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Oliver Cromwell – God's Englishman

John Morrill - The Tablet - Wed, May 31st 2023

Irish Catholics were permitted to worship in private, and released from obligation to attend Protestant worship.

Oliver Cromwell – God's Englishman

Oliver Cromwell ­remembered in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, where he lived for five years in the 1630s.
photo: alamy, robin weaver

A comprehensive collection of all his recorded writings only adds to the paradoxes and ambivalences surrounding the life and personality of one of the most bitterly contested figures in British and Irish history.

On Friday 26 June 1657, wearing a purple robe of mixed colour to blend justice and mercy, he was presented with a Bible and a sceptre and the sword of state, and, having taken the most solemn of oaths, was led to the coronation chair of Edward I, beneath which sat the Stone of Scone. There he was acclaimed by Lords and Commoners, judges and councillors. There was no anointing and no crown but, in all but name, this was the coronation of Oliver Cromwell, the man who had overseen the trial and execution of Charles I in January 1649. His death was by far the biggest reason why it was possible for Charles II to be restored in 1660 and to be crowned in 1661. 

Cromwell is one of the most controversial figures in British and Irish history. For many Protestants and libertarians, and more specifically those in the nonconformist tradition, “God’s Englishman” – as the radical historian Christopher Hill called him – has remained a hero: a champion of religious toleration as well as a man who destroyed tyranny in many of its forms and created a more politically open society with much more equality before the law. But the bloodbaths at Drogheda and Wexford are writ large in the memory of Irish Catholics and the “curse of Cromwell” hangs over Anglo-Irish relations to this day.

The hatred that still exists in Ireland is matched only by unawareness in non-Catholic English circles of what Cromwell did there in the 40 weeks from August 1649 to May 1650. I am reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s remark that the tragedy of the English conquest of Ireland is that the Irish cannot forget it and the English cannot remember it. 

A new edition of Cromwell’s complete letters, writings and speeches modifies if not transforms what we know of him. Nothing in his recorded words lets the English off the hook for what happened in Ireland. But a closer look suggests some startling adjustments to our views on Cromwell’s personal responsibility. He emerges as someone who personally detested what he saw as the idolatry and the priestcraft of “popery” but who believed that persecution is always counter-productive. He lifted almost all the penalties on Catholics introduced by the governments of Elizabeth I and James I. Under Cromwell there were no penalties for failure to attend Protestant ­services, and very little prosecution for attending Mass. Priests had an easier time in Britain than over the previous 80 years, something that is attested to by the ambassadors of continental Catholic powers and confirmed by Cromwell himself in a deeply private letter to France’s chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin.

The first thing to strike the reader of Cromwell in his own words is how little he concerns himself with Catholics. Unlike so many of his puritan colleagues he was not obsessed with popery. He hardly ever refers to Catholics (with or without a prior “Roman”) and even when he does it is always Catholics in Ireland he is concerned with. And he is sparing in talking about “papists” and “popery”. When he does use these words they rarely refer to a mentality or a movement, except an international one. Indeed he uses the word “papist” of individual Catholics very rarely.

Far more often when he speaks of people he and we know to have been Catholics, it is because they were militant supporters of the Stuarts, and he refers to them, as to all Protestant supporters of the King, as “the enemy” (“royalist” and “cavalier” are other words he rarely uses). He never alleges there is a conspiracy by English papists or even Irish papists. There are Catholics among his (and the Protestant cause’s) enemies just as there are Protestants among them. He never says that all Catholics are his enemies. 

Leaving Ireland aside for the moment, the sack of the (Catholic) Marquis of Winchester’s house just outside Winchester is the only time Cromwell seems to act vindictively towards Catholics. But they were Catholics who had resisted several sieges and cost the Parliamentarians dear, and when he threatened to put the garrison of Faringdon to the sword a few months earlier, he was dealing entirely with Protestants. 

More dramatically, in the late 1640s and more particularly in the 1650s, he was happy to collude to soften the impact of confiscation and he regularly wrote to the relevant bodies on behalf of wives, widows and children of Catholics. Cromwell recognised that there were “deserving” as well as undeserving Catholics and he wanted wives and children to be safeguarded where possible.

Cromwell took the view that Catholics – like every other citizen – should be penalised for what they did, not for what they were. The penalties on recusants – whether Catholic or nonconforming Protestants – introduced by Elizabeth I were suspended. But Catholics who served in royalist armies were subject to more severe penalties than Protestants and several hundred had all their estates confiscated, leaving them saddled with a lifetime of debt (although most were able to find friends and wider family who would acquire their estates relatively cheaply and act as trustees for the original owners). 

Catholics who had supported the king were banned from public office, but the many who remained neutral in the 1640s or who were too young to take part, were subject to no restrictions. It was royalism not Catholicism that barred them. Almost all restrictions on the movement of priests (who were seen as having restrained rather than encouraged Catholic royalist activism) were lifted and only one – St John Southworth – was executed, and that was because he scorned the opportunity to save himself by denying he was a priest.

Cromwell could not intervene, but he did, however, order that surgeons sew up Southworth’s mangled corpse and have it embalmed and sent at his own expense to the seminary in Douai where it remained until returned to Westminster Cathedral in the twentieth century (where it can be venerated today). 

Catholics faced heavy penal taxation in the 1640s but Cromwell did not take part in any of the debates on this; and he was on campaign when a new oath was introduced in August 1643 which was a genuine threat. It compelled all who were required to take it under dire financial penalties to abjure papal authority, transubstantiation and that “salvation cannot be merited by works”. If it had been systematically administered, it would have ruined all Catholics; but there was no will to systematically apply it, especially once Cromwell became Lord Protector. 

Above all, Cromwell can now be seen to believe that all persecution was counter-productive. Every martyr radicalised a dozen moderates (does this sound familiar today?)  So Catholics who kept themselves to themselves, worshipped in private and did not proselytise were overwhelmingly left undisturbed. Catholics who fought for the King, suffered the political consequences.

Meanwhile, spasmodically between 1647 and 1652, and more continuously after he became Protector, Cromwell had secret talks with liberal Catholics who (exaggerating the support they had in Rome) offered to deliver an oath to be taken by all, an oath that did not deny articles of faith but which promised political obedience in return for rights of private worship. Some think that Cromwell was stringing these Catholics along and never intended to make a deal with them. The way he himself took the initiative in many of these debates, sending close allies on secret missions to Paris for example (in parallel with the secret talks in Amsterdam that led eventually to the re-admission of the Jews to England), suggests otherwise. 

Ireland is more complicated. Irish Catholics suffered far worse. The number of priests was reduced from 2,000 to 500 or fewer. Dozens were killed, hundreds given free passage to continental Europe. Some (though far fewer than claimed) were sent as indentured servants (emphatically not as slaves) to the West Indies. There is now evidence they were then deported back to Spain. Still Cromwell had nothing but contempt for Irish priests whom he wrongly thought were all implicated in the cruelties associated with the Catholic rebellion of 1641-42, and who he believed deluded the people into idolatry and superstition: “Yours”, he told Catholic bishops, abbots and priors gathered at Clonmacnoise in December 1649 “is a covenant with death and hell”. But a year later, addressing the Scottish Presbyterian clergy, he said “Yours may be a covenant with death and hell.”

He did not like clergy intruding between the people and the God who revealed himself in Scripture and in the everyday. He made it clear that Irish war criminals could expect no mercy but he made careful distinctions and judicial processes to sort out criminals from “ordinary” combatants. 

Irish Catholics were permitted to worship in private, and released from obligation to attend Protestant worship. In five years perhaps three-quarters of the land held by predominantly Catholic Irish people was confiscated and redistributed to Protestant Englishmen. Cromwell sought to limit but not to prevent this. What the English did in Ireland in the 1650s was shocking. But to blame Cromwell personally is in a sense to fail to see the scale of the bigotry, malice and greed that underlay English actions. 

He concentrated on destroying royalism, not Catholicism. He made alliances with those Catholics who refused to declare for Charles II (including Owen Roe O’Neill, the most ruthless Catholic commander), he had close relations with Catholic priests offering political obedience in return for enhanced religious freedoms, and when Rome appointed a new archbishop of Armagh, that bishop (O’Reilly) headed first for the Protector’s court not for Ireland. Rome took Cromwell’s willingness to negotiate seriously. And when Puritan settlers seized power in Maryland where the Catholic Lord Proprietor had created a haven for all victims of persecution, Cromwell sent troops to reinstate him and his tolerant regime. 

Catholics have no need to honour Cromwell; but neither should they demonise him. 

John Morrill, Emeritus Professor of British and Irish History at Cambridge, is the general editor of the three-volume edition of all the recorded letters, writings and speeches of Oliver Cromwell, published in September 2022. His new biography of Cromwell will be published by Bloomsbury in October..


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