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Let God arise and his enemies be scattered.
Cromwell quoting from the Psalms at the battle of Dunbar (1650)

No [mere] man was better or worse spoken of than he; according as Men's interests lead their judgement.
Cromwell's contemporary Richard Baxter

Nearly 350 years after his death, Oliver Cromwell still excites admiration and hatred in equal measure. From provincial obscurity, he rose to become Lord Protector in 1653 and the most powerful man in England. Some even nicknamed him 'King Oliver'. Without Cromwell, there would have been no Parliamentary victory in the Civil Wars and no Protectorate.

His personality and military and political skills, shaped by his deep religious commitment, left their mark not only on his time but on the history of the British Isles. And yet, as one historian has observed, Cromwell remains 'one of the best known and least easily understood of all the great men in history'. The debate still rages.

He first acquired the government of himself, and over himself acquired the most signal victories, so that on the first day he took the field against the external enemy, hewn as a veteran in arms, consummately practised in the toils and exigencies of war.
John Milton

Cromwell' military genius

God has brought us where we are, to consider the work we may do in the world, as well as at home.
Cromwell in 1654 to the Army Council

Cromwell's major achievement remains a military one. He was the pre- eminent soldier of the Civil Wars. With no previous military experience, within 24 months he rose from the rank of captain, raising a company of volunteers around Huntingdon, to appointment as the Parliamentary Army's senior cavalry commander.

He established his reputation at the battle of Marston Moor in July 1644, and subsequently became second-in-command of the New Model Army from 1645 to 1649 and lord general of the army from 1650 to 1658. In addition to more than 30 successful engagements in England, Cromwell led the most complete conquest of Scotland ever achieved by the English. This campaign was preceded by a campaign in Ireland that was characterised by extremes of savagery.

Cromwell's ruthlessness

This is a righteous judgement of God on these barbarous wretches ... it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret.
Cromwell after the storming of Drogheda

In September 1649, Cromwell laid siege to the Irish city of Drogheda. When the fighting ended, with the city in Cromwell's hands, up to 3,000 of Drogheda's defenders lay dead.

Drogheda remains a stain on Cromwell's record – as a soldier, he was usually always ready to show a degree of mercy to a defeated enemy that was unusual for the time. Although he gave no direct orders for the massacre, it is clear that, in the heat of the moment, he lost the normal firm control he exercised over his troops and surrendered to the blood-lust that engulfed the final phase of the siege. At Drogheda, he relinquished the 'government of himself'' that Milton had so admired.

Cromwell's name has always been execrated by Irish Catholics for the massacre at Drogheda. He is also hated for the transplanting of Protestant settlers to Ireland, a policy established in the reign of Elizabeth I.

Cromwell's tolerance

In the field, the most gracious and most gallant man in the world, but out of the field ... and when he came home again to government the worst.
A Fifth Monarchist's opinion of Cromwell

An anonymous tract, written in 1659, a few months after Cromwell's death, observed that 'toleration was his masterpiece'. It was Cromwell's conviction that religious belief was the greatest of all liberties and that God had conferred it on the English people through victory over the armies of Charles I. When he became Lord Protector, Cromwell never ceased to plead with his Parliaments to extend and protect freedom of religion 'for all species of Protestant', and he rejoiced to know good men 'with the root of the matter' in many different Churches. As a result, he refused to make attendance at the state Church a qualification for office.

Cromwell was also in favour of the return of the Jews to England – they had been expelled in 1290. In this case, tolerance was tinged with pragmatism, as he realised that the Jews were expert purveyors of foreign intelligence.

Nevertheless, there were limits to Cromwell's tolerance. He disliked and distrusted Roman Catholics and imposed strict limits on their freedom. He also became hostile to former allies such as the Fifth Monarchy Men. In 1653, members of the sect were convinced that they had persuaded Cromwell to establish a system of government that would prepare for the Second Coming of Christ, which they believed was imminent. When Cromwell agreed to become Lord Protector, their sense of betrayal turned the Fifth Monarchy Men into his bitter enemies, declaring: 'The King chastised us with whips, but Cromwell chastiseth us with scorpions.'

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Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell painted – 'warts and all' – by Sir Peter Lely
(AKG Photo)

For an extensive consideration of Cromwell's personality and actions, see the full interviews with Professor Blair Worden and Dr Angela Anderson.

Battle of Marston Moor

Cromwell at the battle of Marston Moor
(Mary Evans Picture Library)

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