Oliver Cromwell, Hero or Villain? - Facts & Timeline

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Meet one of the most controversial figures in British history, Oliver Cromwell. Discover how Oliver Cromwell went from being an ordinary boy to the ruler of England, one of the most powerful nations in the world.

Oliver Cromwell, Early Life

Oliver Cromwell was born in 1599 to Robert Cromwell and Elizabeth Steward, members of the gentry, or upper class. Cromwell's grandfather, Henry Williams, was one of the wealthiest men in England; however, he had many children and so Cromwell's father only inherited a small part of his father's wealth. Cromwell grew up with some of the benefits common to upper-class children, like an education and exposure to other important members of high society but his family did not have the money to live a truly wealthy lifestyle. There was little in his early life to indicate the force of political power he would wield in his later life.

Painting of Oliver Cromwell by Gaspard de Crayer
Painting of Oliver Cromwell by Gaspard de Crayer

In 1620, Cromwell married Elizabeth Bourchier, the daughter of one of the leading leather merchants in London. The Bourchier family owned significant portions of land in Essex and Cromwell's marriage into their family opened a number of doors for the young man. Despite his new connection to wealth and prestige, Cromwell was initially very unsuccessful as a young landowner. During this period he was treated for depression and dealt with a lengthy dispute with the tenants over the charter for a town in his territory.

By the early 1630s, Cromwell was deeply dissatisfied with his life. He sold most of the land he had inherited or acquired and moved his family to a small farm. He raised chickens and sheep and stayed away from the circles of power and wealth. Sometime in the early part of his time on the farm, Cromwell experienced a religious conversion.

During the reign of Henry VIII, England was removed from the practice of Catholicism. The Church of England that Henry VIII created and that his successors continued, was Protestant, although it kept many aspects of Catholic worship intact. For most of his life, Cromwell - like many other members of the English gentry - was part of the Church of England. As he lived a simple farmer's life in the country, Cromwell began to exhibit increasing interest in radical Protestant religious beliefs.

For the next ten years, Cromwell lived quietly on his farm and developed a strong connection to the Puritan faith. The Puritans were a religious minority group in England who believed that the Church of England should purify itself of the influence of Catholicism. Their opposition to the Church of England also meant that Puritans were opposed to the leader of the Church, the king of England. Cromwell's conversion to Puritanism would turn out to be the most important events of his life.

Cromwell in Battle

In 1640, Cromwell returned to political power. The king of England, Charles I, had disbanded Parliament, the legislative branch of England, 11 years before and had ruled England without a legislature through the use of high taxes. The king became increasingly unpopular due the increase in taxes and his changes to religious practices in the Church of England. In 1641, Scotland and Ireland rebelled against the king and he was forced to recall the Parliament. Cromwell became a leader in the House of Commons, one of the two houses of Parliament.

Charles I had a long history of conflict with the House of Commons. With the House of Commons back in action, it wasn't long before a conflict developed. This conflict quickly escalated and became an actual physical battle between the New Model Army, the soldiers of the Parliament led by Cromwell and the forces of the king.

Finally in 1645, Cromwell's army defeated the king's warriors and captured Charles. With the king in custody, Cromwell became the de facto leader of England. He dismissed any members of Parliament who did not support his religious and political views. In 1649, the Rump Parliament, as Cromwell and the remaining members of Parliament were known, tried the king for high treason, found him guilty, and had him beheaded. It was the first time a sitting monarch in England had been tried and executed.

Painting of Oliver Cromwell and the body of Charles I by Paul Delaroche
Painting of Oliver Cromwell and the body of Charles I by Paul Delaroche

Cromwell in Power

With the death of the king, Cromwell proclaimed that England would have a republican government. In theory, Parliament would act as the legislative branch and the council of state would act as the executive branch. In fact, Cromwell controlled both the Parliament and the army that had defeated the king. Cromwell's government, the Protectorate, ruled England as a military dictatorship from 1653 to 1658. Cromwell, like the king he had defeated, dismissed Parliament in 1655 and divided England into 12 military districts each governed by a major general. Cromwell also forbade sports, closed theaters, and censored the press, reflecting his Puritan religious ideals. Under Cromwell, Catholics were unable to practice their faith. Ireland, a heavily Catholic nation controlled by England, suffered numerous atrocities at the hands of English soldiers.

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