Fundamentals of Christian Resistance (IX), Part 4

IV. Cromwell and the Puritans:

In England, the Puritan movement ultimately broke the back of the despotic tendencies of both the Tudors and the House of Stuart. Again, this was a grass-roots reformation thoroughly resisted by the entrenched powers in church and state. And although it was slower in its development, less thorough and less pure than the aforementioned reformations [in Holland and Scotland], yet with the blessing of the Almighty it was sufficient to hamstring the Tudors and twice to drive the Stuart tyrants off the throne in the English Civil War and again in the Glorious Revolution.1

Without the ideas, the organisation and the leadership provided by Puritanism there would have been no [English] Revolution at all. 2

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell remains one of the most enigmatic and controversial figures in English political history. His career as a Parliamentarian, soldier and head of state in England, at a time of unprecedented upheavel in that country, was dominated by his belief in Providence at work through human agencies.

Cromwell and Religion

When I saw the enemy draw up and march in gallant order towards us, and we a company of poor ignorant men, to seek how to order a battle-the General [Fairfax] having commanded me to order all the horse-I could not (riding alone about my business) but smile out to God in praises of assurance of victory, because He would, by things that are not, bring to naught things that are. Of which I had a great assurance-and God did it. 3

Cromwell’s life and actions had a radical edge springing from his strong religious faith. A conversion experience some time before the civil war, strengthened by his belief that during the war he and his troops had been chosen by God to perform His will, gave a religious tinge to many of his political policies as Lord Protector in the 1650s. Cromwell sought ‘Godly reformation’, a broad programme involving reform of the most inhumane elements of the legal, judicial and social systems and clamped down on drunkenness, immorality and other sinful activities. He also believed passionately in what he called ‘liberty of conscience’, that is freedom for a range of Protestant groups and faiths to practise their beliefs undisturbed and without disturbing others. He believed that:

It will be found an unwise and unjust jealousy, to deprive a man of his natural liberty upon a supposition he may abuse it. 4

Several times he referred to this religious liberty as the principal achievement of the wars, to be strengthened and cherished now that peace had returned.

Cromwell the Politician

Cromwell’s military standing gave him enhanced political power, just as his military victories gave him the confidence and motivation to intervene in and to shape political events. An obscure and inexperienced MP for Cambridge in 1640, by the late 1640s he was one of the power-brokers in parliament and he played a decisive role in the ‘revolution’ of winter 1648-9 which saw the trial and execution of the King and the abolition of monarchy and the House of Lords. As head of the army, he intervened several times to support or remove the republican regimes of the early 1650s.

Eventually, in December 1653, he became head of state as Lord Protector, though he held that office under a written constitution which ensured that he would share political power with parliaments and a council. As Lord Protector for almost five years, until his death on 3 September 1658, Cromwell was able to mould policies and to fulfill some of his goals. He headed a tolerant, inclusive and largely civilian regime, which sought to restore order and stability at home and thus to win over much of the traditional political and social elite.

I desire not to keep my place in this government an hour longer than I may preserve England in it’s just rights, and may protect the people of God in such a just liberty of their consciences…. Cromwell to the first protectorate parliament, 22 January 1655.

Abroad, the army and navy were employed to promote England’s interests in an expansive and largely successful foreign policy.

I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height,
nor yet in obscurity. I have been called to several employments in the nation-to serve in parliaments, and (because I would not be over-tedious ) I did endeavour to discharge the duty of an honest man in those services, to
God, and His people’s interest, and of the commonwealth; having, when time was, a competent acceptation in the hearts of men, and some
evidence thereof.
(On himself, speech to the First Parliament of the Protectorate, Sept, 1654.)

The Soldier

We study the glory of God, and the honour and liberty of parliament, for which we unanimously fight, without seeking our own interests….I profess I could never satisfy myself on the justness of this war, but from the authority of the parliament to maintain itself in its rights; and in this cause I hope to prove myself an honest man and single-hearted. Oliver Cromwell to Colonal Valentine Walton. 5 or 6 September 1644.

From the outbreak of war in summer 1642, Cromwell was an active and committed officer in the parliamentary army. Initially a captain in charge of a small body of mounted troops, in 1643 he was promoted to colonel and given command of his own cavalry regiment.

He was successful in a series of sieges and small battles which helped to secure East Anglia and the East Midlands against the royalists. At the end of the year he was appointed second in command of the Eastern Association army, parliament’s largest and most effective regional army, with the rank of lieutenant-general. During 1644 he contributed to the victory at Marston Moor, which helped secure the north for parliament, and also campaigned with mixed results in the south Midlands and Home Counties.

In 1645-6, as second in command of the newly formed main parliamentary army, the New Model Army, Cromwell played a major role in parliament’s victory in the Midlands, sealed by the battle of Naseby in June 1645, and in the south and south-west. When civil war flared up again in 1648 he commanded a large part of the New Model Army which first crushed rebellion in South Wales and then at Preston defeated a Scottish-royalist army of invasion.

After the trial and execution of the King, Cromwell led major military campaigns to establish English control over Ireland (1649-50) and then Scotland (1650-51), culminating in the defeat of another Scottish-royalist army of invasion at Worcester in September 1651. In summer 1650, before embarking for Scotland, Cromwell had been appointed lord general – that is, commander in chief – of all the parliamentary forces.

It was a remarkable achievement for a man who probably had no military experience before 1642. Cromwell consistently attributed his military success to God’s will. Historians point to his personal courage and skill, to his care in training and equipping his men and to the tight discipline he imposed both on and off the battlefield.

Conclusion:

The reform that Cromwell really hoped for was evangelical, from the grass-roots. Because it faltered in division and controversy through the 1650’s, it never made it to the institutions which could have been permanently changed. His very title (Lord Protector) suggested that he was essentially conservative: he was prepared to protect national institutions whilst changes could be brought about. Those who sought reform would have to convince him first, that their ideas were not spurious. Whilst wanting reform, Cromwell hoped that the people might be “governed by the good old laws:” the novel had no appeal to him.

There are some things in this establishment that are fundamental….about which I shall deal plainly with you…the government by a single person and a parliament is a fundamental…and..though I may seem to plead for myself, yet I do not: no, nor can any reasonable man say it..I plead for this nation, and all the honest men therein. Cromwell to the first protectorate parliament, 12 September 1654.

(With acknowledgement to the Cromwell Association: www.olivercromwell.org)


1 L. De Boer, in  “Tactics…,” p.31.

2 Stone, L., “The Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642,” 1975, p.103.

3 Cromwell, after his victory at the battle of Naseby, 14/6/1644. Quoted in “A History of Quotations,”  Cohen, M., & Major, J., (Eds. ) 2006, p.422.

4 Cromwell, 1649, quoted in Aylmer, G., “Rebellion or Revolution?” 1986, p.134.

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