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Could Oliver Cromwell Be Considered As Tyrant?

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Published: Tue, 18 Apr 2017

The definition of a ‘tyrant’ in the context of a 17th Century ruler is a ruler who demonstrates unreasonable use of authority, uses harsh discipline and oppression, and furthers the personal need of themselves before that of their country. John Milton wrote that ‘a tyrant is he who regarding neither law nor the common good, reigns only for himself and his faction’ [1] . Until the execution of Charles I, the right to rule came from God and the ‘Divine Right of Kings’, so a ‘tyrant’ would arguably not have the correct authority to rule as before the rule of Cromwell. Cromwell did at times act tyrannically during his rule, but only to the point of improving the constitution of the country, rather than to further his own interests. As Head of the Commonwealth, Oliver Cromwell began uniting the realms of the United Kingdom, England, Scotland and Ireland, expanded on England’s colonies, created a new pattern of land ownership, ruled from 1656 as ‘Lord Protector’, abolished the Anglican Church, arguably ruled via a military dictatorship through the army and major generals, and financially exhausted the country’s assets by the time he died in 1658. Although his policies were abolished upon Charles II’s restoration, their reintroduction towards the end of the century make Cromwell’s rule imperative in creating fundamental change to the monarch/parliament relationship which can be seen by the end of the century.

At Charles’ trial after the Civil Wars, Charles was being tried for treason and tyranny for making war on his subjects. Charles refused to accept the authority of the Court because of his belief in the Divine Right which meant his actions were only answerable to God. As Charles refused to comply with the Court, the court saw this as an admission of guilt and 62 judges were to decide whether he should be executed, Cromwell being one of them. At this stage in his career, Cromwell could not have been acting to further his own interests by having the king executed, as under no circumstances could he have anticipated that the removal of Charles would lead to his future success in becoming Head of the Commonwealth. Cromwell himself said, ‘if any man whatsoever hath carried on the design of deposing the king, and disinheriting his property; he should be the greatest traitor and rebel in the world’ [2] , but the fact that Cromwell had to make this statement at all, suggests that Cromwell knew that he was doing wrong, making him appear to be acting tyrannically. ‘But Cromwell is also reputed to have said, ‘we will cut off his head with the crown upon it’ [3] ‘, showing that he wanted Charles dead. A tyrant is also a person who demonstrates unreasonable use of authority, and Cromwell more than voiced his opinion when the judges were reaching their verdict, ‘Cromwell himself used force to get signatures, allowing nothing to stop him… when Ingoldsby came to sign; Cromwell ran at him across the room, and taking him by the hand, dragged him to the table… held him down and laughing loudly, put the pen between his fingers and forced him to trace his name with his own hand’ [4] . This forceful behaviour is tyrannical as it demonstrates how Cromwell abused his position on the jury to dominate the court to ensure Charles’ execution. Fraser goes on to argue ‘the accusations of arbitrary tyranny, once levelled with some substance at the King, could now be placed firmly at the door who had done him death’ [5] , conflicting the speech Cromwell made to defend the right to trial the King. But Alymer argues, ‘the trial and execution were deliberately made as solemn as possible, with the greatest semblance to normal judicial proceedings’ [6] . Cromwell may not have been openly furthering his own interests, but his brutality and oppressive use of authority to obtain signatures for Charles’ death warrant make him appear to be a tyrant. Cromwell felt betrayed by Charles after the Second Civil war broke out and saw the only way for peace to be restored would be with the death of Charles to establish a new constitution of government, so was acting tyrannically in his use of power, but was to benefit England in the long-run.

Invading Ireland was not a tyrannical act in the context of the 17th century, and it is not the invasion for why Cromwell is most criticised, it was necessary to prevent England from the royalist threat. It is more his lack of remorse for the Catholics that were murdered, ‘Cromwell’s pride in the Drogheda massacre makes a particularly unpleasant episode’ [7] . Around 3000 royalists, Catholics and clergymen were killed which gives him the name of a ‘tyrant’ by historians; ‘Cromwell’s apparent enjoyment of the carnage was approved by his contemporaries and has been condemned by posterity as his most odious characteristic’ [8] . Cromwell justified the attack for being in the laws of warfare, as well as doing God’s duty by murdering the ‘wretches’, encouraging other towns to surrender immediately, saving lives in the long run. The attack was welcomed at home as Ireland could now be brought under the same civility as England, ‘Cromwell was a soldier of genius; it was as a victorious general that he had incurred the focus of public attention upon himself; and it was by military strength that he had been able to bring about the political motives he seemed right’ [9] . Lecky argues that the regime was ‘the chief cause of the political and social evils of Ireland’ [10] . Cromwell was certainly demonstrating his newly acquired authority, and was punishing the Irish for being Royalist Catholics, and his continued punishment and taxes on the Irish meant he must have been acting tyrannically as he was using his power oppressively to impose harsh discipline. This dislike of Catholics under Cromwell’s rule made it almost impossible for Catholics to have any source of power in England. The reign of James II 1685-9 was dominated by James’ belief in Catholicism so was deposed by William of Orange who signed the Declaration of Rights, stating that no Catholic could run the country. Cromwell’s harsh punishment of the Catholics in Ireland is seen as tyrannical because he used great force to impose his authority and the severity of his hatred of the Catholics with no remorse for his actions allow historians to label Cromwell as a tyrant. But his actions in Ireland of suppressing the Catholics were to enable England to have a peaceful constitution as it was preventing the Royalist threat.

Scotland named Charles II King of Scotland, England and Ireland upon Charles I’s execution, which posed a threat to Cromwell. Similarly to Ireland, Cromwell invaded Scotland to protect England from royalist opposition. But Cromwell was much more lenient in the Scottish regime than he was with the Irish. The Irish were seen as barbarous Catholics who were a menace to society. The Scottish were not seen by Cromwell as uncivilised, rather ‘misguided Protestants, caught up by the Royalist parties, not portraying the correct word of God’ [11] . The war in Scotland was unplanned, whereas the Irish was always part of Cromwell’s regime, which raises the idea that although Cromwell’s motives were the same: to eliminate the Royalist threat, his methods in securing England from this threat was totally different. Cromwell regretfully sent his army to the north hoping that religious factors and other issues could be talked out, rather than fought out as in Ireland. Scotland fell at the Battle of Hamilton 1650 and Cromwell had conquered another country to add to what he began to build into the United Kingdom. Historians agree that the overall settlement in Ireland and Scotland was not entirely what Cromwell had hoped, ‘it was never accepted as a permanency by more than a small minority in Scotland’ [12] , ‘the great and idealistic ambitions of Cromwell for Scotland and Ireland were thwarted, he remained the conqueror rather than the liberator… his regime was endured rather than loved’ [13] .Cromwell’s encounters in Scotland are not regarded as tyrannical as he avoided using force and did not punish the Scots like he did the Irish; the Scots were able to escape the taxes and punishment which the Irish faced because the Scots were not Catholics. Instead, he made a peaceful alliance, thus not acting tyrannically in Scotland. So it is Cromwell’s actions rather than his motives for invading Scotland which make him appear less tyrannical than his encounters with Ireland, as the motives were the same: to remove the royalist threat, but his genuine remorse for invading Scotland make him appear to be acting less tyrannically than in Ireland.

In 1655, Cromwell introduced eleven Major Generals in 1655 to command the army, who were responsible for security against plots from Royalists, and supervise local governments. Later into the rule of the Major Generals, they started to intervene in the work of JPs, such as the licensing of inns and the suppression of sports and gambling. Cromwell justified this for the sake of internal security as this was where insurgent meetings could occur, not because he was an oppressive kill-joy like he is commonly interpreted as, ‘pointless enjoyment was frowned upon’ [14] , and people related the halting of pastimes to oppressive Puritanism. The Major Generals were brought to an end under the Protectorate as Cromwell had become aware of the unpopularity of them, and the increasing unpopularity of himself, they ‘represented a military dictator which added to the animosity’ [15] . This decision to remove the Major Generals can be seen as tyrannical as it shows that he needed the support of the army to ensure his security. With the discontent over the Major Generals, Cromwell was not in a position to keep them if it was going to lose him further support, Cromwell could only push people so far into being ‘Godly Puritans’ before people would revolt. The Treason Act and Engagement Act in 1650 meant all adults had to take an oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth and accept the House of Commons to be supreme authority. This ensured conformity and eliminated the threat of Royalists, making Cromwell’s government stronger from the threat of being overthrown, in some ways making Cromwell seem tyrannical as these were elements of a dictatorship to guarantee compliance among his people. But having Treason Laws was not a new principle to ensure conformity so this must not be a reason for him to be labelled a tyrant. ‘The bayonets of the New Model Army kept Cromwell in power thereafter, while his Major Generals came down like a ton of bricks on anyone who stepped out of line.’ [16] Alymer disagrees, ‘Cromwell did not act as a military dictator and subject England to the rule of eleven petty, regional tyrants’ [17] . The combination of the military together with the Major Generals, and laws accepting the House of Commons as supreme authority created in some ways a state of terror to enforce conformity among his people. This is a tyrannical movement as Cromwell demonstrated an unreasonable use of his authority, using harsh punishments for non compliance, to ensure conformity, creating the basis of a military dictatorship, but the reasoning of this was to prevent Royalist threats, the return of Royalists would create political confusion which needed to be avoided for the constitution of England to move forward.

Under the Humble Petition and Advice, Cromwell was offered the title of ‘King’ by parliament. It took Cromwell months to reject the offer of ‘King’, mainly due to the pressure of the army who were strong Republicans. Cromwell was wise enough to know he needed the support of the army and not provoke revolt, implying that Cromwell was being controlled by the army, rather than vice versa. Cromwell also knew that if he accepted the title, England, as well as Scotland and Ireland would not recognize him as King. Gardiner argues, ‘it is doubtful whether Cromwell accepted the title would have disarmed a single enemy’ [18] , suggesting that by this time, the crown was just an object and Cromwell was not acting tyrannically as he was effectively ‘king’ before the offer was even made. Another factor influencing Cromwell’s decision was the advice of Lambert, ‘Lambert was perhaps hoping that he would be Cromwell’s successor on his death, so advised him to avoid such a permanent title’ [19] . But if Cromwell only rejected the position of King because of pressure from others, then he was arguably acting tyrannically as he was tempted by the offer, thus furthering his own interests. James and Charles I were both great believers of the Divine Right, so had the right to rule by God, but parliament had formally asked Cromwell to rule the country, giving him the same right. This event emphasises the importance of the changing role of parliament, they invited Cromwell to rule. This is repeated later in the century, in 1660, parliament invited Charles II to act as king and re-establish the system of a monarchy, and again by 1689, parliament asked William of Orange to invade England to rule the country with Mary. Cromwell said, ‘I desire not to keep my place in this government an hour longer than I may preserve England in its rights’ [20] , and that he did not appear to be storing power for himself and would have left or stayed depending on what parliament asked of him. But, Parliament had offered the position to Cromwell, so if Parliament was speaking the voice of the people in offering the Crown, although parliament was not necessarily representative, then Cromwell had the right to rule, so was not acting tyrannically in accepting the title of ‘Lord Protector’. This influence of parliament shows that it was parliament’s decision, rather than Cromwell’s use of authority for him to become Head of the Commonwealth, so was not acting tyrannically. Cromwell accepted the title of ‘Lord Protector’ rather than ‘King’, but was addressed by the Heads of States of other countries as ‘his highness’, inherited Charles’ royal belongings, moved into Whitehall and Hampton Court, and his son succeeded him in 1658. ‘Cromwell became a ‘dictator’, but it was not from choice. Events had their own way of pushing him to the fore and ultimately to the head of affairs’ [21] . Cromwell certainly acted like a King and had all the privileges that a monarch had, but by naming himself ‘Lord Protector’, made him seem hypocritical for executing Charles and made him unpopular amongst the people of the nations he ruled. Accepting the title of ‘Lord Protector’ was not tyrannical in itself; it was the actions after accepting the title in which he acted like a king which makes him appear to be acting tyrannically.

The Rump parliament was dissolved in 1653 after it changed plans for a general election to a piecemeal by-election, ‘it was the treachery of the sudden unplanned morning’s meeting, contrary to the night’s previous agreements, which had convinced him that the Rump all along had not changed its spots’ [22] . They were reluctant to hold elections as the members of the Rump had no intention of transferring their power to a successor as this would return royalists, and was hesitant in operating and introducing policies, with ‘occasional flurries of activity, inspired usually by Cromwell’ [23] , ‘there was extreme slowness of the Rump to come to any decision about a constitutional settlement… The Rump was also very slow with other domestic reforms’ [24] . Cromwell said to the Rump, ‘dissettlement and division, discontent and dissatisfaction, together with real dangers of the whole, have been more multiplied within these five months of your sitting than in some years before!’ [25] . It was Cromwell’s decision to dissolve the Rump, but was under much pressure from conservative Army Officials to do so, showing that he was being controlled by the army, rather than him controlling them. This also points out that Cromwell was arguably becoming a military dictator as he wanted to keep the army on his side, and he could not control the country without the support of the army. But considering the context of the period, parliaments were often dissolved for long periods of time; James I dissolved parliament for 10 years, and Charles I’s dissolution of parliament has been labelled as the ’11 Years Tyranny’ which drove England to Civil War. Compared to Charles I, Cromwell’s dissolution of parliament is much less significant as it was for a much lesser period of time, so was less tyrannical than Charles I and using Milton’s definition of a tyrant, ‘he who reigns only for himself and his faction’, Cromwell was doing no such thing as he established the Barebones parliament whilst trying to reassemble the Protectorate Parliament. Charles never established such an alternative. So in the context of the period, where monarchs dissolved parliaments for extended periods of time, Cromwell’s dissolution of the Rump for 8 months can be regarded as no more tyrannical than the actions of the leaders before him, particularly the tyranny of Charles I, and he dissolved the Rump so that the state of government could be improved upon.

Throughout the 100 year context, it can be seen that through every ruler, they become more compliant with parliament and working with a system of government where they have limited powers within the constitution of England, starting most significantly with the rule of Cromwell. The role of parliament becomes more important through every ruler, to the point that parliament invited Charles II to restore the monarchy in 1660. This stems from the civil war and the growing importance of parliament speaking the people’s voice, showing Cromwell’s significance in creating a more democratic England. The changing role of parliament is vital in understanding the context of tyranny in the 17th century, as with the growing importance and authority of parliament during the later half of the century, compliance and conformity is imposed through laws through parliament speaking the voice of the people which was instigated by Cromwell. But historians argue over his legacy, ‘he made mistakes in his parliamentary experiments… His understanding of finance and trade was slight, his suspicion of Catholics intense, his attitudes to the Irish or Scots affairs Angolcentric; and he utterly failed to create an enduring republican framework for his son to continue’ [26] . Fraser disagrees, ‘Cromwell demonstrated how a man could rise from a modest inheritance, and by his own extraordinary qualities live to defy the greatest in the world’ [27] . Having power does not make a person a tyrant, so accepting the title of ‘Lord Protector’ does not automatically make Cromwell a tyrant just because the position gave him more power. It is what a person chooses to do with their nominated power which determines if they are a tyrant. Cromwell’s acts which can be seen as oppressive make him a tyrant in his actions, such as his abuse of power at Charles’ trial and his lack of remorse over the invasion of Ireland, but Cromwell did not abuse his position of power just because he had authority, nor was he acting to further his own interests, he acted tyrannically to improve the government establishment of England and keep it secure. Any oppressive actions were justified by Cromwell to be for the better of the country, to make a Godly nation and halt Royalist threats, and any acts of tyranny were imposed to ensure conformity. Although the republic collapsed not long after his death, many of the policies Cromwell initiated were reintroduced later in the century because of parliament’s growing influence. Cromwell did at times act tyrannically, so he was a tyrant, but when he did, he saw it to be benefiting the government constitution of England, and was substantially less tyrannical than rulers before him.

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