Oliver Cromwell was a political and military leader in 17th century England who served as Lord Protector, or head of state, of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland for a five-year-period until his death in 1658. Cromwell was known for being ruthless in battle, and he twice led successful efforts to remove the British monarch from power. Called a dictator by some — including future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill — Cromwell, a devout Puritan, was particularly intolerant of Catholics and Quakers, though he is also credited by others for helping to lead Great Britain toward a constitutional government.
Cromwell’s Early Life
Cromwell was born in 1599 in Huntingdon, near Cambridge, in England. The Cromwells had been a wealthy family for generations, and were part of the landed gentry in the region. He was descended on his father’s side from Thomas Cromwell, a minister of King Henry VIII.
Like most children born in the country at the time, Cromwell was baptized in the Church of England. At 21, he married Elizabeth Bourchier, daughter of a wealthy merchant family. His new wife’s family were active in the Puritan church, and it is thought that this may have prompted Cromwell to join the sect in the 1630s.
The Cromwells had nine children, though three died young, which was not unusual at the time. Their son Richard, who succeeded his father as Lord Protector, was born in 1626.
Health and Financial Woes
Cromwell was first elected to Parliament, representing Huntingdon, in 1628. Though this marked the start of his political career, his success in the halls of power was not matched in other aspects of his life.
In 1631, for example, Cromwell was forced to sell much of his land holdings in Huntingdon following a dispute with local officials. In addition, he was reportedly treated for melancholy, or depression, at this time.
His tenure in Parliament was also short, as a result of King Charles I and his decision to suspend the legislative body in 1629. Cromwell would return to government in 1640, when Charles I was essentially forced to reconvene Parliament following a rebellion against his rule in Scotland.
By then, Cromwell had become a devout Puritan, telling family that he had been a “sinner” and was newly reborn. Like most Puritans, he believed that Catholic influence tainted the Church of England, and that it must be removed.
Charles I may have reconvened Parliament, but his commonwealth remained a fragile state. In 1642, an armed conflict began between troops loyal to Parliament — the New Model Army — against those allied with the monarchy.
This was known as the English Civil War, and it was during this time that Cromwell’s career as a military leader was born. Cromwell and others leading the Parliament side also differed significantly from Charles I in their religious views, which helped fuel the conflict.
Though he had no formal military training prior to the start of the war, Cromwell soon distinguished himself on the field of battle, recruiting and leading troops in key victories in 1642 at the Battle of Edgehill and in East Anglia.
By 1644, he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant General, and in the Battle of Naseby and the Battle of Langport in 1645, he helped lead forces loyal to Parliament to victories over those of Charles I. In October 1645, Cromwell led an attack on the Catholic fortress Basing House, and was later accused of killing 100 of its men after they had surrendered.
Charles I ultimately surrendered to the Scots in 1646, ending the First English Civil War. However, there was more conflict to come.
Second English Civil War
Cromwell was among the lead negotiators for the Parliamentarians as they attempted to work out a settlement with Royalists loyal to the monarch.
When those talks collapsed, fighting between the two sides resumed in 1648, and the Second English Civil War began. Cromwell travelled to Scotland to lead troops against forces there loyal to the king.
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At this time, Cromwell’s speeches before Parliament and his correspondence became more religious in tone. He also believed in the concept of his own divine “Providence” — essentially, thinking that his cause was supported by God and that he was one of those “chosen” to fight for God’s will.
By the end of 1648, the Parliamentarians had won a decisive victory in the Second English Civil War. After Pride's Purge, in which troops under the command of Colonel Thomas Pride arrested those in Parliament still loyal to the monarch, the chamber was reconvened with a membership that was decidedly anti-monarch.
In the aftermath of the purge, the remaining Parliamentarians voted to arrest and execute Charles I. Cromwell returned from the north of England to become the third Member of Parliament to sign the resulting document ordering the king’s arrest, and Charles I was beheaded in January 1649.
However, the Royalists regrouped, signing a treaty with Catholics in Ireland. Their alliance set the stage for Cromwell’s campaigns in Ireland.
Cromwell in Ireland
Cromwell led the invasion of Ireland, landing in Dublin on August 15, 1649, and his forces soon took the ports of Drogheda and Wexford. At Drogheda, Cromwell’s men killed some 3,500 people, including 2,700 Royalist soldiers as well as hundreds of civilians and Catholic priests.
His troops killed an estimated 1,500 civilians at Wexford, which they allegedly attacked while he was trying to negotiate a truce.
By the time the Irish surrendered in 1652, the practice of Catholicism was banned in Ireland and all Catholic-owned land was confiscated and given to Protestant Scottish and English settlers, beginning a long period of suffering and poverty for the Irish people.
Cromwell’s Rise to Power
Cromwell returned to England in 1650 after the Scots proclaimed as king Charles II, son of Charles I. Cromwell would lead a subsequent military campaign against the Scots, including a decisive victory at the Scottish city of Dundee.
With the Scots defeated, Parliament re-formed in 1651. Cromwell sought to push the legislative body to call for new elections and establish a united government over England, Scotland and Ireland.
When some opposed, Cromwell forcibly disbanded Parliament. Several months later, following various attempts to establish a government, John Lambert, himself a key Parliamentary general during the English Civil Wars, drafted a new constitution, effectively making Cromwell Lord Protector for life.
Although he frequently emphasized post-Civil War “healing” in his public speeches, Cromwell dissolved Parliament again in 1655, when the legislative body began debating constitutional reforms.
The so-called Second Protectorate Parliament, instated in 1657, offered to make Cromwell king. However, given that he had fought so hard to abolish the monarchy, he refused the post, and was ceremoniously appointed Lord Protector for a second time.
How Did Oliver Cromwell Die?
Cromwell died from kidney disease or a urinary tract infection in 1658 at age 59 while still serving as Lord Protector. His son Richard Cromwell assumed the post, but was forced to resign due to a lack of support within Parliament or the military.
In the leadership vacuum that ensued, George Monck assumed control of the New Model Army and spearheaded the formation of a new Parliament, which proceeded to pass constitutional reforms that re-established the monarchy. In 1660, Charles II, who had been living in exile, returned to England to assume the throne, thereby beginning the English Restoration.
Nearly two years after his death, on January 30, 1661 — the 12th anniversary of the execution of Charles I — Cromwell’s body was exhumed by supporters of the monarchy from its resting place at Westminster Abbey and beheaded. His head was displayed atop a pole outside Westminster Hall for more than 20 years.
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Oliver Cromwell, BBC.
Headless story. The Economist.
Oliver Cromwell and Family. Westminster Abbey.
Kennedy, M. (2009). “Oliver Cromwell's grave comes back to life for summer at Westminster Abbey.” The Guardian.
Oliver Cromwell: the Most Hated Man in Irish History? History.co.uk.