Oliver Cromwell
The man who tried to change the History of Britain
The King against the Parliament
The English Civil War ( 1642-46 )



Life was difficult in England in the 17th Century: The country was experiencing problems over this period:  social tensions resulting from a rapidly growing population, which caused high unemployment, poverty and disorder; tensions caused by the increasing number of the middle classes or the declining position of the old aristocracy; constitutional tensions between a despotic King which was anxious to retain and extend its powers and a Parliament which wanted more power for itself and greater rights and liberties for the people; and religious tensions, resulting from the desire by an active minority within the State Church, the Church of England, to remove some of the ceremonial elements and to create a simpler, 'lower' form of religion, in spite of a vast majority against such changes.

Many of the problems were caused by the political errors,  the mistakes and incompetence of Charles I. A lot of people were angry with him because of his authoritarian rule; he thought he had a Divine right to do whatever he wanted, and he decided everything on his own, without calling Parliament, throughout the 1630s. His despotic line continued with he full control over the fiscal and other powers of the Crown, and he even wanted to impose upon the Church of England a more elaborate and ceremonial form of religion.

King Charles I, with his head still over his shoulders.

Charles I was a King who spent an awful lot of money while his country was poor and sad; besides, he hated the Puritans; he had persecuted them, and lots of Puritans lost their ears and noses (!) because of this cruel King.  And he had also tried to force and impose a new prayer book on Scotland in the late 1630s. The Scots didn't like this at all, and Scotland rose up in revolt against the King's religious policies. The Scots defeated the English army, and then demanded £850 per day from the English until the two sides reached agreement. Charles I was forced to call Parliament in 1640 and to make concessions to it, changing some of his earlier policies. But the political crisis in England continued: many people within Parliament demanded more political, constitutional and religious reforms which Charles, now winning some sympathy and support within the country, didn't accept. In 1642, both King and Parliament gathered thousands of armed supporters, and soon this political crisis deteriorated into a civil war.

OLIVER CROMWELLCromwell, the MP who became a dictator. From Member of Parliament to Lord Protector of the Realm

Cromwell, born in Huntingdon in 1599, was a strict Puritan with a Cambridge education when he went to London to represent his family in Parliament. He was a quiet and hard-working man when he was young, but one day he found himself 'possessed' with a Puritan fervor which gave him a strong temper and a commanding voice, so he quickly became famous in London for his great authority when he spoke.

Those were very hard times for the English Parliament, which had almost no power at all, under the rule of the King. Finally, Parliament was fed up with this situation, and its Members refused to authorize any more money to be spent, until Charles I decided to change his behaviour. The Triennial Act of 1641 stated that the King would call Parliament at least every three years, a formidable challenge to this despotic King. A new era of leadership from the House of Commons (supported by lots of middle class merchants, tradesmen and Puritans) had started. 

1642 was an exceptional year for Parliament. They put an end to many royal prerogatives by abolishing episcopacy, and then placed the army and navy directly under parliamentary supervision and declared that this would be a Law even if the king refused to sign. King Charles was very, very angry with this situation, and one day he entered the House of Commons (the first king to do so). He wanted to arrest John Pym, the leader of Parliament and four others, but the five conspirators had already escaped, making the king look a bit stupid. Charles traveled North to recruit an army and raised his standard against the forces of Parliament at Nottingham on August 22, 1642. A civil war was now starting in England,  and Cromwell was ready to take part in it.

John Pym and the conspirators had escaped to London, where they were hidden by Puritan loyalists, who dominated the city government. The King demanded the return of Pym, but the citizens refused. London, at least, was in rebellion. That summer, Parliament, fearing military action from the King, tried to seize control of the army by giving orders to soldiers to report to Parliamentary, rather than Royal, representatives. The King ordered that bill to be ignored and raised his own army in August, an army for which he invited the Irish catholics to join him. Obviously this wasn't a popular idea in Protestant England, and the powerful Puritans were very upset.

Some soldiers turned out for the King, some for Parliament, and the war was on. Those loyal to Parliament were called "Roundheads", a funny nickname for the British Puritans; those loyal to the King were 'Cavaliers'. The Royalist were strong in the north and west of the country, while the main territory of the 'Roundhead' was in the south and especially in London.


The Parliamentary army was not very strong at the beginning. When Cromwell saw this weakness,  he decided to make 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 living and working in the open fields. His regiment was nicknamed "Ironsides" and was never defeated,  although they fought greatly outnumbered - at times three to one.

Cromwell's  was a strange army indeed. Many of its soldiers were Puritans, and they used to recite religious prayers and march into battle singing the Psalms of David, but at the same time showing an unimaginable fury and cruelty with 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, creating confusion and completely 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 blasphemy and drunkenness, and charged the enemy singing hymns - the strangest abnormality in an age when every vice one can imagine, could be found in soldiers and mercenaries.

The first real battle between king and Parliament came in October 1642 at Edgehill. Cromwell added sixty horses to the Parliamentary cause when war broke out. It was an inconclusive battle, but it showed both that Parliament was not strong enough to defeat the king, and that Charles I was unable to take London. It was at this point when Cromwell realized that he needed to build a bigger and better trained cavalry. Cromwell proved most capable as a military leader. His men were more and more powerful, and by the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, Cromwell's new army had strong and experienced forces and even the Royalists acknowledged this, calling Cromwell "Ironside". By that time he had assumed command of the rebel forces.

January 1643

The forces of
Parliament sent out a delegation to negotiate peace, but King Charles was feeling stronger and refused to talk. But there was a group of Members of Parliament that was willing to compromise with the King in order to finish with the civil war. Both sides were confiscating the properties of their enemies to finance the war effort, creating even more political chaos with every attack, either on an army, or on a castle or fortification. But the King gained several victories in 1643, which convinced him not to negotiate or compromise with the rebels.

Marston Moor

In December 1643, Henry Pym died, but before that,  he had made a deal with the Scots. This was always Charles' great worry, that the rebels would ally with the Scots. So, just when he was feeling stronger, Charles found himself visited with a new calamity. In January 1644, the Scots invaded England with 20,000 men. A royalist army, led by Prince Rupert, went north to meet them and on 2 July 1644, the Battle of Marston Moor occurred. It was a day-long confrontation. Toward the end of the day, Oliver Cromwell led a cavalry charge that destroyed the Royalist Cavaliers, around back, and then charged again into their flanks. Cromwell's charge brought a complete victory for the Roundheads. Soon after this, the city of York fell, giving the Roundheads the two largest cities in the realm. King Charles was really in trouble.

The forces of
Parliament were now almost in control, and the question was was what to do with the king. The moderates did not want to bring the King to a final battle, fearing what it might mean. They wanted a negotiated settlement, not the death of their king. The radicals wanted it all -- these were the Independents and Oliver Cromwell was emerging as their leader.

The New Model Army

In 1644, Parliament started to separate the army from the politicians, and a new law stated that soldiers should be out of Parliament. Cromwell was left as an exception to the rule, because everyone recognized he was the rebels' most effective general. All other MPs had to lay down their military commands, and a new army was formed. Parliament felt that a professional army would be more successful against the kingís army. It was a military unit that was to transform the English Civil War.  The Battle of Marston Moor, had been a major victory for Parliament but not totally decisive, because  Charles could recover from it. The New Model Army would change all this. The New Model Army's commander-in-chief was General Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell was put in charge of the cavalry.

Therefore, Parliament's army was now a national army, recruiting soldiers from all the areas under Roundhead control. It was a Puritan army, too, with Puritan preachers in every unit. Parliament had managed to get politics out of the army, but not religion. The New Model Army was a military force based on a personís ability rather than on your position within society. If you were good enough, you could be an officer in it. One of the leading officers in the New Model Army had been a butcher. This removal of this social obstacle meant that the New Model Army was open to new ideas and social class meant nothing. Cromwell preferred that the men in the new force were strong believers like himself and many men in the New Model Army became Puritans who knew that God was on their side.

Cromwell, Lord Protector Medal

Final Victory and execution

The first test for the New Model Army came soon enough. At Naseby, 14 June 1645, Roundhead and Cavaliers met. Again, Cromwell was victorious with his powerful cavalry charge. The Roundheads had demonstrated superior discipline and strength. At the end of the battle, more than 1,000 Royalist soldiers killed, and some 4,500 taken prisoner. Besides, Cromwell captured most of the King's guns and ammunition. Naseby marks the real victory of Parliament, although fighting lasted until July. Within a year, Charles surrendered to the Scots, who turned him over to Parliament.

In 1646, England was ruled exclusively by Parliament. In that year, the captive King escaped to the Isle of Wight for another year, but he was found and had to surrender to the army. They turned the king over to Parliament again in February 1647. Parliament had won its victory, and the English king was  a captive again. The question now was: what next?

The king was not executed until 1649. The trial of Charles I began on 20 January 1649 and took only a few days. King Charles didn't say much, but it wouldn't have been of much help, either. He conducted himself with a calm dignity that impressed even his enemies. He was convicted of treason by a vote of 26 to 20, for 24 members refused to vote. He was beheaded on a snowy day, before a large but silent crowd, on 30 January 1649. His stoicism and dignity, at his trial and at his execution, caused a great impression in the public opinion.

Would you like to read the King's death sentence? Here it goes, but you are going to read it in the original English of the 17th century.


Whereas Charles Stuart, King of England, is and standeth convicted, attained and condemned of High Treason and other high crimes; and sentence upon Saturday last was pronounced against him by this court, to be put to death by the severing of his head from his body; of which sentence execution yet remaineth to be done: These are therefore to will and require you to see the said Sentence executed, in the open street before Whitehall, upon the morrow, being the thirtieth day of this instant month of January, between the hours of ten in the morning and five in the afternoon, with full effect. And for so doing, this shall be your warrant.

Given under our hands and seals, John Bradshaw, Thomas Grey, Lord Groby, Oliver Cromwell.

So did England kill its King. It was the first time the public authority executed a King, either in England or anywhere else in Europe. It marks how far political thinking had advanced, and it marks how strong the non-noble classes had grown. It also showed yet again, as if anyone needed the demonstration, of how powerful a political force religion could be.

But even with the King executed, England was still in trouble:

The greatest authority in England was now in the Parliamentary army, commanded by Cromwell, who moved quickly to end the debates. Things would soon change withing the House of Parliament: Cromwell found that a democratic parliamentary system run by old-fashioned squires and lords oppressed the common people and was almost as corrupt as the rulership of the deposed evil king.

It was November 1648. Under Cronwell's direct orders, as many as 110 Members of Parliament were removed, and another 160 Members refused to take their seats. Not many remained, but the ones who stayed started to change the English constitution. The machinery of government was destroyed, abolishing not only the monarchy but even the House of Lords and other political institutions. England was now ruled by an executive Council of State and what was left from the Parliament, with various subcommittees dealing with day-to-day affairs. Of great importance was the administration in the shires and parishes: the machinery administering such governments was left intact.

With the death of the ancient constitution, and with Parliament in control, the English had to stop several rebellions at home, as well as in Ireland and Scotland. Cromwell forced submission from the nobility, and his terrible army killed over forty percent of the indigenous Irishmen, who remained catholics and royalists;  the remaining Irishmen were forced to go to County Connaught with the Act of Settlement in 1653. Scottish Presbyterians fought for a Royal restoration, in the person of Charles II, but were finally defeated, ending the last remnants of civil war. Cromwell's army then turned its attention to internal matters.

During these years, Cromwell found that Parliament was a contrary and difficult body, and he was as unhappy as Charles I had been with it. But he also found himself as dependent on Parliament as Charles had been, because he too needed money for the wars. He had already asked Parliament to break up and disband and the Members of Parliament  had (obviously) refused. What is more, In April 1653, the Parliament proposed to have more Members and to sit permanently, not only from time to time.

The small Parliament was turning into an unimportant, self-perpetuating oligarchy, which lost credibility in the eyes of the army. Cromwell ended the Parliament with great indignity on April 21, 1653, ordering the House to be abandoned at the point of a sword. Cromwell entered the House when they were debating. He listened for a while, then rose to his feet and shouted: "Come, come! I will put an end to your prating. You are no Parliament. I say you are no Parliament. I will put an end to your sitting." Before the surprised Members of Parliament could recover, Cromwell had called his troops into the House and cleared it. Oliver Cromwell had now complete power. He was the new "king".

The army called for a new Parliament of Puritan saints, who proved as inept as the previous ones. By 1655, Cromwell dissolved his new Parliament, choosing to rule alone, just like Charles I had done in 1629. England had now a new dictator. The cost of keeping a standard army of 35,000 soldiers proved financially incompatible with Cromwell's monetarily poor government. Two wars with the Dutch because of trade abroad, increased Cromwell's financial problems. England was broke again.  

The military's solution was to form another version of Parliament. A House of Peers was created, packed with Cromwell's supporters and with true veto power, but the Commons proved most antagonistic towards Cromwell. The monarchy had been restored in all but name; Cromwell went from the title of Lord General of the Army to that of Lord Protector of the Realm. The title of King was suggested, but wisely rejected by Cromwell when a furor arose in the military ranks.

Cromwell, Lord Protector, died on September 3, 1658; having become a standard dictator, he named his son Richard as his successor. He was buried as a King, in Westminster Abbey. With Cromwell's death, the Commonwealth disappeared and the monarchy was restored only two years later.

The Restoration of King Charles II in May 1660 was at the invitation of Parliament, and followed the abdication of Cromwell's son, Richard. After this ... Cromwell's corpse was taken out of his grave. The surrealistic decision to remove Cromwell's body from Westminster Abbey, along with those of two others implicated in the execution of the King, was taken by Parliament in December 1660. After a macabre hanging their heads were chopped off and placed on poles on Westminster Hall as a warning to others. A terrible end for the man who started as a Member of Parliament and became a "king" after excuting the real one.

To sum up ....

Positive and negative things happened under Cromwell's rule in Great Britain. During the fifteen years in which Cromwell was in power, he eliminated the pirates from the Mediterranean Sea, set English captives free, and avoided any threat from France, Spain and Italy. Cromwell made Great Britain a respected and feared power all over the world. Cromwell maintained a large degree of tolerance for rival denominations. He supported the idea of a national church without bishops. The ministers might be Presbyterian, Independent or Baptist. Those who didn't like that, 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 fought to make England a genuinely Christian nation and she enjoyed a brief "Golden Age" in her history.

But his idea of the Commonwealth failed because he was caught between opposing forces. His attempts to placate the army, the nobility, Puritans and Parliament made each group be angry with the rest. Leaving the political machinery of the parishes and shires untouched under the new constitution was not very sensible either; Cromwell, the army and Parliament were unable to make a clear separation from the ancient constitution and traditional customs of loyalty and obedience to monarchy. The English learned an important lesson for the future: It was clear that Parliament could no more exist without the crown, just as the crown couldn't exist without Parliament; when one element of that mystical union was destroyed, the other would certainly disappear."

 Cromwell's coffin had this Inscription on a brass plate  

PS. Cromwell's 'legacy' can still be seen in many places in Great Britain: It's a country full of castles and medieval fortifications, but a great number of them are now ruins because most of them were destroyed by Cromwell's forces, after long and painful sieges, at some point in the years of the Civil War. Just because their owners had remained loyal to the King. Some of those castles were enormous and beautiful, but today they are simple piles of rocks, so you can imagine the terrible violence of those chaotic years.

His furious attitude towards powerful men, both politicians and landowners turned him into a very unpopular person for lots of people. And this is obvious: you don't normally take a corpse out of his grave to hang him and cut his head off, unless you really HATE that person!!




Adieu for Master Oliver Cromwell
John Dowland (1562-1626)