Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans in England

by Sir Charles Firth



EITHER as a soldier or as a statesman Cromwell was far greater than any Englishman of his time, and he was both soldier and statesman in one. We must look to Csar or Napoleon to find a parallel for this union of high political and military ability in one man. Cromwell was not as great a man as Csar or Napoleon, and he played his part on a smaller stage, but he "bestrode the narrow world" of Puritan England "like a colossus".

As a soldier he not only won great victories, but created the instrument with which he won them. Out of the military chaos which existed when the war began he organized the force which made Puritanism victorious. The New Model and the armies of the republic and the Protectorate were but his regiment of Ironsides on a larger scale. As in that regiment, the officers were carefully chosen. If possible, they were gentlemen; if gentlemen could not be had, plain yeomen or citizens; in any case, "men patient of wants, faithful and conscientious in their employment." Character as well as military skill was requisite. A colonel once complained that a captain whom Cromwell had appointed to his regiment was a better preacher than fighter. "Truly," answered Cromwell, "I think that he that prays and preaches best will fight best. I know nothing that will give the like courage and confidence as the knowledge of God in Christ will. I assure you he is a good man and a good officer." Inefficiency, on the other hand, certain heresies which were regarded as particularly blasphemous, and moral backslidings in general, led at once to the cashiering of any officer found guilty of them.

Officers, it has been well said, are the souls of an army; and the efficiency and good conduct which Cromwell required of his, they exacted from the rank and file. Most of the private soldiers were volunteers, though there were many pressed men amongst them, and it cannot be said that all those who fought for Puritanism were saints in any sense of the word. But regular pay and severe discipline made them in peace the best conducted soldiers in Europe, and in war an army "who could go anywhere and do anything." A common spirit bound men and officers together. It was their pride that they were not a mere mercenary army, but men who fought for principles as well as for pay. Cromwell succeeded in inspiring them not only with implicit confidence in his leadership, but with something of his own high enthusiasm. He had the power of influencing masses of men which Napoleon possessed. So he made an army of which, as Clarendon said, "victory seemed entailed"--"an army whose order and discipline, whose sobriety and manners, whose courage and success, made it famous and terrible over the world."

Cromwell's victories, however, were due to his own military genius even more than to the quality of his troops. The most remarkable thing in his military career is that it began so late. Most successful generals have been trained to arms from their youth, but Cromwell was forty-three years old before he heard a shot fired or set a squadron in the field. How was it, people often ask, that an untrained country gentleman beat soldiers who had learnt their trade under the most famous captains in Europe? The answer is that Cromwell had a natural aptitude for war, and that circumstances were singularly favourable to its rapid and full development. At the outset of the war he shoed an energy, a resolution, and a judgment which proved his possession of those qualities of intellect and character which war demands of leaders. The peculiar nature of the war, the absence of any general direction, and the disorganization of parliamentary forces gave him free scope for the exercise of these qualities. In the early part of the war each local leader fought for his own hand, and conducted a little campaign of his own. Subordinate officers possessed a freedom of action which subordinates rarely get, and with independence and responsibility good men ripened fast. At first, Cromwell was matched against opponents as untrained as himself, till by constant fighting he learnt how to fight. In a happy phrase Marvell speaks of Cromwell's "industrious valour." If he learnt the lessons of war quicker than other men it was because he concentrated all his faculties on the task, let no opportunity slip, and made every experience fruitful.

It was as a leader of cavalry that Cromwell earned his first laurels. In attack he was sudden and irresistibly vigorous. Like Rupert he loved to head his charging troopers himself, but in the heat of battle he controlled them with a firmer hand. When the enemy immediately opposed to him was broken he turned a vigilant eye on the battle, ready to throw his victorious squadrons into the scale, either to redress the balance or to complete the victory. At Marston Moor, as on many another field, he proved that he possessed that faculty of coming to a prompt and sure conclusion in sudden emergencies which Napier terms "the sure mark of a master spirit in war." When the fate of the battle was once decided he launched forth his swordsmen in swift and unsparing pursuit. "We had the execution of them two or three miles" is the grim phrase in which he describes the conclusion of his fight at Grantham, and after Naseby Cromwell's cavalry pursued for twelve miles.

When he rose to command an army, Cromwell's management of it in battle was marked by the same characteristics as his handling of his division of cavalry. In the early battles of the Civil War there was a strong family likeness: there was an absence of any generalship on either side. The general-in-chief exhibited his skill by his method of drawing up his army and his choice of a position; but when the battle began the army seemed to slip from his control. Each commander of a division acted independently; there was little co-operation between the different parts of the army; there was no sign of a directing brain. Cromwell, on the other hand, directed the movements of his army with the same purposeful energy with which he controlled his troopers. Its different divisions had each their definite task assigned to them, and their movements were so combined that each played its part in carrying out the general plan. The best example of Cromwell's tactical skill is in the battle of Dunbar. There, though far inferior in numbers, Cromwell held in check half the enemy's army with his artillery and a fraction of his forces, while he attacked with all his strength the key of the enemy's position, and decided the fate of the day by bringing a strong reserve into action at the crisis of the battle. Whenever the victory was gained it was utilized to the utmost. At Dunbar the Scots lost thirteen thousand men out of twenty-two thousand; after Preston less than a third of Hamilton's army succeeded in effecting their return to Scotland: after Worcester, not one troop or one company made good its retreat.

Cromwell's strategy, compared with that of contemporary generals, was remarkable for boldness and vigour. It reflected the energy of his character, but it was originally dictated by political as well as military considerations. "Without the speedy, vigorous, and effectual prosecution of the war," he declared in 1644, the nation would force Parliament to make peace on any terms. "Lingering proceeding, like those of soldiers beyond seas to spin out a war," must be abandoned, or the cause of Puritanism would be lost. Therefore, instead of imitating the cautious defensive system popular with professional soldiers, he adopted a system which promised more decisive results. "Cromwell," says a military critic, "was the first great exponent of the modern method of war. His was the strategy of Napoleon and Von Moltke, the strategy which, neglecting fortresses and the means of artificial defence as of secondary importance, strikes first at the army in the field."

In his Preston campaign Cromwell had to deal with an invading army more than twice the strength of his own, which ventured because of that superiority to advance without sufficient scouting and without sufficient concentration. He might have thrown himself across Hamilton's path and sought to drive him back; he chose instead to fall upon the flank of the Scots, and thrust his compact little force between them and Scotland. Thus he separated the different divisions of Hamilton's army, drove Hamilton with each blow farther from his supports, and inflicted on him a crushing defeat instead of a mere repulse. In 1650 and 1651, Cromwell had a much harder task given him, He had to invade a country which presented many natural difficulties, and which was defended by an army larger than his own under the command of a man who was a master of defensive strategy. All his efforts to make Leslie fight a pitched battle in the open field completely failed, until one mistake gave him the opportunity which he seized with such promptitude at Dunbar. In the campaign of 1651, Cromwell found himself brought to a standstill once more by Leslie's Fabian tactics. As Leslie gave him no opportunity he had to make one, and with wise audacity left the way to England open in order to tempt the Scots into the invasion which proved their destruction.

In his Irish campaigns Cromwell had an entirely different problem to solve. The opposing armies were too weak to face him in the field and too nimble to be brought to bay. The strength of the enemy consisted in the natural and artificial obstacles with which the country abounded: fortified cities commanding points of strategic value; mountains and bogs facilitating guerrilla warfare; an unhealthy climate, a hostile people, a country so wasted that the invader must draw most of his supplies from England. Under these conditions the war was a war of sieges, forays, and laborious marches, but there were no great battles. Cromwell combined the operations of his army and his fleet so as to utilize to the full England's command of the seas. He attacked the seaports first, and after mastering them secured the strong places which would give him the control of the rivers, thus gradually tightening his grasp on the country till its complete subjugation became only a matter of time.

Opinions may differ as to the comparative merits of these different campaigns. What remains clear is that Cromwell could adapt his strategy with unfailing success to the conditions of the theatre in which he waged war and to the character of the antagonists he had to meet. His military genius was equal to every duty which fate imposed upon him.

Experts alone can determine Cromwell's precise place amongst great generals. Cromwell himself would have held it the highest honour to be classed with Gustavus Adolphus either as soldier or statesman. Each was the organizer of the army he led to victory, each an innovator in war--Gustavus in tactics, Cromwell in strategy. Gustavus was the champion of European Protestantism as Oliver wished to be, and each while fighting for his creed contrived to further also the material interests of his country. But whatever similarity existed between their aims the position of an hereditary monarch and an usurper are too different for the parallel to be a complete one. On the other hand, the familiar comparison of Cromwell with Napoleon is justified rather by the resemblance between their careers than by any likeness between their characters. Each was the child of a revolution, brought by military success to the front rank, and raised by his own act to the highest. Each, after domestic convulsions, laboured to rebuild the fabric of civil government, and to found the State on a new basis. But he revolutions which raised them to power were of a different nature and demanded different qualities in the two rulers.

Cromwell's character has been the subject of controversies which have hardly yet died away. Most contemporaries judged him with great severity. To Royalists he seemed simply, as Clarendon said, "a brave, bad man." Yet while Clarendon condemned he could not refrain from admiration, for though the usurper "had all the wickedness against which damnation is pronounced, and for which hell fire is prepared, so he had some virtues which have caused the memory of some men in all ages to be celebrated." Though he was a tyrant he was "not a man of blood," and he possessed not only "a wonderful understanding in the natures and humours of men," but also "a great spirit, an admirable circumspection and sagacity, and a most magnanimous resolution."

The Republicans regarded the Protector as a self-seeking apostate. "In all his changes," said Ludlow, "he designed nothing but to advance himself." He sacrificed the public cause "to the idol of his own ambition." All was going well with the State, a political millennium was at hand, "and the nation likely to attain in a short time that measure of happiness which human things are capable of, when by the ambition of one man the hopes and expectations of all good men were disappointed."

Baxter, a Presbyterian, though as convinced an opponent of the Protector as Ludlow, was a more generous critic. According to him, Cromwell was a good man who fell before a great temptation. He

"meant honestly in the main, and was pious and conscionable in the main course of his life, till prosperity and success corrupted him. Then his general religious zeal gave way to ambition, which increased as successes increased. When his successes had broken down all considerable opposition then was he in face of his strongest temptations, which conquered him as he had conquered others."

But like Milton's Satan, even after his fall "all his original virtue was not lost." As ruler of England "it was his design to do good in the main, and to promote the interest of God more than any had done before him."

Eighteenth-century writers judged Cromwell with the same severity as his contemporaries. "Cromwell, damned to everlasting fame," served Pope to point a moral against the desire of making a name in the world. Voltaire summed up Cromwell as half knave, half fanatic, and Hume termed him a hypocritical fanatic. Even as late as 1839, John Forster quoted as "indisputably true" Landor's verdict that Cromwell lived a hypocrite and died a traitor.

Six years later, Carlyle published his collection of Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, which for every unprejudiced reader effectually dispelled the theory of Cromwell's hypocrisy. "Not a man of falsehoods, but a man of truths," was Carlyle's conclusion, and subsequent historians and biographers have accepted it as sound. It is less easy to answer the question whether Cromwell was a fanatic or not. Fanaticism, like orthodoxy, is a word which means one thing to one man and something else to the next, and to many besides Hume enthusiast and fanatic are synonymous terms. It is plain, however, that Cromwell was a statesman of a different order from most. Religious rather than political principles guided his action, and his political ideals were the direct outcome of his creed. Not that purely political considerations exercised no influence on his policy, but that their influence instead of being paramount was in his case of only secondary importance.

In one of his speeches Cromwell states in very explicit language the rule which he followed in his public life. "I have been called to several employments in this nation, and I did endeavour to discharge the duty of an honest man to God and His people's interest, and to this Commonwealth."

What did these phrases mean? If anyone had asked Cromwell what his duty to God was in public affairs, he would have answered that it was to do God's will. "We all desire," he said to his brother officers in 1647, "to lay this as the foundation of all our actions, to do that which is the will of God." He urged them to deliberate well before acting, "that we may see that the things we do have the will of God in them." For to act inconsiderately was to incur the risk of acting counter to God's design, and so "to be found fighting against God."

But, in the maze of English politics, how were men to ascertain what that will was? Some Puritans claimed to have had it directly revealed to them, and put forward their personal convictions as the dictates of Heaven. Cromwell never did so. "I cannot say," he declared in a prayer-meeting where such revelations had been alleged, "that I have received anything that I can speak as in the name of the Lord." He believed that men might still "be spoken unto by the Spirit of God," but when these "divine impressions and divine discoveries" were made arguments for political action, they must be received with the greatest caution. For the danger of self-deception was very real. "We are very apt, all of us," said he, "to call that Faith, that perhaps may be but carnal imagination." Once he warned the Scottish clergy that there was "a carnal confidence upon misunderstood and misapplied precepts" which might be termed "spiritual drunkenness."

For his own part, Cromwell believed in "dispensations" rather than "revelations." Since all things which happened in the world were determined by God's will, the statesman's problem was to discover the hidden purpose which underlay events. When he announced his victory at Preston he bade Parliament enquire "what the mind of God is in all that and what our duty is." "Seek to know what the mind of God is in all that chain of Providence," was his counsel to his doubting friend, Colonel Hammond. With Cromwell, in every political crisis this attempt to interpret the meaning of events was part of the mental process which preceded action. As it was difficult to be sure what that meaning was, he was often slow to make up his mind, preferring to watch events a little longer and to allow them to develop in order to get more light. This slowness was not the result of indecision, but a deliberate suspension of judgment. When his mind was made up there was no hesitation, no looking back; he struck with the same energy in politics as in war.

This system of being guide by events had its dangers. Political inconsistency is generally attributed to dishonesty, and Cromwell's inconsistency was open and palpable. One year he was foremost in pressing for an agreement with the King, another foremost in bringing him to the block; now all for a republic, now all for a government with some element of monarchy in it. His changes of policy were so sudden that even friends found it difficult to excuse them. A pamphleteer, who believed in the honesty of Cromwell's motives, lamented his "sudden engaging for and sudden turning from things," as arguing inconstancy and want of foresight. Moreover the effect of this inconsistency was aggravated by the violent zeal with which Cromwell threw himself into the execution of each new policy. It was part of his nature, like "the exceeding fiery temper" mentioned by his steward. "I am often taken," said Cromwell in 1647, "for one that goes too fast," adding that men of such a kind were disposed to think the dangers in their way rather imaginary than real, and sometimes to make more haste than good speed. This piece of self-criticism was just, and it explains some of his mistakes. The forcible dissolution of the Long Parliament in 1653 would never have taken place if Cromwell had fully appreciated the dangers which it would bring upon the Puritan cause.

On the other hand, this failure to look far enough ahead, while it detracts from Cromwell's statesmanship, helps to vindicate his integrity. He was too much taken up with the necessities of the present to devise a deep-laid scheme for making himself great. He told the French Ambassador in 1647, with a sort of surprise, that a man never rose so high as when he did not know where he was going. To his Parliaments he spoke of himself as having seen nothing in God's dispensations long beforehand. "These issues and events," he said in 1656, "have not been forecast, but were sudden providences in things." By this series of unforeseen events, necessitating first one step on his part and then the next, he had been raised to the post of Protector. "I did out of necessity undertake that business," said he, "which place I undertook, not so much out of a hope of doing any good, as out of a desire to prevent mischief and evil which I did see was imminent in the nation."

Conscious, therefore, that he had not plotted to bring about his own elevation, Cromwell resented nothing so much as the charge that he had "made the necessities" to which it was due. For it was not merely an imputation on his own honesty, but a kind of atheism, as if the world was governed by the craft of men, not by the wisdom of God. People said, "It was the cunning of my Lord Protector that hath brought it about," when in reality these great revolutions were "God's revolutions". "Whatsoever you may judge men for, however you may say this is cunning, and politic, and subtle, take heed how you judge His revolutions as the product of men's invention."

Cromwell said this with perfect sincerity. He felt that he was but a blind instrument in the hands of a high power. Yet he had shaped the issue of events with such power and had imposed his interpretation of their meaning upon them with such decision, that neither contemporaries nor historians could limit to so little the sphere of his free will.

It was possible to "make too much of outward dispensations," and Cromwell owned that perhaps he did so. His system of being guided by events instead of revelations did not put an end to the possibility of self-deception, though it made it less likely. "Men," as Shakespeare says, "may construe things after their fashion clean from the purpose of the things themselves." But if Cromwell sometimes mistook the meaning of facts he never failed to realize their importance. "If the fact be so," he once said, "why should we sport with it?" and the saying is a characteristic one. He was therefore more practical and less visionary than other statesmen of his party; more open-minded and better able to adapt his policy tot he changing circumstances and changing needs of the times. To many contemporary politicians, the exact carrying out of some cut-and-dried political programme seemed the height of political wisdom. The Levellers with their Agreement of the People and the Scottish Presbyterians with their Covenant are typical examples. The persistent adhesion of the Covenanters to their old formulas, in spite of defeats and altered conditions, Cromwell regarded as blindness to the teaching of events. They were blind to God's great dispensations, he told the Scottish ministers, out of mere wilfulness, "because the things did not work forth their platform, and the great God did not come down to their minds and thoughts." He would have felt himself guilty of the same fault if he had obstinately adhered either to a republic or a monarchy under all circumstances. Forms of government were neither good nor bad in themselves. Either form might be good: it depended on the condition of England at the moment, on the temper of the people, on the question which was more compatible with the welfare of the Cause, which more answerable to God's purpose as revealed in events. It was reported that Cromwell had said that it was lawful to pass through all forms to accomplish his ends, and if "forms" be taken to mean forms of government, and "ends" political aims, there can be no doubt that he thought so. However much he varied his means, his ends remained the same.

To understand what Cromwell's political aims were, it is necessary to enquire what he meant when he spoke of his discharging his duty to "the interest of the people of God and this Commonwealth." The order in which he places them is in itself significant. First, he put the duty to a section of the English people; last, the duty to the English people in general. Cromwell was full of patriotic pride. Once, when he was enumerating to Parliament the dangers which threatened the State, he wound up by saying that the enumeration should cause no despondency, "as truly I think it will not; for we are Englishmen: that is one good fact." "The English," he said on another occasion, "are a people that have been like other nations, sometimes up and sometimes down in our honour in the world, but never yet so low but we might measure with other nations." Several times in his speeches he termed the English "the best people in the world." Best, because "having the highest and clearest profession amongst them of the greatest glory--namely, religion." Best, because in the midst of the English people there was as it were another people, "a people that are to God as the apple of His eye," "His peculiar interest," "the people of God." "When I say the people of God," he explained, "I mean the large comprehension of them under the several forms of godliness in the nation"; or, in other words, all sects of Puritans.

To Cromwell the interest of the people of God and the interest of the nation were two distinct things, but he did not think them irreconcilable. "He sing sweetly," said Cromwell, "that sings a song of reconciliation between these two interests, and it is a pitiful fancy to think they are inconsistent." At the same time the liberty of the people of God was more important than the civil liberty and interest of the nation, "which is and ought to be subordinate to the more peculiar interest of God, yet is the next best God hath given men in this world." Religious freedom was more important than political freedom. Cromwell emphatically condemned the politicians who said, "If we could but exercise wisdom to gain civil liberty, religion would follow." Such men were "men of a hesitating spirit," and "under bondage of scruples." They were little better than the carnal men who cared for none of these things. They could never "rise to such a spiritual heat" as the Cause demanded. Yet the truth was that half the Republican party and an overwhelming majority of the English people held the view which he condemned.

Cromwell wished to govern constitutionally. No theory of the divine right of an able man to govern the incapable multitude blinded his eyes to the fact that self-government was the inheritance and right of the English people. He accepted in the main the first principle of democracy, the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, or, as he phrased it, "that foundation of supremacy is in the people and to be by them set down in their representatives." More than once he declared that the good of the governed was the supreme end of all governments, and he claimed that his own government acted "for the good of the people, and for their interest, and without respect had to any other interest." But government for the people did not necessarily mean government by the people. "That's the question," said Cromwell, "what's for their good, not what pleases them," and the history of the Protectorate was a commentary on this text. Some stable government was necessary to prevent either a return to anarchy or the restoration of the Stuarts. Therefore he was determined to maintain his own government, with the assistance of Parliament if possible, without it if he must. If it became necessary to suspend for a time the liberties of the subject or to levy taxes without parliamentary sanction, he was prepared to do it. In the end the English people would recognize that he had acted for their good. "Ask them," said he, "whether they would prefer the having of their will, though it be their destruction, rather than comply with things of necessity?" He felt confident the answer would be in his favour.

England might have acquiesced in this temporary dictatorship in the hope of a gradual return to constitutional government. What it could not accept was the permanent limitation of the sovereignty of the people in the interest of the Puritan minority whom Cromwell termed the people of God. Yet it was at this object that all the constitutional settlements of the Protectorate aimed. It was in the interest of this minority that the Instrument of Government restricted the power of Parliament and made the Protector the guardian of the constitution. It was in their interest that the Petition and Advice re-established a House of Lords. That House, as Thurloe said, was intended "to preserve the good interest against the uncertainty of the Commons' House," for, as another Cromwellian confessed "the spirit of the Commons had little affinity with or respect to the Cause of God."

Cromwell trusted that the real benefits his government conferred would reconcile the majority of the nation to the rule of the minority and "win the people to the interest of Jesus Christ." Thus the long hostility between the people and "the people of God" would end at last in reconciliation.

It was a fallacious hope. Puritanism was spending its strength in the vain endeavour to make England Puritan by force. The enthusiasm which had undertaken to transform the world was being conformed to it. A change was coming over the party which supported the Protector; it had lost man of the "men of conscience"; it had attracted many of the time-servers and camp-followers of politics; it was ceasing to be a party held together by religious interests, and becoming a coalition held together by material interests and political necessities. Cromwell once rebuked the Scottish clergy for "meddling with worldly policies and mixtures of worldly power" to set up that which they called "the kingdom of Christ," and warned them that "the Sion promised" would not be built "with such untempered mortar". He had fallen into the same error himself, and the rule of Puritanism was founded on shifting sands. So the Protector's institutions perished with him and his work ended in apparent failure. Yet he had achieved great things. Thanks to his sword absolute monarchy failed to take root in English soil. Thanks to his sword Great Britain emerged from the chaos of the civil wars one strong state instead of three separate and hostile communities. Nor were the results of his action entirely negative. The ideas which inspired his policy exerted a lasting influence on the development of the English state. Thirty years after his death the religious liberty for which he fought was established by law. The union with Scotland and Ireland, which the statesmen of the Restoration undid, the statesmen of the eighteenth century effected. The mastery of the seas he had desired to gain, and the Greater Britain he had sought to build up became sober realities. Thus others perfected the work which he had designed and attempted.

Cromwell remained throughout his life too much the champion of a party to be accepted as a national hero by later generations, but in serving his Cause he served his country too. No English ruler did more to shape the future of the land he governed, none showed more clearly in his acts the "plain heroic magnitude of mind."