Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

The Lord Protector

When the war between the King and the Parliament was brought to an end, there was no man whose name stood so high in the estimation of the nation as Oliver Cromwell. And, indeed, he had done more than any one else to win the victory for the Parliament. Again and again he and his Ironsides—for this was the name which men gave to the cavalry which he commanded—had turned the fortune of the day. He and they were terribly in earnest. "Our enemies," he had once said, "have the spirit of gentlemen; we must match it with the spirit of religion." The war finished, there was a great question as to what was to be done with the King, and Cromwell had much to do with deciding it. He strongly urged that Charles should be brought to trial, and, if found guilty, should be put to death. When this had been done, men began to ask how the country was to be governed. For the time Parliament had the power, by Parliament being meant the House of Commons only, for the House of Lords had been abolished. But the army was not satisfied. It had won the victory, and it was not willing to be ruled by men who had done nothing, it was said, but talk. As it had been the Parliament against the King, so it was now, or would soon be, the army against the Parliament. We shall soon see how the struggle ended.

The first thing to be done was to make Ireland submit to the new order of things. Cromwell was appointed Lord Lieutenant and Commander-in-Chief, and took with him an army of 12,000 men. The war that followed was carried on with dreadful cruelty. Some years before the Irish had rebelled and massacred thousands of English settlers, men, women, and children. Cromwell and his army were determined to have vengeance for these things, and at the same time to make it impossible for the Irish to rebel again. At Drogheda, and again at Wexford, thousands of people, peaceable inhabitants as well as soldiers, were put to death. To this day the most hateful of all names to an Irishman is that of Cromwell.

He had not altogether finished the work of conquering reland, before he was called away to Scotland. The Scotch people had been displeased with the course of affairs, and had sent for the eldest son of Charles I., himself a Charles, who was then living In Holland. If he would consent to make certain promises, to follow the Presbyterian form of religion, and to govern by the advice of Parliament, they would make him king. Charles consented, though these conditions were not much to his mind, and crossed over from Holland to Scotland. Cromwell and his friends felt that this must not be allowed to go on. It was useless to have put an end to kings in England, if they were to be set up again in Scotland. Cromwell crossed the border, this time with sixteen thousand men, and marched to Dunbar, where the Scottish army, under General Leslie, had taken up its position. There was some fighting before dawn on September 3 (1650). The English cavalry were driven back, and a regiment of infantry, which had advanced to support them, was broken. The time was come for Cromwell to act. An officer who was present with the English army writes: "The sun rising upon the sea, I heard Noll say, 'Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.' " He gave the word to his own regiment of infantry to advance. They levelled their pikes and moved forward, the Scottish cavalry retreating before them. At that moment the mist which covered the country lifted, and the Scots saw their cavalry falling back. A panic seized the whole army—they were raw soldiers, few of whom had ever seen a battle—the men threw down their arms and fled. Three thousand were killed, ten thousand taken, with all the baggage and artillery.



But another battle had to be fought. Charles, who had been crowned king on January 1, 1651, resolved to make his way into England, and try his fortune there, hoping that a number of Royalists would join him. About twelve thousand Scottish soldiers went with him, and he reached Worcester without much difficulty. But his hopes of getting support from his English friends were sadly disappointed. Not more than three or four thousand men joined his army. His force, all told, was little more than half that of the enemy. The Scots fought bravely in the battle that followed, and Charles himself showed no little skill as a general. But Cromwell, with his army of veterans, both better disciplined and superior in numbers, could not be resisted. The Royalists were utterly defeated, with the loss of three thousand killed, and twice as many taken prisoners. How Charles himself escaped I shall tell in my next chapter. The battle of Worcester was fought exactly one year after the battle of Dunbar.

The man who had conquered Ireland and Scotland, and had destroyed the last hopes of the Royalists in England, was, of course, more powerful than ever. It was not long before the Parliament found that he was their master. On April 20, 1653, he went down to the House of Commons, followed by a company of musketeers. He entered the chamber, and sitting down on one of the benches, listened to the debate. When it seemed to be coming to an end, he whispered to Thomas Harrison, an old comrade, who sat by him, "This is the time I must do it," and rose to address the House. He began by praising it for the good that it had done, but soon changed his tune. The members had thought of their own interest only; they had refused to do justice; they had oppressed the people; above all, they had neglected the army. The Speaker said that this was not the language that ought to be used to Parliament; it was all the worse because it was spoken by that Parliament's own servant, who had been made what he was by their kindness. Cromwell put on his hat—he had taken it off to speak—and cried, "Sir, I will put an end to your prating." A few minutes after, he stamped his foot on the floor, and called to the officer who commanded the musketeers, "Bring them in; bring them in." At once the door was opened, and Colonel Wolseley with some twenty soldiers entered. After reproaching various members with their misdeeds, Cromwell bade the soldiers clear the House. Harrison took the Speaker by the hand and led him down from the chair. Some of the members left the House of their own accord, others were forced to go. When the chamber was empty, Cromwell pointed to the mace lying on the table: "Take away this bauble," he said to one of the soldiers. He was now practically the ruler of England.

But he was not to have his way without opposition. It was necessary to have a Parliament, and a Parliament, whatever pains he might take to have no members but of his own way of thinking, was sure to set itself against him. An Assembly, known in history by the name of the Little Parliament, was called together. But it soon showed itself unwilling to submit, and Cromwell had to call in his musketeers again. On December 16, 1653, he had the title of Lord Protector bestowed upon him, practically by the army.

As time went on he became more and more arbitrary; and, we cannot doubt, more and more unhappy. He knew that he held a place which the will of the English people had not given him. But it was a place that he would not, indeed could not resign; to resign it, he was persuaded, would be to cause more evils than to keep it. " 'Tis against the voice of the nation," said one of his friends to him. There will be nine in ten against you." "But what," he answered, "if I put a sword in the tenth man's hand? Will not that do the business?"

I pass quickly over this time. Cromwell professed to despise the title of king. "The name," he said, "is but a feather in the hat." As for the crown, it was only "a shining bauble for crowds to gape at or kneel to." Yet it seems that he secretly desired it. But to take it would have offended friends whom he could not afford to lose, and in the end he declared that he could not accept the government with this title.

But he was again declared Lord Protector, and this time with more state and ceremony than before. In December 1653 he had been dressed in a suit of dark velvet, with long military boots, and a gold band round his hat; and the ceremony took place in the Court of Chancery. Now, Westminster Hall itself was used for the purpose. On June 26, 1657, a splendid chair of state was set at the upper end. Cromwell stood before it, while the Speaker of the House of Commons put a mantle of purple velvet, lined with crimson, about his shoulders, presented him with a belt, richly gilt and embossed, girded him with a sword, and put a sceptre of solid gold into his right hand.

The troubles and difficulties through which he had to pass at home did not prevent him from making England greatly respected abroad. It was no time of peace. At one time or another England was at war, with Holland, with France, with Spain, with Portugal, and always, thanks to the energy of Cromwell, and the courage and skill of his admirals and generals, she held her own.

The most famous of his dealings with foreign Powers was his interference on behalf of the Vaudois, the Protestant inhabitants of the valleys of Piedmont. The Duke of Savoy, who was the ruler of the country, had treated these poor people with much cruelty. Cromwell, of course, could not help them directly, for they were far out of reach. But he refused to conclude a treaty that was being negotiated with the King of France, unless the latter should first compel the Duke of Savoy to treat his Protestant subjects with more justice; and this was actually done.

At home, things went on from bad to worse. The Lord Protector could not raise money without Parliaments, and the Parliaments that he summoned always turned against him. Then he was in constant fear of assassination. It is said that he wore armour under his clothes, and that he carried loaded pistols about with him. When he went out, a large escort of soldiers surrounded his carriage. It was never settled beforehand by what road he would travel, and he was careful not to return by the same way by which he had come.

And he suffered a great loss in his private life. The best loved of his children was his daughter Elizabeth, the wife of a Northamptonshire gentleman, named John Claypole. She died on August 6, 1658, having first, it is said, entreated her father to lay down the power of which he had unlawfully possessed himself. Cromwell felt her death profoundly, and survived her but a few weeks. Removed from Hampton Court, where he had been suffering from ague, to London, he became rapidly worse. For some days before his death he was barely conscious, but it is said that when asked directly whether he did not wish that his son Richard should be his successor, he answered "yes." He died on September 3, his lucky day, that on which he had won the battles of Dunbar and Worcester. The day before all England had been shaken by such a storm of wind as had never been within the memory of the oldest inhabitants.