Oliver Cromwell - villian or misunderstood?

Jan 2020
12
Australia
I once regarded him as being religious fanatic and a cruel man. He is often portrayed as a killjoy Puritan who banned music, Christmas and theatre. However, I lately read a biography about him by Antonia Fraser, and he seems to be quite a different man to how he is stereotypically portrayed.

There's great many examples which show that he was a fairly tolerant man. For instance, Parliament had the Quacker James Nayler convicted on the charge of blasphemy for merely reenacting the arrival of Christ in Jerusalem. He was sentenced to be put in the pillory and on there to have a red hot iron bored through his tongue. It was Cromwell who called for leniency.

The sad spectacle of the parliamentary "trial" of the Quaker James Nayler,marked as it was by numerous speeches reflecting extreme religious fanaticism, is only one among many examples that could be cited of the gap between Cromwell's views and those of the bulk of the political nation. But the plain fact of solid, personal achievement in the struggle for toleration is spread across the historical record; Cromwell's attitude toward the Jews, his treatment of individual Catholics and Anglicans in England, his concern for the distressed Protestants of the Vaudois, his conversations with the Quaker George Fox, all reflect this. The man who could protest against the application of a test of Presbyterian orthodoxy by arguing that "the State, in choosing men to serve them, takes no notice of their opinions; if they be willing faithfully to serve them, that satisfies“ was no fanatic.
Parliament refused to back down even when Cromwell protested. And of course, Cromwell being quite a compassionate man and feeling badly about the sentence handed down by Parliament against Nayler for blasphemy tried to alleviate Nayler’s suffering.

Cromwell was left to attempt some minor alleviations of Naylor’s lot. For instance he enforced an order by which Naylor’s wife was allowed to give the prisoner supplies. In May 1657 his Chamberlain, Sir Gilbert Pickering, provided special confinement for the captive on Oliver’s instructions. One of the last public actions of the Protector (before he died) in August 1658, on hearing of Naylor’s illness, was to send his secretary William Malyn to enquire after his need
He was a highly religious man, but he wasn’t some 17th century Christian Taliban. He didn’t believe people should be persecuted for their religion.

It was a tribute to Oliver’s intentions at least that the French Ambassador, Bordeaux, was of the considered opinion that the English Catholics fared better under the Protectorate than under any previous Government. The immediate consequence was not only relaxation but profusion. The records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus, which had shown a mere 78 persons converted to the Catholic faith in the dark days of 1650-1, reported 364 converts in its annual letter of 1654, rising to 416 in 1655.11 By October 1655 the Venetian Ambassador was having six Masses said every day in his spacious ambassadorial chapel, all packed with English people who were using this tacitly allowed loophole to practise their religion; on festivals, there were as many as ten Masses... the evidence remains that the name of Oliver Cromwell himself was one which English Catholics had no reason to curse and some reasons to bless.
He himself said as much.

Oliver, as he himself said on another occasion, wished to let all live in peace enjoying freedom of religion and conscience “but not to make religion a pretence for blood and arms”
It is useful to recall his retort in 1652 to one who declared his preference for a "persecuting Saul rather than an indifferent Gallio"; to him, Cromwell replied "I had rather that Mahometanism were permitted amongst us than that one of God's children should be persecuted.”
But that’s not all. He was so nice and friendly to the Quakers that they tried to convert him despite him being a Puritan.

In 1654 two Friends took it upon themselves to try and convert him to Quakerism, and were received courteously, if ultimately put off by the argument that the Protector stood for “every man’s liberty and none to disturb another."
Another evidence of Cromwell’s tolerance was how he dealt with ranters. Ranters were 17th century hippies. They didn’t believe in the bible or a personal god and they believed in free love and all that stuff. Of course, Cromwell thought they were strange, but he still dealt leniently with those suspected of being ranters. And considering this was the 17th century, you have to give the guy same praise.

Captain Freeman had boasted that he ‘had been a Papist, Protestant, Presbyterian, Anabaptist,’ but ‘had passed through them all.‘ and Okey, who was a strict
independent, suspected he was now a ranter. His influence over the soldiery, and his fellow officers, was also more than Okey could stomach, and he complained to Cromwell, who arranged an informal interview in the presence of other officers. If Okey expected wholehearted support, he was disappointed, for Cromwell gave a Freeman a fair hearing and allowed the captain to resign his commission without blemish on his record. In the following October, Cromwell had also dealt leniently with another suspected Ranter, Captain Covell, who was allowed to return to his charge after a private interview.

Neither was Cromwell some 17th century Hitler or Stalin, who were quick to take offense and kill those who criticised them and their regime.

It was true that those who broke the censorship laws were treated mildly: Arise Evans and Walter Gosteld, who both presented highly critical pamphlets to the Protector, commending Charles Stuart’s monarchy, were not punished. Oliver was generally supposed to be more tolerant than his Council. Robert Overton, in prison, heard that Cromwell had shrugged off one such manifestation of popular abuse with excellent indifference to satire in a statesmen. “Overton had copied out a paper of derogatory verses called “The Character of a Protector.” These had been subsequently filched from his letter-case and shown to the Protector in question. An explosive reaction might have been expected. But a friend of Overton’s told him that Oliver had merely glanced at the paper “and I believe laughed at them as (to my knowledge) heretofore he hath done at papers and pamphlets of more personal and particular import and abuse”
Lastly, Cromwell didn't ban theatre or Christmas. It was parliament who did. Not only that, parliament banned theatre in 1642 before Cromwell had even become relevant. Cromwell didn't ban music. He only disapproved of Church music it seems. The first opera in England was performed under his rule.

He once wrote to defend what was perceived as a deviation from orthodoxy by arguing that

"Your pretended fear lest error should step in is like the man who would keep all the wine out of the country lest men should be drunk. It will be found an unjust and unwise jealousy to deny a man the liberty he hath by nature upon a supposition he may abuse it.”
And as for Ireland, I'm not sure if Oliver Cromwell's cruelties there are true or exaggerated.
 
Last edited:
Oct 2015
1,039
Virginia
No use in asking an Irishman (at least a Catholic Irishman) what he thinks of Cromwell. An Irish-American guy I worked with went nuts when he saw me reading Fraser at lunchtime.
 
Jun 2017
735
maine
Villain. A person who does bad things is a bad person (no matter how lofty the aim)--or "the end doesn't justify the means". The pay-off is in results. He was mean, vindictive, ruthless and thoroughly unpleasant.
 
Oct 2015
1,039
Virginia
I don't know...as the OP says Cromwell can be seen as a pragmatic, rational man (of the weird, English, puritan squire type) caught up in revolution, and forced by circumstance to become England's only "Caesar" figure.

EXCEPT, apparently, for his rabid, brutal, violent anti-Irish, anti-catholicism.
Better stop there....(went to Catholic school, tried to balance initial influence by reading, with only partial success).
 
Last edited:
Jan 2020
12
Australia
Villain. A person who does bad things is a bad person (no matter how lofty the aim)--or "the end doesn't justify the means". The pay-off is in results. He was mean, vindictive, ruthless and thoroughly unpleasant.
Mean, vindictive, ruthless? I think you’re describing Hitler. As for Cromwell, it was noted he had a fierce temper, but it was also noted that he had compassionate side.

According to this steward, John Maidstone, "his body was well compact and strong" and had a "fiery" temperament but was "compassionate" like a woman.
 
Jul 2019
178
Pale Blue Dot - Moonshine Quadrant
I am inclined to think he was both.

Revolutions are not gentle things. I tend to see the situation as an example of Lord Acton’s assertion that “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

When the moral certainly that is so often characteristic of strong religious views combines with the coercive power of the political state the potential for brutality grows large.
 
Jan 2020
12
Australia
I don't know...as the OP says Cromwell can be seen as a pragmatic, rational man (of the weird, English, puritan squire type) caught up in revolution, and forced by circumstance to become England's only "Caesar" figure.

EXCEPT, apparently, for his rabid, brutal, violent anti-Irish, anti-catholicism.
Better stop there....(went to Catholic school, tried to balance initial influence by reading, with only partial success)
He wasn’t fiercely anti-catholic .

Cromwell declared himself in favour of freedom of conscience for all. Although on this occasion he did not prevail, and Southworth died, the possibility of toleration for peaceable Catholics obviously lingered in his mind. For the following summer he was instrumental in mounting a secret mission to Rome, the object of which would have been to secure an “engagement” with the Pope. English Catholics would have been allowed to worship in private, in return for which the Pope would no longer have preached rebellion against the English Government.
And Cromwell did not hate the Irish because they were Catholic or simply because they were Irish. He seemed to be more angry about the massacres committed against the English Protestants during the Irish rebellion as evidenced by his response to the Irish clergy. Cromwell wrote:

“By the grace of God, we fear not, we care not for union. Your covenant was with death and hell.. . You say your union is against a cornmon enemy; and to this, if you will be talking of union, I will give you some wormwood to bite on, by which it will appear God is not with you. Who is it that created this common enemy? I suppose you mean Englishmen. The English! Remember, ye hypocrites, Ireland was once united to England. Englishmen had good inheritances, which many of them purchased with their money; they or their ancestors, from many of you and your ancestors… They lived peaceably and honestly amongst you … You broke this union! You, unprovoked, put the English to the most unheard-of and most barbarous massacre (without respect of sex or age) that ever the sun beheld. And at a time when Ireland was in perfect peace, and when, through the example of the English industry, through commerce and traffic, that which was in the natives’ hands was better to them than if all Ireland had been in their possession and not an Englishman in it … ”
 
Last edited:
Oct 2015
1,039
Virginia
He wasn’t fiercely anti-catholic .



And Cromwell did not hate the Irish because they were Catholic or simply because they Irish. He seemed to be more angry about the massacres committed against the English Protestants during the Irish rebellion as evidenced by his response to the Irish clergy. Cromwell wrote:
I hear you, and you can make a case on the facts.

But the fact of Cromwell's legacy in and on Ireland and Catholics can't be disputed (Drogheda, Wexford, "Hell or Connaught", "I shall not suffer, where I have the power, the exercise of the mass", Ireton's version of 17th century "ethnic cleansing"). Even Winston Churchill acknowledged: "Upon us all there still lies "The Curse of Cromwell""(History of the English Speaking Peoples)
 
Last edited:

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,783
Sydney
It warm the cockles of mine heart to notice someone who read Antonia Fraser book ,
she is the outstanding popular historian of her time , both for her scholarship but above all for her inquiry into her subject emotional dept .
 
  • Like
Reactions: Druid