Depending on who you ask, Oliver Cromwell is either one of the most revered or most hated men in British history. The leader of the New Model Army was largely responsible for the creation of a new Parliamentary government in England after he agreed to have King Charles I executed. His participation in the English Civil War was highly successful and his reign in Ireland was devastatingly brutal. Since the time of his death, the figure of Oliver Cromwell has been debated by historians, writers, and politicians. Was he a hypocritical tyrant or a great liberator? Needless to say, such a controversial figure had to live a pretty extraordinary life.
Oliver Cromwell Facts
42. A Ruler Among Men
Oliver Cromwell is best known for his time as Lord Protector of the new English Republic. He was one of the main figures who sought to depose the English monarchy and execute King Charles I. He succeeded in gaining power in England and setting up a Republic before he died of natural causes in 1658.
41. It’s the Principle of the Matter
Even though Cromwell died of natural causes, his brutal policies towards Royalists and his execution of Charles I were not easily forgotten. When Charles II and his Royalist forces regained power in England in 1660, they made sure everyone who was involved with the revolution was punished, whether or not they were alive. Charles II had Cromwell’s body exhumed to receive its just desserts—his already rotting corpse was hung in chains before finally being beheaded. Someone was really into symbolism.
Oliver Cromwell first rose to prominence as a commander for the “Roundheads.” The Roundheads were those who supported the Parliament of England as opposed to the monarchy in the English Civil War. The name came from the common fashion of Puritans at the time, who tended to cut their hair short and left it rather plain. This was meant to show a steep contrast to men of the court who did their hair up with extravagant ringlets.
39. Name Calling
By the time that Oliver Cromwell became the leader of the New Model Army, which was the main insurgency force against Charles I in the English Civil War, the common term of “Roundhead” had been outlawed amongst the soldiers. While it was in common use, it also carried derogatory meanings. Since not all of the soldiers belonged to the Puritan sects, it was feared that the name would cause disunity amongst the ranks.
38. Irish Hospitality
It would be a bit of an understatement to say that Oliver Cromwell is not a well-liked name in Ireland. During his campaign on the Emerald Isle, Cromwell was known for his brutal actions against civilians and his harsh laws. Cromwell saw the Irish as religious and political enemies since many Royalists fled England at the end of the Civil War and tried to regroup in Ireland. After Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, he banned Catholicism on the island and killed any Catholic priests he captured, which had severe and long-lasting consequences for the Irish people.
37. This Land is My Land, This Land is…Also My Land
After his conquest of Ireland, Cromwell didn’t stop at outlawing Catholicism in the island. He also confiscated huge swathes of land from the farmers. Through the Act for the Settlement of Ireland, passed in 1652, Cromwell effectively set up the landlord system that caused major economic hardships in Ireland until it gained independence in 1922. In many ways, Cromwell is the one who set up the system that made the Great Famine in Ireland so devastating.
36. Troublesome Legacy
Oliver Cromwell has long been one of those historical figures that people really like to debate over. His controversial methods and actions made him a dictator to people like Winston Churchill. Humanist liberals, like John Milton and Thomas Carlyle, on the other hand, consider Cromwell a champion of liberty against the tyranny of monarchical rule. The communist Leon Trotsky split the difference when he called Cromwell a “revolutionary bourgeois.”
35. What’s in a Name?
It’s not 100% clear why Oliver Cromwell was given the nickname “Old Ironsides.” It’s also unclear why his troops were called “Ironsides.” Some suggest it was because of their proficiency with swords in battle, others say it was because Cromwell had the nickname first, so they followed after. It’s a real chicken or egg deal.
34. End of a Friendship
Thomas Fairfax was one of Oliver Cromwell’s first supporters. Fairfax fought with Cromwell in the Ironsides regiment and rose up the ranks with the soon-to-be Lord Protector. But Fairfax’s initial sway towards rebellion subsided with the trial of Charles I. Fairfax found the sham trial a disgrace and publically scolded the whole matter, ending his long friendship with Cromwell. Fairfax eventually helped restore the throne of England to Charles II and, because of this, was spared the punishment that was doled out to Cromwell’s dead body.
33. Total War
Part of the reason that Oliver Cromwell’s legacy was so hotly debated, even into the 20th century, was due to the sheer destructiveness of the English Civil War in which he played a starring role. Casualties were heavy for both the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. King Charles I lost some 50,000 men in the three stages of the war, while the Earl of Essex and Oliver Cromwell lost about 34,000. Still, the biggest losers, as usual, were the average civilians: estimations suggest over 100,000 people died due to the war, which included the many diseases that spread because of the battles and lack of proper nutrition and sanitation.
32. Ollie the Tyrant?
One of the justifications biographers used to describe Oliver Cromwell as a tyrant in the era of Restoration that followed his death was that he was trying to stem some of the more radical republican voices in the Parliament. Under the auspices of “healing” the divided nation, Cromwell denied the aims of the Parliament to set up a republican constitution. But he was so afraid that they would keep pushing for their way that he actually just ended up dissolving the Parliament in 1655. By the way, this failure to sit a Parliament was part of the reason for the initial rebellion against Charles I in the first place. What goes around comes around, I guess.
31. Man of Mystery
Part of the reason Cromwell is so well known for his work as a military commander is that we don’t know very much about his life before that; pretty much all of his personal letters date from 1642 onwards. During the first 40 years of his life, in which he was twice a Member of Parliament, only three letters survive. I smell an origin story in the making!
30. To Your Health?
Oliver Cromwell didn’t seem to suffer too greatly from any serious health ailments during his life, with the exception of some coughs and other minor maladies. But that didn’t stop posthumous accounts from depicting Cromwell as a deeply “melancholic” man who had doctors waiting on him hand and foot because he suffered from delirious visions and dreams. Evidence for such “melancholy” is scant at best and these accounts probably tell us more about the people writing them than they do about Cromwell.
29. Let’s Look Under the Hood
When Cromwell died, the chief doctor in charge of the autopsy also happened to be a rather anti-Cromwellian Royalist. George Bate’s autopsy report is best taken with a pinch of salt: the biggest clue he gave to the cause of death was the “Lees of Oyl” in his spleen. Current medical historians suggest the “Lees of Oyl” is a symptom of sepsis and it is now commonly established that Cromwell probably died of malaria, typhoid, or a combination of the two. Of course, this differs greatly from the initial reports that he was poisoned!
28. Guided by God
Cromwell fundamentally believed that his military prowess was divinely inspired. Each new victory solidified his view that his military campaigns were doing the work of God. Without any previous formal training, he instilled a deep sense of moral authority over his troops. Cromwell saw himself as something of a Puritan prophet. Not that the immense resources of the burgeoning British Empire had anything to do with this success…
27. For Country!
The “New Model Army” was the term given to the reconfigured British army after 1645. An ordinance was passed that meant members of the House of Commons and House of Lords had to choose between their seat in Parliament or their roles as military commanders. Well, every member, except for one: Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell managed to convince Parliament to extend his ability to be both a military commander and sitting member of the Parliament. From this position, Cromwell formed the Army around a national foundation, rather than the previous ranks based on county associations. This brilliant political move allowed Cromwell to command great power for his Puritanical causes.
26. Voted Most Likely to Commit Regicide
When Cromwell learned that Charles I had been imprisoned and awaited trial in London, he became a vocal proponent of executing the King. He was the third Member of Parliament to sign Charles’ death warrant. Most people in England were not particularly thrilled with the decision. “Regicide,” or the execution of a Monarch, was highly controversial because the doctrine of the “divine right of kings” meant that Kings and Queens were chosen especially by God to lead their people—meaning killing them might not exactly sit well with the Lord.
25. Who Wore it Best
When Oliver Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector of the new Parliamentary England, he wanted to make a bold statement. What better way to do that than through bold fashion? As opposed to the extravagant regalia worn by monarchs at their coronation, Cromwell was sworn in wearing plain black clothing. The message was clear: Cromwell was for a strong Puritan presence.
24. Keeping Up Appearances
Cromwell liked to present himself as someone fighting for the liberty of the people to live for God and not for the monarch. That claim sort of comes undone when you consider the fact that he was a popular leader of the new national military and as Lord Protector also had a nice and cozy salary of £100,000 a year. How selfless of him…
23. League of Legends
Oliver Cromwell’s Penal Laws became a model for future revolutions against monarchies in Europe. The laws were brutally enforced in Ireland and they were meant to quell Catholic rebellion. As a staunch anti-Catholic, Cromwell saw these laws as the quickest way to establish a providential reign of Puritanism in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. French republican revolutionaries in the 18th century took the same legal model that Cromwell provided but got rid of the religious aspect. Instead of Anti-Catholic, the French revolutionaries simply wanted to get rid of religion altogether.
22. Plain Joan
Given the contentious nature of Oliver Cromwell when he was Lord Protector of England, his wife, Elizabeth Bouchier, naturally received some abuse from the public. But this abuse really never gained traction in part because it always came in one of two forms. The first was that she was called an immodest drunk. The second was that she was…very plain. The latter complaint probably fell on deaf ears with Cromwell’s supporters given the virtuousness attributed to an unfettered life in Puritan circles.
21. Prodigious Lines
Child mortality rates, even amongst Royal families, was still significantly high in the mid-17th century. As such, it comes as a bit of a miracle that Cromwell and his wife Elizabeth had so many children who reached adulthood. Elizabeth gave birth to nine children and eight of them lived well into their adult years. Only the last son, James Cromwell, died in infancy.
20. On the Run
After the Restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, the widow Elizabeth Cromwell felt that she could only be safe by fleeing the country. All evidence points to the Parliament planning to give her a nice end to her life with an appropriate allowance, but probably because she witnessed how quickly promises can change in politics, Elizabeth tried to arrange for her material possessions to be shipped out of England. Trying to move so much stuff naturally raised some alarm bells and her plan was foiled by the council of state.
19. Where in the World is Cromwell San Diego?
Little is known about what happened to Elizabeth Cromwell during the time of Charles II’s restoration to the throne of England. We know she had an attempt to flee foiled, but it seems as if she did at least get out of London for a while. She spent some time in Wales and some reports suggest that she lived in Switzerland for a short period of her life. She died living with her son-in-law in Northampshire. But where she was before this point remains somewhat a mystery.
18. Lacking Charisma
One of the reasons that Cromwell’s vision for an England divested of a monarchy ultimately failed was because he relied too greatly on his own abilities and charisma as a ruler. This became evident pretty quickly after Cromwell died and his son Richard took over the role of Lord Protector. The inheritance of the role seemed to suggest it functioned the same way as the monarchy and Richard was not a natural leader. He let a Parliament stand that was full of Royalists and Scottish Presbyterians. Richard only lasted 264 days as Lord Protector before he was removed.
17. He’s Not One of Ours
Richard Cromwell’s days were numbered as successor to his father from pretty early on in his rule as Lord Protector. Whereas Oliver Cromwell gained so much power because he had the favor of the New Model Army as their commander, these same soldiers were very skeptical of Richard. The heir apparent had no military background whatsoever and he was seen as something of an imposter by the soldiers. Without the full support of the army, Richard had no way of persuading dissonant voices against his rule in the Parliament.
16. Not in Public!
Although strictly Puritan in his own values and his own ideas about the true belief of God, Cromwell was also staunchly in support of “private worship” for those who were not in line with the Puritans. In fact, he even invited Jews to return to England in 1657. Edward I had banished Jews from the island over three centuries prior to Cromwell’s rule.
15. A Good Neighbor?
It’s not actually clear whether or not Oliver Cromwell “invited” Jews to return to England in 1656 as is so often regaled. He was certainly trying to make economic inroads with England’s main rival, the Netherlands, which had a large Jewish population. But he also ignored petitions to let Jews living in London practice their faith publically.
14. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Cromwell
Such was Oliver Cromwell’s disdain for religious pageantry and public displays of faith that he even banned Christmas! Cromwell banned public displays for the popular holiday because he claimed it was a “Pagan festival.” Now THAT’S a war on Christmas.
13. Uneasy Lies the Head…
After the execution of Charles I, the Parliament ratified a new constitutional settlement in 1657. While drawing up the terms of this agreement, the Parliament offered Cromwell the crown of England. This offer put Cromwell in a bit of a pickle—he knew that it would bring some much-needed stability, but it also meant that he could be seen as a hypocrite. Perhaps wisely, he chose to turn down the offer and became the Lord Protector. He did have a bit of a think over the matter, though.
12. Coronation Street
When Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England in 1657 it was definitely not a coronation. Sure, Westminster Abbey was decked out in purple ermine-lined robes and many in attendance dressed in the proper regalia. And sure, Cromwell did sit on King Edward’s Chair to be crowne—err, I mean, confirmed. But it most definitely was not a coronation.
11. Dying (Again) With Loved Ones
Cromwell’s body wasn’t the only one to be exhumed for posthumous punishment by the Restoration crown of Charles II. The other key figures in the execution of Charles I were also raised from their deathly slumbers, only to be publically executed alongside their leader. These men were Robert Blake, John Bradshaw, and Henry Ireton.
10. A-head of His Time
Given his important position in English history, Cromwell was bound to bring up some controversies. Whether or not the head that purported to be his was indeed the genuine article is perhaps one of the more bizarre mysteries about the man. Well into the 20th century, historians, medical experts, and scientists frequently debated the merits of the supposed head of Cromwell. More recent archaeological evidence suggests that the head, which had been making the rounds between private collectors of centuries, was, in fact, not authentic.
9. You’ve Gotta Fight For Your Right
Cromwell’s New Model Army was probably more even radical than their regicidal commander. After winning the First Civil War, the New Model Army wanted to overturn the Parliament and replace it with a new constitution called the “Agreement of the People.” This agreement became very much the model for French Revolutionaries over a century later—it demanded near-universal male suffrage and electoral reform to ensure the Parliament was representative of the people.
8. Mutiny on the Bounty
Cromwell and his cohort of Grandees (senior military officers) had a difficult time controlling their New Model Army once Charles I was executed. Compared to the radical ideals of the “Agreement of the People,” Cromwell and his pals were not so willing to just get rid of the benefits granted through wealth and property—they were becoming quite rich after all. Over the next few years, various battalions of the New Model Army would mutiny against local commanders due to failed demands and failed payment.
7. For All to See
After his dead body was publically hung, Oliver Cromwell was beheaded. The head was then placed on a pole and positioned outside Westminster Hall, presumably as a warning against further insurrection. This message must have taken quite a while to sink in because Cromwell’s head remained on display until 1658—a full 14 years after it was initially removed from its bodily companion!
6. Straight to His Head
The only reason that Cromwell’s head stopped being displayed in front of Westminster Hall was because of inclement weather. When a fierce storm swept through London in 1658, the winds knocked over the pole that was holding the head. It crashed to the ground and rather than find a replacement pole, it was decided that the all this attention was probably getting to Cromwell’s… head.
5. Step Right Up!
After Oliver Cromwell’s head was toppled by a storm in 1685, the morbid artifact became something of a collector’s item. It was bought and sold several times by private collectors and was shown in a number of museums over the next few centuries. In fact, the head was not reburied until the 1960s
4. Taking Revenge
One of the reasons why Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland was so brutal was that, as commander of the Parliamentary forces, he often countered losses or ambushes against his men by sacking local towns and villages. For example, after Protestant settlers in Ulster were massacred in 1641, Cromwell ordered his men to sack the town of Drogheda. They ended up killing almost 3,500 people in the town, even though it was never a stronghold for the rebellion forces.
3. Center of Attention
Oliver Cromwell quickly became a cipher for the much larger and more complicated history of Anglo-Irish relations. His sacking of towns such as Drogheda was often used as an example of the British plan of genocide against the Irish. Cromwell became a shorthand name for Irish nationalists in the late 19th and early 20th century when they wanted to speak of English atrocities in Ireland.
2. Rotten Deeds
Until the decisive Battle of Naseby in 1645, it was commonly held that civilians were not to be attacked by either side, which was understandable given that it was a civil war. When Charles I’s men were in retreat, the men of Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell swept after them. Some 100 women were left in the Royalist camp and when the Parliamentarians approached, they tried to defend themselves. Fairfax and Cromwell’s men killed all 100 women, possibly because they thought they were Irish—they were in fact Welsh, the soldiers had mixed up the two languages. These soldiers seemed to act on their own behest, which renders the whole event a rather sorry mystery.
1. Providential Decree
Oliver Cromwell’s most famous cavalry in the New Model Army was nicknamed the Ironsides and he attributed their success to their religious conviction. After a few defeats early on in his career as a commander, Cromwell took to recruiting poor but religiously zealous soldiers whom he recognized as having the passion to get through battles, especially when they faced enemies of a different religious persuasion—though this passion meant they could sometimes be unbelievably brutal when fighting Catholics.