Oliver Cromwell led the parliamentary forces to victory over the Royalists in the English Civil War of the seventeenth century. His accomplishments resulted in the adoption of a democratic government for England; the reestablishment of his country as a military power after an absence of nearly two centuries; and his own position as Lord Protector, with a mixture of powers of king and dictator. Cromwell, a brilliant, innovative military commander, exhibited an unusual blend of compassion and ruthlessness as he molded the English army into a professional force.
Cromwell’s remarkable military career did not begin until he was past forty years of age. Born on April 25, 1599, to a life of a gentleman farmer in Huntingdon, religion became the focus of his early life. By his twenties, Cromwell actively practiced the religious beliefs of the Puritans, who wished to “purify” the national church and political structure of Roman Catholic influence. From that time forward, it is impossible to separate Cromwell’s political ambitions from his religious ideas and prejudices.
From 1628 to 1629, Cromwell represented Huntingdon in Parliament but returned home after King Charles I disbanded that government body. Only after civil war broke out in 1642 following a power struggle between King Charles, supported by the Royalists, and Parliament, supported by rebels, did Cromwell become involved in the military. (According to some accounts, in his youth Cromwell served as a mercenary in Europe, but there is no substantiation, and these claims are almost surely false.)
Despite his age, Cromwell, at forty-three, raised a cavalry troop, his first military command. Following criteria that would pay dividends for the remainder of his career, Cromwell demanded that both officers and men meet the highest standards of moral character and honesty. He expected instant responsiveness to commands and forbade looting, swearing, or any other “ungodly” behavior. Religious zeal and the belief that opponents did not have God’s blessings remained at the forefront of Cromwell’s military strategy.
Cromwell armed his men with the most modern of weapons and uniforms and mounted them on the best available horses. He also provided sufficient pay in a timely manner. The key to success of Cromwell’s first troop of horsemen – and, later, his larger commands – was discipline. Repetitive drill and strong leaders enabled Cromwell to recall his attacking forces to re-form for further charges or even to change the direction of an ongoing attack.
Cromwell’s tactics capitalized on the discipline of his troopers. Rather than advancing at the gallop typical of cavalry of the period, Cromwell’s horsemen advanced at a trot, prepared to react to and exploit any change in the battle that revealed an enemy weakness. Armament for each hor5seman included a brace of flintlock pistols and then drew their three-foot-long, double-edged broadswords to break through the lines.
From the first days of the war, Cromwell’s cavalry proved effective. Success brought Cromwell promotion to colonel and command of a regiment that he led to victory over the Royalists at Grantham on May 13, 1643, and Burleigh House and Gainsborough in July. Numbering fourteen troops, twice the usual size of such a unit, Cromwell’s regiment earned the title “Ironsides” for themselves and their leader during successful campaigns in the winter of 1643-44.
In 1645 the rebel forces reorganized into the “New Model Army,” replacing leaders who had gained their commands because of their parliamentary positions with better-qualified officers. As a result, Cromwell assumed command of all cavalry forces and played an intricate role in infusing his ideas of organization and discipline throughout the army. These changes produced the first large professional army in English history, exemplified by red uniform coats that would become their symbol for generations to come.
On June 14, 1645, the New Model Army and Cromwell’ cavalry crushed the Royalists at Naseby. Following several more rebel victories, the Civil War concluded in 1646 with an uneasy truce between the king and Parliament, but a complex series of political events led to the Second Civil War in 1648. Cromwell quickly put down an uprising in Wales and proved the effectiveness of the overall generalship by his successful use of infantry in addition to cavalry in a victory over the Scots allied with the king at Preston.
In 1649 Cromwell sat with the parliamentary forces that tried and executed King Charles. Shortly after the execution, Cromwell, in command of the entire army, began operations to the end all opposition within the British Isles. He landed at Dublin, Ireland, in August and in September stormed the Catholic stronghold of Drogheda. Cromwell’s soldiers massacred the survivors, including the town’s civilians. Other Irish garrisons quickly surrendered to avoid a similar fate.
By the spring of 1650, Cromwell, having subdued the remaining Irish resistance, returned to England in time to combat a Scottish rebellion. Although he rarely committed his forced to battle unless he had numerical superiority, at Dunbar he faced a Scottish force that nearly doubled the size of his twelve thousand-man army. Using a rainstorm to hide his movement, Cromwell attacked and defeated the Scots. A year later, at Worcester, he destroyed the last remnants of resistance. All of the British Isles were now united under a single government.
Although offered the throne as king, Cromwell declined. Instead, he created the position of Lord Protector in 1653, which provided his absolute power. Cromwell proved to be an unusually tolerant leader, especially considering his brutality on the battlefield and his sue of religious intolerance to motivate his army. He allowed Protestants to freely practice their religion, and the permitted Jews, whom the British had banned from the country for more than three hundred years, to return and to observe their religious ceremonies without persecution.
Cromwell’s reign as Lord Protector was short-lived, lasting only five years. On May 3, 1658, just after his fifty-ninth birthday, he died of malaria in London and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His son Richard took his place, but he was unable to retain power. In the complex politics of England, Charles II, son of the king Cromwell had helped execute, regained power in 1660. Cromwell’s body was disinterred and hung from the gallows as a traitor. His remains were later buried at the foot of the gibbet.
Although his direct influence had been brief, Cromwell was the major English player of his age, and he significantly influenced its future government and military. Without his organizational skills and leadership, it is doubtful if the parliamentary forces could have won the English Civil War and established the democratic principles that ultimately influenced similar movements in France and the American colonies. While English governments would rise and fall, because of its military structure, as established by Cromwell, England would continue to remain a world power for hundreds of years.