Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

The lion of the 17th century

'The lion of the 17th century'

Oliver Cromwell was the architect of England's revolution who understood that if society was to develop, the old order had to be overthrown. Gareth Jenkins looks at his life

The anniversary of Cromwell's birth this month has met with a mixed response. He is praised as a great figure in English history, yet attacked for his 'extremism'. A Church of England vicar recently went on the radio to criticise Cromwell's religious views, which supposedly led him both to tear down altars and to suppress Irish Catholics. These criticisms have a familiar tone, since most of those who stand for the existing order dislike Cromwell as a regicide who executed Charles I as part of his revolution. These people would prefer to forget that their power and the society they uphold only exist because of Cromwell's revolution, and that, far from England's history being one of peaceful and gradual change, it is one of violent upheaval and revolution. Cromwell's role in that story is decisive.

Oliver Cromwell was horn in 1599. He was a country gentleman of relatively modest means from a landowning family which had grown wealthy through the dissolution of the monasteries earlier that century. Such families were, together with the powerful merchant class based in the City of London, part of the emerging bourgeoisie. He came from East Anglia, then one of the most economically advanced areas of the country, and played an active part in local politics, particularly in the fight to ensure that local government in his native town of Huntingdon was not controlled by crown appointees. He also opposed the crown's attempts to take over and drain the Fens, which would have deprived the common people of their livelihoods.

Cromwell was also a Puritan. The Puritans, the most radical wing of the Protestants, emphasised liberty of worship based on individual conscience. They wanted further reform of the official Protestant Church of England whose hierarchy and form of worship they feared as making too many compromises to the old Catholic order. In a period when all ideas were couched in religious terms, many of the ideas of Puritanism were the equivalent of revolutionary ideology. They justified and inspired the fight against the old order.

The early 17th century was a period of great social and political turbulence in England, expressed often in conflict between the monarchy, which was backward looking and conservative, and parliament, which increasingly came to represent the new forces in society. In 1640 Charles I was forced to summon parliament after 11 years of bypassing it and attempting to raise finances independently. He was bankrupt and needed to raise taxes. The new parliament, which came to be known as the Long Parliament, asserted its authority. This marked a turning point. It impeached and executed Charles's chief minister; it declared any taxation without its consent illegal; it abolished such instruments of monarchical rule as the Star Chamber.

The parliamentary revolt by the gentry led to an outpouring of wider discontent. Rebellion in Ireland posed the question of who would command the forces required to put down rebellion: the king's or parliament's nominee. This in turn raised the question of who would exercise state power. One section of parliament pushed for, and narrowly won, the demand for further reforms. The winners consolidated their position by appealing for support outside parliament, a move which disturbed the conservative elements. Cromwell was among the most forward looking of the parliamentary leaders.

In 1642 civil war broke out. The parliamentary forces were divided. Presbyterians, who favoured a modified state church on the Scottish model which they could control, were reluctant to fight an all out war. The Independents, on the other hand, who stood for the dissolution of the state church, wanted to mobilise parliament's superior resources and create an effective army based on merit rather than rank, and without conflicts between commanders.

The difference between the Presbyterians and the Independents was at bottom a conflict between the greater and the lesser gentry about how far they were prepared to go in their confrontation with the king. The difference is summed up in this exchange between Cromwell and his general, the Earl of Manchester, in 1644.
'If we beat the king 99 times,' said the earl, 'yet he is king still; but if the king beat us once we shall all be hanged.' Cromwell replied, with the logical clarity which characterised his bold leadership of the Independent gentry, 'My lord, if this be so, why did we take up arms at first? This must be against fighting ever hereafter.'

Two factors turned the war. One was the intervention of the masses themselves, who checked Charles's advance on London. The second was the Self Denying Ordinance passed by parliament, with members of both Houses laying down their commissions. This led to the unification and transformation of the parliamentary military forces under Cromwell's command.

The New Model Army became a formidable fighting force. Cromwell built it by recruiting in a new way. He insisted on engaging those most committed to the struggle.
'You must,' Cromwell told his cousin, 'get men of spirit ... that is likely to go on as far as gentlemen will go, or else I am sure you will be beaten still.'

Such people were likely to be middling folk, even 'common men', of 'poor and mean parentage'--people held in suspicion by many parliamentary leaders as being as much a threat to their property as the king.

Cromwell's genius was to realise that the war could only be won, and bourgeois property rights secured, by appealing well beyond the narrow circles of parliamentary privilege. He declared, 'If the king chanced to be in the body of the enemy, I would as soon discharge my pistol upon him as upon any private man; and if your conscience will not let you do the like, I advise you not to enlist under me.'

The success of the New Model Army turned the tide, and the battle of Naseby in June 1645 saw the decisive defeat of the king's forces. The first phase of the civil war came to an end. Cromwell was now the undisputed leader of the parliamentary side.

Parliament carried out a few more reforms (Archbishop Laud, who had been intent on re-Catholicising the Church of England, was executed; the bishops were abolished and their lands put up for sale). But the Presbyterians, the majority party in parliament, were reluctant to go any further and carry out root and branch reforms, as many were demanding. In particular they feared the radicalism of the New Model Army, and were determined to disband it without even paying its wages. They preferred compromising with the monarchy to no monarchy whatsoever.

Discontent led to mutiny in the army. The threat was that the fighting would now break out between parliament and the army. Although Cromwell had been one of the few parliamentarians who had had no hesitation in recruiting people whose religious views were on the extreme left wing of Puritanism, with correspondingly democratic attitudes to match, he was no democrat or Leveller. Tolerant in religious matters (with the exception of Catholicism), he was nevertheless part of the landowning gentry.

For a while Cromwell and the other senior officers hesitated before throwing in their lot with their men. Cromwell recognised that, if parliament was to preserve the gains won during the civil war, it would have to be subordinated to the army. He again had to secure the support of the interests to his left (those of the radical small producers) in order to settle accounts with the right.

Parliament could not be trusted to negotiate with the king (who had been in parliament's hands since the beginning of 1647). A lowly officer, Cornet Joyce, was dispatched to take Charles Stuart into the army's control. The army set up a general council, composed of the generals and representatives of the officers and the rank and file. It vowed not to disband or separate until its grievances had been settled, and called for parliament to be purged of its leading Presbyterians and for elections for a new parliament. The army briefly occupied to force its demands on a reluctant parliament. But Cromwell had no intention of letting the radicals take over. Chairing the general council's Putney Debates of October 1647, he rejected Leveller demands for increased democracy and extension of the suffrage beyond the men of large property. But his opposition was pragmatic rather than theoretical. His watchword was army unity. In the confusion which might come from the army tearing itself apart over such issues, the enemy might seize the opportunity to take up the struggle again. As if to prove the point, the king escaped from army custody in November. Cromwell used the occasion to impose unity on the army. The king had proved treacherous in his negotiations with parliament. London was reoccupied by the army, a thoroughgoing purge of parliament was carried out, and Cromwell was the moving force behind the trial of Charles I.

The trial of Charles I

England was now a republic, the Commonwealth. The monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished. Under Cromwell, the English Revolution had been bold enough to carry out a thorough demolition of all the feudal remnants that were hindering the free development of capitalist property relations. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who described Cromwell 300 years later as the 'lion of the 17th century', summed up his role thus:

He wanted to destroy the old forces of feudalism and absolutism, yet did not want to see the revolution destroy all property. Cromwell was a bourgeois revolutionary. Once victorious, he turned on his left wing allies, the Levellers, whose leaders he imprisoned. The new republic faced enemies not only to its right--royalists and semi-royalists of the Presbyterian sort--but enemies among the religious and political radicals who had expected much more from the overthrowing of the old order.

Cromwell's power rested on the point of his army's bayonets. This was too narrow a social base. While the new government delivered results, the beneficiaries of the civil war were prepared to tolerate the situation. Cromwell rapidly subdued Ireland, which had been in revolt since 1641, with a brutality that became legendary. The populations of Drogheda and Wexford were massacred. Two thirds of the land of Ireland was expropriated, much of it to London merchants as a reward for advancing money to parliament.

Catholic Ireland was seen by Cromwell as the back door which England's traditional continental enemies would like to open as the quickest route to overthrowing the Commonwealth. Rapid and brutal conquest would bolt that door--as well as making sure that no lingering revolt would be a drain on English finances. Scotland, which had recognised Charles's son as king, was also defeated. Ireland and Scotland were now united to England.

Victory at home led to the republic seeking to carve a more powerful position for itself internationally. In particular, by passing the Navigation Acts of 1650 and 1651, it embarked on a process of economic expansion at the expense of its trading rivals, the Dutch. The foundations of England's supremacy over the next two centuries were laid. Despite the successes of the Commonwealth, which reconciled many of its opponents to its rule, the cost of supporting the army, without which Cromwell could not have survived, was resented. Parliament dragged its heels when it came to further reforms. In 1653 the rump of the Long Parliament, which had sat since 1640, was expelled by Cromwell himself. In its place met an assembly of 140 men selected by the army leaders, some nominated by Independent congregations. Cromwell entrusted it with carrying through real reforms, in the hope that it would possess the necessary social authority that the army lacked. Once again Cromwell was appealing to his left. The Barebones Parliament, as it was sneeringly called, included many of the 'common' sort in an effort to counter the pressure of the big property owners.

The assembly proved a failure. The proposals for radical reform frightened its more conservative elements. They forced its dissolution, and power was returned to Cromwell. A new parliament proved no solution, and in 1655 Cromwell dissolved it. England was then subjected to military government with tax raising powers virtually independent of parliament. Cromwell now moved to the right, attempting to conciliate the large scale property owners he had alienated. Indeed, there was talk of his becoming king. His actions were paving the way towards the restoration of the monarchy. On his death in 1659 the regime he had created crumbled. His immense authority had compensated for the narrowness of its social base. Without him the 'natural rulers' reasserted their 'right' to decide who should rule. In 1660 parliament gave Charles II back his throne. Had the revolution simply gone full circle? Was the Commonwealth the short lived triumph of killjoy fanatics and regicides? As Trotsky put it, the revolution had far wider repercussions:


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