For over 1000 years, England has been a monarchy.…except for eleven years in the 17th century when it wasn’t.
During that period, it was ruled by a man by the name of Oliver Cromwell.
Cromwell was unquestionably a brilliant general and was also a bit of a hypocrite when it came to politics.
He was a highly controversial figure during his life and remains so today.
Learn more about Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
As I have mentioned many times in other episodes, the 16th and 17th centuries were highly tumultuous periods in England. This was almost entirely due to the issue of religion.
To give a brief summary, Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church to get a divorce and purged most of the Catholic institutions in the country.
He was succeeded by his son, Edward VI, who was a Protestant but a child. He was succeeded by Henry’s eldest daughter Mary who was a Catholic, who was then succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth who was a Protestant.
She had no children and was then succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who was baptized Catholic and raised Protestant, and he was succeeded by his son Charles I, who was Catholic.
This religious ping-ponging amongst the monarchs became a problem because England, by the time of Charles I, was a mostly Protestant country with a Catholic monarch.
With that, Oliver Cromwell was born on April 25, 1599, in the small town of Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, just outside of Cambridge.
His father was a minor landowner, and he had a relative, Thomas Cromwell, who served under Henry VIII and was later beheaded by him as well. Before he was beheaded, he made a small fortune helping Henry in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Oliver was the second of 10 children and was baptized into the Church of England. He attended the Huntingdon Grammar School and then went on to study at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge.
Sidney Sussex College was a rather recent addition to Cambridge and was imbued with a strong Puritan ethic.
The Puritans were a sect that emphasized personal piety, biblical literacy, and religious discipline, rejecting the hierarchical and centralized church structure. They were influential in politics but also faced opposition and persecution from the government and conservative members of the Church of England, which they sought to reform to purge it of its Catholic vestiges.
In 1620, at the age of 21, he married Elizabeth Bourchier, who came from a wealthy merchant family who were also strict Puritans. However, at this time, there is no indication that Cromwell, himself, had adopted Puritanism.
In 1628, he was elected to parliament to represent his hometown of Huntingdon. His tenure in parliament was short-lived, as King Charles dissolved parliament in 1629.
Financially, things went bad for Cromwell after that. In 1631 he was forced to sell most of his property and move to a farmhouse due to a dispute with the town.
This was a turning point for Cromwell. He became depressed, and it led to a spiritual awakening. He formally joined the Puritan Church and, in 1634, actually attempted to migrate to the Americans to join the Connecticut Colony. The government blocked him, but if he had gone through with it, it would have radically changed English history.
With this spiritual awakening, he became more critical of the government and the policies of King Charles.
Relations between the King and Parliament eroded during the 1630s and early 1640s. The issues had to do with the role and power of the monarchy and the role of the Church of England, especially as Puritanism had become popular amongst members of parliament.
This is a vast oversimplification, but for the purposes of this episode, things got very bad between King Charles and the Parliament
This came to a head in 1642 when forces loyal to the Parliament, called the New Model Army, squared off against forces loyal to the Monarchy in what became known as the First English Civil War.
Prior to the outbreak of war, I wouldn’t say that Cromwell was a nobody, but he certainly wasn’t a high-ranking figure in England.
At the start of the Civil War, Cromwell raised a troop of cavalry from his own lands, which he later transformed into the famous Ironsides regiment. He quickly gained a reputation as a fierce and effective commander. He played a key role in several of the most important battles of the war, including the Battle of Edgehill, the Battle of Marston Moor, and the Battle of Naseby.
Cromwell’s success on the battlefield was due in large part to his innovative tactics and his ability to inspire his men with his religious fervor, all despite having no formal military training.
By 1644, after just two years of combat, Oliver Cromwell had risen to the rank of Lieutenant General.
The year after, he had become second in command to the leader of the New Model Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax.
In May 1646, Charles surrendered to Scottish forces and was taken prisoner, ending the First English Civil War.
The royalist forces surrendered to Fairfax and Cromwell in Oxford.
In the aftermath of Charles’s surrender and imprisonment, there were several forces that all vied for power. The monarchists were one of the parties, of course, but the opposition then splintered into Presbyterians aligned with much of Parliament who wanted to reform the Church of England along Presbyterian lines, Independents aligned with the Army who didn’t want any religious heirachy, and the Scots who were also Presbyterians.
Charles tried to play the various parties off against each other, as they all still wanted to curry favor with the king to support their side.
As for Oliver Cromwell personally, with his military success, Cromwell became a leader in the Puritan movement and was once again elected to Parliament in 1648.
This time he was one of the leaders in Parliament, not just a backbencher.
Charles was kidnapped and taken from Parliament and brought into the hands of the army, where Cromwell was able to negotiate with him directly.
The negotiations went nowhere as Charles was planning another war, this time with the Scots invading England.
Royalist uprisings in Wales and a Scottish incursion into England were both put down quickly by Cromwell, and within six months, the Second English Civil War started and ended.
At the end of 1648, the New Model Army was now the most powerful force in England, and Cromwell saw it as the instrument of God’s judgment.
In December 1648, Colonel Thomas Pride entered parliament and forcibly removed anyone who wasn’t a supporter of the Cromwell and Fairfax faction. This became known as Pride’s Purge.
The remaining members of parliament, known as the Rump Parliament, now faced the question of what to do with the king.
They decided to put the king on trial for treason. Cromwell was the biggest supporter of the execution of the king as he felt it was the only way to, once and for all, end the civil war.
The entire proceeding was on legally shaky ground. As king, you can’t really, by definition, be guilty of treason. As king, he could veto any law passed by parliament, which put him on trial. As king, he could also pardon himself.
This whole trial of Charles I is worth a future episode of its own.
None of this mattered as the result was predetermined. Charles I was beheaded on January 30, 1649.
Without a king, or rather without a king in England, Parliament declared England to be a republic called the Commonwealth of England.
One of the first acts of the new Commonwealth was…..to invade Ireland. They now viewed Ireland as the greatest threat, as the Irish Catholics could join forces with the royalists.
Cromwell was sent to Ireland, and he was brutally efficient in putting down the Irish. Cromwell wasn’t in Ireland for long, but he was instrumental in ushering in a period where as many as one-tenth of the entire Irish population died.
Cromwell returned to England in 1650 after Scotland declared Charles’s son, Charles II, as king. Cromwell led another brilliant military campaign against Scotland which resulted in the English occupation of Scotland and Charles II fleeing to France.
With the fighting over, Cromwell returned to Parliament to find that without a king, the MPs no longer had anything to unify against. They started to turn on each other.
Cromwell wanted a unified government for all of England, Scotland, and Ireland and for a new parliamentary election. However, parliament kept putting off holding another election. Eventually, on April 20, 1653, Oliver Cromwell entered parliament with 40 soldiers and dissolved parliament. He supposedly said, “you are no Parliament, I say you are no Parliament; I will put an end to your sitting”.
After parliament was dissolved, Major-General John Lambert drafted a constitution for the Commonwealth called the Instrument of Government. This was passed by a council of men appointed by Cromwell.
Central to the document was the following:
Oliver Cromwell, Captain-General of the forces of England, Scotland and Ireland, shall be, and is hereby declared to be, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, and the dominions thereto belonging, for his life.
If you see shades of Julius Caesar here, I don’t think you are mistaken.
Cromwell began to act and have the powers of a king. He signed documents as Oliver P. The P being for “protector,” just as how the king would sign something with an “R” for rex.
In 1657, a new constitution gave Cromwell the power to appoint his successor. Who did he appoint? His own son, Richard Cromwell.
Oliver Cromwell led a war to fight against a monarchy, only for himself to basically become a monarch.
Oliver Cromwell died on September 3, 1658, of what is believed to be kidney disease. He was buried with honors in Westminster Abbey.
His son Richard became Lord Protector of England, but he was not his father. Parliament turned on him, and in May of 1659, he resigned from office.
The Commonwealth began to fall apart. In 1660, General George Monck came south with his forces from Scotland. Almost all of the parliamentary forces which went to meet him deserted, resulting in Monck arriving in London and declaring the monarchy restored.
Charles II was the new king.
Usually, this is the end of the story. Oliver Cromwell, the subject of the episode, is dead and in the ground, and history passes judgment on his memory.
That, however, is not how this story ends. This episode now takes a very bizarre turn.
There were a lot of people who didn’t like Oliver Cromwell who wanted payback, not the least of which was Charles II, whose father had been killed by Cromwell.
On January 30, 1661, Cromwell’s body was dug up from Westminster Abbey and posthumously executed. His corpse was hung and then beheaded.
The head of Oliver Cromwell was put on a spike and placed in front of Westminster Hall….where it sat for 30 years, only briefly being moved for repairs. (repairs to the building, not the head)
Supposedly one evening, there was a storm, and the wooden pike it was on snapped, and the head fell to the ground, where it was found by a guard.
The guard took it home and hid it in his chimney. When notices were posted a few days later, he was too afraid to return the head, so he kept it hidden for the rest of his life, only telling his daughter about it.
After the guard’s death, his daughter supposedly sold it. It turned up in 1710 in a small museum filled with strange artifacts owned by Claudius Du Puy.
After Du Puy died in 1738, the head disappeared again for about 40 years.
It was found in a market stall by a man named James Cox. The person who had it on display was a failed actor and alcoholic named Samuel Russell.
Cox offered Russell £100 for it, which was a lot of money at the time. Russell refused, so Cox took a different approach. Knowing that Russell was down on his luck, he befriended him and gave him a series of small loans. When the amount owed reached £118, Cox demanded repayment, and all Russell had to give was Cromwell’s head.
In 1799, Cox sold the head for £230 to a group known as the Hughes brothers, who wanted to use it for a museum of their own.
The Museum failed, and the head wound up in the hands of one of the daughters of the Hughes Brothers. She would occasionally show it to people and eventually sold it in 1815 to Josiah Henry Wilkinson.
Wilkinson had no business plans for it. I guess he just liked having a severed head around the house, and he would take it out to show guests at parties.
The head stayed in the family, and by the late 19th century, there were other Cromwell heads floating around.
George Rolleston, a professor of anatomy and physiology at Oxford University, studied the competing Cromwell heads and declared the Wilkinson head to be legit, saying, “while the documentary evidence was slightly dubious, the physical evidence was extremely strong. Although it was not categorically proved that this was Cromwell’s head … there was no way the possibility could be refuted.”
One of the identifying features which led to this conclusion was warts on Cromwell’s face.
Finally, in 1960, Dr. Horace Wilkinson was in possession of the head, having had it passed down for generations. He gave the head to Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge, the same college which Oliver Cromwell attended.
In a very small ceremony, the head was buried in the college chapel.
Oliver Cromwell’s legacy can still be felt today. There is a statue of him outside of the parliament building in London. There was a great movie about Cromwell made in 1970 with Richard Harris as Cromwell and Alec Guinness as King Charles I. I highly recommend it.
I also can’t forget the 1989 song by Monty Python
In the end, all the efforts of Oliver Cromwell seems to have been a bit of a waste. He fought and killed a king, only to become a type of king himself, and then to only have the actual monarchy restored once he was gone.
Oliver Cromwell still invokes strong reactions today. The royal family will still not have anything to do with him, and during World War II, the king vetoed the idea of naming a ship after him.
To some, he was a villain, and to others, he was just a man who was a head….of his time.