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Oliver Cromwell in United Kingdom

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) is the most interesting figure in seventeenth-century England. Belonging by birth to the class of country gentlemen, his first appearance in public life was in the Parliament of 1628 as a pleader for the liberty of Puritan preaching. When the Long Parliament met in 1640, Cromwell, now forty-one years of age, assumed a conspicuous place. His clothes were cheap and homely, “his countenance swollen and reddish, his voice sharp and untuneable,” nevertheless his fervid eloquence and energy soon made him “very much hearkened unto.” From the Civil War, as we know, Cromwell emerged as an unequaled military leader, the idol of his soldiers, fearing God but not man.

His frequent use of Biblical phrases in ordinary conversation and his manifest confidence that he was performing God’s work flowed from an intense religious zeal. He belonged, properly speaking, to the Independents, who believed that each local congregation of Christians should be practically free, excepting that “prelacy” (i.e., the episcopal form of church government) and “popery” (i.e., Roman Catholic Christianity) were not to be tolerated. In private life Cromwell was fond of “honest sport,” of music and art. It is said that his gayety when he had “drunken a cup of wine too much” and his taste in statuary shocked his more austere fellow-Puritans. In public life he was a man of great forcefulness, occasionally giving way to violent temper; he was a statesman of signal ability, aiming to secure good government and economic prosperity for England and religious freedom for Protestant Dissenters.

Radical Experiments under Cromwell

After arbitrarily dissolving the Rump of the Long Parliament (1653), Cromwell and his Council of State broke with tradition entirely by selecting 140 men to constitute a legislative body or convention. This body speedily received the popular appellation of “Barebone’s Parliament” after one of its members, a certain leather merchant, who bore the descriptive Puritan name of Praisegod Barebone. The new legislators were good Independents—”faithful, fearing God, and hating covetousness.” Recommended by Independent ministers, they felt that God had called them to rule in righteousness. Their zeal for reform found expression in the reduction of public expenditure, in the equalization of taxes, and in the compilation of a single code of laws; but their radical proposals for civil marriage and for the abolition of tithes startled the clergy and elicited from the larger landowners the cry of “confiscation!” Before much was accomplished, however, the more conservative members of “Barebone’s Parliament” voted to “deliver up unto the Lord-General [Cromwell] the powers we received from him.”

The Protectorate, 1653-1659

Upon the failure of this experiment, Cromwell’s supporters in the army prepared an “Instrument of Government,” or constitution. By this Instrument of Government—the first written constitution in modern times—a “Protectorate” was established, which was a constitutional monarchy in all but name. Oliver Cromwell, who became “Lord Protector” for life, was to govern with the aid of a small Council of State. Parliaments, meeting at least every three years, were to make laws and levy taxes, the Protector possessing the right to delay, but not to veto, legislation. Puritanism was made the state religion.

Parliament under the Protectorate

The first Parliament under the Protectorate was important for three reasons:

  • It consisted of only one House;
  • it was the Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland rather than of England alone;
  • its members were elected on a reformed basis of representation,—that is, the right of representation had been taken from many small places and transferred to more important towns.

Practical Dictatorship of Cromwell, 1655-1658

Although royalists were excluded from the polls, the Independents were unable to control a majority in the general election, for, it must be remembered, they formed a very small, though a powerful, minority of the population. The Presbyterians in the new Parliament, with characteristic stubbornness, quarreled with Cromwell, until he abruptly dismissed them (1655). Thenceforth Cromwell governed as a military dictator, placing England under the rule of his generals, and quarreling with his Parliaments. To raise money he obliged all those who had borne arms for the king to pay him 10 per cent of their rental. While permitting his office to be made hereditary, he refused to accept the title of king, but no Stuart monarch had ruled with such absolute power, nor was there much to choose between James’s “a deo rex, a rege lex” and Cromwell’s, “If my calling be from God and my testimony from the people, God and the people shall take it from me, else I will not part from it.”

The question is often raised, how Cromwell, representing the numerically insignificant Independents, contrived to maintain himself as absolute ruler of the British Isles. Three circumstances may have contributed to his strength:

  • He was the beloved leader of an army respected for its rigid discipline and feared for its grim mercilessness.
  • Under his strict enforcement of law and order, trade and industry brought domestic prosperity.
  • His conduct of foreign affairs was both satisfactory to English patriotism and profitable to English purses.

Advantageous commercial treaties were made with the Dutch and the French. Industrious Jews were allowed to enter England. Barbary pirates were chastised. In a war against Spain, the army won Dunkirk; and the navy, now becoming truly powerful, sank a Spanish fleet, wrested Jamaica from Spain, and brought home ship-loads of Spanish silver.

The weakness of Cromwell’s position, however, was obvious. Cavaliers were openly hostile to a régime of religious zealots; moderate Anglicans would suffer the despotism of Cromwell only as long as it promoted prosperity; Presbyterians were anxious to end the toleration which was accorded to all Puritan sects; radicals and republicans were eager to try new experiments.

Disorganization following the Death of Oliver Cromwell

The death of Cromwell (1658) left the army without a master and the country without a government. True, Oliver’s son, Richard Cromwell (1626-1712), attempted for a time to fill his father’s place, but soon abdicated after having lost control of both army and Parliament. Army officers restored the Rump of the Long Parliament, dissolved it, set it up again, and forced it to recall the Presbyterian members who had been expelled in 1648, and ended by obliging the reconstituted Long Parliament to convoke a new and freely elected “Convention Parliament.” Meanwhile, General Monck opened negotiations for the return of Charles II.


Further Reading

S. R. Gardiner, The History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, 4 vols. (1903). Among numerous biographies of Oliver Cromwell, the following are noteworthy: C. H. Firth, Cromwell (1900). in “Heroes of the Nations” Series; S. R. Gardiner, Cromwell (1899), and, by the same author, Cromwell’s Place in History (1897); John (Viscount) Morley, Oliver Cromwell (1899); A. F. Pollard, Factors in Modern History (1907), ch. ix-x; Thomas Carlyle, Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, ed. by S. C. Lomas, 3 vols. (1904). The Diary of John Evelyn, a royalist contemporary, affords naturally a somewhat different point of view: the best edition is that of H. B. Wheatley, 4 vols. (1906). Various special phases of the régime: C. H. Firth, Cromwell’s Army, 2d ed. (1912); Edward Jenks, The Constitutional Experiments of the Protectorate (1890); Sir J. R. Seeley, Growth of British Policy, Vol. II (1895), Part III; G. L. Beer, Cromwell’s Policy in its Economic Aspects (1902); Sir W. L. Clowes, The Royal Navy: a History, Vol. II (1898); G. B. Tatham, The Puritans in Power, a Study of the English Church from 1640 to 1660 (1913); W. A. Shaw, History of the English Church, 1640-1660, 2 vols. (1900); Robert Dunlop, Ireland under the Commonwealth, 2 vols. (1913), largely a collection of documents; C. H. Firth, The Last Years of the Protectorate, 2 vols. (1909).

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  • Article Name: Oliver Cromwell
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  • Description: Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) is the most interesting figure in seventeenth-century England. Belonging by birth to the class [...]

This entry was last updated: October 30, 2016

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