and the Scots would have been able to withdraw to the trackless moors in their rear before the English army had finished Psalming at them.

Providence seemed to lead us

These examples of the pious-sounding words used by Cromwell could be multiplied many times. “The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell” by Thomas Carlyle, is full of instances. But to find the true character of a man, and the true reasons for his policies, it is always necessary to examine not only his words but also his deeds. And we find that both Cromwell’s home and his foreign policy were shaped by the desires of the commercial class, not by any religious abstractions.

In 1651 England went to war with Holland, in spite of the fact that the brand of religion professed by the Dutch was very similar to that of the Puritans themselves. It is true that at that time Cromwell had not yet become Protector, but he was already so outstanding a figure in the Government, as well as being Commander-in-chief of the army, that the Rump would not have dared to take any action of which he disapproved. The cause of this war was unashamedly commercial—the Rump had passed the Navigation Act, which was an attempt to win back the carrying trade of England and the colonies from the Dutch. Cromwell brought this war to a successful conclusion in 1654, and then turned his attention to the Spanish Empire. England had a large navy at the end of the Dutch War, the Spanish West Indies were inadequately defended, and altogether, as Cromwell himself said, “Providence seemed to lead us” to an unprovoked aggression against Spain. This war gained Jamaica and Dunkirk (also previously a Spanish possession) for the English Empire. As it happened, Spain was a Catholic power, which suggests the view that the war was really a war of religion; but since England was at the same time allied with another Catholic Power, France, this view is untenable.

First to his Englishmen

Even Cromwell’s speeches themselves show us that he was by no means blind to economic considerations. In a speech to the first Parliament elected under the Instrument of Government, in 1654, he bemoaned the fact that the trade of the nation was ruined and the manufacture of cloth at a standstill for want of a market. (This market Cromwell attempted to provide by attacking the Spanish Empire.) In another speech to the same Parliament he pointed with pride to the fact that the Sound, leading into the Baltic, was now open, and said “that which was and is the strength of this nation, the shipping, will now be supplied thence “—with rope, masts, pitch and tar. Cromwell even carried his patriotism into his religion. G. M. Trevelyan tells us in “England under the Stuarts” that Cromwell held, along with his secretary Milton, that God revealed himself “as His manner is, first to His Englishmen.”

A study of Cromwell’s home policy reveals plainly the same lesson. Some of the reforms carried out under the Commonwealth, although they were all held to be nullities at the Restoration, were immediately re-enacted by the extreme anti-Puritan Anglicans who held power after 1660—for example, the Navigation Act, the provision in the Instrument of Government for triennial Parliaments, and the abolition of the system of holding land by military tenure. Many more of Cromwell’s reforms and policies were abolished in 1660, only to be resuscitated later. Among these were the abolition of the monarchy (since the last century this country has been, in effect, “a crowned Republic”); the reform of the franchise; the unification of Ireland and Scotland with England in one united Commonwealth, and free trade within that Commonwealth; the reform of the court of Chancery, and an attempt to codify the common law; the abolition of patronage in the Church of England, and the establishment of civil marriage; the maintenance of a fleet permanently in the Mediterranean; and the setting-up of an efficient system of local government and police (which is called in the history books “the rule of the Major-Generals”).

These reforms and policies were not brought back all at the same time. Some were re-enacted by the High Church Anglicans of Queen Anne’s reign; some by the Low Church, freethinking Whigs of the eighteenth century; and some by men of all shades of religious belief, and of none, in the nineteenth century. All these men were very different, in point of religion, from the sternly Puritan and evangelic Cromwell. What they had in common with him was not any particular set of religious principles, but the desire to preserve and extend the interests of the commercial class, and to carry out the reforms in the structure of society desired by that class. Cromwell genuinely thought of himself as a chosen instrument of God, carrying out God’s will. But no newly-emerging ruling class has ever been accurate about its motives. Every man likes to credit himself with higher motives than the pursuit of self- or class-interests. But it is what a man does, not what he says, that shows what he is: and Cromwell’s policies reveal him to have been, just as much as his comrades-in-arms, a man of the middle class.


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