He is usually portrayed as the bad guy of English history – and in Southern Ireland he is an unmitigated villain and mass-murderer. Recently, however, I have been taking around a group of Canadians who venerate the memory of Oliver Cromwell. When we went to Ely Cathedral we were shown a letter written by the Arise Ministries Christian group which apologised for his misdeeds 300 years after they occurred – but he did a great deal to promote religious freedom and introduce a degree of democracy to England.
During this trip we went to the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon. It is really only one room in the old schoolhouse in the town centre (I still managed to walk the group past it when leading them from the bus station – schoolboy error there) but we had a good talk from the custodian before examining artefacts from his life, including a surprisingly ornate gunpowder holder. They also had a copy of his portrait by Peter Lely which showed him, as he insisted, ‘warts and all’.
Cromwell made his reputation as a soldier in the English Civil War. In 1644 at Marston Moor near York, after marching his men up to the battlefield from the south, he attacked the royalist army who were enjoying their dinner and getting ready to fight the following day. Not very gentlemanly – but highly effective. Cromwell had arrived and soon began to take over the leadership of the parliamentary forces from the more restrained Lord Fairfax, who wanted to rein in the power of the stubborn King Charles the First without killing the king.
Cromwell, a deeply religious man who was convinced that he was doing God’s work, had no such scruples and so, after the king’s ultimate defeat and capture, Charles was executed and England became a republic for eleven and a half years from 30th January 1649 until 29th May 1660 when Charles the Second returned to London on his thirtieth birthday a year and a half after Cromwell’s death. The system the strong man had set up lasted not much longer than he did. Cromwell’s son Richard had neither the inclination nor the ability to continue his father’s work and, with England descending to anarchy, General Monck invited Charles to return to England to re-assume the crown. When he saw the cheering crowds who welcomed him home the new king is supposed to have remarked that he would not have stayed away so long if he had known how much he had been missed.
Charles was an amiable, sensual man with little liking for the puritanism which had been the norm while he was in exile. Those who had ordered the death of his father Charles the First – the regicides – were dispatched with great cruelty. They were hung, drawn and quartered in public, the last time this brutal method of execution was used in Britain, and England settled down to renew its relationship with royalty, one that has persisted ever since. Cromwell remains the only man to rule England without a king above him and his statue stands proudly outside the Houses of Parliament – looking over at a small bust of Charles the First, republican leader and royal king eyeballing each other in perpetuity.