Heroes and villans
If asked to name the historical English character who most influenced modern life, I would name “God’s Englishman”. In other words, Oliver Cromwell, and this is how he was described by historian Christopher Hill. Up until a short time ago, I would have also named Cromwell as one of my historical heroes.
However, I was recently taken to task by a very dear Irish friend, whilst in the midst of praising Cromwell’s achievements to the rafters. He sharply reminded me, in extremely robust language, of the terrible atrocities inflicted on the Irish population by Cromwell’s army in the 1640s. And so I took some time to read about the siege of the Irish town of Drogheda. Thousands of civilians, both adults and children, as well as soldiers, were brutally murdered on Cromwell’s command. I had chosen not to see it, because it didn’t fit it with my idealised portrait of Cromwell, the English statesman. But I was compelled to look afresh at his legacy.
So, I don’t feel I can give a man with such a bloody history In Ireland, the status of hero. However, I can still appreciate him as a champion for British democracy: Oliver has always been a character who fiercely divides opinion. Cromwell himself told Peter Lely, the artist who was painting his portrait, to include warts and all. So here, having acknowledged the dark side, I now want to concentrate on the more positive. Let’s examine his legacy in England, and whether we can see the impact of his life today.
Divine Right of Kings
Well of course, the political legacy is there. England was the first European country to do away with a monarchy and establish a republic. It was a bold experiment that ultimately failed. But without the English revolution, and the new ways of government that were explored, there would, arguably, have been no American revolution a hundred years later. And indeed, no French revolution ten or so years after that. Cromwell quashed for ever the concept of the divine right of kings. He laid the foundations of our modern democracy. He cut the power of monarchy, and made the will of Parliament paramount. The slow and tentative journey towards universal suffrage was surely triggered by the people’s Parliament of Cromwell.
As a testament to this champion of democracy, one of the earliest warships built by the Americans during the war of independence was named the Oliver Cromwell. It was then captured by the Brits and renamed the Restoration ! A cheeky riposte, considering that Cromwell’s “reign” was immediately followed by the restoration of King Charles II….
And incidentally, talking of warships, Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty in the first World War, proposed that one of the early Dreadnoughts be named the Oliver Cromwell. Perhaps predictably, King George V refused to approve the proposal.
New Model Army
During the Civil War, Cromwell also set about reforming the rag-tag army of Parliamentarians. It typified the ramshackle nature of raised armies of the time. Armies then were raised locally. They often refused to travel to distant parts to fight. Cromwell created a professional standing army, ready to fight anywhere. In his New Model Army, he instilled disciplines not previously seen. Soldiers were issued with directives on their required behaviour – Cromwell fervently believed in the religious justification of his cause. He demanded godly behaviour from his troops. He standardised uniforms and gear, and most importantly, pay. Some commanders were elbowed out: many who held their positions solely through their position in society were dismissed . They were replaced with leaders chosen by merit. You can see how Cromwell sowed the seeds of our current professional forces.
All this took money. Cromwell levied funds from areas of the country with sympathy to the Parliamentarian cause. When researching my family tree, I found an ancestor, a certain Wiltshire yeoman. He had contributed the sum of five pounds, to help Cromwell’s military effort, during a county levy. This would be about £300 in today’s money. But remember, such “voluntary” contributions were made with an army camping in nearby fields, and with your arm most likely twisted up behind your back!
A country gentleman
There are several places around the country where Cromwell’s life is celebrated. He was born in Huntingdon, and his family home was in nearby Ely, Cambridgeshire. It is now a museum open to visitors. He married an Essex girl, Elizabeth Bourchier from Felstead. They later sent their son to Felsted School in Essex, which is still going strong as a private school.
There are statues of Cromwell scattered around the country, including the most famous, outside the Houses of Parliament. It was erected at the very end of Victoria’s reign. The old queen must have been too tired to argue the toss.
As to his mortal remains, when he died in 1658 , his body was quietly interred in Westminster Abbey. After the Restoration, in 1661 his body was exhumed on the orders of Charles. It was taken to Tyburn, where it was hanged on a gibbet. The day was the twelfth anniversary of the execution of Charles’ father Charles I. At the end of that day, his body was apparently cast into a common pit at Tyburn. So the last resting place of Oliver’s body is probably somewhere under the Marble Arch roundabout. There are folk tales that his daughter managed to spirit away the remains for private burial.
Not so his head, which was hacked from his body. It was stuck on a pole outside Westminster Hall for 30 years. Charles II, the “Merry Monarch”, took the idea of revenge very seriously.
The head was retrieved, after it had apparently fallen off the pole during a storm. It then passed between collectors of curiosities for three hundred years. Until, in 1960, it was buried at a secret spot in Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge University, where Oliver had studied as a young man.
On a lighter note, there may be more unusual ways that Cromwell’s achievements are commemorated:
Knocked about a bit
As I have written elsewhere, as a child, I was immersed in the sounds of the music hall songs sung by my grandparents. A favourite for them, probably because of the awful pun contained in the verse was:
One of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit,
One of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit,
Outside the “Oliver Cromwell” last Saturday night,
I was one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit !
It is true that, during the course of the English Civil War, many castles and fortifications were bombarded, or “slighted”. This was to destroy and weaken them during the course of a battle or siege. Corfe castle and Donnington castle for example, were left in ruins. So was the castle within the royalist bastion of Bridgnorth in Shropshire, taken by the Parliamentarians after a three week siege.
The other Cromwell
It was only when I got older and started to be interested in history, that I wondered about the “ruins Cromwell knocked about a bit”. Whether the old song might have actually referred to those flattened by the other famous Cromwell – the Thomas Cromwell of “Wolf Hall” fame. That particular Cromwell was responsible for executing Henry VIII’s commands. Henry ordered Cromwell to dismantle the Catholic church’s rich infrastructure, following England’s religious break with Rome. The church-owned buildings which weren’t sold off to the highest bidder were left to fall into decay and ruin. The beautiful ruins of the old Yorkshire monasteries at Fountains, Riveaux and Jervaux still bear testament to these times.
You might wonder if there is a link between Thomas and Oliver – and indeed there is. Oliver is not a direct descendant of Thomas. But Oliver’s ancestor was the son of Thomas’s sister. Thomas’s sister Katherine married a Welshman named Morgan Williams. Their son Richard Williams took his uncle’s surname as an acknowledgement of his exalted position. Oliver was Richard Cromwell’s direct descendant. I wonder what Thomas and Oliver would think of each other ?
The memory of Cromwell and his army may also live on in a well-loved nursery rhyme….
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Nothing to do with broken eggs. That was an invention of Lewis Carroll, as magicked up in his “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. No, Humpty Dumpty was the nickname of a cannon. At least, according to a tale which you may or may not wish to believe. According to the story, the cannon in question was placed on the walls of Colchester castle. It was part of the ordnance used by the Royalists holed up within. Humpty Dumpty was part of the defence against a siege by the Parliamentarian army led by Cromwell’s general, Sir Thomas Fairfax.
After Humpty had been used to make several bombardments on the Parliamentarian army, Fairfax’s patience was exhausted. They made a successful counter-attack upon the castle walls with their own ordnance, at which Humpty Dumpty tumbled down, never to be put together again.
After many months the siege had been broken, and the Parliamentarians stormed the castle. The leaders of the Royalist defence were summarily executed in the shadows of the castle walls. You can stand on the same spot today, where a small monument commemorates the event.
Is this a true tale? There is no contemporary documentary evidence for this particular Humpty Dumpty. Some say it is a clever marketing ploy by the Essex Tourist Board ( yes, there is such an entity). But I do think it has the ring of truth, and we should not underestimate the influence of folk memory.
Hiding in plain sight
So, a few snapshots of a flawed but significant life. But can we truly see Oliver’s influence today, besides a scattering of statues, museums and ruins? I think the answer is a resounding yes – every time you cast your vote in the ballot box.
A good read
There are many biographies of Cromwell, but I do like Antonia Fraser’s “Cromwell, Our Chief of Men”. It focuses on Cromwell as a person, rather than the minutiae of the Civil War, interesting though that is.