Oliver Cromwell: Dictator of England

Oliver Cromwell is one of the most interesting figures in the history of England. He managed to overthrow a dynasty and establish a new system never seen before in England.

Nov 8, 2021By Igor Radulovic, MA History Education, BA Art History
cromwell at dunday portrait oliver cromwell
Cromwell at Dunbar, by Andrew Carrick Gow, 1886, via the Tate Gallery; with Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, by Robert Walker, 17th century, via ArtUK


The Tudor dynasty ended with the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, and the English crown passed to the Scottish Stuart dynasty. The new English king James I Stuart (1603-1625) was already King of Scotland, so England and Scotland entered a union. As soon as he ascended the throne, James faced complex problems both religious and financial. Religious problems caused many conflicts in England, as it was one of the European countries where religious passions intensified in the 17th Century. Religious tensions would play a key role in the ensuing English Civil War and the rise of Oliver Cromwell.


James very quickly announced that he would rule as an absolute monarch, accountable only to God. When Parliament began to oppose the king’s every move, James caused further problems by re-igniting religious disagreements, insisting that all residents submit to the Anglican Church. Many people in the country, especially the Puritans, would go to America because of religious persecution, thus beginning the birth of the British Empire.


Before Oliver Cromwell: The Conflict with Parliament 

Charles I, King of England, by Daniel Mytens, via the Royal Collections Trust


James’ son, Charles I (1625 – 1649), did not differ much from his father and continued his absolutist policies. The beginning of the reign of Charles I was marked by a series of catastrophic failures in foreign policy and many unpopular moves domestically, all of which influenced the cooling of Parliament’s feelings towards him.


Parliament pressed the king where it hurt the most — they rejected the king’s request to raise additional money from the budget for military needs, at a time when he was at war with his unfaithful Scots. The conflict between Parliament and the King intensified to such a degree that they became fierce rivals in the struggle for power. The English Civil War soon broke out, dividing almost the entire Island into two opposing camps. Both the king and Parliament issued their proclamations for the gathering of their armies. On August 22, 1642, the king declared war on Parliament.


The English Civil War Divides the Country

Cromwell in Battle of Naseby, by Charles Landseer, 1851, via thejoyofmuseums.com

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The First English Civil War between the king and Parliament would last for four years and kill almost 50,000 people. The king drew support from loyal supporters who were not affected by trade prosperity and who were part of the old patriarchal and feudal regime, as well as those from remote counties in the north and west of England. On the other side, all those areas that were more densely populated and richer, as well as port cities with lively trade, decided to support Parliament. London, as the main economic center of the country, was on the side of  Parliament. This key alliance of cities brought economic supremacy to the parliamentary party.


However, from the beginning, the Royalists (supporters of the king) had the advantage because nobles and officers, skilled in the military craft, sided with the king. Due to this, the king had more success in the first battles than Parliament did.


Oliver Cromwell Turns the Tide of War 

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, by Robert Walker, 17th century, via ArtUK


The situation changed in favor of Parliament when leadership was entrusted to Oliver Cromwell. Before the English Civil War, Cromwell was a middling landowner, but during the revolutionary years, Cromwell showed great military ability and broke out as the head of the army and one of several revolutionary generals. The successes he won in the fights with the Royalists brought him huge popularity.


Oliver Cromwell was a staunch Puritan and an enthusiastic fighter for the cause of parliament. When he received the task of reorganizing and strengthening the army in 1645, he began to form what became known as the “New Model Army”. What he had achieved so far in his own unit, he wanted to transfer to the entire army. His soldiers were called Ironsides, and their strong morale gave them striking strength. Oliver Cromwell was also the first modern military leader to understand the significance of a fighter’s moral character.


Later, after a major victory at Naseby, there was a conflict between the army and Parliament. Parliamentary leaders wanted to disband the army, but they failed to do so. In early 1647, the Scots handed Charles over to Parliament, who did not know what to do with their prisoner.


Proclamation of the Commonwealth

Execution of Charles I in 1649, Unknown Artist, c. 1700-1750, via the British Museum


At the beginning of 1648, a new, albeit short-lived English Civil War began. By the summer Oliver Cromwell had quelled the revolts of the royalists and the Scots. His troops entered London, and Cromwell decided that Charles must be removed. Parliament did not show readiness to accept such a decision by the army. In December 1648, a detachment of troops came in front of the Parliament building and allowed a small number of deputies to attend. Of the sixty deputies, who were supposed to decide on the king’s fate, one-half agreed to try him for treason. Parliament created the High Court of Justice, which sentenced Charles to death for treason, tyranny, and murder. The death warrant was signed by John Bradshaw, Thomas Gray, and Oliver Cromwell. The King was executed in front of a large mass of people on January 30, 1649.


England was proclaimed a Republic, the “Commonwealth”, but Parliament’s decisions were not enough to remove political difficulties. The King’s assassination caused astonishment in Europe, while Royalists, Presbyterians, rebellious Scots, and Irishmen created problems across the country. Cromwell faced all these problems, convinced that he enjoyed divine inspiration.


Introducing the Dictatorship

Cromwell at Dunbar, by Andrew Carrick Gow, 1886, via the Tate Gallery


Under such circumstances, England re-entered into conflict with Irish Catholics and Royalists. In August 1649, Oliver Cromwell led an army that crushed any resistance it encountered and reduced further warfare in Ireland to guerrilla fighting. It was a new military success for him, which gave him increasing political weight at home.


As soon as he had finished campaigning in Ireland, Oliver Cromwell had to deal with Scotland, whose parliament proclaimed Charles II, the son of the executed king, King of Scotland, on the condition that he accept the Presbyterianism faith. This threat was much greater for the English Commonwealth, so Cromwell had to subdue the Scots and prevent the return of Charles II. He won great victories at Dunbar in September 1650 and at Worcester a year later.


Due to growing problems in the country, Cromwell soon completely dissolved Parliament altogether. From 1653. Cromwell ruled the country as Lord Protector with the help of the army. Thus, instead of a monarchy and a Republic, a dictatorial regime was introduced to England.


Puritanism Dominates Everyday’s Life

Depiction of a Puritan family, 16th century, via Britannica


Under Cromwell, Puritan norms of behavior were introduced into public life that required strict observance of the Bible. All blasphemous behavior was punished. England became a country without any entertainment, as theaters were closed and all kinds of celebrations were banned, especially if they involved alcohol. The most solemn day was Sunday, which had to be dedicated to the Church and the penitent reading of the Bible in the family circle.


Anyone over the age of 14 could be punished if caught on Sunday in some inappropriate action. There was even a prescribed way of dressing, which was based on dark and modest suits, that didn’t flaunt current fashions. Puritanism also brought some good things. Namely, to facilitate the spread of religious knowledge, the population was motivated to start sending children to school.


In addition, Oliver Cromwell introduced important innovations in administration and he established the obligatory keeping of registry books, establishing the possibility of concluding a civil marriage among other things. He extended the right to vote to new levels of the bourgeoisie who had been without that right up until that point. He was also keenly interested in matters of education. During all these turbulent years of revolution, England prospered, despite the constant wars and riots.


Cromwell’s Legacy

Proclamation announcing the death of Oliver Cromwell and the succession of Richard Cromwell as Lord Protector, 1658, via Historic-uk


Oliver Cromwell is an exceptional and unusual figure in English history. He undoubtedly possessed the ability to manage people and he had a great military gift. But Cromwell did not have a specific political program nor did he look too far into the future. He solved problems pragmatically. He did everything with a deep conviction he was acting in accordance with the will of God. He was convinced that God himself had sent him to the English people. But the time and circumstances in which he lived made him a dictator and even a cruel despot in Ireland.


In his private life, Oliver Cromwell was a man of mild temperament and good character. In politics, he was an autocrat that did not respect Parliament. Still, he showed some tolerance in everyday life. He allowed freedom of religion for all forms of Protestantism, and Jews, who had been expelled by Edward I, were allowed to settle once again in England. He also enabled the Scots to enjoy all the rights of the English, so that they were no longer considered foreigners.


Cromwell died in 1658. He was succeeded by his son Richard, who was unable to continue his father’s policies. After Cromwell’s death, there was no calming of political conflicts and passions. No one was able to remove the army from power, regardless of the general dissatisfaction. By 1660, the forces advocating for the restoration of the Stuart line grew stronger and King Charles II was restored to power.

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By Igor RadulovicMA History Education, BA Art HistoryIgor is a historian and a history teacher from Podgorica, Montenegro. His main focus are contemporary history and controversial historical topics. He still likes researching different periods, spanning from ancient to modern history.