Society

Oliver Cromwell - World Leaders in History

The devout Puritan led a monarch-free Britain, heading a government that set a precedent for democratic republics to come.

5. Early Life

Oliver Cromwell was born to one of the wealthiest families in East Anglia, England, on the 25th of April, 1599. The family took the name Cromwell to underline their quite distant relation with Thomas Cromwell, a chancellor to Henry VIII, whose seizure and distribution of the lands of the Catholic Church was the original source of the family’s wealth. Although he was enrolled for a year at Cambridge University, his studies were cut short by his father’s death . Oliver returned home to attend the family estate, and to take care of his widowed mother and seven unmarried sisters. Cromwell was married to Elizabeth Bourchier on August 22nd, 1620. Elizabeth came from a wealthy London family. From this marriage, Oliver gained an apparently happy family life, nine children, and a political career through the patronage of Oliver St John, the Montague family, and leading members of the London merchant community, all to some extent coinciding with his marriage. Cromwell was a member of the rising middle class, and was said to be given to religious fervor at its most extreme form in his devotion to the set of Chrisitan beliefs known as Puritanism.

4. Rise to Power

A period of great personal depression gave way to a deep religious awakening, which guided Cromwell’s life thereafter. This zeal gained Cromwell important Puritan allies after he was elected as a Member of Parliament for Huntingdon in 1628. This was the Parliament which presented the King, Charles I, with the Petition of Rights in 1628, calling for Parliament to take over governance of England from the Monarchy. Eventually, the contest for power between the King and Parliament led to the outbreak of what became known as the English Civil War in 1642. Cromwell left his Parliamentary seat to fight with a cavalry he personally raised, consisting of other men with strong religious persuasion. They helped secure for the Parliament his native East Anglia. Cromwell found himself constantly in the field through 45 months of war. Promoted to Colonel, and then to Field Commander, Cromwell enlisted and promoted god-fearing men from the lowest classes to important positions, raising opposition from other Generals. Nonetheless, they were kept at bay as they witnessed the dazzling success in battle of "Cromwell’s Ironsides", as his men came to be known in the ranks of the Parliamentary Army. A brilliant battlefield strategist, Cromwell was a key player in the victories of the Parliamentary Army at Marston Moor, in 1644, and Naseby, in 1645. There was a prolonged period of negotiations between Charles I and the Parliament demanding many of the rights it now has today. Having played a prominent role in the trial and execution of the king, Cromwell gradually rose in 1653 to occupy a position of equal power as "Lord Protector" (head of state of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland), though, unlike a king, he shared political power with Parliament and a Council of State.

3. Contributions

Cromwell helped bring about the only Republic Britain ever had, which thusly inspired the rise of like-minded Republics in the future and set on firm foundations a precedent for the Constitutional Monarchy in Great Britain as we know it today. He crafted a mighty British Navy, which won a maritime war waged against the Dutch who had dominated trade on the seas in years prior. His administration was known for its honesty and efficiency, keeping an eye on judges, passing fairer laws, and, as much as possible, easing the number of death penalties. He advocated fundamental civil rights, religious tolerance, and freedom of belief. As deeply convinced as he was by his own Puritan Protestant faith, Roman Catholics were allowed to practice their faith openly without fear, and Jews were invited back into England for the first time in 300 years.

2. Challenges

Cromwell could be ruthless in battle, and his brutal actions in crushing the opposition in Ireland were to cause great bitterness between the Irish and English that still lasts to the present day. He had troubled relationships with his Parliaments, and at times was said to have ruled as a dictator. Even his own soldiers were inclined to extreme political beliefs in seeking to seize the possessions and lands of the wealthy, and Cromwell was as ruthless with these "Levelers", as they came to be known, as he was with the Scottish and Irish opposition to his rule. Ultimately, over time Oliver earned himself many enemies. When he was greeted by the multitude in triumph after his victory over the Irish, he joked how many more would gladly come to see him hanged. He was gernerally feared and respected, though not popular among all.

1. Death and Legacy

Cromwell’ statesmanship among European powers and efficiency in raising taxes and revenues made England militarily and economically strong, and increasingly respected abroad. His Navy and Army served as the backbone of British power for centuries to come. However, steep taxes and strict enforcement of rules against perceived "vices" (which included the theater which was then the glory of the British Arts) had not made him popular in his time or ours. After his death from infection on September 3rd, 1658, he was given a state funeral fit for a king. After the restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s, Cromwell's body was exhumed, hanged, decapitated, and displayed for decades to come for his role in the regicide in the execution of Charles I. The ownership of his head changed hands many times over the next several centuries, and in 1960 was buried under Cambridge University's Sidney Sussex College, where Oliver Cromwell had attended as one of its earliest students.

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