Oliver Cromwell remains one of our most famous characters in history. From 1649 to 1653, Parliament ran England but from Cromwell’s point of view, it was not a system that worked effectively and England, as a nation was suffering. As a result, Cromwell, backed by the army, sent home MP’s and he became the effective leader of England from 1653 to 1658.
He was the man who really pushed for the execution of Charles as he believed that Charles would never change his ways and that he would continue to be a source of trouble until he died. Cromwell’s signature is one of the easiest to make out on the death warrant of Charles – it is third on the list of signatures. It is said that a shadowy man was seen by guards who were guarding the dead body of Charles. He was heard to mutter “Twas a cruel necessity, twas a cruel necessity.” Was this Cromwell? However, there is no proof that this ever happened and it could be that it is just one of those historical stories that has gone down into legend.
Cromwell was a Puritan. He was a highly religious man who believed that everybody should lead their lives according to what was written in the Bible. The word “Puritan” means that followers had a pure soul and lived a good life. Cromwell believed that everybody else in England should follow his example.
One of the main beliefs of the Puritans was that if you worked hard, you would get to Heaven. Pointless enjoyment was frowned upon. Cromwell shut many inns and the theatres were all closed down. Most sports were banned. Boys caught playing football on a Sunday could be whipped as a punishment. Swearing was punished by a fine, though those who kept swearing could be sent to prison.
Sunday became a very special day under he Puritans. Most forms of work were banned. Women caught doing unnecessary work on the Holy Day could be put in the stocks. Simply going for a Sunday walk (unless it was to church) could lead to a hefty fine.
To keep the population’s mind on religion, instead of having feast days to celebrate the saints (as had been common in Medieval England), one day in every month was a fast day – you did not eat all day.
He divided up England into 11 areas; each one was governed by a major-general who was trusted by Cromwell. Most of these generals had been in Cromwell’s New Model Army. The law – essentially Cromwell’s law – was enforced by the use of soldiers.
Cromwell believed that women and girls should dress in a proper manner. Make-up was banned. Puritan leaders and soldiers would roam the streets of towns and scrub off any make-up found on unsuspecting women. Too colourful dresses were banned. A Puritan lady wore a long black dress that covered her almost from neck to toes. She wore a white apron and her hair was bunched up behind a white head-dress. Puritan men wore black clothes and short hair.
Cromwell banned Christmas as people would have known it then. By the C17th, Christmas had become a holiday of celebration and enjoyment – especially after the problems caused by the civil war. Cromwell wanted it returned to a religious celebration where people thought about the birth of Jesus rather than ate and drank too much. In London, soldiers were ordered to go round the streets and take, by force if necessary, food being cooked for a Christmas celebration. The smell of a goose being cooked could bring trouble. Traditional Christmas decorations like holly were banned.
Despite all these rules, Cromwell himself was not strict. He enjoyed music, hunting and playing bowls. He even allowed full-scale entertainment at his daughter’s wedding.
Despite being a highly religious man, Cromwell had a hatred for the Irish Catholics. He believed that they were all potential traitors willing to help any Catholic nation that wanted to attack England (he clearly did not know too much about the 1588 Spanish Armada).
During his time as head of government, he made it his task to ‘tame’ the Irish. He sent an army there and despite promising to treat well those who surrendered to him, he slaughtered the people of Wexford and Drogheda who did surrender to his forces. He used terror to ‘tame’ the Irish. He ordered that all Irish children should be sent to the West Indies to work as slave labourers in the sugar plantations. He knew many would die out there – but dead children could not grow into adults and have more children. Cromwell left a dark stain on the history of Ireland.
By the end of his life, both Cromwell and the 11 major-generals who helped to run the country, had become hated people. The population was tired of having strict rules forced onto them. Cromwell died in September 1658. His coffin was escorted by over 30,000 soldiers as it was taken to Westminster Abbey where he was buried. Why so many soldiers? Were they there as a mark of respect for the man who had formed the elite New Model Army? Or was there concern that the people of London, who had grown to hate Cromwell, would try to get to the body and damage it in some way ?
Cromwell was buried in Westminster Abbey. This is where kings and queens were buried. His son, Richard, took over leadership of the country. However, Richard was clearly not up to the task and in 1660 he left the job. In that year, 1660, Charles II was asked to return to become king of England. One of Charles’ first orders was that Cromwell’s body should be dug up and put on ‘trial’ as a traitor and regicide (someone who is responsible for the execution/murder of a king or queen). His body was put on trial, found guilty and symbolically hanged from a gallows at Tyburn (near Hyde Park, London). What was left of his body remains a mystery. Some say the body was thrown on to a rubbish tip while others say it was buried beneath the gallows at Tyburn. His head was put on display in London for many years to come.