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Oliver Cromwell statue

Oliver Cromwell: Biography

By the late 1640s Oliver Cromwell was one of the power-brokers in Parliament and he played a decisive role in the winter of 1648-9, which saw the trial and execution of the King.

Bronze statue of Oliver Cromwell | Image: Shutterstock

Oliver Cromwell was born into one of the wealthiest and most influential families in East Anglia. Educated at grammar school and at Cambridge University, he became a minor landowner.

Cromwell's father was the youngest son of a family who could trace their heritage back to Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII's chancellor of the exchequer.

His family had land worth £300 a year (a considerable amount in the 17th century) and Cromwell attended Huntingdon Grammar School before being educated at Sidney College, Cambridge, which had a strong Puritan ethos.

Cromwell returned home when his father died to take care of his widowed mother and seven unmarried sisters. He married on 22 August 1620. Cromwell wed Elizabeth Bourchier, the daughter of Sir James Bourchier, who was a London leather merchant.

Through his marriage, he met Oliver St John and leading members of the London merchant community, which would benefit his military and political career. The couple also had nine children.

Cromwell became the member of parliament for Huntingdon in 1628 but made little impact. This would be the last parliament for 11 years as King Charles I refused to call one. In 1640, the King recalled parliament as he needed funding for the Bishops Wars and Cromwell returned as the member for Cambridge for three weeks. The king quickly dissolved it before calling a longer session that year.

During this parliament, Cromwell issued a petition for the release of John Lilburne, who had become a Puritan martyr. He was also associated with a Puritan faction, which had the agenda of Godly reform.

At the outbreak of the English Civil War in summer 1642, Cromwell was an officer in the 'Roundheads' or Parliamentary army. His only previous experience was in the local county militia. Cromwell recruited a band of cavalry in Cambridgeshire after blocking a valuable shipment of silver plate from reaching the King. The troop arrived too late to fight in the Battle of Edgehill on 23 October 1642 but became a full regiment later that year.

He was successful and rapidly promoted, playing a major part in Parliament's victory. By 1648 he commanded a large part of the New Model Army which was able to move anywhere around the country to crush rebellion.

In June, 1647 Cromwell tried to reconcile the king, Charles I, Parliament and the army, but when this failed Cromwell put his full support behind the army.

By the late 1640s he was one of the power-brokers in Parliament and he played a decisive role in the winter of 1648-9, which saw the trial and execution of the King, as well as the abolition of monarchy and the House of Lords. Cromwell's signature was third on the king's death warrant.

After the execution of the King, a republic was declared, known as the Commonwealth of England. The 'Rump Parliament' exercised both executive and legislative powers, with a smaller Council of State also having some executive functions. Cromwell remained a member of the Rump and was appointed a member of the Council.

In the early months after the execution of Charles I, Cromwell tried but failed to unite the original group of 'Royal Independents' centred around St John and Saye and Sele, which had fractured during 1648. Cromwell had been connected to this group since before the outbreak of war in 1642 and had been closely associated with them during the 1640s.

However, only St John was persuaded to retain his seat in Parliament. The Royalists, meanwhile, had regrouped in Ireland, having signed a treaty with the Irish Confederate Catholics.

In March, Cromwell was chosen by the Rump to command a campaign against them, which resulted in the occupation of the country. All Catholic-owned land was confiscated in the Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652 and given to Scottish and English settlers.

In December 1653, Cromwell became head of state as Lord Protector, though shared political power with Parliament and Council of State. He headed a tolerant, inclusive and largely civilian regime, which sought to restore order and stability, refusing the English crown when offered it, in 1657.

Cromwell's life and actions had a radical edge, springing from his strong religious faith. He sought to reform the most inhumane elements of the legal, judicial and social systems, and clamped down on drunkenness, immorality and other sinful activities.

On 3 September 1658, Cromwell died. A state funeral was held in November.

On 30 January 1661, Cromwell's body was dug up by the new monarchist regime, symbolically executed and then buried at Tyburn.