When Oliver Cromwell was a little lad of four, his godfather, Sir Oliver, entertained the king. The great house of Hinchinbrook was filled with gay courtiers. There was much eating and much drinking. From the University of Cambridge in the neighborhood, came grave scholars who addressed his Majesty in the Latin language. The town of Huntingdon, a mile away, gave him a sword of honor. So there was beat of drums, and blare of trumpets, and shining of armor; and the lad looked on with admiration. It was the first great event in his life.
It is said that the next year the prince was brought to Hinchinbrook,—young Charles, who was to be king of England by-and-by. He was four and Oliver was give. The two boys played together, while their elders talked, and the play became so vigorous that at last Oliver knocked Charles down. The little prince was brought in crying. Whether this happened or not, it is altogether likely that Charles and Oliver, who were afterwards to wage so fierce a war and to divide all England into hostile camps, met as children in the great house of Hinchinbrook. And if they did fall to fighting, in those early years, Oliver probably got the better of Charles. He was a sturdy lad, with a quick temper.
Cromwell was twelve years old when there appeared that translation of the Bible into English which is called the King James Version. Everybody was reading it, especially the Puritans. In those days people's houses were not filled with little books and cheap papers as they are now. Shakespeare was near the end of his life, dying in 1616; Milton was born in 1608. Two of Cromwell's favorite books, in later years, were Raleigh's "History of the World," and the "Theatre of God's Judgments," by Dr. Beard, who had been his pastor and tutor. For most persons, reading was a serious matter. Most of the books had large pages, and many of them. Scholars studied huge folios, bigger than the volumes of an encyclopedia.
Into such an age, the English Bible came as a new book. It was read not only with reverence as the Word of God, but with profound interest. Young Oliver discovered in it not only saints but heroes; it was a book of adventure, of conquest, of fighting knights, of brave men who gave their lives in defense of truth and right. He read it, and re-read it. It was his whole library. Much of it he knew by heart. The great sentences of it came easily to his memory. All his life, he spoke the language of the Bible.
And all his life, he thought in the manner of the Bible. God was as real to him as ever He was to the captains and leaders of Israel. When he prayed, he spoke to God as directly and naturally and urgently as Moses and Isaiah did. He believed with all his heart that God was concerned with every act of his life. When he was about to fight a battle, he spent hours of the night before with God, asking the divine advice and help, and he felt that this was of as much importance as all the preparation of the army. When he won a victory,—as he always did, for he never lost a battle in his life,—he was just as sure that God had won it for him as Joshua was when he conquered the Canaanites. And he said so, plainly and naturally. The time came when men talked in this pious way because it was the fashion, and it was connected with hypocrisy, but there was no hypocrisy in Cromwell. If he spoke like Joshua it was because he was in the spirit of Joshua, and regarded the world in the same way as God's world. He wrote from the field, after a series of successes, "The Lord grant that these mercies may be acknowledged with all thankfulness: God exceedingly abounds in His goodness to us, and will not be weary until righteousness and peace meet, and until He hath brought forth a glorious work for the happiness of this poor kingdom." That was in 1645, the year in which Laud died praying for the happiness of the king and the preservation of the Church. Cromwell was engaged in fighting the king and in trying to destroy the Church. But the general spoke as religiously as the archbishop, and was quite as sure that he was doing the will of God.
This is to be kept in mind in any endeavor to understand Cromwell. He has been praised as the greatest soldier and the greatest statesman in the history of England, but he would have said in deep sincerity that all that he did was done for the glory of God, and by the might of God. He lived in the consciousness of the presence of God.
The time passed very quietly for Cromwell till he was over forty years of age. His father died when he was eighteen, and he came home from college to manage the family estate. He carried on the farm at Huntingdon. There he was married, in his twenty-second year. Thirty years after he wrote to his wife, "Thou art dearer to me than any creature"; and she wrote to him, "Truly my life is but half a life in your absence." From Huntingdon, he moved to Ely where his uncle, Sir Thomas Steward, had left him a farm. In both places he was a substantial person among his neighbors.
It is remembered of him that twice a day he gathered his laboring men about him and had prayers with them; and that his house was a refuge for persecuted Puritan ministers. When they were cast out of their parishes, they came to him and he helped them. It is remembered also that he had times of deep depression, and was much troubled about his soul and about the world around him. In all his portraits there is a look of sadness in his eyes, such as one sees in the portraits of Lincoln.
Thus he lived till he was forty-two years old, prosperous, deeply religious in the Puritan manner, tender-hearted to all who were in any trouble, and taking life seriously.
Meanwhile the conservatives, the party of order, and the progressives, the party of liberty, were entering into that contention in the course of which Laud lost his life. The party of order was represented by the king and his court, and by the bishops and the Church. The party of liberty was represented by the House of Commons, and by the Puritan ministers. Thus the contention was both political and religious.
On the political side the question was whether England should be governed by a king who might do as he pleased, or by a king who might do as he pleased, or by a king who should act according to the wishes of the people as expressed by their representatives in Parliament. On the side of Charles it was to be said that all the kings of England had ruled the country at their own pleasure. The people, it is true, had sometimes risen in opposition to the king; as, for example, when they made John sign the Great Charter. But the theory remained that the king owned England. This theory Charles had inherited from his father. It was the old, orderly method of government; thus had things proceeded from times immemorial; this was what it meant to be a king. And to this theory the bishops and the church people generally agreed; not only because the king was on their side, but because they inclined naturally to the old ways.
It was plain, however, to many people that the old ways were bad. The king as supreme did things which the people did not like. Sometimes he carried the nation into foolish wars. Often he took the money which the people paid in taxes and spent it on himself or his favorites, or in a manner which did not good to the country. In the midst of the debates about religion he held the position that all the people ought to believe as he did, and when they said that their consciences would not allow them to do that, he undertook to compel them. Thus he aroused against him both the patriotic citizens, who saw that he was misgoverning the country, and the Puritans whose religion he opposed.
The contention came to a crisis when the king wanted money, and directed the Parliament to get it for him by taxes, and the Parliament told him that they would not vote a penny until they knew what he intended to do with it, and were satisfied that it was a good thing to do. Charles tried to get the money by taxing the people himself, but Cromwell's cousin, John Hampden, became the leader of the people in refusing to pay. Charles called the Parliament together, and when they refused to vote supplies until he agreed to do what they demanded in Church and state he dismissed them.
At last, in 1640, a Parliament was assembled which refused to be dismissed. It continued in session for thirteen years, and is called the Long Parliament on that account. The immediate business of this Parliament was to make plain to the nation that England was unbearably misgoverned both in politics and in religion. It set out to compel the king to give up his supreme authority in the state, and to change the Church of England so that it should be no longer Episcopal but Presbyterian.
In 1642 the king assembled an army on his side, and the Parliament assembled an army on their side, and a civil war began. For the most part the upper and the lower classes were for the king,—the nobles and the peasants, the aristocratic and cultivated people, the bishops and the clergy, the professors and students of Oxford and Cambridge, and the inhabitants of the villages, the men who tilled the ground. For the most part, the middle classes were for the Parliament,—the merchants, the lawyers, the lesser gentry, the inhabitants of the great towns, the city of London. Geographically, the north and west sided with the king; the south and east, with the Parliament.
Into this war, Oliver Cromwell entered with all his might. At first he was the captain of a company of his neighbors; then the colonel of a regiment; then a general of cavalry. At the beginning, he knew no more about war than any shopkeeper in Ely; but two things became plain to him. He saw that battles were decided, in the first place, by the spirit of the men. The king's men were gentlemen, who had "honor and courage and resolution in them"; they fought like knights. Cromwell sought out men who should meet this might of chivalry with the might of religion. "I raised such men," he said, "as had the fear of God before them, as made some conscience of what they did." One who observed them said, "He had a special care to get religious men into his troop." They were sober; they were profoundly in earnest; they were devoted to the cause in which they fought as the cause of God.
Cromwell saw also that battles are decided, in the second place, by men who have not only spirit but discipline. He drilled them. He taught them by continual exercise how to handle their horses and themselves. He trained them in the art of war. Thus his mounted men, who came presently to be known as the Ironsides, learned that the first step towards victory is obedience. They could be counted on to respond instantly to the word of command. Instead of being so many hundred men each fighting his own battles in his own way, they became an army. Their force when they charged was like the force of a cannon-ball. In the great and awful game of war, they met their opponents as a trained team in football plunges through an untrained team. No such disciplined and effective soldiers had been seen in Europe since Caesar led his legions into Gaul.
These men, thus made strong by conscience and by discipline, defeated the armies of the king. First at Marston Moor, in 1644, Cromwell destroyed the king's forces in the north; then, in 1645, at Naseby, he destroyed the king's forces in the south.
Between these two battles he fought and won another, almost as important, in the discussions of the Parliament.
The Puritans in Parliament were of two parties, Presbyterian and Independent. The Presbyterians were conservative. They desired to make changes in religion, but not to permit any great individual liberty. They proposed to make England a Presbyterian nation, and they intended to compel everybody to be Presbyterians like themselves. The Independents were of William Brewster's way of thinking, and would allow most men to think for themselves in religion and to act in accordance with their thought.
The religious differences entered into the conduct of the war. The Presbyterians were afraid of going too far. They wished to beat the king, but not too severely.
They dreaded the progress of the rebellion. The Earl of Manchester, whom the Parliament had put in charge of the war, said, "If we beat the king ninety and nine times, yet he is king still, and so will his posterity be after him." He had the old reverence for kings. He was a Presbyterian. But Cromwell was reported to have said that "if he met the king in battle, he would fire his pistol at him as at another." Cromwell was an Independent. Under the Presbyterian conditions the war might go on forever.
Then Cromwell proposed that the army should be reorganized, and that in the place of companies of militia there should be one united force, under one commander, and under such discipline as was used by the Ironsides. At the same time it was proposed that all the present generals who were also members of Parliament should resign, and leave the control of the army to men who were neither politicians nor Parliamentarians, but soldiers. After long debate, these proposals were adopted: the Earl of Manchester with his half-hearted policy gave up his position; and the new army, at Naseby, destroyed the army of the king.
These changes, however, had another and very important result. They not only made the army strong enough to conquer the king, but they made it independent of the Parliament.
Thus there were three parties in the nation: the Royalists, who wished to restore the king to power, and to make the religion of England Episcopal again; the Presbyterians, who composed the majority in the Parliament, and were disposed to come to terms with the king, if only they might make the religion of England Presbyterian; and the army. But the army was composed mainly of Independents, or as we now say, Congregationalists, who were resolved that England should be neither exclusively Episcopal nor exclusively Presbyterian, but that every man should be free to follow his own religious convictions, so long as he gave the same freedom to his neighbor. The chief man in the army was Cromwell. He had been kept in command when the other Parliamentary generals resigned, because they could not get along without him.
The king was conquered, but the king's friends were many. Especially in Scotland, the Royalists were strong. The Scotch Presbyterians were in sympathy with the English Presbyterians who held the power in Parliament. Both were encouraged to believe that the king, if he were again upon his throne, would side with them. Armies began to gather in the north of England. Out of Scotland, twenty thousand men under the Duke of Hamilton began to march down over the border. The whole war which had seemed to be decided at Marston Moor and Naseby must be fought over again. Cromwell fought it in one battle. At Preston, in 1648, he fell suddenly upon the forces under Hamilton and destroyed them almost before they knew by whom they were attacked.
It was now clear to Cromwell that there were two chief hindrances to the peace and freedom of England; one was the Parliament, the other was the king. So long as these two continued in power, they would stir up civil war; and the victory of either of them, or of both together, would be the end of religious liberty. The supremacy of the king would mean an Episcopal despotism; the supremacy of the Parliament would mean a Presbyterian despotism. Cromwell and the army were determined that England should be politically and religiously free. Cromwell felt that he was raised up for that purpose by the hand of God.
Thereupon the first thing which he did after the battle of Preston was to take away the power of the Parliament. On Wednesday, the 6th of December, 1648, the members of that body, coming to the daily session, found Colonel Pride's regiment stationed at the door, and every objectionable member was turned back. Those only were admitted who were willing to obey the army. And the next thing which was done was to try, and condemn, and behead the king. In January 1649, this tremendous step was taken. Thus the two representatives of the ancient order, the two legal means of government, the king and the Parliament were done away. The power was in the hands of the army, and the head of the army was Oliver Cromwell.
Cromwell ruled England for ten years. There were insurrections in various parts of the country, notably in Ireland, but he put them down with a strong hand. There were continual plots against his life, but he escaped them all. There was at first the universal opposition of the monarchies of Europe against the English gentleman and soldier who had killed a king, and seated himself upon his throne, but all this changed into respect. The ruler of England was never so strong in Europe, the navy of England was never so powerful on the seas, as in the days of Cromwell. And the nation itself had never been so prosperous or substantially peaceful; never had justice been administered so fairly; never had men in office been so honest or so intent upon the public welfare. Never had there been a court in England or in Europe with such simplicity of life, in which bad men were so out of favor and good men were so cherished. The nation was ruled, during the ten years of Cromwell's reign, upon the principles of religion.
Once again during this time, he had to fight the king. The king was dead, but as the Earl of Manchester predicted, he still lived in the person of his son. the Royalists, in spite of Marston Moor and Naseby, and in spite of Preston, raised still another army, and they were joined by a great host from Scotland. Cromwell went up to meet the Scots. At the battle of Dunbar, against great odds, he defeated them with a decisive defeat; and at Worcester he cut to pieces the Royalists who had joined Charles, and drove him out of England.
Also, in Cromwell's reign, he had trouble again with Parliament. He believed that the right way to govern the country was, as he expressed it, by a Single Person and a Parliament. The Single Person was to be the executive officer, the Parliament was to make laws and levy taxes. He believed also that the government ought to have a constitution, a written statement of fundamental principles, according to which both the Single Person and the Parliament must conduct themselves. But in these beliefs the Parliament did not share. They desired more power. Cromwell came into the Long Parliament and turned it out of doors. "You are no Parliament," he said. And that was true, for they had ceased to be the representatives of the people. "I say," he repeated, "you are no Parliament. Come, come, we have had enough of this. I will put an end to your prating." He called a national assembly which is remembered as the Parliament of the Saints: they were all leaders of religion. But the Saints had wild and impracticable notions about the welfare of the country, and no knowledge of the art of government. Cromwell had to send them home. And so it was with another Parliament, and yet another. Cromwell's great ideas were adopted at last, years after, when the English colonies in America became the United States, under a President and a Congress, and according to a constitution.
But in his own time he found the Parliament as difficult to work with as ever Charles had done. His only way was to rule by his own wisdom.
Thus he was supreme in England, and was king in all but name. he was called the Lord Protector, and the nation which had been a monarchy was called the Commonwealth. And he reigned in peace and righteousness until his life's end. He made England free. Out of the old order of things which had existed since the beginning of history, wherein the prince had possessed the power of the state, he brought the nation into our modern time, wherein the power is in the possession of the people. He was the pioneer of all the republics. He shares with William the Silent the glory of leading the great march of liberty.
There was a debate in Anselm's time as to whether a certain good man ought to be called a saint, because he had given his life, not in defense of the Church not in the cause of religion, but on behalf of the people, protesting against an unjust tax. "Yes, he was a saint indeed," said Anselm, "because he died for liberty; and the cause of liberty is the cause of God." Thus lived and died Oliver Cromwell, soldier, statesman, and saint, whose honest endeavor in all that he said and did was to fulfill the will of God.