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Cromwell, Virtue and War in the Puritan Republic

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell, Puritan soldier-dictator

With the king having lost his head and no succession, England was a republic. Parliament was in charge of the government and declared England a commonwealth and "free state," without a king or House of Lords (commonwealth referring to national unity for the common good). Not yet a democracy, the commonwealth of England was functioning as a military dictatorship, while many of the English were eager to extend the revolution.

In London were those called diggers. They supported the overthrow of the monarchy but believed that common people would not benefit from it unless landlords lost their privileges and their lands to common ownership. They saw the buying and selling of land as the cause of all oppression, bondage and war. "True freedom," wrote their leader, Gerard Winstanley, "lies in free enjoyment of the earth." These were god-fearing people who disliked the association between church authorities and established power, and they claimed that existing religious authorities were instruments of class rule.

Some others were opposed to the Diggers but for democracy, and they were called Levellers by those opposed to democracy. The Leveller movement was based in London, and they too were grounded in religion. They were inclined to lift quotations from the Bible, as did their opponents – while both sides considered also their political and economic interests. As a goal during the war years (1645-46) against Charles, the Levellers advocated giving the vote to all males in elections for local offices and representation to the House of Commons. They advocated supremacy for the House of Commons, and they advocated constitutional guarantees of liberty, religious toleration and annual meetings of Parliament. The Levelers favored fairness in applications of the law, faster legal proceedings, prison reform and the closure of debtor prisons. The Levellers appealed to small farmers, small shopkeepers and artisans, but their hold on England's common people was minor. Conservative Puritan ministers accused them of adultery, incest, fornication, drunkeness, card playing and lying, and many among the common folk remained accustomed to taking their ideas from their local ministers or squire.

Members of the House of Commons – representing landowners, merchants and the middleclass – were afraid of the Levellers. Many in the army had more humble origins, and some of them joined the Leveller movement. Levellers within the army rebelled at Burford in May, 1649, while most soldiers remained loyal to their commanders. And the Leveller rebellion was crushed – the first great victory of republicans against democrats in modern times.

Soon after the Leveller rebellion was crushed, so too was Digger activism. About thirty Diggers had tried to establish themselves on wasteland at St. George's hill in Surrey. Fear of a communist takeover spread among local ministers and small property owners. The Diggers at St. Georges Hill suffered insults and assaults, and several Diggers were arrested for trespassing on St. Georges Hill. In March 1650, the small community of Diggers was dispersed. In April, a small Digger community in Cobham was also dispersed, after a local Lord of the Manor, Parson Platt, and others destroyed Digger houses, furniture, and scattered their belongings. The Diggers were threatened with death if they returned, and several guards were posted at the property. Lacking public support, the Digger movement faded into oblivion.

Cromwell into Ireland and Scotland

In March 1649, two months after the execution of Charles, Parliament named Cromwell as Lord Lieutenant and Commander in Chief in Ireland. His duty was to establish Parliament's authority over the rebellious Catholics of Ireland – an operation opposed by the Levellers. In September, Cromwell landed at Dublin with 12,000 men, unopposed by any army. Cromwell had in mind the massacres by Catholics in 1641. He proclaimed the righteous judgment of God upon the Catholics, and at Drogheda (a seaport town thirty miles north of Dublin) he exercised God's judgment by having the population massacred. He did the same at the port of Wexford (eighty-three miles south of Dublin). Contrary to Cromwell's hopes, these massacres did not discourage resistance elsewhere among Ireland's Catholics. Being a good Puritan, Cromwell tried to stop indiscriminate plundering by his army, and, as he saw it, God gave him a victory over the Irish. The Irish saw it differently. With them, Cromwell left a legacy of hatred of British rule that was to extend into the twentieth century.

Next his army went to Scotland, where the eldest son of Charles, Charles II, then twenty, had taken residence. An army of 26,000 Scots supported the proclamation that Charles II was the new king of England, Scotland and Ireland. Into 1651, Cromwell defeated the Scottish armies. Charles II fled to France. Cromwell left behind an army in Scotland and returned to London, and Scotland was given representation in Parliament, as was Ireland.

War against the Dutch

Parliament was able to tax more than Charles would have dared try. And with the additional money, the Commonwealth was able to launch a ship building program, beginning in 1649. But English trade had been suffering, with English merchants blaming the Spanish, French and the Dutch. The English resented Dutch economic superiority and rivalry in trade, and Dutch fishing off their shores in the North Sea. For thirty years Dutch-English relations had been deteriorating. In 1651, Parliament passed the Navigation Act, which forbade goods leaving Great Britain in the hands of Dutch merchants or on Dutch ships. In May, 1652, the Dutch and English fleets bumped into each other in the English Channel, off the coast of Dover, and, itching for a fight, the English commanders believed that the show of courtesy by the Dutch was insufficient. Shots were fired. The Dutch lost two ships, and they retreated. War between the United Netherlands and the Commonwealth of Great Britain had begun, supported by many who believed that the Dutch were a greedy people who had forsaken God's cause.

The English attacked Dutch fishing boats off the coasts of Scotland and England. Less dependent on trade by sea, the English were less vulnerable than the Dutch. The Dutch played defense, trying to protect its trade through use of convoys, which delayed trade, as did rerouting their ships around the north of Ireland and Scotland. The Dutch were vulnerable to English attacks as they passed through the English Channel, and English ships were built more for war than were Dutch ships. English ships had more firepower, and with their history of raiding the English were more skilled in the art of war, including keeping a naval military line. Dutch naval officers were more influenced by the traditions of merchant shipping, with less orientation in the rigorous discipline that served warfare.

Despite England's successes in warfare, members of Parliament continued to squabble, as members of parliaments are wont to do, and toward the end of 1653 a group of army officers declared Cromwell Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. A constitution was written. Cromwell was from the landed elite rather than a merchant family, and he was not so enthusiastic for the war as were some others. The war was hurting England's trade as well as Dutch trade. Maintaining a naval blockade of the Netherlands was expensive, and English seamen, sitting on ships at anchor off the coast of the United Netherlands, were growing restless and irritated.

Some in England were glorying in their country's success against the Dutch, and they were displeased by Cromwell's move to end the war, believing that doing so was premature. Cromwell was opposed to further war against fellow Protestants while he saw danger looming from Catholic France. England, the land that had killed its king, was looked upon with disdain by much of Europe, and in the international arena England could use all the friends it could get, including the Dutch. The war was hurting the Dutch, their economy having been built on economic efficiency and peace, and in 1654 Cromwell and the Dutch signed an agreement ending the war.

The Battle for Virtue

During the republic, Puritans held the position of respectable pillars of local society. Puritans supporting Cromwell's dictatorship had hoped for a remaking of common folk. They were opposed to idleness and disorderly conduct and favored instead the conduct of people of "credit and reputation." They favored an individual's right to interpret God's word without the guidance of a priest. And although they frowned upon people whose interpretation was different from theirs, they did believe in a degree of tolerance among their fellow Protestants.

Various Protestant sects had emerged – Baptists, Ranters, Quakers and others, all insisting that they be allowed their own course toward salvation. The name Baptist was a shortened version of Anabaptist, Anabaptist ideas having spread from the Dutch, the first Baptist church appearing in England in the year 1612. Another sect, which made its appearance during the republic, was called the Fifth Monarchy Men. They believed that a new rule was coming that would be the successor to the Roman Empire, a rule in which Jesus Christ would reign on earth, with his saints, for one thousand years.

Like the early Christians, in being different these various sects aroused suspicion and hostility. Puritans detested the Quakers for their pacifism and their belief in equality, seeing equality as a threat to civil disorder. The Quakers drew hostility also by interrupting other people's church services. Quakers, in turn, had dirt clods, cow dung and sticks thrown at them during their services. In 1659 a rumor spread that Quakers were running naked through the streets, and concern erupted over morality and the safety of property.

Despite the prevalence of religious faith, England, especially London, remained a rough and tumble town. The world of things in England seemed a domain of sin in which each person had to seek a break from the common corruption and put himself or herself right with God. Drinking, gambling and fighting were common. Despite rule by the Puritans, crime in England was on the rise, including crimes that were capital offenses – of which there were over two hundred, including horse or sheep stealing or shoplifting more than five shillings worth of goods. But the authorities saw themselves as humane. Rather than hang many of those found guilty of capital offenses, they sent them to their colonies in the Americas.

A belief in witchcraft was still prevalent and was being exported to the Americas. This was accompanied by a quote from Exodus 22:18, "Thou shall not suffer a witch to live." People were on the lookout for signs of lust, old women who were quick to curse, people who were spiteful and ill-natured, and people with brown lumps on their body, where Satan had sucked. Women were more frequently the targets of witch hunts and were often thrown into dungeons and tortured, willing to confess to anything to stop their torment. Women were hanging on to a tradition of herbal remedies and were regarded as more effective in healing than those thought of as learned physicians, with their bleeding, purging, fumigations and toxic chemicals such as mercury. The explanation for the women being able to heal and the learned physicians not was often witchcraft.

The Revolution Fades

Against the will of merchants, lawyers and others, Cromwell allowed Jews to live and worship in England, ending their 365-year banishment, the Jews building their first synagogue in London in 1657. But Cromwell prohibited Catholics from practicing their faith. He saw his primary role as a stay against wickedness and saw Catholicism in England as seditious. England was at war with Catholic Spain, and Catholic France, and he saw England at war with "popery," royalists from abroad and closet royalists at home.

Cromwell opened and closed Parliament, appointed officials, received ambassadors and distributed honors while retaining an air of modesty amid an elaborate court. He wanted his image to remain off coins. His modesty was in part at least the product of his Puritanism, which also led him to believe that he was doing the Lord's work. Success he took as God's favor. Failure he took as a sign of God's disfavor. Defeats suffered by his forces in the Caribbean in 1655, at the hands of the Spanish, he saw as a consequence of "... extreme avarice, pride and confidence, disorders and debauchedness, profaneness and wickedness, commonly practiced" among his forces. And for his soldiers in the Caribbean he urged stricter discipline to remove "all manner of vice" and to create conditions wherein "virtue and godliness" could flourish.

Cromwell's health weakened, and in 1658 "the Lord called him away," and following his death came political turmoil. Some had had their fill of Puritanism and were relieved that Cromwell had died. Some had hated Cromwell's regime for the execution of Charles I and some hated it for a taxation that had been greater than under Charles I. Levellers were still around, and they thought that maybe their ideas would fare better under a constitutional monarchy – a monarch perhaps looking more to the benefit of common people rather than the interest of the wealthy merchants and landowners.

Discontent rose among some as a result of a decline in economic activity caused by war with Spain. Fear of plunder by soldiers arose among civilians as soldiers went unpaid. Most of the cost of the army had been paid by monthly assessments – taxes on property – and people did not have the money to pay these taxes. Rather than pay their taxes some rioted. Parliament ruled, but ineffectively. In December 1659 shops in London had shut down and bloodshed was feared. Troops fired on a great crowd of apprentices presenting for reform, leaving six or seven dead. Many had begun to long for the good old days of monarchical rule, including church leaders among the Presbyterians and Anglicans. They had tolerated Cromwell, seeing him as a bulwark against the political left, and with Cromwell gone they were again afraid of mobs and common folk.

In his book The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama writes of "anti-Royalist groups like the Levellers and the Diggers" creating fear among "the property owning classes represented in Parliament." On May 1, 1660, both houses of Parliament voted to restore the monarchy to the eldest son of Charles I, who was in exile in France. Charles arrived at Dover on May 25. Bonfires were lit and bells rung in great celebration. A few notorious republicans were burned in effigy. In October a prominent republican, Thomas Harrison, was hanged, drawn and quartered, and his heart and head displayed to cheering onlookers. In January, the body of Cromwell and two others were exhumed and their bodies hanged in symbolic executions. The people of England were relieved and happy.

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Copyright © 2009-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.