Monday, 18 April 2011

Oliver Cromwell - Hero or Villain?

"It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter'd your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil'd this sacred place, and turn'd the Lord's

So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors. In the name of God, go! for a few pieces of money. temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress'd, are yourselves gone!"

No, this is not the speech Ed Miliband will make on Parliament's return, telling the coalition their time is up. It could be the voice of the people demonstrating their total distrust of all politicians. But it is that of Oliver Cromwell on April 20th 1653, when he marched the rump out of the House, and began his period of personal rule. Mind you, the more more famous version of this speech was quoted by Bulstrode Whitlocke who wrote, "You have sat too long here for any good that you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!" This version does have a little more drama about it.

Following the execution of Charles I on January 30th 1649, the Commonwealth of England was declared and was ruled by a Parliament until that fateful day, when Cromwell's loyal commanders expelled the members for the second time.

The first time had occurred in November 1648 when those MPs Cromwell believed would not support a trial and execution of the King were purged, by Colonel Thomas Pride. The remaining members were known as the Rump, and this was what Cromwell kicked out in 1653.

Abolishing the House of Lords and the monarchy, the Rump became the sole arbiter, and all the powers of the monarch became absorbed into it, and through a series of committees and commissions, carried out all administrative for central and local government.

The situation for the democratic progress looked promising, as Cromwell appeared to be getting his way, and parliament began to prepare for new elections, after Cromwell's decisive victory in the Battle of Worcester in 1651. However, complicated by the issue of war with the Dutch, and the House's seeming reluctance to dissolve itself, seems to have led Cromwell to believe the House was seeking to perpetuate itself. This is certainly the image put forward in the film 'Cromwell' starring Richard Harris.

Whatever the precise reasons, the country found itself now ruled by an elite called the 'Barebones' (after Praise-God Barbon one of its members), who were nominated by the army, and although often ridiculed as being 'inferior' was mainly made up of gentry, and lower nobility.

However, this legislature was an ineffective body, there were no lawmakers amongst its members, and there were increasing tensions between radicals (Fifth Monarchists etc), Moderates and Conservatives over religious reform. In March 1653 the radicals gained enough support to defeat a Bill supporting the status quo, the Moderates and Conservatives invited Cromwell to one again take over. For a third time, soldiers marched on parliament under Cromwell's command, to expel the 'barebones.'

Oliver Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector on 16th December 1653, and began a unique experiment in British constitutional history. I do not intend to make this a detailed examination of this period, this is more a celebration of that period.

Cromwell's main task, as he saw it, was to restore order and good sense to politics, and to a large extent in that he succeeded. The war with the Dutch was ended, and there were reductions in taxation.

He made a concession in 1657, which considering the times was quite remarkable. Religious intolerance was rife, especially by protestants against catholics, yet Cromwell himself within those confines was in favour of freedom of worship. There was also an economic element, in that Jews (expelled from England by Edward I) had played a substantial role in Dutch economic success, and he invited them to return.

That same year he was offered the crown, but after a period of agony, decided against accepting, and on April 13th said, “I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again.”

Cromwell continued to rule until his death on September 3rd 1658, and on his death was succeeded by his son Richard. However, Richard wasn't really cut out for the task, and eventually he stood down, paving the way for the return of King Charles II in 1660.

Some revenge was extracted by the new regime, and Cromwell's body was exhumed and hanged. His head after was much travelled in the following centuries, before eventually being buried at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, his old University.

It is often difficult, outside perhaps the Jewish community, to judge what Oliver Cromwell's legacy is, but many of the constitutional changes to the way parliament is run, were instigated at that time.

For Ireland his name is one of death and destruction as he suppressed their religious freedoms, and committed atrocities, especially at Drogheda in 1649, even if they didn't match the myths that subsequently grew up.

However, hero or villain, Oliver Cromwell is one of the most famous names in English history. His 'warts and all' phrase is often used (even though like most quotes, that's not quite what he said), and shows Cromwell up as a man seemingly without vanity.

To me Cromwell is a great man, and stands up for those who resist arbitrary power, and the defence of law. I don't agree with his actions in Ireland, but it is so easy to criticise at this distance in time.

As the twentieth century ended, in a poll of the ten greatest Britons Oliver Cromwell came tenth, which indicates how he has become a part of our national heritage, and British school children will still be studying him, and his legacy for years to come.

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