Oliver Cromwell in the media Essay

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Oliver Cromwell in the media

The Pamphleteers Protestant Champion: Viewing Oliver Cromwell Through the Media of his Day

The years between 1640 and 1660 witnessed in England a greater outpouring of printed
material than the country had seen since the first printing press had begun operating in
the 1470s.1 The breakdown of government and Church censorship in the early 1640s was
almost total until the mid-1650s when Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector reimposed some
controls. Not until the return of the Stuarts and their royal censors did the flow of
pamphlets cease. This tumultuous period of English history therefore became a crowded
arena for free expression of radical religious, social, and political ideas. This fact,
coupled with the euphoria surrounding the victories of the New Model Army, the uninhibited
exchange of ideas, and the general millennial atmosphere, especially following Charles Is
execution, led many Englishman to see their nation as the emerging leader of the
Protestant world.

A recurring theme among these pamphlets, sermons, and broadsides was the idea that Oliver
Cromwell was the man to lead England into this new age. Like the second coming of the
Swedish soldier-king Gustavus Adolphus, Cromwell would champion the Protestant cause
wherever it was in need. As a Civil War hero, conqueror of the Irish and Scots, and later
as Lord Protector, the devoutly religious Cromwell certainly had the background to fit the
role. Yet in practical terms, England of the 1640s and 1650s was not the military
juggernaut that many writers pictured it to be. The nation was not capable of wiping out
the Turkish menace, unseating the Pope, and defending persecuted Protestants on the
Continent all in one fell swoop. Thefinancial difficulties of the Stuarts did not
disappear with the execution of Charles, and though the navy was strong, it was not
logistically feasible for the army to get involved in a large Continental war.

Despite this, even Cromwell himself had some occasional delusions of religious and
military grandeur. A well known quote has him saying that, were he ten years younger,
"there was not a king in Europe I would not make to tremble."2 In moments of religious
fervor Cromwell might have seen himself and England in a millenial light, yet he was first
and foremost a pragmatic politician. His genuine belief in the need to aid and protect his
co-religionists took a secondary position to the day-to-day realities of English society
and politics. His alliance with the Catholic French against the Spanish and his
acquiescence to the war agaist the Protestant Dutch provide ample evidence of his heeding
realpolitik considerations over any Pan-Protestant ideology.

Why then was Cromwell cast by the pamphleteers as a Protestant champion? The answer lies
in the fact that the world view of the average Englishman was limited to either what he
read or what was read to him, either at informal gatherings or in church. Thus, the power
of the printed word is hard to exaggerate in this time of upheaval and millennial
anticipation. How and why Oliver Cromwell was cast in the role of English savior is
directly related to the outlook of his contemporaries as shaped by the literature of the

After distinguished service in the early years of the Civil War, Cromwell was firmly
thrust into the limelight following his participation in the Battle of Naseby on 14 June
1645, the conflicts decisive engagement. Having only recently rejoined the army following
his exemption from the Self Denying Ordinance, he was to play a major role in this
Parliamentary victory. Despite an overwhelming numerical advantage (14,000 vs. 7,500), the
Parliamentary forces were on the verge of collapse following a Royalist charge against one
end of their line. Cromwell, however, led the better disciplined Parliamentary horse on a
charge against the opposite flank and succeeded in getting behind the Royalist infantry
and thus swinging the victory toward Parliament. Though the King held out for another
year, Naseby effectively crushed the Royalist cause.3

Cromwells letter to the Speaker of the House William Lenthall following the battle set the
tone for future Cromwellian victory announcements. In its two paragraphs, the letter,
which was read to Parliament as well as in the Churches in and around London,4 credited
the victory to God no less than six times. He wrote, "This [victory] is none other but the
hand of God; and to him alone belongs the glory, wherein none are to share with him."5
Cromwells giving credit for his triumphs to divine providence is a recurring theme
throughout his life.

Two months later, from the town of Bristol, Cromwell sent more good tidings to Parliament.
Having just concluded a storming of the town, Cromwell wrote, "This is none other than the
work of God. He must be a very atheist that doth not acknowledge it." After thanking God
several more times, Cromwell described his soldiers joy as being in the knowledge "that
they are instruments of Gods glory and their countrys good."6

Following Naseby, the New Model Army ran off a string of victories. An atmosphere of
invincibility and a sense of divine backing began to permeate the army and its supporters.
Hugh Peter, an army chaplain and Independent minister, preached a sermon before Parliament
in April 1645 (which was revised and printed in 1646) in which he spoke of seeing "Gods
hand" in Parliaments victory. Peter made special mention of Cromwell as a decisive player
in the victory at Naseby. He also saw an expanded role for England, saying that "the Lord
hath made us warlike, awaked us thoroughly out of our effeminacy and we are becom[ing]
formidable to our neighbors." Going even further, Peter saw the Palatinate, Germany,
France, Ireland, and the Netherlands all looking to England fr leadership.7

Along with the growing pubic praise for the New Model Army as it continued its dominance
over the Royalist forces was the increased stature enjoyed by Cromwell following Naseby. A
Parliamentary newspaper in 1646 was full of praise for the "active and gallant commander
Lieutenant General Cromewell" when he visited London. It described his great willingness
"to advance the Great Cause in hand for the Reformation of Religion, and the resettling of
the peace and government of the kingdom." The article goes on to describe the awe in which
the other MPs viewed him as well as to state, "[Cromwell] had never brought his colors
from the field but he did wind up victory within them."8

It should be recalled that Europe was still embroiled in the Thirty Years War, which the
Stuarts had avoided despite the fact that James Is daughter (Charles Is sister) was
married to the Elector of the Palatinate. England remained neutral due to the financial
crisis at home, as well as to allow James to play the role of mediator in the conflict.
For many Englishmen, the refusal to aid the Protestant cause on the Continent was an
embarrassment. Hugh Peters reference to England getting over her "effeminacy" and becoming
warlike is an example of Puritan disappointment with Stuart foreign policy. As Christopher
Hill writes, "It was with burning shame that such patriots saw the supine or hostile
attitude of their government whilst these great issues were at stake."9

In May 1646, the King fled to the Scottish army and with the surrender of the Royalist
capital of Oxford in July, the Civil War seemed over. Cromwell returned to his home
following the signing of the terms of capitulation. In the succeeding months the army
became increasingly radicalized by Parliaments refusal to address the soldiers material
grievances and its rejection of the armys right to petition.10 Negotiations with the King
had become fruitless and the chances for a settlement with him looked bleak. When a group
of soldiers seized Charles in June 1647, Cromwell threw in his lot with the army

With the outbreak of the second Civil War in March 1648, Cromwell again was in the field
at the head of an army. After easily suppressing a Royalist uprising in Wales, Cromwell
hurried to help repel the invading Scottish army from the North. In a series of battles
from 17-19 August Cromwell shattered the dispirited and divided Scots at Preston. In his
dispatch to Parliament, General Cromwell again credited the victory to the Lords
providence. "Surely, Sir," he wrote, "this is nothing but the hand of God." The victory
did on the surface seem miraculous considering the Scots superiority in numbers. As
Cromwell wrote, "Only give me leave to add one word, showing the disparity of forces
(21,000 Scots vs. 8,600 English) . . . that you may see and all the world acknowledge the
hand of God in this business.12 In truth, the English victory was much more dependent on
Scottish ineptitude than divine intervention, but the effect on public opinion of a
success against such a numerically superior force was undoubtedly tremendous.

The defeat of the Royalist threat in the Second Civil war was followed by the well known
events of the Army entering London on 2 December 1648 and Colonel Prides purge of the
Parliament on 5 December. The Army was now in control of the government and ready to push
through its own agenda. No solution involving the king now seemed possible and talk of his
being put on trial and removed was circulating the capital. Early in December one London
news sheet openly questioned what sort of government should replace the monarchy. It read,
"For (say the Saints) shall not we be happy when we ourselves make choice of a good and
upright man to be king over us?" The article described an elected king as one who
"esteemeth of Religion and Virtue, [more] than of all other worldly things." Two men who
were deemed to possess the necessary traits were "honorable and victorious Fairfax or
Cromwell, in whom God hath miraculously manifesed his presence."13 This article was
important not only because its author considered Cromwell suitable material for kingship,
but also because it demonstrated the view of Cromwell as a "godly man" and one whose
actions God had blessed.

A sermon preached before the House of Commons on 22 December 1648 by Hugh Peter is another
example of the extreme views which had emerged. Comparing the Army leaders (of whom
Cromwell was one) to Moses, Peter urged that the army "must root up monarchy, not only
here, but in France and other kingdoms round about." By doing so, he asserted that the
army would lead the English people out of their "Egyptian" religious and ideological
enslavement. Monarchy was seen as a demonstrated evil and the eradication of it elsewhere
would be a "godly" cause. Drawing from the Book of Daniel, Peter also saw the army as
"that corner stone cut out of the mountain which must dash the earth to pieces."14

The actions of the radicals, who on 30 January 1649 executed Charles I, horrified the rest
of Europe (and much of England). As Cromwellian biographer Charles Firth wrote, "There was
indeed no prospect of the general league of European potentates to punish regicide, for
which Royalists hoped, but both governments and people were hostile."15 While the real
threat of foreign invasion may not have been great, the ominous possibility of it created
a siege mentality among the English people. A declaration in the name of Louis XIV
published in Paris on 2 January and republished in England in translation, warned the Rump
Parliament against any action towards the person of the King. Louis considered it his
"Christian duty" to either "redeem from bondage the injured person of our neighbor King"
or "to revenge all outrages already done or hereafter which may happen to be done" against
Charles. Louis vowed vengeance not only against the perpetrators of the crimes but also
their wives and children. The French Kings diatribe concluded by urging all other "Kings,
Princes, and States" to make similar proclamations and to join together for the safety of
their brother sovereign.16

In the event that official proclamations against England were not effective enough in
creating an air of paranoia, Royalist propagandists were also willing to contribute. In
April 1649 Ralph Clare published a fabricated declaration by several monarchs, real and
imaginary, condemning Englands regicidal actions. The pamphlets stated purpose was "[a]
detestation of the present proceedings of the Parliament and Army, and of their [the
monarchs] intentions of coming over into England in behalf of King Charles II."17

Up to this point one can see the background developing for identifying Cromwell as
Englands religious and martial defender. His popularity with the general population, and
especially with the army, coupled with the nations growing sense of isolation, pushed him
further into the role of bulwark against the enemies of England. Yet it was his acceptance
of his next military assignment which would propel him into the image of English and
Protestant champion--the suppression of Ireland.

The Irish rebellion which broke out in October 1641 initially was directed against
Protestant English settlers and landholders, large numbers of whom were murdered and
abused. The reporting in England of the massacres brought the normal disdain for the
"uncivilized" Irish to a fever pitch of hatred. Streams of pamphlets, some highly
fictionalized, concerning the revolt poured forth and it is obvious that many people
accepted them wholly as truth. In London the pamphlets were absorbed with fascinated
horror. "All the news and speech is here of the rebellion," wrote one city resident.18 In
the Commons, Speaker of the House Pym inflamed fears of an Irish invasion and Catholic
uprising in England. Pyms fears were real and he took every revelation of a plot, no
matter how far fetched, with equal seriousness. e honestly believed that there had been
"common counsel at Rome and in Spain to reduce us to popery."19 With a leader of the
nation so paranoid and frightened, it is no wonder that the people at large were able to
believe so easily any story they heard.

A typical example is one piece published in December of 1641 entitled The Rebels Turkish Tyranny:

. . . taken out of a letter sent from Mr. Witcame, a merchant in Kingsdale to a brother of
his here: showing how cruelly they [the Irish] put them to the sword, ravished religious
women, and put their children upon red hot spits before their parents eyes: threw them in
the fire and burned them to ashes: cut off their ears and nose, put out their eyes, cut
off their arms and legs, broiled them at the fire, cut out their tongues, and thrust hot
irons down their throats, drown them, dash out their brains and such like other cruelty
not heard of among Christians.20 And this is only the introduction to the pamphlet.

Another illustrated broadside of the same month by Anthony Rouse told of drunken Irish
soldiers killing each other to celebrate the birthday of a rebel leader. "Each man slew
his friend to the number of three thousand," wrote the author.21 To the English mind the
Irishman seemed capable of any atrocity.

While the gross exaggerations of Irish ruthlessness seem almost comical today, this sort
of propaganda was common and its effects on naive readers should not be discounted. It was
especially easy to swallow when the perpetrators were Catholics and the victims
Protestant. News accounts from the Continent during the Thirty Years War were full of
detailed accounts of the torture and barbarities practiced by the Catholic soldiers of
Tilly and Wallenstein against Protestants in Germany. Protestants having their eyes
"twisted out" or their faces "planed with chisels" were typical examples.22

Because of the Civil War in England and the subsequent unrest in the army, no troops could
be sent to put down the insurrection in Ireland until 1649. The delay in sending forces
did not diminish the flow of pamphlets concerning the plight of the Protestants in
Ireland. A Royalist newspaper in 1644 printed a story entitled "The Clergys Lamentation"
which was a martyrology of dozens of "godly" Protestants killed through the "unparalleled
cruelties and murders exercised by the inhumane Popish rebels."23 In June of the same year
Morely Gent published A Remonstrance of the Barbarous Cruelties and Bloody Murders in
which he decried the feeding of newborns to dogs and the burning of a fat Scotsman, whose
grease was used to make candles.24 Other titles of these inflammatory pamphlets include
The Impudence of the Romish Whore and A New Remonstrance from Ireland,25 both of which are
replete with shocking stories of Irish depravity.

Quite obviously these stories stirred up passions in England and brought about calls for a
rapid suppression of the "barbarous rebels." There were also practical reasons in 1649 for
desiring a quick re-establishment of English authority over the Irish. Charles II had made
known his intentions of soon traveling to Ireland and using it as the staging area for an
eventual invasion of England. There was a Royalist Army in the field there and several of
the rebel armies were negotiating with Charles to assist in restoring him to the throne in
exchange for various concessions.26

This is the situation Cromwell faced as he accepted the command of the 12,000 man
expedition to Ireland. It was not only the political and military importance of his
mission which motivated Cromwell. He had a fierce prejudice against the Catholic Irish and
seems to have accepted every tale of atrocity. He once wrote, "I had rather be overrun by
a Cavalierish interest than a Scotch interest, I had rather be overrun by a Scotch
interest than an Irish interest, and I think that of all, this the most dangerous . . .
for all the world knows their barbarism."27 Cromwell meticulously planned the strategy and
provisioning of the campaign, arriving in Dublin on August 15, 1649.

The brutality of Cromwells first two victories all but decided the outcome of the war. The
Duke of Ormonde, commander of the royalist army in Ireland, wrote, "It is not to be
imagined how great the terror is that those successes . . . have struck into this people.
They are so stupefied, that it is with great difficulty that I can persuade them to act
anything like men towards their own preservation."28

On 11 September 1649 Cromwells forces stormed the town of Drogheda and slaughtered the
nearly 3,500 soldiers and civilians inside. Cromwell himself personally ordered his men to
"put all to the sword." In his victory announcement to Parliament he spoke proudly of the
massacre. "I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous
wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood." Cromwell went on to add
that he believed all but two of the Friars in the town were killed by blows to the skull,
or as he wrote, "knocked on the head promiscuously."29

A month later Cromwell took the stronghold of Wexford by assault as well, killing more
than 2,000 Irish soldiers. Though Cromwell did not order that the whole garrison be put to
the sword, his soldiers got out of hand and did so on their own initiative. Cromwell
expressed no regret over the episode, but rather said that "God in his righteous justice,
brought a just judgement upon them." His message of triumph to England asserted that the
Irish had gotten their just desserts. "[Gods will] causing them to become a prey to the
soldier who in their piracies had made preys of so many families, and with their bloods to
answer the cruelties which they had exercised upon the lives of poor Protestants."30

These two victories broke the back of the Irish rebellion. By the time Cromwell returned
to England in May of 1650 to deal with another Scottish threat, the success of the English
conquest was assured. It is hard to understate the impact of Cromwells victories on the
Irish people. W. C. Abbot writes that the "conditions of the Cromwellian conquest and
settlement left a heritage of hate among the defeated people 'scarcely equalled and
seldom, if ever, surpassed in history."31 Several times in the months following Wexford
Cromwell was rumored to have been killed. Against these false hopes a contemporary Irish
poet wrote:

Cromwell is dead, and risen; and dead again
and risen the third time after he was slain:
No wonder! For hes a messenger of hell:
And now he buffets us, now posts to tell
Whats past: and for more game new counsel takes
Of his good friend the devil, who keeps the stakes.32

If for the Irish Cromwell was a "messenger of hell," for the English he wasa savior. The
Poet Andrew Marvell published a tribute to Cromwell in June 1650 entitled An Horatian Ode
Upon Cromwells Return from Ireland. The poem, though it subtly chasted Cromwell for his
inability to be satisfied by the "inglorious arts of war," was full of praise for
Cromwells exploits. And despite a doubting attitude by Marvell towards Charles Is
execution, he declared that much to Cromwell "is due." He stepped out of obscurity to
"cast the kingdoms of old into another mold." In what battle of the Civil War were
"[Cromwells] not the deepest scars?" asked the poet, who also admonished the Irish who
"see themselves in one year tamed" by Cromwell. Marvell honored Cromwell for selflessly
giving his victories to England:

[He] forbears his fame to make it theirs:
And has his sword and spoils ungirt,
To lay them at the publics skirt.

Finally, the author denigrated the rebellious Scots valor, as he unabashedly compared
Cromwell to Caesar and predicted that the Scots will "Shrink underneath the plaid [their
kilts]" in reaction to Cromwells coming invasion.33

The victories in Ireland were only the beginning of what some thought Cromwell might
accomplish. The Fifth Monarchist movement had viewed the execution of Charles I as making
way for the earthly reign of Jesus Christ Himself. One member of the sect, New Model Army
veteran John Spittlehouse, published a pamphlet in 1650 which attacked the aristocracy and
endorsed the Kings execution. Spittlehouse warned the Papacy to "beware of Nol Cromwells
army, lest Hugh Peter come to preach in St. Peters chair."34 To him and other Fifth
Monarchists, England (and the Revolution) represented a precedent of what God intended to
do elsewhere.35 Cromwell had originally been recalled from Ireland in order to assist
General Fairfax in defeating the Scottish revolt. Fairfax, however, refused to involve
himself in a war against the Presbyterian Scots, so the command was given to Cromwell
alone. The Scots had been appalled by the execution of Charles, a Scottish King, and they
conditionally proclaimed Charles II king six days after the execution. The young king
arrived in Scotland in the Spring of 1650 and raised an army.

In the last week of July Cromwell led an English force into Scotland. The Lord Generals
approach to the quelling of the Scottish revolt was thoroughly different from the course
taken in Ireland. Cromwell published in Scotland A Declaration of the Army of England upon
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