Oliver Cromwell
ruler of England from 1653 to 1658

1599 - 1658

Oliver Cromwell led the armed forces of Parliament to victory in the English Civil War in the 1640's and ruled England from 1653 to 1658. He had an iron will and was a military genius. Few leaders have inspired more love and respect or more fear and hatred.

Cromwell was born in Huntingdon, England, near Peterborough. He came from a wealthy and influential family. Cromwell studied at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, but his father's death forced him to leave before getting a degree. In 1628, he was elected to Parliament. During the 1630's, Cromwell became a dedicated Puritan. Puritans were Protestants who strongly believed in the right of people to follow more simple forms of worship and church organization than those of the Church of England.

In 1629, King Charles I dismissed Parliament. He believed that kings got their right to rule from God, not from the people. Charles showed little respect for Parliament and did not call it to meet until 1640, when he needed it to provide money. The struggle for power between the king and Parliament resumed, and civil war broke out in 1642. Cromwell had won election to Parliament in 1640, and he became its leading general. He had no military experience, but he turned out to be a brilliant cavalry leader. His forces, called the "Ironsides," never lost a major battle. In 1645, Cromwell won the decisive Battle of Naseby. The king surrendered in 1646.

Parliament's supporters split into two rival groups. These two groups were the Presbyterians and the Independents. The Presbyterians, who had the majority of the seats in Parliament, wanted Parliament and the king to share political power. Some of the independents, whose supporters included the chief officers of the army of Parliament, favored formation of a republic governed entirely by Parliament.

Fighting between the king's sympathizers and the Independents broke out in 1648. Cromwell supported the Independents and put down the revolt. Soon afterward, Parliament's army seized Charles and removed the Presbyterian members of Parliament. Cromwell was a leader in the king's trial and execution in 1649. England then became a republic called the Commonwealth of England. In the next two years, Cromwell crushed uprisings by Scottish and Irish forces and defeated an army loyal to Charles Stuart, son of the executed king.

Parliament's failure to adopt major reforms upset Cromwell. In 1653, he dismissed Parliament and ended the Commonwealth. Cromwell's military officers then prepared a document that made England a Protectorate. Cromwell became its chief executive with the title of lord protector.

Cromwell limited freedom of the press, demanded rigid moral standards, and adopted other strict measures. He also strengthened England's navy and brought Scotland and Ireland under English control. In addition, Cromwell aided the development of English colonies in Asia and North America. In 1657, Parliament offered Cromwell the title of king, but he refused it.

After Cromwell died in 1658, his son, Richard, became lord protector. But Richard was an ineffective ruler and resigned in 1659. In 1660, Parliament invited Charles Stuart to rule as King Charles II.

Contributor: Roger Howell, Jr., D.Phil., Former Prof. of History, Bowdoin College.


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