Captain of Controversy

One of the most controversial figures in British history, Oliver Cromwell has been the subject of hate and veneration. Antonia Fraser’s biography, Cromwell Our Chief Of Men, helps us understand the man by balancing the opposing views in a thoroughly researched and readable story.

I hesitated, stepped back and walked away. Minutes later I was back, turning pages, studying the jacket endorsements, speed-reading paragraphs. I gave in…
The title, Cromwell Our Chief Of Men, seemed to praise a man I wanted to despise. In some people’s estimation Oliver Cromwell stands with Richard III and King John as one of the ultimate Britlish villains. To others he ranks with Richard the Lionheart and Henry V as a hero of our country. In my thinking he ranked with tin pot dictators and overblown fanatics. He was, I supposed, guilty of pursuing religious goals by violent means. Though I had little knowledge of his life and period I believed he had betrayed both Christianity and democracy and I shrunk from reading his story.

A recent reading of The Journal of George Fox rekindled my interest in the seventeenth century and Cromwell's book cover called to me from the bookshelf. Antonia Fraser devoted 706 pages to this biography, which is enough to tell the story thoroughly. The few pages I browsed seemed to give a balanced appraisal, despite the title (a quotation from the poet, Milton). The controversial “Oliver, Protector” was drawing me to him with an irresistible fascination. I began to learn the truth between his admirers’ adulation and his enemies’ detestation. Cromwell was a loyal husband, an attentive father and a devout worshipper with a love for music and poetry. The same man was an opportunist with a lethal temper that could burst out in violent and decisive action. His readiness to take bold, tactical gambles made him a brilliant military strategist and a dangerous politician. He also had the ability to be lucky at the right times.

‘Luck’, in Cromwell’s language, meant the blessing of God. Devout to an extreme, he believed that the Lord ordered the events of his life and that a successful outcome signalled divine approval. Such a belief can be reassuring, though it could be re-stated as 'the end justifies the means' - a view that can have horrific outcomes. His victories at Marston Moor, Naseby, Dunbar and Worcester were widely seen as 'good' but the massacres at Drogheda and Wicklow still make his name odious in Irish memory. Antonia Fraser does not conceal his blacker moments, but attempts to understand his personality, and to suggest how he justified his actions to himself. She presents the whole man - honest, deliberate, sincere, ruthless - but often merciful when no quarter was expected; magnanimous to the point that his natural foes often sought his protection from the repressions of his natural allies.

For all his extremes, he produced profound and necessary changes to the history of his native country and the nature of governance itself. He was neither the author of the Civil Wars, nor even commander officer of the Parliamentary army for most of the War. Faithfully subservient to General Fairfax, Cromwell was, however, the army’s most successful strategist and most consistent winner of battles. Little wonder that he emerged as the national leader by the end of this tumultuous period. As the admired and feared 'Lord General' his appointment to the ruling council was guaranteed. After his sword-point dissolution of the hated 'Rump' parliament his supremacy was established. As 'Lord Protector', Cromwell became monarch in all but name, and ruled with greater autonomy than the king whose death warrant he had signed. Parliament twice offered him the crown but he refused it, thereby ensuring that government would pass back to the Stuarts after his death.

Oliver Protector was a military dictator, but he was not a tyrant nor was he drunk on extravagance or power. His ascent to the peak of power was slow and almost reluctant. He could have seized power when the Commonwealth was born in 1649, but it was not until December 1653 that he was raised to the ultimate position and endowed with the palaces of Whitehall and Hampton Court. Even then, despite every opportunity for indulgence, his tastes remained moderate and his justice proved tolerant. Tolerance is a word few people associate with Cromwell’s name, but many of his critics and potential enemies recognised his better side and moderated their own views.   Even in the religious context, he was more moderate than many of his compatriots, once declaring, “I had rather that Mahometanism be permitted amongst us than that one of God’s children should be persecuted.”   Indeed, it was his resistance of the less tolerant Presbyterianism of his day that brought him to prominence at the head of the 'Independent' interests that were so prevalent in the army.

I was wrong to condemn Cromwell for fanaticism. In an age of religious extremes he was a paragon of moderation and open-mindedness. His rule prevented, or at least moderated, repressions that others sought to impose on Cavaliers, Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Quakers, and he opened this country to the Jews for the first time since the thirteenth century.   His wisdom and authority won respect from the nations of Europe, including those Catholic countries that would have been most expected to condemn him. I acknowledge that he was a great man – though I would not seek to have him as a friend. He was a man of his day. To appreciate how he came to occupy the focal point in the transition from mediaeval to modern Britain, I needed to understand his motivation - and his times. I needed the kind of research that Antonia Fraser put into this book; and I needed her balanced presentation of the story.

© Derrick Phillips - 2001