Oliver Cromwell: The Peculiar Puritan

A Review of Leaders in Battle: Oliver Cromwell

By Michael Piatt

There are, throughout history, certain characters who, more than all others, seem to amaze and perplex those who remember and/or study them.   Perhaps it is not that their actions that are so extraordinary, though that may very well be as we'll soon see, but rather that they have about them a strange mystique; their lives raise more questions than they provide answers; they leave us awed because of all of the unknowns.   Oliver Cromwell is such a character and Leaders in Battle:   Oliver Cromwell is a film that seeks to provide answers to many of the relevant questions surrounding him:   Where did he come from?   What kind of personality, character, and faith did he have?   What impact, positive or negative, did he have on his world?

Created in 2001 by Kultur Production Company, Leaders in Battle:   Oliver Cromwell is a fifty minute documentary that provides the opinions of many British historians who all have their own take on Cromwell, as well as a dramatic representation of the events in which he participated.   The purpose is simply to provide the viewer with a better look at the mystery that is Oliver Cromwell.  

In the years leading up to 1642, when civil war broke out in England, the nation was coming under great political, religious, and social stress.   Charles I had continually outraged parliament and finally done away with it, refusing to call parliament between 1629 and 1640.

In addition to the tension caused by the fuss these powerful political leaders were making, the King had to, without parliament's fiscal support, then resort to methods of acquiring income that made British commoners as dissatisfied with Charles as parliament had become.   He adopted such practices as distraint of knighthood, collecting of forest fines, and raising ship money in peace time, even in non-coastal cities.

With this strained budget, the King then undertook military endeavors, the First and Second Bishop's Wars in 1637 and1639, to force the Anglican faith upon Britain's Scottish neighbors.   Meanwhile, at home, Charles was advised by his counselor, Archbishop Laud, to tighten the reins of religious persecution on the Puritans in England who refused to conform to the King's religious preference, the Church of England--an act that drove many Puritans from England to places like the New World, and that further infuriated those who remained.

When the king, in fiscal desperation, called Parliament in 1640 and quickly dismissed it, angered by this "Short Parliament's" belligerence and irreverence, tension rose considerably.   They rose still further when Parliament reconvened the next year and began taking charge.   They immediately ordered the execution of Charles' two top advisors, Laud and Wentworth, and then outlined some very pointed and determined demands they would present to the King in the Nineteen Propositions.   It was in this context of confusion, unrest, and anger that Oliver Cromwell appeared, of course on the Parliamentary side of the Parliament-Monarch struggle, on the Puritan side of the Puritan-Anglican struggle, and a leader in both.

The film spends a few of its opening minutes presenting this background but then quickly moves to exploring Oliver Cromwell, the man--specifically where this man began.   Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire was the site of the humble beginnings of this great Puritan leader.   As the film explains, Cromwell was neither common nor upper-class.   His father was actually a younger son of a very rich lord in England, meaning that, though he did inherit an air or feeling of being upper-class, he did not inherit the wealth.   So Oliver found himself stuck n the middle, in a home where the family thought of themselves as noble and well-to-do, but had no money or titles to show for it.

Great effort is also made by the film to explore the interior life of Cromwell--his character, his personality, and his faith.   We are told that the stereotypical Puritan personality--harsh, calloused, uncaring, dull, critical of entertainment and enjoyment--is not one that accurately describes this leader, though he is often portrayed, both visually and in historical text, as being such.   The film cites medical records from this time period from which we learn that ten years before he ever appeared in Parliament, Oliver Cromwell was treated for clinical depression.   It was at this all-time low point in his life that Cromwell was introduced and converted into Christianity, namely Puritanism.   In God he finds relief from his depression and begins to find God's purpose for him, which he later claims is to become Protector of England.

No, the film claims Oliver Cromwell the Puritan, as many describe him, was not necessarily the man that many suppose him to have been.   He was, in fact, a man of compassion, most clearly seen in his relationship with his family.   He was a loving husband and caring father to his eight children whom, he is quoted as saying, he "thoroughly enjoyed".

Also, though Puritan through and through, Cromwell was not entirely dull.   By the film's account, he was addicted to tobacco, from which he received much pleasure, and also took a liking to music, singing, and dancing.   He wrote in his journal that at the wedding of his daughters, he danced long into the night and drank plenty, to boot.

There is however, no doubt that Oliver Cromwell was a deeply religious man who cared very much about discovering and doing God's will.   In fact, the film tells us that the Puritan received some of his greatest criticism with regards to how long he would take to make up his mind and come to decisions.   He took great effort to find which choice God might have him make in each situation, a process which, at times, would considerably delay political proceedings.

There are certain, rather unpleasant, incidents that are unfortunately unavoidable, and that must be considered, when one is reviewing Oliver Cromwell's character, and this film takes special care in addressing and exploring these.   The first and probably most famous of these controversial decisions is that to try and to execute King Charles I.   After five years of war and fairly consistent Parliamentary domination, Charles fell into parliament's hands in 1647 and the question becomes:   What will we do with the King?   There was no precedent for trying a king, but Cromwell used his power to force the trial and ensure that Charles was convicted and sentenced to death.   In 1649, King Charles I was beheaded and though this may have actually been beneficial for England, it caused many to doubt the character and morality of this 'Puritan', that he would be willing to kill to remove those who stood between him and his goal.   Much commentary was devoted in the film to how Cromwell came to this decision, and what that says about his character.   As before mentioned, he deliberated for a long period of time before he concluded that this decision was in fact the one that the Lord had intended he should make, and therefore, as was characteristic of him and evidence that he believed he had received divine revelation, when the decision had been made, he was sure of it and he defended it.

Another incident, or pair of incidents, that some believe bring into question the character of the Puritan, are the attacks on Ireland that Cromwell led in September of 1649.   The Irish had actually assisted Charles and his royalists in the Civil War, a fact that Cromwell had passionately and publicly resented.   The Irish were seen as savage, uneducated, and their rebellion was seen simply as a problem to be eliminated.   To facilitate this reassertion of control, Cromwell led his New Model Army into Ireland and attacked the cities of Drogheda and Wexford.   The viewer is soberly informed that in each battle, more than 20,000 Irish soldiers and civilians were killed.   Cromwell attempted to justify this brutality by claiming that killing this way put down the rebellion very quickly which ultimately saved Irish and English lives, but the Irish have never seen it in such terms nor have they ever forgiven the horrendous acts which they now refer to as the "curse of Cromwell."   According to our film, many who attempt to look inside the man, Oliver Cromwell, come to these actions--the execution of Charles I and the brutal attacks on the Irish--and wonder about his motives, his character, and even his soul.

However, the film as a whole makes it clear that this criticism is not its sentiment.   The third question that it sets out to answer is what impact, positive or negative, Cromwell made, and the consensus is probably not consistent with what it might be in Ireland.   The film and its experts reviewed the life and actions of Oliver Cromwell--his rise to power from somewhat common status; his leadership and performance in the Civil War; his military cunning and ingenuity displayed in the creation of the New Model Army; his political dealings with regards to parliament; even his rule as "Protector of England"--and reached a verdict:   the legacy left by Oliver Cromwell was a positive one.

In addition to the fact, and probably because of it, that Cromwell was a great soldier and statesman, he changed the face of England, for the better and forever.   The changes his actions wrought, the film argues, moved the nation in the direction of democracy.   As one of the experts frankly put it, "He made England better.   There'd been a miserable set of kings before his time.   He got rid of them, and since his time kingship has gotten better."   Another expert explained that because of his resistance to the religion determined by the Monarch at the time--the Church of England--Cromwell actually left behind, by accident, a sentiment that he probably would have greatly disliked, but which has since served the nation well, and that is a sense of religious pluralism.   In addition, the foundation he laid for Britain's education, the Royal Society, and for her status as a world power were also cited as reasons why the film and its creators, held the belief that this mysterious Puritan left an impact that, though not without flaws, was a positive one for England.

For further reading, those who are interested might consult J. C. Davis' Oliver Cromwell , 2001, Antonia Fraser's Cromwell , 1973, and/or Peter Gaunt's new Oliver Cromwell , 2004.