Walking along the North Shore of the Thames River, we pulled our coats up against the cold wind of a late winter’s day, walking around buildings, many built right down to the water’s edge.
As we walked across the front of Parliament, I was struck by the proximity of the statues of Oliver Cromwell and King Charles I, facing each other from across the street, as if in eternal conflict, which, in a way, they were and remain.
Of course, history is replete with colorful characters, but Oliver Cromwell might be the most/worse. He was still revered in Great Britain as a great leader in a poll done just 20 years ago, but he was described by Winston Churchill as a military dictator, although Churchill also respected him, hoping to name a British warship after him. He remains uniformly hated by Roman Catholics, particularly Irish ones. But his reputation has mended over the years because of his military prowess, his military reforms, his general administrative ability and his promotion of religious freedoms (as long as you were Protestant).
Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector of the English Commonwealth when he signed the execution order for King Charles I in 1649.
Charles was born in Scotland in 1600, the second son of James I of England (who was also James VI of Scotland), the famous son of Mary, Queen of Scotts, who financed the popular Protestant English translation of the Bible that we call the King James Version. Charles grew up in England once his father assumed the British throne, becoming king himself in 1633.
From the beginning of his reign, Charles resisted the will of Parliament, believing in the Divine Right of Kings (basically a belief that since God chose kings, all they did or wanted to do was God’s divine will) at the expense of the will of Parliament. In addition, even though Protestant, he was despised for marrying a French Catholic and for resisting the rising influence of Anglican reformers in both Scotland (the Brothers of the Covenant, whom we now call Presbyterians or Reformed) and England (the Puritans).
It probably did not help his political career that he was considered physically weak and spoke poorly, with a permanent stammer, although he loved horses and fencing. Also not helpful was his father’s dispute with Parliament over the impeachment of Lord Chancellor Frances Bacon (of continuing mathematical and literary fame; some historians still think he ghost wrote for Shakespeare) and James I’s subsequent dissolvement of Parliament.
The other part of the fates against King Charles I was his close association with the Duke of Buckingham (of “The Three Musketeers” fame), who earned public and Parliament’s disfavor by siding with the King and also by his inability to defend the French Huguenots (Protestants in Catholic France, particularly at La Rochelle). The assassination of Buckingham (by a Puritan, interestingly enough) was a major loss and an important factor in the king’s subsequent fall.
Charles vacated Parliament again himself and ruled the UK (United Kingdom of Great Britain, Scotland and Ireland) for approximately 11 years alone, but with limited ability to raise money, since taxes were the purview of Parliament. He managed to raise some money, keeping the treasury afloat, by taxing shipping, the nobility, farming on royal lands and by granting commercial monopolies in exchange for cash.
All of these imaginative taxes kept his court viable but provoked the public and the Parliament more and more against him. When merchants and bankers stopped lending him and his government money, he seized money and property from the East India Company and the Tower of London. Charles also shut down Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
As already mentioned, Charles ran afoul of Anglican reformers both in Scotland and England by restricting their right to speak or publish and generally irritating them with what is called his High Anglican Theology. In particular, he permitted sports on weekends, punished contrary publications, insisted that the Reformers were much too dogmatic in their view of God’s Sovereign Election (Charles believed in total human Free Will, what we now call Arminianism), and arranged treaties with Catholic Spain and France.
Partly because of poor funding, Charles also fared poorly at war. His invasion of Scotland to unseat the Presbyterians failed but probably achieved some political goals, and skirmishes against Spain and France did not fare well, either. Plus, the Scots had the temerity to then invade England and capture, for a time, Newcastle.
Finally, surrounded by failure, King Charles recalled Parliament in 1640, but it reconvened with a 3 to 1 ratio of members AGAINST him and quickly moved to impeach the king’s advisers (executing at least one of them) and passing legislation preventing Parliament’s dissolution. To make matters even worse, the loss of the king’s advisers led to complete disarray in Ireland. In battles between Protestants and Catholics, blood was shed on both sides. In anger and frustration, the king physically entered Parliament to personally arrest at least five leaders, but he failed. By 1642, both the king and Parliament were raising armies for what is now called the First English Civil War.
Oliver Cromwell, born in 1599, was descended from the sister of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor. The family acquired wealth when Henry VIII seized Roman Catholic properties, but even though noble, Oliver’s parents were merchant, middle class. Cromwell’s wife’s family probably provided him more money, contacts and prestige than his own. He was elected to Parliament in 1628, already known as a devout Puritan Protestant who attended the Puritan Sydney Sussex College in Cambridge.
Cromwell ruled the UK as dictator, called the “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland,” until 1658. Cromwell’s 1649 invasion of Ireland earned him eternal Irish Catholic hatred for its intensity and barbarity; his invasion of Scotland was eventually forgiven, as he made his peace with the Presbyterians, save the Highlanders.
Even Cromwell eventually could not control Parliament, and he disbanded it in 1653. He died from malaria and kidney failure in 1658. His son Richard succeeded him as Lord Protector but was weak and ineffective. King Charles II, Charles I’s son, ascended to the UK throne in 1660 at the request of Parliament, although he had been serving in Scotland since 1649. In retribution, King Charles II had Cromwell’s body disinterred from Westminster, beheaded, mutilated, jeeringly displayed in public and then finally reburied at Sussex College. Ironically, Cromwell’s old Westminster crypt was later used to bury the illegitimate children of Charles II.