Oliver Cromwell (April 25, 1599 September 3, 1658) was an English military leader and politician. After leading the overthrow of the British monarchy, he ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland as Lord Protector from December 16, 1653 until his death, which is believed to have been due either to Malaria or poisoning.
At the outset of the English Civil War, Cromwell began his military career by raising a cavalry troop, known as the Ironsides Cavalry, which became the basis of his New Model Army. Cromwell's leadership in the Battle of Marston Moor (1644) brought him to great prominence. As a leader of the Parliamentarian cause, and commander of the New Model Army, informally known as the Roundheads, he defeated King Charles I, thus bringing to an end the monarchy's claims to absolute power.
The Parliamentarians, including Cromwell hoped to reach a compromise settlement with Charles I. However, the king would not accept a solution at odds with his own divine right doctrines. The so-called "second civil war," which broke out in 1648 after Charles I's escape from prison suggested to Cromwell that no compromise with the king would be possible.
In 1649, after being tried for treason, Charles I was executed by the Rump Parliament at Whitehall. Oliver Cromwell came under pressure from the radicals among his own officers to execute the king, whom they termed, "Charles Stuart, that man of blood." Many hold Cromwell responsible for the execution of Charles I in January 1649, although there were 59 signatories to the death warrant.
However, Cromwell does hold much of the responsibility, as his troops broke into the Parliament's chambers and only permitted the "regicides" - those in favour of Charles' execution - to vote on the matter. Cromwell did not have long to dwell on the future form of government in England however, as he immediately left the country to crush the remaining royalist strongholds in Ireland and Scotland.
Many of Cromwell's actions upon gaining power were decried by some commentators as harsh, unwise, and tyrannical. He was often ruthless in putting down the mutinies which occurred within his own army towards the end of the war (which were sometimes prompted by failure to pay the troops). He showed little sympathy for the Levellers, an egalitarian movement which had contributed greatly to Parliament's cause.
The Leveller point of view had been strongly represented in the Putney Debates held between the various factions of the Army in 1647, just prior to the king's escape. However, many historians, including those on the left, have conceded that the Leveller viewpoint, though attractive to a modern audience, was too far ahead of its time to be a stable basis for government. Cromwell was not prepared to countenance a radical democracy, but as events were to show, could not engineer a stable oligarchic Parliamentary republic either.
With the king gone (and with him their common cause), Cromwell's unanimous backing dissolved, and the various factions in Parliament became engaged in infighting. In a repeat of the actions the former king had taken that had contributed to civil war, Cromwell eventually dismissed the republican Rump Parliament in 1653 and instead took personal control, effectively, as military dictator. Cromwell's power was buttressed by his continuing popularity among the army which he had built up during the civil wars.
Cromwell's foreign policy led him into the First Anglo-Dutch War in 1652 against the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, eventually won by Admiral Robert Blake in 1654.
Cromwell's absolute insistence on religious freedom, for all except Roman Catholics, led to his encouraging Jews to return to England, 350 years after their banishment by Edward I. This can now be seen as one of his most important achievements.
In 1657, Cromwell was offered the crown by a reconstituted Parliament, presenting him with a dilemma since he had been instrumental in abolishing the monarchy. After six weeks of deliberation, he rejected the offer, largely because the senior officers in his army threatened to resign if he accepted, but also because it could have placed existing constitutional constraints on his rule.
Instead, he was ceremonially installed as Lord Protector at Westminster Abbey, sitting on the former king's throne. The event was practically a coronation and made him king in all but name. The written constitution even gave him the right to issue noble titles, a device which he soon put to use in much the same fashion as former kings.
Cromwell suffered from malaria and from "stone," a common term for urinary/kidney infections. Yet he was in generally good health. He was struck by a sudden bout of malaria, followed directly by an attack of urinary/kidney symptoms. Although weakened, he was optimistic about the future as were his attendants. A Venetian diplomat, also a physician, was visiting at the time and tracked Cromwell's final illness. It was his opinion that The Lord Protector's personal physicians were mismanaging his health, leading to a rapid decline and death.
Within two years of Cromwell's death from malaria on September 3, 1658 parliament restored Charles II as king, as Cromwell's son Richard Cromwell had proved an unworthy successor.
This should have been the end of the story but in 1661 Oliver Cromwell's body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and was subjected to the ritual of a posthumous execution on January 30, the same date that Charles I had been executed. He was in fact hanged, drawn and quartered. At the end his body was thrown into a pit. His severed head was displayed on a pole outside Westminster Abbey until 1685.
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