Britain’s former war-veteran-turned Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was born on 25 April.

NPG 514; Oliver Cromwell after Samuel Cooper
A Miniature of Oliver Cromwell, 1656, by Samuel Cooper.

In Australia, every Anzac Day, the Australian Republic Movement, notably Peter FitzSimons, usually raise the issue of Australia becoming a republic.

Yet they never mention Britain’s Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell whose birthday is also commemorated as Anzac Day in Australia, New Zealand and the UK!

He fought in several battles during Britain’s Civil Wars, including Marston Moor, Naseby, Dunbar and Worcester, to name a few.

However, not many people in Australia seem to know about Cromwell.

A classmate heard of him from that Monty Python song, and a relative once said he invented the Violet Crumble bar.

Family Background

Cromwell, the only surviving son of a farming family, was born in 1599 at Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire.

He was also the great-great grandson of Katherine, the sister of Henry VIII’s Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell, who married a Welshman, Morgan Williams. Their son changed the family name to Cromwell, in honour of the uncle who granted his sister’s family church lands during the Reformation.

A hospital now stands on the site where Cromwell was born. © Carolyn M Cash

He attended the local grammar school in Huntingdon before studying at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. He left a year later, when his father died in June 1617, to return home to manage the family farm and to look after his widowed mother and seven unmarried sisters.

Cromwell married Elizabeth Bouchier in 1620 and raised eight children, with only one dying in infancy. His eldest son Robert died whilst away at boarding school, another Oliver died from typhoid during the Civil War.

Elizabeth Cromwell née Bourchier, wife of Oliver Cromwell and Lady Proctectoress of England, Scotland and Ireland by Robert Walker

He entered politics when he was elected the MP for Huntingdon in the Parliament of 1628. Unfortunately, his career ended abruptly when Charles I dismissed Parliament, and began eleven years of personal rule.

However, Cromwell fell on hard times and forced to sell nearly all his property around Huntingon and leased a farm at St Ives for five years. His financial and social status improved when he inherited lands and positions after his widowed maternal uncle passed away in 1636.

King Charles, who desperately needed funds after the dismal failure of the First Bishops’ War, recalled Parliament. Cromwell was elected as the MP for Cambridge, with help from Puritan friends, in the two Parliaments of 1640.

However, Charles clashed with Parliament over funds and religious policies. Parliament would grant funds, providing the King met their demands for reform, and presented him a long list of grievances and called for the impeachment of the Earl of Strafford and Archbishop William Laud for treason.

However, they went too far by planning to impeach the Queen. King Charles attempted to arrest Five Members on charges of treason, but they were warned in time about his plans. By the time King Charles arrived, they had went into hiding. These actions led to civil war where Englishmen and women were forced to take sides, dividing families and friends.

The attempted arrest of the "Five members" by Charles I in 1642, painting in the Lord's Corridor, Houses of Parliament, by Charles West Cope
The attempted arrest of the “Five members” by Charles I in 1642, painting in the Lord’s Corridor, Houses of Parliament, by Charles West Cope

Civil War (1642-1649)

Cromwell took up arms when civil war was declared in 1642, and raised a troop of sixty horsemen and secured Cambridgeshire for Parliament. He soon rose through the ranks, thanks to his skill as a military commander.

Sir Thomas Fairfax, Captain-General of the New Model Army.
Sir Thomas Fairfax, Captain-General of the New Model Army.

He was also credited with helping to establish the New Model Army, a force recruited on merit rather than social class, the basis for today’s British army. Parliament won major battles at Marston Moor in 1644 and Naseby in 1645, winning the First Civil War.

Cromwell left the army in 1646, but he was unable to attend Parliament during the winter of 1646-1647 due to ill health.

However, Cromwell was called back to negotiate between Parliament and the Army, as talks had broken down. Most soldiers, especially the Levellers, felt Parliament was imposing on their religious freedoms which they had fought so hard for. Furthermore, Parliament had failed to pay the Army as the soldiers’s pay was up to 43 weeks in arrears.

Cromwell and the Army failed to reach an agreement with Parliament, so they seized King Charles I, who was now a prisoner and tried negotiating with him.

King Charles rejected their terms and played off all his opponents against each other, including the Scots.

Cromwell was behind plans to put King Charles on trial for treason. The Lord General, Thomas Lord Fairfax as he regarded the King’s execution as murder, and refused to have anything to do with it.

Algernon Sidney also bravely stood up to Cromwell by saying the King could not be tried by any court and no man could by tried by that one.

The trial of Charles I on 4 January 1649.
The trial of Charles I on 4 January 1649.

Even King Charles objected by questioning the legality of the court during the proceedings.

The King was sentenced to death and executed outside Whitehall’s Banqueting Hall on 30 January 1649.

Commonwealth (1649-1653)

Britain became a Commonwealth, but what sort of government would replace the monarchy?

First, they got rid of the House of Lords. saying it was “useless and dangerous”.

Then they abolished the monarchy denouncing it as “unnecessary, burdensome and dangerous to the liberty, safety and publick of the people”. A stamp of the House of Commons replaced the King’s image on the Great Seal.

A king in exile: Charles II painted by Philippe de Champaigne, c 1653

Scotland negotiating with Charles’s eldest son, now Charles II, to regain his throne, with strict terms which the new king grudgingly accepted.

Cromwell was determined to remove all remaining Royalist support, so he travelled to Ireland where he carried out a brilliant campaign with great harshness, especially at Drogheda and Wexford. It is still remembered as one of the most infamous atrocities in British history, which has affected Anglo-Irish relations ever since.

He defeated the Scots at Dunbar on 3 September 1650, and the Scots and English Royalists at Worcester. Charles II fled, with help from friends, even hiding in a tree to escape Cromwell’s soldiers, with a £1,000 bounty on his head.

The Rump Parliament was acting as a caretaker government, which was supposed to disband and form a new one.

However, Parliament stalled so Cromwell lost patience and expelled the MPs on 20 April 1653.

The Rump Parliament was soon replaced by the Nominated Assembly in 1653, better known in history as “Barebone’s Parliament”, which was expected to bring righteous godly government in the new Commonwealth. However, many reforms were considered too extreme. The assembly of “saints” behaved like the old parliament, so it was also dissolved.

Life continued much the same as it had before King Charles’ beheading, with magistrates presiding over court cases, country hunts still continued and exiled Royalists could travel to and from England without any hassles.

Protectorate (1653-1660)

The Claytons’ King. A contemporary satirical view of Cromwell as a usurper of monarchical power

Cromwell became the Lord Protector after a group of soldiers drew up the Instrument of Government (1653), as he made it very clear he did not want to become King.

So the old title of Lord Protector, last used by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, during Edward VI’s minority, was revived.

He was declared Lord Protector for life, when he was formally installed at Westminster on 16 December 1653, and moved into Whitehall Palace.

Cromwell was basically a “Clayton’s King” – the Head of State with all the prestige and some of the powers of a monarch, but not actually a king.

He was addressed as “Your Highness” and he even rewarded loyal followers with knighthoods from 1656. (Charles II abolished these titles when he regained the throne, but he did reconsider and restored many out of generosity and expediency.)

Parliament was dissolved again in 1655 after it proved no more successful than the others.

Cromwell tried the rule of the Major-Generals, dividing England into 11 districts which were administered by, you guessed it, Major-Generals, who were answerable only to him.

Working on Sundays was forbidden. Sports such as wrestling, shooting and bowling were banned. So were bell-ringing, masques, wakes, dancing, games and theatres were closed. People were fined for swearing and cursing, whilst children were whipped.

A 1658 issue Cromwell Half-Crown, with the Latin inscription OLIVAR D G RP ANG SCO ET HIB &c PRO, translated as “Oliver, by the Grace of God of the Republic of England, Scotland and Ireland etc. Protector”.

Christmas had already been abolished back in 1644, so it was just another working day.

Another Parliament was summoned in 1656 and, the following year, it presented a new constitution known as the Humble Petition and Advice to Cromwell, and offered him the Crown.

Cromwell again refused

Republicans objected when he reintroduced an upper house in January 1658. They thought this was too similar to the House of Lords, which had been disbanded in 1649.

Cromwell dissolved the Second Protectorate Parliament in 1658.

He died on 3 September 1658, from malaria and “stone” (kidney failure).

Cromwell was given a funeral worthy of a monarch, costing £60,000, complete with a crown on his effigy. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, until regicides dug up his remains for a public execution in 1661.

The exact site of Cromwell’s second burial is not known, although his head is now buried in a secret spot at his alma mater, Sidney Sussex College.

Cromwell’s Legacy

Most were glad to see the last of Cromwell, and a longing to return to something similar to the “good old days” before the Civil War.

As David Starkey observes in Crown and Country, England abolished its age-old monarchy only to find that it couldn’t do without it after all.

Maybe those pushing for a republic should take this into consideration in Australia as well as the United Kingdom.

1899 statue of Cromwell by Hamo Thornycroft outside the Palace of Westminster, London


Cooper, John, and Morris, Susan, The Cromwell Family, Stanley Thomes (Publishers) Ltd, Cheltenham, 1987

Fraser, Antonia, Cromwell Our Chief of Men, Methuen, London, 1985

Simon Schama, A History of Britain: The British Wars 1603-1776, Volume 2, BBC Worldwide Ltd, London, 2001, Chapter 3, pp 170-245, Chapter 4, p 246-261

Starkey, David, Crown and Country: A History of England Through Monarchy, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2010

Young, Peter, Oliver Cromwell, Morgan-Grampion Books Limited, London, 1969

Historical Royal Palaces, Oliver Cromwell

© 2016 Carolyn M Cash

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