Oliver Cromwell: Dictator or democrat?

Oliver Cromwell c. 1649 by Robert Walker | Wikimedia | Public Domain

He is undoubtedly one of history’s most contentious, divisive and controversial figures. To some, Oliver Cromwell is the ‘father of democracy’, a saviour and a hero who championed liberty whilst others revile him as a villain, a bloodthirsty dictator and a religious bigot who was nothing more than a murderous hypocrite.

During the centuries since his death in 1658 at the age of 59, Cromwell’s reputation has undergone numerous revisions as historians have attempted to evaluate and unpick the true motivations behind one of history’s most complex individuals.

With the argument still raging to this day, we dive into both sides of the story, allowing you to decide for yourself whether Oliver Cromwell was a brilliant revolutionary leader or a violent despot. But before we do, here’s a quick recap of his eventful life.

The Life of Cromwell

Born in 1599 into a middle-class family, Cromwell underwent a religious conversion to Puritanism in the 1630s. In 1640, he was elected an MP in Parliament and during the English Civil Wars (1642-1651) he fought on the side of the Roundheads, opposing the Royalist (Cavalier) forces of King Charles I.

He helped create the New Model Army, a military force of highly trained and well-equipped soldiers that promoted those who were deserving regardless of social standing. It didn't take Cromwell long to demonstrate his ability to lead and he played a significant role in the defeat of the Royalists.

He called for the trial and execution of Charles I before brutally crushing Royalist uprisings in both Ireland and Scotland. With the support of the army, he closed Parliament by force and was declared Lord Protector. After introducing a series of Puritan reforms, Cromwell died of natural causes in 1658. His son Richard failed to hold onto power and within a year the country returned to a monarchy with Charles II (the son of Charles I) on the throne.

Villainous Dictator

Although many words have been used to describe Cromwell of which it would require the length of a dissertation to analyse them all, let's take a look at three of the most damning.

Murderer – After defeating Charles I, Parliament asked Cromwell to put down the uprisings in Ireland and Scotland. Cromwell did so with feverish gusto. After capturing the Irish town of Drogheda in late 1649, his troops were said to have massacred around 3,500 people including civilians and priests. Cromwell would later write, ‘I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches.’

A short while later after taking the fortified town of Wexford, his troops again slaughtered 3,500 people, this time the civilian death count was 1,500 and most of the town was burnt to the ground. In the aftermath, many Irish Catholics were supposedly rounded up and sent to the West Indies as slaves and their land was distributed amongst Protestant settlers. Ultimately, Cromwell helped create the long-term instability of Ireland that left the country resistant to any rule from England.

The same tragic events would happen in Scotland, as Cromwell’s men sacked Dundee and in the process killed 1,000 men and 140 women and children. It would seem that military victory was not enough for Cromwell, decimation and outright annihilation were his preferred outcomes.

Bigot – It’s hard to see that Cromwell’s treatment of the Irish was just about protecting the new republic, his religious bigotry and contempt for Catholicism was also clearly a driving force.

He enforced strict Puritan moral laws in Britain inhibiting the freedoms of many civilians. Women were banned from wearing makeup and colourful dresses, dancing and the theatre were also banned along with Christmas celebrations.

Dictator – Glaring in the faces of those who claim Cromwell was a ‘man of the people’ are the facts that the Lord Protector not only moved into the former queen’s bedroom at Hampton Court Palace (his new home) but was also referred to as ‘Your Highness’ by all those around.

After dismissing Parliament by force, Cromwell was a military dictator in all but name, who happily raised taxes without consent and imprisoned many without trial. It's easy to see why his detractors argue he was power-hungry, ambitious and hypocritical.

Heroic Democrat

According to a 2002 BBC poll, the British public voted Oliver Cromwell 10th on the list of Greatest Britons of all time, demonstrating how he still has his fair share of fans. So let us now counter the previous accusations and see if Cromwell’s reputation is indeed redeemable.

Murderer Due to contradictory evidence about the massacres, some historians have cast doubt on what exactly happened in Ireland and questioned Cromwell’s actual culpability even if the stories were true. They claim he never gave the order for civilians to be killed but ordered the contrary, threatening execution by hanging to any soldier who disobeyed his order.

At Drogheda, Cromwell called on the town to surrender. After they refused, contemporary laws stated that its defenders could be legally killed and at Wexford, Cromwell was attempting to negotiate a peace and never approved the assault on the town. When the plundering began, it’s been suggested Cromwell no longer had control of his men.

The claims that men were sent as slaves to the West Indies have also been disputed, with historians citing little evidence. As for the land confiscations in Ireland, Cromwell left two years before the Act for the Settlement of Ireland was imposed in 1652.

Bigot As for the accusations of religious bigotry, the complete opposite about Cromwell can be argued. Within the confines of one's own home, he declared that anyone could believe in what they wished, presenting Cromwell as someone committed to preserving the religious liberties of the masses. He also invited Jews to return to England, some 350 years after they’d been banished by Edward I.

Dictator – In 1657, Cromwell was offered the crown by Parliament and he turned it down. The title of King was laid at his feet but he chose to continue on the path that God had supposedly set out for him, to continue establishing the new republic.

Historians who favour Cromwell have argued that he kept the country together during a period of climactic change. In the long run, he curtailed the power of the monarchy leaving some to herald him as the 'father of democracy'. He also demonstrated that rulers were accountable to the people and created rules for Parliament that could be built on in the future, laying the foundations of the Britain that we know today. His naval reforms also helped establish the long tradition of British supremacy at sea, a vital element in the rise of the British Empire.

Did Cromwell save the country from the tyranny of Charles I or was he in fact the tyrant all along? We’ll let you decide.