You are aware, are you not, that there was this chap called Oliver Cromwell who came after Shakespeare and brought democracy to England, including—ultimately—free speech.
Anybody wishing to understand the nonsense that prevails in the present need only consider the nonsense that many people believe about the past. Indeed it would not be an exaggeration to say that our present woes have their roots in the woeful ignorance of the past with which most modern people are afflicted. Take, for example, the comment above, which was posted to my recent essay here, “Defending Shakespeare against Hollywood.” It beggars belief that anyone could really believe that Oliver Cromwell “brought democracy to England, including—ultimately—free speech.” Even more incredible is the fact that such a comment could be appended to an essay about Shakespeare.
Presumably my interlocutor is unaware that Cromwell’s Puritans banned the theatre completely. In 1642, the year in which the Civil War began, Cromwell’s insurgents passed a law suspending all theatrical performances for five years. After the law expired, the revolutionary government passed a new law, declaring that all actors were rogues. Under Cromwell’s rule, many theatres were destroyed as Cromwell and his cohorts sort to extinguish “sinful” theatre from the culture. It is intriguing, is it not, that the “democracy and ultimately free speech” that Cromwell brought to England included the banning of all of Shakespeare’s plays from being performed?
It was not until after Cromwell’s death and the Restoration of the Monarchy that artistic expression in general, and the theatre in particular, once again began to flourish.
Leaving aside Cromwell’s war on artistic expression, let’s explore other ways that he helped to bring “democracy and ultimately free speech” to England. One such way was his decision to suspend Parliament in 1653 so that he could be “invited” to become sole dictator of the country, assuming the title of “Lord Protector of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.” Having seized what amounted to totalitarian power, he took to signing his name ‘Oliver P,’ the P being an abbreviation for Protector, in imitation of the manner in which monarchs signed their names using an R to mean Rex or Regina. It was soon customary practice for his subjects to address him as “Your Highness.” Parallels with the hypocrisy of the aptly-named Napoleon in Orwell’s Animal Farm might spring to mind, as might those with latter-day tyrants, such as Stalin or Hitler.
As Cromwell’s popularity among the people declined, his position in power was largely secured because of his continuing popularity with the army, suggesting parallels with those generals who had seized power in the twentieth century through military juntas. Such parallels are reinforced by Cromwell’s division of England into military districts under the direct control of Major Generals, all of whom were answerable directly to Cromwell himself.
Another way that Cromwell helped to bring “democracy and ultimately free speech” to England was through his imperialistic conquest of a foreign country, namely Ireland, with such brutality and barbarism that his name remains a byword for sadistic iniquity to this day. In Drogheda, he ordered that all of the defending garrison be slaughtered and, to add religious insult to injury, he ordered that all the Catholic priests should be put to death. When the terrified people of the town sought shelter or sanctuary in a church, Cromwell ordered that the church be burned to the ground with the people still inside. By the time that Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland was complete, at least 200,000 Catholics had been killed and a further 50,000 were sold into indentured servitude, little better than slavery, being deported to the colonies in North America and the Caribbean.
In the pursuit, apparently, of “democracy and ultimately free speech,” Cromwell confiscated all the land owned by Catholics in Ireland and forbade Catholics from living in towns. The practice of Catholicism was banned and large rewards were offered for the capture of Catholic priests who were then put to death. In January 1650, Cromwell declared that “I shall not, where I have the power… suffer the exercise of the Mass.” He would also not suffer the celebration of Christmas, banning it on the astonishingly peculiar grounds that it was a pagan festival!
Such was the infernal nature of Cromwell’s policy in Ireland that historians, such as Mark Levine and Alan Axelrod, have seen fit to call it ethnic cleansing. In Axelrod’s judgment, Cromwell’s actions were akin to “something very nearly approaching genocide.”
Winston Churchill, in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, was equally scathing, describing “Cromwell’s record” in Ireland as “a lasting bane”:
By an uncompleted process of terror, by an iniquitous land settlement, by the virtual proscription of the Catholic religion, by the bloody deeds already described, he cut new gulfs between the nations and the creeds. “Hell or Connaught” were the terms he thrust upon the native inhabitants, and they for their part, across three hundred years, have used as their keenest expression of hatred “The Curse of Cromwell on you.” … Upon all of us there still lies “the curse of Cromwell.”
Dare it be suggested that one who advocates and puts into practice what Churchill dubs a “process of terror” can be called a “terrorist?” Isn’t the very definition of terrorism the pursuit of one’s political ambitions through the adoption of a “process of terror?” If so, might we not add the accusation of terrorism to those of ethnic cleansing and “something very nearly approaching genocide?”
In spite of the aforementioned monstrosities, there might still perhaps be grounds for admiring Cromwell. One might admire his military prowess, for instance, as one might admire Stalin’s ability to mobilize the Red Army to defeat Hitler, or Franco’s ability to mobilize an army to beat the communists, but is it really possible to admire him as someone who “brought democracy to England, including—ultimately—free speech?”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Published: Dec 4, 2015
Joseph Pearce is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, and Tolkien & Lewis Chair in Literary Studies at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He is editor of the St. Austin Review, series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions, and executive director of Catholic Courses. His books include The Quest for Shakespeare, Tolkien: Man and Myth, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, C. S. Lewis and The Catholic Church, Literary Converts, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, and Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc.
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Cromwell was a Puritan, who opposed Charles I, the King, in the Long Parliament (so called because of its eight year duration) that first met in 1640. During the Civil War he fought for Parliament. He thought that Parliamentary leaders did not do enough to try to defeat Charles I.
Cromwell became the leader of England in 1649 by leading the New Model Army. This included opponents that held different opinions about the type and degree of changes they wanted but they all agreed that Charles needed to change policies or go.
After the Civil War
At the end of the first Civil War in 1646, Cromwell and the Army tried to negotiate peace with Charles I. In 1648 Charles I betrayed them starting the Second Civil War and they resolved to 'bring him to account'. Cromwell was one of those who tried Charles in 1649 and sentenced him to death.
Parliament asked Cromwell to crush the remaining royalist supporters of the king, who continued to rebel, against the authority of Parliament. He did this brutally, especially in Ireland and in particular at the siege of Drogheda in 1649.
When Cromwell returned to Parliament, he found the 'Rump', the last few remaining MPs, of the Long Parliament that was still sitting. He found that he could not agree with them about how to rule the Commonwealth as to do so without a king was an entirely new and untested concept. To solve this problem, the army as the most powerful group took control and declared Cromwell Lord Protector. The title was to suggest he was not a king but in reality he ruled as such.
As Protector, Cromwell could not agree with his Parliaments and he dismissed them both. Instead, he ruled the country through his major-generals, which meant that England virtually became a military dictatorship.
He allowed greater religious freedom for Protestants, but introduced a string of 'moral' laws to 'improve' people's behaviour which banned the theatre and bear-baiting, and forbade people to drink or celebrate Christmas, among other things.
Cromwell increased the navy, which defeated the Dutch and captured Jamaica from the Spanish.
When Cromwell died, he was succeeded by his son Richard, but the Protectorate collapsed and Charles II was restored as king shortly after.