Cromwell, Oliver (1599–1658), lord protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland, was born 25 April 1599 in Huntingdon, fifteen miles (24 km) north-west of Cambridge, England, the eldest son of Robert Cromwell, younger son of a knight, and his wife Elizabeth Steward. His two brothers died in their infancy, but all seven of his sisters survived into the 1640s and beyond. He spent a year at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and perhaps another year at an Inn of Court or Inn of Chancery. In August 1620 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir James Bourchier, a wealthy London fur trader. Together they had five sons and four daughters, although three of his sons and a daughter predeceased him.
Political career: civil war and protectorate
He was born on the fringe of wealth and status, but remained a minor figure – an urban rentier and, for a time, a working farmer – until unexpectedly catapulted into parliament in 1640. He quickly established a reputation as a religious firebrand and he was one of the first parliamentarians in the field as England descended into civil war in 1642. He rose very quickly to become colonel and then (by late 1643) lieutenant-general of horse in the army of the Eastern Association. When the Long Parliament reorganised its armies in the winter of 1644/5 and almost all MPs lost their commissions, Cromwell was given a series of short extensions as lieutenant-general of the New Model Army, and (apart from a break in 1647 when his commission seems to have lapsed) he held that office until his appointment as general of the expeditionary force to Ireland in the summer of 1649. He replaced Fairfax as general of all the forces of the commonwealth only in the summer of 1650, a position he held until his death.
From 1642 on he was seen as a ‘war party's’ activist, and from 1644 he was a leading opponent of parliament's over-dependence on the Scottish alliance and of its promise to introduce a new confessional state, based on the principles of Geneva and of the Scottish covenanters rather on those of New England, and he came to campaign for liberty of worship for ‘peaceable’ protestants of different churches and sects. By late 1648 Cromwell was convinced that Charles I was (in the language of the Book of Numbers) ‘a man of blood’ against whom God was demanding retribution for the sufferings that he, as king, had visited on his peoples; and Cromwell played an active part in the regicide and in the establishment of the commonwealth. After his military campaigns in Ireland (1649–50) and Scotland (1650–51), he was active in the Rump Parliament and its executive councils, and in 1653 he led an army coup to oust that parliament, replacing it first with the nominated assembly of hand-picked ‘saints’ (July–December 1653) and then by a paper constitution – the ‘instrument of government’ – under which he was appointed chief executive and head of state for life. As lord protector he acted in a way which came more and more to resemble the constitutional monarchy the Long Parliament had striven to create in the early 1640s, although he persistently refused attempts to convert his title to that of king. He died in office on 3 September 1658.
Cromwell and Ireland: early involvement
There were three phases to his relations with Ireland. Until 1649 they were limited; from 15 August 1649 to 26 May 1650 they were intense; and from May 1650, and especially December 1653, they were spasmodic but significant. Cromwell has no known connection with Irish affairs before the outbreak of the rebellion in November 1641. He can then be seen making a generous gift (£300 on 1 February 1642) and a significant loan (£500 – more than his annual income is supposed to have been – as an ‘adventurer’ in April 1642). In the months before the outbreak of civil war in England, he was one of the most active members of the committee for the affairs of Ireland and two other committees charged with funding the Anglo–Scottish military expedition. For example, he attended thirty-three of the thirty-nine meetings of the main committee in the months of April–July 1642. Thereafter, he became distracted by the war in East Anglia. However, when he was in London during the years 1643–6 he played little part in Irish affairs and he was not appointed to committees for Irish affairs. There is evidence that he wished to be appointed to command the new military expedition to Ireland in 1647, but that post was offered to Philip Skippon. In 1648 he handed over two-thirds of the £1,680 annual income awarded him out of the earl of Worcester's estates for the prosecution of the Irish war. When Fairfax declined to command the expedition to overthrow the loyalist alliance of the marquess of Ormond (qv) and the confederation of Kilkenny in 1649, the position fell to Cromwell as much because of his seniority as because of his developed interest in Ireland.
Campaign in Ireland, 1649–50
He was appointed in May 1649 to be lord lieutenant of Ireland and general of the army there, although technically as part of the New Model Army, still under Fairfax's nominal command. In his speech at a general council of the army on 23 March 1649 (recorded in shorthand) and in other writings, he laid out three principal objectives that guided his thinking in accepting the Irish command: firstly, to eliminate the threat of military support for Charles II from those loyal to him – principally the Old English (protestant and catholic) supporters of the long-time loyalist lord lieutenant (the marquess of Ormond) and the Old English and Irish catholic supporters of the confederation of Kilkenny; secondly, to carry through the confiscation of land from all those involved in rebellion against the English parliament since 1641, and the redistribution of confiscated land to those who had invested (as ‘adventurers’) in various expeditions since 1642 to suppress the rebellion; and thirdly to reform the institutions of Ireland not only (or specifically) to introduce the instruments of English civility, but to improve on them. This commitment can most clearly be seen in his proposals for law reform which would not replicate the inequalities and inequities of the English legal system – something he was to condemn in his letter from the battlefield of Dunbar and in a speech to parliament on 17 September 1656 – but would set up in Ireland a model of justice rooted in natural law and equity. He went out of his way to choose English lawyers sympathetic to his programme, but the events of the conquest and the subsequent confiscations got in the way of any real progress in this area.
There is a pamphlet in the Thomason tracts in the British Museum (miscatalogued as E516/10, but actually E561/10, and so little cited) which purports to be a speech Cromwell made on the eve of his departure for Ireland. It was at a gathering of those political Independents who had supported Cromwell in 1646–8 but washed their hands of the regicide. The central thrust of the pamphlet is to persuade them to stop sulking and to come back on side – the Irish campaign was too important and too much in their interest. Some of the early part of the tract was burlesque (which have made some doubt its authenticity), but it then turns into a remarkably powerful political analysis of the Irish situation, which reads credibly as if by Cromwell himself. In this tract, ‘Cromwell’ made it clear that in order to win in Ireland he would need to buy off some former enemies – the key was to ally with the most catholic of the Irish, for the most catholic were the least royalist. The tract predicts the buying off of hard-line catholics like the marquis of Antrim (qv) and even Owen Roe O'Neill (qv), and indeed Cromwell was behind the truce that George Monck (qv) made with the Ulster leader. The pamphlet confirms what other evidence suggests: that Cromwell hated royalists more than he hated catholics.
His campaign in Ireland in 1649–50 is the stuff of legend, legend rooted in part-truths. In forty weeks he occupied twenty-five fortified towns and castles (and visited five more already in English hands) on a progress that began in Louth and moved through the counties of Dublin, Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Kilkenny, Tipperary, and (the east tip of) Limerick. In other words, he spent thirty-four of his forty weeks clearing Munster of royalist garrisons. He never moved north of Drogheda, or further south than Kinsale, or west of Mallow (or perhaps Dunmanway). For the most part, he followed up the ferocity at Drogheda and Wexford by startlingly generous surrender articles (as at Mallow, Fethard, and Kilkenny), and blood was shed on only five occasions even though several towns defied him for days or weeks (he was even forced by the weather and disease to abandon a siege of Waterford). Two episodes from this phase of his career have given rise to the black legend: his sack of Drogheda and of Wexford. At Drogheda Cromwell stormed a town that had refused a summons, and his troops killed perhaps 3,000 royalist troops in hot and cold blood, all the catholic clergy and religious he could identify (mainly in cold blood), and an unknown number – but perhaps 500 – civilians (mainly in hot blood). He followed the laws of war as they had operated in Ireland for the previous century, and not the laws as he had operated them in England. The royalist commander of Drogheda and 300 of his men surrendered on the promise of quarter and were then executed. Cromwell justified the massacre first by reference to the laws of war, and secondly as ‘a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood’. This is an inappropriate reference to the massacres of 1641–2, for Drogheda had never been a confederate town and many of those killed – including most of the officers – were English, while the rest were men of Munster who had fought with Ormond against the confederacy. There is a possibility that the ‘barbarous wretches’ that he referred to were in fact the English catholics who made up at least a third of the garrison – his rage focused on those who sought to continue a lost war in another island. Certainly, it was their heads he displayed on the gates of Dublin. Thirdly, he justified the massacre on the grounds that it would terrorise others into immediate surrender and thus save lives in the long run.
In Wexford his troops stormed a town still negotiating surrender articles (although with deliberate tardiness) and again more than 2,000 people were slain, including a larger number of civilians. What heightened the soldiers' fury at Wexford were credible tales of prisoners of war being drowned by the sinking of a hulk in the harbour and of more protestants being starved to death in a locked chapel. Cromwell neither ordered nor sought to halt the indiscriminate killing that followed. Those soldiers who were not killed were sent to be slaves in Barbados. In general, one would like to conclude that Drogheda was Cromwell's Hiroshima; and Wexford was his Nagasaki; but these massacres did not bring an end to the war – only to atrocity. Resistance elsewhere led to more selective enforcement of the laws of war. At Gowran, for example, Ormond's own regiment surrendered on 21 March 1650. Cromwell ordered the officers to be shot but the common soldiers spared; and although he lost 2,000 men at Clonmel in May, he offered and honoured generous terms to both town and garrison.
The Cromwellian settlement, 1650–58
On 26 May 1650 Cromwell embarked at Youghal for England. From then until September 1651 – during which time much of the Irish settlement was hammered out – he was in the field against Charles II and the Scots. His personal responsibility for the political settlement and the ‘Cromwellian confiscations’ is therefore very uncertain. Much hangs on the sincerity of his ‘Declaration of the lord lieutenant of Ireland for the undeceiving of deluded and seduced people’ (January 1650), in which he challenged the decrees of twenty catholic bishops who had gathered at Clonmacnoise the previous month. Cromwell was withering in his denunciation of the episcopate in particular and of catholic superstition and clerical tyranny in general. But while he stated that ‘I shall not, where I have the power . . . suffer the exercise of the mass’, he also promised that ‘as for the people, what thoughts they have in the matter of religion in their own breasts I cannot reach; but I shall think it my duty, if they walk honestly and peaceably, not to cause them in the least to suffer for the same.’ Summary executions would be visited only on those taken in arms; no other killing would take place except after trial by due process for cause known to the law; and he promised that only those in arms would be banished or transported. There was to be no general confiscation of property, other than that of men who had been in arms. Those who had long since laid down their arms could expect merciful treatment, those who lay down their arms immediately could expect some mercy, while such private soldiers as lay down their arms ‘and shall live peaceably and honestly at their several homes, they shall be permitted to do so’. There is nothing in Cromwell's declaration to suggest that he favoured different principles of retribution from those that had applied to the royalist party in England.
As lord lieutenant, he began to adumbrate a future settlement. He was determined to see both the adventurers and 35,000 English soldiers compensated with confiscated land, but without the widespread displacement of Irish tenants (the early drafts of the act of settlement contain no plan to herd the Irish into the west). He also sought a colonial administration and a highly simplified, accessible, and inexpensive legal system – ‘a way of justice amongst the poor people, which for the uprightness and cheapness of it, may exceedingly gain upon them’ (Lomas, Letters & speeches, iii, 267); and an extension to Ireland of the principles of religious freedom for protestants, linked to a programme for the propagation of the gospel that would settle preaching ministers in Ireland; and while he wished to proscribe the mass and extirpate the catholic clergy, he would not make windows in catholic souls. The subsequent act of settlement was framed while Cromwell was in Scotland and there is evidence that it is based on a pilot scheme developed by his successor in Ireland, Henry Ireton (qv), a man more severe in every way than his father-in-law (he tried to execute the commander of Clonmel indemnified by Cromwell).
Diminished involvement, 1650–58
There is very little evidence that Cromwell took a personal interest in Irish affairs in the years that followed. He made virtually no reference to Ireland in any of his recorded speeches to the parliaments of 1653–8; there is no evidence that he made special efforts to attend – or participate in – the protectoral council when Irish affairs were discussed there. As far as we know, the letters of his son-in-law Charles Fleetwood (qv) and son Henry Cromwell (qv), successively governors of Ireland, were sent to the secretary of state, Thurloe, and by him referred straight to the council. Cromwell remained passionately committed to the soldiers’ interests in the land settlement – the determination of the Rump to privilege the adventurers over the soldiers in the distribution of land was not the least of the reasons for the fury that led him to dissolve it by force in April 1653. As lord protector, he became ever more convinced of the need to relax the iron grip of those who wished to pursue the politics of coercion (including the decision to corral the catholic population in Connacht and Co. Clare) and to substitute a politics of persuasion, destroying the aristocracy but evangelising the common people. But the need to limit the budget deficit in Ireland overrode a general desire to prioritise reform, and a tacit willingness to let the ‘Old Protestants’ dominate in their own interests may have weakened his resolve. As it has been said, ‘although he was capable of individual acts of generosity, these acts did not amount to a consistent policy, and he did nothing to overcome the council of state's or parliament's neglect of Irish business’ (Barnard, Cromwellian Ireland, 294). He is not personally to blame for all the baleful legacy of the 1650s, but he did little to mitigate what others did in his name.
There are many and varied editions of Cromwell's letters and speeches, of which the edition by S. C. Lomas, The letters and speeches of Oliver Cromwell with elucidations by Thomas Carlyle (3 vols, 1904), is not the fullest but is the soundest (for a discussion of the various editions, see John Morrill, ‘Textualising and contextualising Cromwell’, Historical Journal, xxxii (1990), 629–39). There have been more than one hundred biographies. John Buchan, Oliver Cromwell (London, 1934) remains the classic narrative, and Christopher Hill, God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English revolution (1970), ed. John Morrill, Oliver Cromwell and the English revolution (1990) and Peter Gaunt, Oliver Cromwell (1996) the most thoughtful modern commentaries, stronger than most on Ireland. J. S. Wheeler, Cromwell in Ireland (1999) and D. M. R. Esson, The curse of Cromwell: a history of the Ironside conquest of Ireland 1649–53 (1971) are perhaps the most dependable accounts of his military activity in Ireland. Jason McElligott, ‘Cromwell, Drogheda, and the abuse of Irish history’ in Bullán: an Irish Studies Review, vi, no. 1 (2001), 109–32 is the best review of the material on that massacre (though see also, J. Morrill, ‘The Drogheda massacre in Cromwellian context’ in D. Edwards, P. Lenihan, and C. Tait (ed.), Age of atrocity: violent death and political conflict in Ireland, 1547–1650 (2007)). T. C. Barnard, Cromwellian Ireland (1975), together with S. R. Gardiner, ‘The transplantation to Connaught’, English Historical Review, xiv, no. 56 (1899), 700–34, and S. Barber, ‘Irish undercurrents to the politics of April 1653’, Historical Research, lxv (1992), 315–35 are the best introductions to his role in the ‘settlement’. R. C. Richardson (ed.), Images of Oliver Cromwell (1993) surveys Cromwell's posthumous reputation from the moment of his death to the present, and includes a vigorous but subsequently much challenged account by T. C. Barnard (‘Irish images of Cromwell’) that Cromwell was not especially demonised within Irish historical writing and popular memory until the mid nineteenth century and the writings of J. P. Prendergast (qv) (e.g. The Cromwellian settlement of Ireland (1865)).