With the execution of King Charles I in 1649, Oliver Cromwell became the first non-royal to rule England as Lord Protector. He helped establish the Commonwealth of England before forming the protectorate in 1653 which gave him his title. It was a short time, however, as Cromwell died five years after his protectorate and his republic lasted less than two years after. History remembers Cromwell for his rebellion against Charles, his harsh reign and the ultimate failure of his republic. Still, there’s more to Oliver Cromwell worth knowing, so we’ve established these ten interesting facts about the only commoner to truly rule England.
Rise of the Protector
Oliver Cromwell comes from a large, middle-class family. He made himself known as an MP. He came to greater attention after the outbreak of the English Civil War as a successful military commander who was a highly effective leader, a quality which helped his largely amateur “New Model Army” to defeat well-trained royal forces. After Charles’ execution, Cromwell continued to wield influence in Parliament and led military campaigns against Ireland and Scotland, the latter of which proclaimed Charles II king.
From military leader to de facto dictator
The Rump Parliament had been in charge of England as part of its new republic since 1649, but Cromwell and others were increasingly disillusioned with the infighting and inefficiency of Parliament, which resulted in large part from the loss of their common goal of getting rid of Charles. In 1653, Cromwell used military force to dissolve the Rump Parliament, and a new constitution was drafted which made Cromwell “Lord Protector” for life. Under Cromwell, Scotland was occupied by English forces, although the period was relatively peaceful.
After becoming Lord Protector, Cromwell stopped signing documents with his full name and signed them as “Oliver P” with the P standing for “Protector”.
While Cromwell himself was a very strict Puritan, he was publicly and privately tolerant of other religions and opened members of other faiths to practice freely. His government allowed freedom of worship to breakaway sects such as Quakers and Baptists. While the new constitution had no room for Catholicism in theory, in practice English Catholics enjoyed a freedom of worship they had not known since Queen Mary I. And even if it was arguably an economically practical matter, Cromwell’s government allowed Jews to return to England after being expelled during the reign of King Edward I.
Cromwell’s tolerance of Catholics did not extend to the Irish. While considering the Mass idolatrous, he permitted it for English Catholics because he considered them loyal subjects, as Irish Catholics had rebelled against England. Such views had their roots in Cromwell’s campaign against Ireland from 1649 to 1650 which saw the Irish Confederates side with the English Royalists. Historians debate the level of atrocities committed by his forces against the people of Ireland, which include accounts of massacres of civilians.
A terrible owner
Cromwell is also responsible for one of the most oppressive things that has happened to the people of Ireland. It was under Cromwell that England instituted the landlord system which confiscated large tracts of land from Irish farmers and gave it to “loyal” English landowners. Catholic land ownership fell from 60% to 8% and never regained that number until Ireland became a separate republic in 1922. The landowner system was responsible for many hardship for the people of Ireland, including the Great Famine in the 19and Century, and was among the motivations for Irish independence.
We were friends once
Thomas Fairfax was 3 years oldrd Lord Fairfax of Cameron and an early supporter of Cromwell, fighting in Cromwell’s regiment. However, their views diverged after what Fairfax saw as a show trial of King Charles I and publicly opposed it, ending his friendship with Cromwell. Later, Fairfax was one of the lords responsible for bringing King Charles II back to England, and was therefore spared much of the reprisal inflicted on the Puritans at the start of the Restoration.
A complicated legacy
Despite Cromwell’s stern and bloody reputation, many consider him a champion of freedom and democracy. Many of the reforms he instituted remained an integral part of English governance after the Restoration.
One last indignity
Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, but the desire for revenge among Charles I’s supporters was strong. After the Restoration in 1660, King Charles II’s Royalist supporters had Cromwell exhumed and then hanged, thrown into a pit and cut off his head before he was allegedly placed on a pole outside Westminster Hall.
Wizard vs Space Wizard
The 1970 biographical film Cromwell which details the conflict between Parliament and King Charles I features Richard Harris as Cromwell and Alec Guinness as Charles. Harris is known to more modern audiences as Albus Dumbledore from the first two Harry Potter films, while Guinness is perhaps best known for playing Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy.