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Part of Cromwell's Citadel at Ayr
Part of Cromwell's Citadel at Ayr

Oliver Cromwell lived from 25 April 1599 to 3 September 1658. He remains one of the most controversial figures of British history. To some, he is seen as a hero of democracy and liberty: while others view him as a regicidal dictator responsible, amongst other things, for widespread atrocities in Ireland. Here was a man who, on principle, opposed what he saw as the tyranny of Charles I, yet ended up with far more personal power than any British monarch since medieval times. And a man who fought wars to establish the primacy of Parliament, yet simply dissolved that same Parliament when it questioned his wishes. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Oliver Cromwell Half-Crown Coin, 1658
Oliver Cromwell Half-Crown Coin, 1658
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Perhaps the oddest thing of all about Cromwell's story is that for more than 40 years he lived a completely unassuming life. As a child he attended Huntingdon Grammar School, before going on to study at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, then a newly founded college with a strong puritan ethos. He left Cambridge in June 1617, without graduating, after the death of his father. In 1620 he married Elizabeth Bourchier, with whom he would have seven children. She was the daughter of a wealthy London merchant and Essex landowner.

Thanks to the patronage of influential friends of his father-in-law, Cromwell served as Member of Parliament for Huntingdon from 1628 until Charles I dissolved Parliament in 1629. He only spoke once, apparently to little effect. Cromwell returned to Westminster when Charles reconvened the English Parliament in April 1640, only to dissolve it again four weeks later: and then again later in 1640 as a member of what became known as the "Long Parliament" which would sit until 1649.

In 22 August 1642, Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham, effectively declaring civil war against Parliament. The 43 year-old Oliver Cromwell responded by raising a troop of cavalry in Cambridgeshire. By the Battle of Marston Moor in July 1644, Cromwell had reached the rank of Lieutenant General of Horse: effectively commanding the Parliamentary Army's cavalry. In a war waged largely by amateurs on both sides, Cromwell found himself able to inspire troops who deeply respected their leader's good tactical and strategic sense, and his leadership by example.

In 1645 puritan forces within Parliament pushed through the "Self Denying Ordnance". The effect of this was to clear out a number of ineffective senior Parliamentary commanders who Cromwell felt had not been vigorous enough in conducting the war: and to launch the New Model Army, with Cromwell as overall second in command under Sir Thomas Fairfax. A series of major Parliamentary victories followed during the year, turning the tide of the war, and by 1646 Cromwell was leading operations to clear up the last pockets of Royalist support.

Cromwell returned to politics from a serious illness in February 1647 to find Parliament close to reaching agreement on the Restoration of Charles I, in captivity since May 1646, to the throne; to the introduction of Presbyterianism along the Scottish model in England; and to the disbandment of the New Model Army. Cromwell was opposed to all three elements of the proposed way forward, and found that many within the army agreed with him.

In 1648, Charles I, though still in captivity, provoked a Second Civil War, with an uprising in Wales combined with an invasion of Scottish Royalists. Cromwell swiftly put down the uprising in Wales; and then, with 9,000 troops, defeated a Scottish army of twice that size at the Battle of Preston on 17–19 August 1648. Despite this second war provoked by Charles I some in Parliament still wanted to find a way of negotiating his return to the throne. At this point officers of the New Model Army stepped in, and on 6 December 1648 troops under Colonel Thomas Pride prevented "Royalist" MPs from taking their seats. The remaining "Rump Parliament" supported Cromwell's wishes to try Charles I for treason: and this directly led to the King's public execution on 30 January 1649.

Royalists supporting the exiled (and uncrowned) Charles II then joined with the Confederate Catholics to mount an uprising in Ireland. In response, Cromwell launched a campaign that led to the death or exile of some 600,000 people, one third of the estimated 1640 population of Ireland; the sale of 12,000 Irish into slavery; and the confiscation of all Catholic-owned land. While capturing Wexford, the New Model Army killed 2,000 Irish troops and 1,500 civilians; and at the end of the siege of Drogheda, they killed 2,700 Royalists and 800 others in the town.

On 23 June 1650 Charles II, who the Scots had declared to be King of Scotland soon after the execution of Charles I, landed in Moray and signed the Covenant. In anticipation of trouble in Scotland, Cromwell was already back in England. He made one abortive attempt to persuade the Scots not to support Charles II, but failed. His response, on 22 July 1650, was to invade Scotland. For once, a military campaign went badly for Cromwell, but a decisive, and unexpected, victory at the Battle of Dunbar on 3 September 1650 turned the tide and allowed Cromwell to secure much of the country by the end of 1650.

In 1651 Charles II led his Scottish army south into England. Cromwell followed, leaving General George Monck to sweep up remaining Royalist support in Scotland. This he did, after setting an example by allowing his troops to sack Dundee on 1 September 1651, killing up to 2,000 of its 12,000 population and destroying the 60 ships in the city's harbour. Two days later, on 3 September 1651, Cromwell's main New Model Army, numbering perhaps 28,000 men, caught up with the 16,000 mainly Scottish Royalists at Worcester, inflicting a decisive defeat in what became the last battle of the English Civil War. Charles II spent six weeks as a fugitive in England before escaping to France.

Cromwell was by now firmly in control. He worked with the "Rump Parliament" until 1653 before dissolving it. Cromwell was then sworn in as Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland on 15 December 1653. The first Protectorate parliament met on 3 September 1654, but wanted to discuss constitutional reform. Cromwell dissolved the Parliament on 22 January 1655 and thereafter ruled his "Protectorate" largely by means of 15 regional Military Governors appointed by him. In early 1657 a recalled Parliament offered to make Cromwell King of England, Scotland and Ireland. After six weeks' deliberation he turned down the offer.

Cromwell died at Whitehall in London on 3 September 1658, probably of malaria originally contracted in Ireland. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, though only temporarily. Cromwell's son Richard succeeded him as Lord Protector, but was unable to gain the support of either Parliament or the Army, and he resigned in Spring 1659. Near chaos followed, which was only relieved when Cromwell's close supporter and Military Governor of Scotland, General George Monck brought an army from Scotland to London in January 1660, then persuaded Parliament to restore Charles II to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. Cromwell would probably have turned in his grave, only he wasn't given the chance to: instead his body was dug up in 1661 and symbolically beheaded. His head was eventually re-interred in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, but only in 1960.

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