Cromwell’s Revolution

After a revolutionary war against a tyrannical king, a commonwealth is proclaimed. To preserve the rule of law in the absence of a traditional hierarchy, the elected representatives of the republic adopt the novel device of a written constitution. The victorious general is made head of state. In recognition of his providential role and in order to ensure continuity, the nation’s founding father is offered the crown. He turns it down.

No, this is not the story of the American Revolution, but that of its English precursor more than a century earlier. It is part of the mythology of the United States that almost everything about its foundation was unprecedented. But this is not so. The mindset of the American Founding Fathers was deeply conservative and, unlike most of their present-day successors in Congress and the White House, they were well-versed in English history. During the period sometimes known as the Interregnum, between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Restoration of his son Charles II in 1660, much was anticipated in thought and deed of what would later transpire in the conflict between the American colonies and George III. Both sides drew on their own interpretations of that era in what may be seen as the third act of the drama, following the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which an epic battle of ideas was fought out over almost 150 years.

The Protectorate

At the outset of the Interregnum, England declared itself a Commonwealth—a flexible term that is, of course, still in use for four US states. For four years, the constitutional future of England remained uncertain, while Oliver Cromwell wrestled with what was by now a unicameral House of Commons. Then, in 1653, Oliver Cromwell acceded to a petition from Parliament to accept the Crown. There was no question of him accepting the offer, though that possibility remained open. Instead, he chose the title of Lord Protector, thereby enabling historians to create a new name for the English polity: the Protectorate.

Paul Lay, the gifted editor of the independent monthly magazine History Today, has written a highly accessible account of Cromwell’s Protectorate. Ironically, this strange interlude—the only time in British history that England has been ruled by anyone other than a monarch—paved the way for what later became known as constitutional monarchy. It was the success of this new and flexible system of governance that ensured the survival of the British Crown when so many other European monarchies were swept away between 1789 and 1918.

As the dominant figure in the nations of Great Britain and Ireland that he had just united by force, Cromwell was aware that he would be seen as a dictator—not only by Royalists but by some who had supported the Parliamentary side in the Civil War. He was more than willing to accept limitations on his own powers, by sharing sovereignty not only with Parliament but also a new institution: the Council of State. With Cromwell’s blessing, in 1653 Parliament adopted England’s first written constitution: the Instrument of Government. It was envisaged by its author, Major General Henry Lambert, as a purified form of the “Ancient Constitution,” which was believed to date back to the Saxons and had been codified in Magna Carta and the Common Law. Because the Protectorate lasted less than a decade, and its legitimacy was retrospectively nullified after the Restoration, this experiment in popular sovereignty left few traces on the collective memory of the nation. Yet its language was prescient: “The supreme legislative authority should reside in one person, and the people assembled in Parliament.” Cromwell himself thought it enshrined “just liberty to the people of God, and the just rights of the people in these nations” of England, Scotland and Ireland. We can perhaps see in the Instrument one of the sources from which a very different document would emerge more than a century later: the US Constitution.

Lay, however, does not allow himself to be drawn into such speculation. His narrative is quite grand enough, focusing on the political, cultural, and especially religious forces in play at the time—forces that had torn the country apart—and how the warring factions sought to establish God’s kingdom in England’s green and pleasant land.

One of the conflicts that was never resolved concerned the crucial question of freedom of conscience. This pitted the Protector, whose instincts were surprisingly liberal, against the more puritanical representatives in the Commons. Cromwell (“a parliamentarian serially disappointed by parliaments,” in Lay’s apt phrase) was determined to have his way and largely succeeded in his endeavours. It was, for example, on his initiative that Jews were permitted to return to England, in the teeth of mercantile and clerical opposition, for the first time in four centuries. Addressing a judicial, ecclesiastical, and academic conference appointed by the Council of State, the Protector thundered that, because England was “the only place in the world where religion was taught in its full purity,” the readmission of the Jews would hasten the day of their conversion, and hence of Christ’s Kingdom on earth.

Cromwellian philosemitism emerged both from two distinctively English 17th-century traditions: Hebrew scholarship and a heightened national sense of millenarian destiny. This identification with ancient Israel, too, resonated with the American Founding Fathers. On both sides of the Atlantic, a new commonwealth could readily identify with a chosen people, led to their Promised Land by prophets rather than kings, invested with a mission for mankind by God Himself. For Cromwell and Washington alike, the Jews were living witnesses to the possibility of a providentially inspired declaration of independence from an arbitrary, corrupt and intolerant order.

Perilous Providence

Lay’s ingenious title, Providence Lost, rightly alludes to Paradise Lost, composed by Cromwell’s former Latin secretary during the bleak period following the Stuart Restoration. The great verse epic is, among other things, a lament by the by now blind poet for the visionary, though ultimately utopian, “free state” created by Milton’s former employer.

But Providence Lost also refers to Providence Island: a British colony off the coast of what is now Nicaragua which had been settled in 1629, as what Lay calls “the furthest outpost of Puritanism.” Though the island was lost to the Spanish in 1641, many of the entrepreneurs involved in the Providence Island Company played a part in the revolution against Charles I and his French Catholic queen. Cromwell, lauded by Milton as “our chief of men,” shared the merchant adventurers’ hopes that an “Indian expedition” would spread the godliness of the new Commonwealth across the New World—besides replenishing their coffers. The Protector was an enthusiast for what he and his colleagues called “the Western Design”: a grand scheme to seize the island of Hispaniola from Habsburg Spain. His formidable new navy could then use its natural harbour as a base from which to dominate the Caribbean. An “invincible armada” was dispatched to capture the Spanish stronghold under the command of William Penn, father of the founder of Pennsylvania. It arrived in 1655, a date that with hindsight can be seen as the zenith of the Protectorate.

The primary meaning of Providence, however, is the divine one. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination engendered among the Puritans a powerful sense of confidence in their own providential purpose: they could and did justify dangerous or dubious deeds by claiming to be the instruments of God’s will. Cromwell attributed his extraordinary sequence of victories—not only routing the Royalist generals, battle-hardened in the Thirty Years’ War, but conquering Scotland and Ireland, which had defied successive English monarchs for centuries—entirely to Providence. His New Model Army were the elect in uniform, saints on the march. The downside of this doctrine was that military failure implied rejection by the Almighty.

The Glorious Revolution, as it was called by Protestants, ended half a century of instability and inaugurated a political and religious settlement that proved to be permanent.

And so when the Western Design was scuppered by poor leadership and tough resistance by the Spaniards, there was no escaping the conclusion that God was against them. “Divine providence had been lost; it must be regained,” Lay comments. A chastened Cromwell went into a kind of mourning; he felt his age and the cares of office weighed upon him. Yet he accepted divine justice with humility: “We have provoked the Lord, and it is good for us to know and be abased for the same.” Acutely, Lay compares the anxiety and paranoia, the shame and vindictiveness that social media generate for the “woke” today with Puritan pietism under a ubiquitous Creator. “But one can opt out of social media, however addictive,” he observes. “There was no such option in the world God had created, nor in the next.”

There was some consolation for the saints: though Hispaniola had proved impregnable, the retreating fleet had captured Jamaica. This still largely barren island, successfully defended against the Spanish, would prove to be the cornerstone of a new West Indian empire, based on sugar and slavery. The army had failed; not so the navy. During the Protectorate Cromwell’s naval counterpart, Admiral Robert Blake, inaugurated the rise of English sea power which would enable Britannia to rule the waves for two centuries. And it was the Royal Navy, as it would soon become, that abandoned piracy in order to police the oceans and ultimately suppress the slave trade.

A Conservative Revolution?

Alongside his focus on governance, Providence, and grand strategy, Lay devotes much of this elegantly written and accessible account to the attempts by opponents of the regime to overthrow it. John Thurloe, Cromwell’s Secretary of State and intelligence chief, called these rebels the “old malignant and the levelling” parties. The Sindercombe Plot, far less famous than that of Guy Fawkes, planned to blow up Whitehall Palace, seat of the Protector. It was betrayed and foiled only at the last minute.

The corollary to these insurgents’ maladroit machinations of gunpowder, treason, and plot was what became notorious as “the rule of the major generals.” These young, energetic evangelicals were charged with the “moral regeneration” of the nation, but though they were officers, most were not gentlemen. Their social superiors did not take kindly to being patronised and penalised by these jumped-up martinets and their even more plebeian commissioners. Those suspected of Royalist sympathies were subject to the “decimation tax,” intended to pay for the militia. Some Puritan officials really were puritanical. In Southwark, London’s red light district, Major General Pride prohibited bear-baiting, “not because it gave pain to the bears, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators,” in the memorable phrase of the Victorian historian Thomas Macaulay.

And so was born the myth of the Cromwellian police state. It was during the Protectorate that the Royalist Thomas Hobbes wrote his Leviathan in French exile. Charles Stuart’s former mathematics tutor had no compunction about advising his countrymen that “the obligation of subjects to a sovereign is understood to last as long and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them.” As Lay observes: “For the cold-eyed Hobbes, the pedigree of the sovereign was irrelevant.” While Cromwell’s Leviathan protected law and order, albeit by draconian methods, most people obeyed. Legality was one thing, however; legitimacy another. And as the Protector’s fragile health declined—undermined physically by malaria from the Fens, mentally by the loss of his beloved daughter Elizabeth—it wasn’t only his handwriting that became “a shaky and uncertain scrawl.” So, too, did the sovereignty he had exercised in the name of God and the English people.

The Protectorate barely outlasted its human creator. Cromwell’s death in 1658 was followed by an increasingly desperate search for a successor. His son Richard was proclaimed Protector but, lacking his father’s authority over the Army, resigned after just eight months. The Rump Parliament was recalled, as the sole remaining source of legitimacy, but was equally incapable of filling the vacuum of power. Finally, in 1660, Charles Stuart was invited by General George Monck, the Army’s commander, to return from his French exile and acclaimed as King Charles II. The Restoration of the monarchy gave the Stuart dynasty a second chance, but when James II, a Catholic, succeeded his elder brother in 1685, he tried to import absolute monarchy from his French patron, Louis XIV. By 1688 James had forfeited all trust and was forced to flee. The Glorious Revolution, as it was called by Protestants, ended half a century of instability and inaugurated a political and religious settlement that proved to be permanent.

Yet the experiment of Cromwell’s quasi-theocracy left an intellectual legacy that was never quite forgotten, least of all in the colonies beyond the Atlantic, where both bondage and freedom would be taken to much greater lengths. This brilliant book emphasizes Cromwell’s conservatism, which led him to resist both the novelties of Stuart absolutism and those of his own radicals. Like Margaret Thatcher, with whom Lay illuminatingly compares him, the Protector believed that liberty, political and religious, was embodied in the “Ancient Constitution” of his people, guided by Providence. Both the British and the Americans have reason to be grateful for that enduring insight.

Reader Discussion

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on September 21, 2020 at 12:26:24 pm

"As the dominant figure in the nations of Great Britain and Ireland that he had just united by force..." or as former Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern put it - to the British Foreign Secretary who received him in his office with a portrait of same - "that murdering bastard": https://www.historyireland.com/early-modern-history-1500-1700/the-curse-of-cromwell-2/
I don't doubt, at all, the intellectual and cultural importance of someone like Cromwell in spite of his abominations. I would rather hope, that among nominally free-thinking or even Christian people however, we would witness less of the apologetics Conservatives typically roast the hard-left over defences of Stalin - I mean, he was important too, and unified a lot of territory.
I'm glad that the whole "liberty" thing worked out so well after a few centuries for fans of Margret Thatcher.
But for some those of us descended from the heathen that Cromwell didn't cleanse from his brave New Model utopia - whose grandparents were out fighting for a Republic of equals a century ago - when you make the comparison between him and Thatcher, we're liable to say "Thanks, but you keep that to yourselves on your own island".

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on September 21, 2020 at 13:52:20 pm

To the Irish nothing mattered at all except that Cromwell was English. His religion, politics, etc. mattered not one bit. The Irish would have fought anyone from the outside but the fact is if there was no one from the out side they would have fought just as much against fellow Irishmen. Naturally as you say from the English point of view Cromwell was right but the Irish point of view is unprintable.

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Dan Hamilton
on September 22, 2020 at 13:56:19 pm

Thanks for that post, the history and actions of Cromwell need further analysis. This review (and the work itself which I have not read) hopefully provides numerous details on Cromwell's wonderful positions and actions regarding the "Irish" and "Scottish" problems. These positions did indeed remain unresolved for quite a long time and hopefully a full and honest accounting of the man will resolve future concerns. By the way what is "predetermined" and by whom?

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on September 22, 2020 at 17:39:36 pm

You write as if the Irish were innocent bystanders in the events of the 1640s and 50s. They weren’t.

The Irish murdered 20,000 or so of their Protestant countrymen in 1641. They offered material support to Charles I after 1642. After the Independents won the Second Civil War against the Scots and Monarchists and executed Charles I, the Irish invited Charles II, the Vatican, the Spanish and the French to use Ireland as base from which to launch yet another counterrevolution. They dared the New Model Army, which had just obliterated the Scots and had become the most dangerous land force on the Continent, to do the same to them and the NMA did.

Making nice with the Commonwealth would have gone a long way, but that was quite beyond the Irish.

The Irish can never see their own hand in their troubles.

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on September 25, 2020 at 09:45:45 am

Making nice with Cromwell...that's rich. The English viewed the Irish as inferior which opinion continued through the 18th and 19th century. The behavior of the British toward the Irish speaks for itself. In my travels to Ireland I always find it amazing that not one church, friary, convent or castle remains, they were all destroyed by your friend Cromwell. Destruction of the entire Irish landowner class by the British importation of the Scotch and British administrators continued. The ultimate result was the Irish Catholic people subject to the Penal laws, couldn't vote, couldn't own land, couldn't practice their Catholic faith. Famine, Malthus and British indifference to the plight of the Irish led to a million deaths or more and the emigration of at least two million others. Cromwell began the process of trying to finish the Irish off and the British kept trying over the centuries. I smile as an American when I see what my people have been able to do. The Irish have per capita income higher than the UK and the sons of Erin in the US smile when we realize you can't keep a good people down. The British always have a blind spot on that one, they don't have the facts and they don't have the heart to realize what they tried to do. It's OK we forgive you, but don't try to make the Irish struggle compare to the military might of Britain. The British lost this battle long ago--the Irish when faced with overwhelming odds proved that the heart of a people deemed inferior will always overcome.

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on September 26, 2020 at 13:44:19 pm

The entire world, not just the English thought the Irish and some of the Scottish inferior until the late 1800s. The two groups of Celts continued to try to live in the past. They held onto unwritten languages and live in stone huts and had a reputation for sending their women and children out to beg while they stayed home and drank. The English were Celts also, but took on another language which was in written form, and were participants right in the middle of the Modern World. And the English were expected to put up with and even support the non-working Irish. The English were in two areas in Ireland, areas which were totally ignored by the Irish until the English made something out of them.

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on September 22, 2020 at 17:30:35 pm

A long article of glowing praise for Cromwell without once mentioning his brutal treatment of Ireland and the general repression of Catholics. Some champion of liberty indeed. The tradition of virulent anti-Catholic bias is another intellectual legacy that America inherited from Britain. The article at least faithfully reflects the intellectual level of the "Daily Mail". If that is what "Law and Liberty" aspires to these days...

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Siegfried Herzog
on September 23, 2020 at 22:06:37 pm

We get the Irish version of what happened all the time. What we don't hear is how the Irish were always on the side of Catholic Spain when they went to war with England. The Irish and the Spanish were against religious liberty. And don't forget there was the Inquisition going on in England. The Anglicans and RCCs were on the same side in England in Cromwell's day as well as later, and they were persecuting the anti-established religious people. George Washington fought the Jesuits from Quebec in the French and Indian Wars. In other words, the English and American Protestants were fighting against people who were trying to kill them called both Anglicans and Catholics. Why would you welcome people like that into your home? The American colonists did allow a few Catholics who could prove they had been persecuted into the colonies, but there weren't many of them being persecuted. Also, the English saved many European Protestants, Jews, and even some American Indians from the Spanish.

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on September 23, 2020 at 09:57:20 am

Refreshing respite from the Humian gloss so prevalent in Cromwell scholarship of late. America's heritage not only embraces the Puritan Revolution, which parroted our own rebellion against absolutism, but extends to the Dutch Republic whose Union of Utrecht in 1579 instituted the first modern expression of religious liberty. If a man can be judged by his associations, Cromwell's association with Owen marks his character as rising above the opinion of his detractors. His contributions cannot be denied. And, if ever an American were to live under a dictator, it would be not Hitler, Stalin or Mao, but Cromwell whose 'liberal' take on 'conscience' was strikingly modern, from which a few of our politicians and jurists could partake.

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on September 23, 2020 at 15:56:52 pm

Let us praise Daniel Johnson for introducing the Commonwealth-State to Law and Liberty Essays and its importance in understanding Originalism within American Constitutional documents. Unfortunately, his scope is too narrow as I would point to Harvard’s Bernard Bailyn’s historical recreation of the Atlantic Civilization. Triangulated between London, England, Boston, Massachusetts, and the Caribbean, Bailyn found the new merchant class of Boston cooperating with their families in England, who utilized their sons as merchants in the Caribbean. The 1628 contract creating the incorporation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was written by John Winthrop, whose mentor was Sir Edward Coke. From this document, Winthrop’s corporation became an executive, a legislature and a judiciary, or a government. In 1627 Speaker of Parliament, Sir Edward Coke, created the Petition of Rights. Nor was the student to be outdone when Winthrop published his Body of Liberties in 1641 for Massachusetts. This Body of Liberties, was updated in 1649 after the success of Massachusetts men fighting with Independent Regiments outside the New Model Army. One regimental leader was a former naval captain and brother-in-law of John Winthrop, Sir Thomas Rainsborough. He produced the Agreement of the People presented to Oliver Cromwell at the Putney House debates in 1647. Yearly elections, universal voting, and term limits were heard in this document attributed to the Levelers. By this point the library at the College in Cambridge was collecting the works of Coke in the school now called Harvard. The school’s most prolific reader of the Coke Collection was John Adams. Smaller private legal libraries would contain Coke’s work, such as held by Col. George Mason. Massachusetts influence continues under John Winthrop Jr., who became a member of the Original Royal Society of London in 1662 and took back to New England the Royal Charter for Connecticut, while other Winthrop sons enjoyed Winthrop Bay in Antigua as merchants.
Four states have adopted the Commonwealth Status. One is Kentucky, who continued their Virginia form of government. The Jeffersonian Democratic State Commonwealth Constitution also contained a Bill of Rights by George Mason. This 1776 Commonwealth Constitution was followed by Benjamin Franklin’s Commonwealth Constitution for Pennsylvania shortly after, and John Adams Commonwealth of Massachusetts Constitution was approved in 1780. They were the original members of the committee that wrote the 1776 Declaration of Independence. Soon they became the Ambassadors to the world of American Exceptionalism.
Jefferson continued his work in the First Northwest Territorial Ordinance after Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark, with his acknowledgment of the support of Col. George Mason, doubled the size of the United States. James Monroe, a student of Jefferson’s, chaired the writing of the Second and Third Northwest Territorial Ordinances, which carried the work by 1787 on democratic statehoods for future states admitted to the Union. Of course, another adopted citizen of Virginia, the leader of the victorious French-American Division at Yorktown, wrote the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man with Ambassador Thomas Jefferson and Col. George Mason’s Bill of Rights. Later, Col. Ambassador James Monroe was to write the 1795 French Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and Citizens for which he became a citizen of France. One can credit French-speaking Monroe with convincing Napoleon of the role of future states within the Louisiana Purchase, which would protect France’s interests better than colonists and a 50,000 man French Army. The Napoleonic Code still is law in the state of Louisiana.
From the above works, ideas for Originalism can be found. Note well that the Democratic Constitutions for the States were present at the Philadelphia creation of the Republic but not mentioned by James Madison or George Washington as Gen. Washington chose to follow the 27 B. C. Constitution of Augustus Caesar’s Roman Republic. One can call the ideal man of Adams, Jefferson and Franklin as the Commonwealth-man whose lineage is very distinguished. The Commonwealth-man is best exemplified by the President over the Era of Good Feelings, James Monroe, and his friend the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall. They, with the Marquis de Lafayette, without naming any personages, Alexis de Tocqueville retold their handwork as the builders of his Democracy in America

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on September 24, 2020 at 14:54:09 pm

What are your citations to Bailyn and Atlanticism and what are your citations to the point that Coke and Winthrop collaborated on the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1628?

It is well known that Edward Coke was Roger Williams’ patron but I’ve never heard that John Winthrop had any direct connection with either Edward Coke or the granting of the MBC’s charter of 1628. How that happened has always been something of a mystery as the charter followed closely upon the Petition of Right Parliament which precipitated the 11 years of person rule by Charles I and ultimately the outbreak of the English Revolution.

Your over all conclusions do seem to be correct but your chain of causation is surprising.

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on September 24, 2020 at 14:58:32 pm

Great review. I look forward to reading this. Something that distinguishes Cromwell from our founders was his relative indifference to constitutional forms. Ireton's Instrument did not mean much to him except as a means to draw together the disparate factions and attempt a settlement. The experiment failed for many reasons, not least the inability to fund the expanded military establishment, including army and navy resources devoted to Ireland. It is curious how large Cromwell looms in the minds of the Irish. The Catholic Confederacy rebelled in 1641. The English fought the rebellion for many years before Cromwell had anything to do with Ireland, and he left Ireland after important successes long before the campaign was completed. It seems to be all about Drogheda, a very significant massacre. But Monro and Inchiquin also massacred defeated enemies in that war, yet are not nearly as notorious. Montrose was also known for massacres. Cromwell has become the figurehead for English oppression in Ireland, which he neither began nor ended.

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