Oliver Cromwell and the Dictatorship of the Godly

There is much talk these days regarding the passing of religious based laws in the United States, and even, in extreme cases, how the bible should become the only law of the nation. For those of you who know me, whenever issues arise in the our times, I review history to see how people in the past handled similar issues, and how they succeeded or failed. Today you are in for a real treat.

We have to return to England in the mid 17th century. It has been 100 years since the printing press allowed men to distribute their ideas to an increasingly literate public. The bible was printed in multiple languages, and non-Catholic sects, called Protestants, had sprung up.  Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others defined their own versions of Christianity. The Catholic Counter -Reformation (1545–1563) failed to stamp them out, and the Inquisitions were more busy than ever killing fellow Christians. Henry VIII of England formed his own church to divorce his first wife, and his daughter Elizabeth I made it stronger. When James VI of Scotland moved to London to become James I of England in 1603, he gave the world the King James Bible in 1611.

His son, Charles I, had a rough time as king. Never thought to inherit, he was ill equipped to take the throne at the age of 24. Charles I had a terrible stutter that grew worse as he grew more nervous.  He was married to the beautiful Henrietta Maria, sister of Louis XIII of France, and a Catholic. Unusual in the annuls of history, Charles I was deeply in love with his wife, and extended toleration to Catholics.

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was tearing Europe apart in religious and political struggle, and would ultimately cause the deaths of almost half of everyone in central Europe. Charles did his best to stay out of this useless war, participating only from 1625-1630.

Charles I was a  firm believer in the then Christian idea of the divine right of kings to rule. This god given right did not include any funds from heaven, so Charles and his Parliament clashed often over money issues.  When Parliament offered him the Petition of Right (a guarantee of some civil liberties) in 1628 in exchange for subsides, he reluctantly agreed. Charles later threw several members of Parliament in prison and dissolved the body for a decade.

Money troubles and a failed war to impose the Common Book of Prayer on Scotland forced the king to recall another Parliament. It must be mentioned here that few people had the right to vote for members of Parliament, which was composed almost entirely by wealthy land owners, lawyers, and merchants. The Long Parliament, as it became known, was even more angry with the king’s policies, forcing his favorite (the Earl of Strafford) to be executed and passing laws to restrict Charles’ authority.

The king had had enough, and in January 1642 he entered Parliament with 400 soldiers to arrest their leaders. They had gotten advanced notice, and as the king said, “the birds had flown.”

Rioting forced the king to evacuate the city of London, a mistake which would ultimately cost him the war. London was the center of commerce, the location of armories and weapons production, and had far and away the largest population.

Unlike the American Civil War, the First English Civil War (1642-1646) was a true “brothers’ war”, with families all over the country dividing over king or parliament. Fathers, uncles, brothers, and sons killed each other over which side would hold power. Originally, both sides claimed to be fighting for the king, as parliament said their quarrel was with “the king’s evil counselors.”  That would change with the increased national suffering.

The war was fought by small armies of amateurs. Parliament had their “trained bands”, which were barely trained local militias. Most of the veterans of the European wars fought for the king. The King enlisted his nephew Prince Rupert from Europe to help. Puritans from America came to fight for Parliament. Leaders gained rank by having the funds to raise troops, usually men from their own lands. Armies were composed of infantry (musket and pike), cavalry, and artillery. Because of the number of people who owned horses, cavalry made up almost 50% of the forces. Artillerymen were so rare that both sides preferred capturing them and forcing them to change sides rather than kill them.

The country roughly divided South and East for Parliament, West and North for the king. The Parliamentarians were exclusively Protestant, while the tolerant king received Catholic support, along with his own Protestants. Scotland, while nominally on the side of Parliament, stayed out of most of the war, enjoying a time of self rule, while fighting the king’s local supporters. Ireland dissolved into anarchy as lots of factions fought each other. The navy almost entirely supported Parliament, who controlled their main bases and held the purse to pay them. Local leaders made neutrality pacts with each other, overlooking political differences and using their forces to keep out each side.

On October 23, 1642, 30,000 men fought the first battle of the war on a frozen field. At the Battle of Edgehill both sides lost equal amounts. Royalist cavalry smashed both flanks, and could have won the war in a day by turning against the center, but rode off to find glory slaughtering stragglers while Parliament’s cavalry hit the king’s infantry and caused many of them to flee. It was indecisive, but the king held the advantage. If he had marched on London right away, it would have been over. But he hesitated.

We have yet to introduce Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was a gentleman from Norfolk (my favorite part of England). He was a member of Parliament, and returned home to raise a troop of cavalry. Although his only training was with the trained bands, he was made a colonel.  Cromwell was one of those natural military geniuses who arise every now and then. He was a religious fanatic, a member of the Puritan Independents, who called themselves “the Godly”. Cromwell was also a hypocrite who desired political power. He thought that it was God’s will to fight the king, ignoring all of the parts of the bible that told him not to. He had a very large family, and Cromwell had one advantage many soldiers in history have lacked; his wife took care of the family business while he was away, and her letters contained nothing to distract him. There were no troubles at home filling his mind during battle.

The war dragged on, neither side being able to win a decisive victory. It became obvious to Parliament that they would have to modernize to win. On April 3, 1645 they passed the Self-Denying Ordnance, forcing members of parliament to give up all civil and military (army and navy) positions, or else give up being an MP. Cromwell and his handpicked cronies exempted, of course. The ordnance also created the New Model Army, joining all local forces into  a national army, one loyal to parliament and it’s military leaders and not the counties that raised them.

This New Model Army proved a success, Scottish Presbyterian armies invaded, and the king was defeated, surrendering himself to the Scots on May 5, 1646.

Cromwell and the Earl of Essex were now national heroes. The Scots held the king for nine months, finally selling him to parliament for 100,000 British pounds, with promises of more to come.

The leaders of Parliament decided to make a deal with the king, paying off the Scots, disbanding the New Model Army, and establish England under a new Presbyterian covenant. Cromwell would have none of this. The New Model Army was composed mostly of Puritans, who had been unpaid for months. They had not fought the war to go home unpaid and be ruled by a “foreign” religion. It was the largest political force in the country. Cromwell used the army to threaten Parliament and gain more political leverage.

Religious Protestant minorities, such as the Levellers, the Diggers, and the Fifth Monarchists sprang up all over the country, and often within the army. Many wanted to return to the Christian way of life described in the New Testament. Often they were killed and all were suppressed.

The new government banned all major religious holidays, with a special hatred for Christmas and Easter,  the latter they called “The Devil’s Holiday.”. In 1647 Parliament passed a law stating  “Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise notwithstanding.” The next time a Christian rails against a “war on Christmas”, remind them that Fundamentalist Puritans were the first to do so.

Charles I had been negotiating secretly with everyone at this time. The Scots knew that Parliament was going against their private deal, declared for the king, and invaded England. Royalists and even former Parliamentarians rose up. The Second English Civil War (February 1648 – August 28, 1649) was a much shorter conflict, but it sealed the king’s fate. Religious fanatics including Cromwell decided to try the king for his life. Many Parliamentarians, including the Earl of Essex (who had resigned in 1646), were disgusted by the way the nation was going, and bowed out of politics. The trial was a sham from the start, and the prosecutors failed in their endeavor to prove the king guilty of anything. In the end, they declared him guilty and executed him on January 30, 1649. Charles I was later made a saint of the Anglican Church.

The country was officially declared a republic on May 19, 1649. In reality, it was a military dictatorship. Parliament was now the Rump Parliament, after  Colonel Pride (on Cromwell’s and Thomas Fairfax’s orders), used soldiers to purge the body of 231 members on December 6, 1648. Real political power was held by Oliver Cromwell and his personal Council of State. Fairfax himself resigned in 1650.

Charles II was declared king February 5, 1649 by his followers and the Third English Civil War (1649-1651) started. Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland (1649-1650) was a brutal massacre of biblical proportions. He moved in more English colonists and set up a military governor. Three hundred and fifty  years later, Cromwell is still a hated man in Ireland.

Cromwell invaded Scotland next and defeated them, but saw the Scots as only misguided Christians. There were no massacres. Scotland was now ruled by a military governor.

Cromwell had been away for almost two years, and Parliament had used the opportunity to try to regain power. The power struggle lasted for two years, until April 20, 1653, when Cromwell, like the king, marched into Parliament at the head of armed soldiers and dissolved it.

A new Parliament, called the Barebone’s Parliament, was composed only from men based on their religious credentials. Cromwell was not a member, holding a vague sort of political position, maintained by force of arms. The Barebones met on July 4, 1653 and dissolved itself on December 12, 1653 after accomplishing nothing. After Parliament was dissolved, General Lambert put forth the Instrument of Government which just declared Cromwell “Lord Protector for life” with the later title, “His Highness, the Lord Protector.” The veil of lies had been removed, and Cromwell was now king in everything but name.

Cromwell divided the country into 15 military districts and the Rule of the Major Generals began. Military force alone was the law, and the generals were ordered to maintain control as they saw fit. With only limited resources, this rule by indirect military control lasted about one year.

This new England was not a happy place. Puritans were in charge, and all forms of fun (except drinking) were banned. Catholics and main stream Protestants were oppressed. Symbols of idolatry were destroyed in churches. Religious texts found unworthy went up in flames. Sermons were long, boring litanies telling the congregations that life was one of suffering, to enjoy the rewards hereafter. The economy collapsed, and Cromwell held power by the fact of military power and a frighteningly efficient secret police. Cromwell was always afraid of not being on God’s side. His solution to economic disaster was  to burn witches and steal the lands and wealth of former royalists and political enemies. People lived in fear, making certain to appear godly enough in public, and could not even speak their minds at home for fear of spies. Big Brother of 1984 fame would have been proud.

Oliver Cromwell was one of those who believed in the “Good Ole Days”, clinging to some vision of a perfect past, which seemed to be around one hundred years earlier. His policies led to the First Anglo-Dutch war (1652-1654) and the Anglo-Spanish War (1654-1660). Even his own advisors did not see the sense of fighting against a much weakened Spanish Empire, nowhere near the power of the Armada days. But to argue with the dictator could cost your life, so nobody did.

Cromwell did allow the Jews to return to England. He wanted them to help revitalize the failing economy, and to steal them away from Holland. Cromwell was determined that they would be forced to become Christian eventually. He held a council to discuss the matter, but when it was obvious that he would not get his way, he simply dissolved the body and declared it resolved himself.

Cromwell was offered the crown in 1657, but turned it down to be reinstalled Lord Protector. He was seated on King Edward’s chair, wearing a purple ermine-lined robe, with a scepter and a sword of justice, but no crown. No one was fooled by his attempt at humility.

Cromwell was allowed to pick his own successor, and chose his oldest surviving son, Richard, as any king would do. Richard had never held any major position, did not fight in the wars, and was completely unprepared for high office. The few months of grooming he had did not help. Oliver Cromwell died on September 3, 1658. Richard only ruled for 254 days, as various elements in the army conspired against him.

In the end, it looked like civil war would erupt yet again, with Parliamentarians killing each other for power. But the country was exhausted after years of conflict and dictatorship. General Monke conspired with the royalists, and on his 30th birthday (May 29, 1660), Charles II entered London to massive enthusiastic crowds. The Restoration had begun.

It would take years to sort out all of the disasters caused by the last 18 years. Who owned what was a major problem. All of the entertainments were restored, along with the church. Puritans and their ideas were discarded, and most moved to North America.

Oliver Cromwell was dug up from his grave, tried for treason, and executed (even though he was dead), with his head placed on a spike outside Westminster Hall where Charles I had been executed, and his body hung in chains. The body parts had a varied history after that.

One hundred and twenty years later, another congress won a civil war against the crown. This congress too, was financially broke, and tried to order their armies to disperse unpaid. The army turned to its leader, and offered him the crown. Although it is never mentioned in official histories, I am certain that George Washington remembered what had happened in England under the military/religious rule of Oliver Cromwell, in making his decision not to inflict the same suffering on America.

I can only hope that the rest of us follow Washington’s example.


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