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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51

Protectors—Oliver and Richard Cromwell (1653—1659)

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Protectors—Oliver and Richard Cromwell (1653—1659).

Between the Man of December, 1851, and the Man of April, 1653, there is little to choose. Napoleon turned on his enemies, Cromwell turned on his friends. Cromwell before committing a flagitious act said his prayers: Napoleon drank brandy. But both were the destroyers of Republics, and both earned the everlasting execration of those who regard liberticide as the greatest of crimes. However Cromwell came to be looked on as a Republican is a mystery of mysteries!

The character of Oliver Cromwell has been a great bone of contention among historians and biographers. Nor is this to be wondered at, for surely no more religiously unscrupulous, humanely bloody, courageously crafty, and patriotically selfish mortal ever lived. In his own day he deceived, almost down to the coup d'état, the very elect of Englishmen—Sir Harry Vane, Blake, Algernon Sidney, Scot, Sir Henry Martin, Sir Peter Wentworth, Sir Arthur Hazelrig, Hutchinson, Ludlow, Bradshaw, and the whole Council of State. If he had been a hypocrite of the ordinary type depend upon it such colleagues as these would have fathomed and frustrated his self-seeking designs in time. But he was a very extraordinary hypocrite. Bishop Burnet, in a couple of sentences, gives what I believe to be the true clue to his later character. "I had much discourse," says Burnet, "on this head (Oliver's profound dissimulation) with one who knew Cromwell well, and all that set of men, and asked him how they could excuse all the prevarications and other ill things of which they were visibly guilty in the conduct of their affairs. He told me they believed there were great occasions in which some men were called to great services, in the doing of which they were excused from the common rules of morality; such were the practices of Ehud and Saul, Samson and David; and by this they fancied they hud a privilege from observing the standing rules." This notion once imbibed Cromwell was not merely able to impose successfully on others, but even on himself. In studying the character of Cromwell one continually encounters not a single Cromwell but several. You pay your money and you take your choice. My view of the Cromwellian moral enigma is page 65 simply this:—In youth he was an evil-liver. Presently he suddenly became a Puritan, and the evil spirit having been driven out, he for a time walked in dry places seeking rest and finding none. Later he returned to his house only to find it empty, swept and garnished. "Then goeth he and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man was worse than the first."

One man only among his contemporaries seems to have taken his true measure almost from the first—a remarkable man, who died Cromwell's prisoner in Elizabeth Castle, Jersey, at the early age of 39. More than four years before the fatal 20th of April, Lieutenant-Colonel John Lilburne, leader of the Levellers, or Radicals of the day, wrote thus: "The present contest is merely no more than Self in the Highest, and to set up the false saint and most desperate apostate, murderer, and traitor, Oliver Cromwell, by a pretended election of his mercenary soldiers, under the false name of "godly interest," to be King of England, that being now too apparently all the intended liberties of the people he ever sought for in his life."

Colonel Streater also saw the drift of Cromwell's intrigues. Brave simple-minded Major-General Harrison had been persuaded by Cromwell to take part against Parliament on the ground that the reign of the saints could not otherwise be inaugurated. Harrison was assured," he told Streater, "that the Lord General (Cromwell) sought not himself but that King Jesus (Harrison was a Fifth Monarchy man) might take the sceptre." "Christ had better come before Christmas or he will come too late," was Streater's grim response. And too late he did come for poor Harrison, who ultimately found himself, like Lilburne, Cromwell's prisoner.

Nor could he bend stout incorruptible General Ludlow from the paths of rectitude. "Walking," says Ludlow, "one day with Lieutenant-General Cromwell in Sir Robert Cotton's garden, he inveighed bitterly against them (the Commons), saying in a familiar way to me, "If thy father were alive, he would let some of them hear what they deserved;" adding further, "that it was a miserable thing to serve a Parliament to whom, let a man be never so faithful page 66 if one pragmatical fellow rise up and asperse him, he shall never wipe it off. Whereas," said he, "when one serves under a general, he may do as much service, and yet be free from all envy and blame.' This text, together with the comment which his after-actions put upon it, hath since persuaded me that he had already conceived the design of destroying the Civil Authority, and setting up of himself; and that he took the opportunity to feel my pulse, whether I were a fit instrument to be employed by him to those ends. But having replied to his discourse that we ought to perform the duty of our stations, and trust God with our honour, power, and all that is dear to us, not permitting any such considerations to discourage us from the prosecution of our duty, I never heard anything more from him upon that point."

Major General Lambert, a vain man, but a skilful officer, was more easily seduced from his allegiance to Parliament. The House had resolved to abolish the title of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland as unsuitable in a Republic. Nevertheless, Cromwell would inconsistently insist that Lambert should be sent to that country with the title of Lord Deputy-Lieutenant. The upshot was, that Fleetwood, Cromwell's son-in-law, got the post without the title, while Lambert was so incensed against Parliament that he was easily induced to conspire against it.

But Cromwell liked to have the sword of the spirit, as well as that of the flesh on his side. Where there could be no law, there might be gospel. In the "Life of Henry Neville," a member of the Council of State, there occurs the following:—

"Cromwell on this great occasion sent for some of the chief City divines, as if he made it a matter of conscience to be determined by their advice. Among these were the leading Mr. Calamy, who very boldly opposed Mr. Cromwell's project (to eject Parliament), and offered to prove it both unlawful and impracticable. Cromwell answered readily upon the first head unlawful" and appealed to the safety of the nation being the supreme law, 'But,' says he, 'pray Mr. Calamy, why impracticable?' Calamy replied, "Oh! 'tis against the voice of the nation; there will be nine in the ten against you. 'Very well,' says Cromwell, 'but what if I should disarm the nine, and put a sword into the tenth man's hand, would not that do the business?"

His master-stroke, however, was to get his own regiment which was bound to his interest by large extra pay, made page 67 the guard of Parliament. The wolf being thus secure of his prey, could choose his own time for devouring the flock. This was even a worse machination than the Self-Denying Ordinance, by which cuckoo-like he contrived to deprive all the members of Parliament of their commissions in the army except himself. Still the expulsion of Parliament, though the greatest, was by no means one of his most artistic acts of treason. Vane compelled him completely to take off the mask at the last moment. He had hypocritically demanded what he dreaded most, viz. an appeal to the constituencies, and when he was visibly about to have his wishes complied with, he raved like a maniac. Sir Harry Vane was "a juggler without common honesty!" But even in his wild outburst of baffled rage he was prudent. He clutched the Dissolution Bill, which unfortunately had not been printed hid it under his cloak, and carried it to his chambers, where it was seen no more. Cromwell meant to scatter the House for not dissolving; as it was, thanks to Vane's superior strategy, he had to scatter it for dissolving!

In judging of such a beast of prey as Cromwell, one should never regard for an instant what he said, but mark intently what he did. Vane, admittedly the purest, and as I think the ablest statesman of his age, was "a juggler without common honesty," and the noble band of more than Roman Senators, who clustered around him, were ordered to "give place to better men?" Now, what of the men, the better men, by whom Cromwell replaced the illustrious Forty-one, the Republican Council of State? Himself and the 'Creature Colonels,' as Lilburne aptly called them, Lambert, Harrison, Bennet, Sydenham, Stapely, Desborough! These the better men! Nay, add the two chief of liars and traitors, Monk and Sir Ashley Cooper (afterwards the thrice infamous Shaftesbury), and one is able to see at a glance what Cromwell meant by "better men." He meant men better suited for his own sinister purposes. That two such villains as Monk and Cooper enjoyed Cromwell's confidence is his severest condemnation. Shall not a man be judged by the company he keeps?

To secure at least one honoured name to gild then shame, this junto of knaves and dupes used every art to induce that "juggler without common honesty," Sir Harry Vane, to page 68 join them. His reply was, that doubtless the reign of the Saints had set in, but for his part, he preferred to wait till he got to heaven for his share of the felicity.

No man, both of head and heart, with the single exception of Milton, ever associated with the usurper more, and even Milton, after the fall of Richard Cromwell perceived the error which his blindness largely excused and wrote with feelings of manifest relief of "those unhappy interruptions (the Cromwells) which God hath removed." Oliver's Parliaments were like his Councils of State nominated, manipulated, purged, brow-beaten, dissolved, expelled in a manner that neither Tudor nor Stuart would have dared attempt. When the recalcitrant members of Barebone's Parliament were ejected by Colonel White they admonished him that they were "seeking the Lord in prayer." "You may go elsewhere to seek the Lord," was the cynical response, "for to my certain knowledge He has not been here for many years." Oliver remorselessly distrained for taxes imposed by his sole authority, and when one of his collectors was sued, he threw the prosecuting counsel into prison. He gagged the press; and dividing England into eleven satrapies, governed them by the swords of his major-generals. He beheaded Sir William Slingsby and Dr. Hewitt for conspiracy without so much as the benefit of trial by jury. The cost of his government was unprecedented in the annals of England: enormous sums being spent in espionage. There was not an offence laid to Charles's charge of which Cromwell was not guilty in an aggravated form.

It is not a little curious that, like Charles, Oliver traced his descent on his mother's side to Alexander, Lord High Steward of Scotland—a fact which may to some extent account for his bad character. The name Cromwell was assumed by his great-great-grandfather, one Morgan Williams, on his marriage with the sister of Henry the Eighth's famous minister, Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex.

Oliver trusted no one except his secretary Thurloe, and not always him. Thurloe relates how "he was once commanded by Cromwell to go at a certain hour to Gray's Inn, and at such a place deliver a bill for £20,000, payable to bearer at Genoa, to a man he should find walking in such a habit and posture as he described, without speaking one word." page 69 Thurloe went, found his man, and to his dying day knew nothing more of the transaction.

Cromwell's organ of secretiveness was almost criminally large. Late one night in Thurloe's office he began hurriedly to dictate to the secretary a secret dispatch, without observing the presence of Moreland, afterwards Sir Samuel Moreland, who was fast asleep at his desk. Cromwell instantly seized a dagger, and, but for the earnest entreaties of Thurloe, who protested that Moreland was not awake, would have murdered him on the spot.

He had the tyrant's unfailing taste for severe practical jokes. In signing Charles the First's death warrant, it is on record that, taking up the pen, he smeared Sir Henry Martin's face with ink, the latter not failing to retaliate. In camp he would encourage his troopers to put live coals in each others' boots, in order to enjoy the effects. When his daughter was married to Mr. Rich, heir of the Earl of Warwick—he was an inveterate match maker—he amused himself by throwing about the sack-posset, and by bedaubing the seats with wet sweetmeats in order tospoil the ladies' dresses. "Cromwell," says Cowley in his famous "Vision," "was wanton and merry, unwittingly and ungracefully merry, with our sufferings. He loved to say and do senseless and fantastical things only to do or show his power of doing or saying anything. It would ill befit mine or any civil mouth, to repeat those words which he spoke concerning the most sacred of our English laws the Petition of Right, or Magna Charta. Today you should see him ranting so wildly that no one durst come near him; the morrow flinging of cushions and playing at snowballs with his servants."

His recklessness of human life was almost as great as that of the Roman Sulla, the Prussian Frederick, or the Corsican Bonaparte. His innate ferocity came fully out in his Irish campaign. At the storming of Drogheda he exultingly writes, "Divers of the officers and soldiers being fled over the bridge about 100 of them possessed St. Peter's Church steeple. . . . These being summoned to yield to mercy refused. Whereupon I ordered the steeple of St. Peter's Church to be fired, when one of them was heard to say in the midst of the flames, 'God damn me, God confound me, I burn, I burn.' I page 70 believe all their friars were knocked on the head promiscuously, but two: the one of which was Father Peter Taaff, whom the soldiers took next day, and made an end of." Irish Papists were to Cromwell as were Hittites and Hivites to the Jews of old.

Some despots have been not insusceptible to the sentiment of gratitude but Cromwell was not one of these. Parliament had loaded him with favours conferring on him lands of inheritance worth more than £6000 per annum—an immense sum in those days—out of the confiscated estates of royalists; yet that did not prevent him, when he wished to discredit the Legislature from lamenting that the injured ones were "driven like flocks of sheep by forty in a morning to the confiscation of goods and estates without any man being able to give a reason that two of them had deserved to forfeit a shilling." At other times he would find much consolation in the text:—"He shall be called Maher-shalal-hash-bash, because he maketh haste to the spoil." Latterly, in spite of the Act of Oblivion, he rigorously exacted from all who had borne arms for the King one tenth of their annual incomes! But with all his craft, hypocrisy and daring he missed the great object of his ambition—the Crown of England. On this he had probably not set his heart before the execution of the king. Attended by a private soldier named Bowtell he went to look at Charles's body. Being unable to raise the lid of the coffin with his staff he forced it open with the hilt of the other's sword. As he gazed on the severed neck Bowtell asked him what form of Government they should now have. "The same as now," was the reply. But this mood did not last long. One day in November 1652 Cromwell met Whitelocke, prudent lawyer that he was, in St. James's Park when the following dialogue ensued:—

Cromwell.What if a man should take upon him to be king? Whitelocke.I think that remedy would be worse than the disease. Cromwell.Why do you think so? Whitelocke.As to your own person, the title of king would be no advantage, because you have the full kingly power in you already concerning the militia, as you are general; so that I apprehend less envy, and danger, and pomp, but not less power and opportunities of doing good in you, being general, than would be if you had assumed the title of king. Cromwell.What do you apprehend would be the danger of taking the title? page 71 Whitelocke.The danger, I think, would be this: One of the main points of controversy between us and our adversaries is whether the government of this nation shall be established in monarchy, or in a free state, or commonwealth. Now if Your Excellency shall take on you the title of king, the state of our cause will be thereby wholly determined, a monarchy established in your person, and the question will be no more whether our government shall be by a monarchy, or a free state, but whether Cromwell or Stuart shall be our king and monarch. Thus the state of our controversy being totally changed, all those who were for a Commonwealth (and they are a very clear and considerable party), having their hopes therein frustrated, will desert you. Cromwell.I confess you speak reason in this; but what other things can you propound that may obviate the dangers and difficulties wherein we are all engaged? Whitelocke.Propose a private treaty with the King of Scots, (Charles II) securing everybody's interest and civil and religious liberty. Cromwell.More time and consideration. Whitelocke adds:With this the general broke off and went to other company, and so into Whitehall, seeming, by his countenance, displeased with what I had said; yet he never objected to me in any public meeting afterwards. Only his carriage towards me from that time was altered, and his advising with me not so frequent or intimate as before.

When eventually offered the crown by a Committee of his mock Parliament in April 1657, Cromwell's language was throughout the hollow negotiations which ensued a miracle of ambiguity, though as to his wishes no man not by nature a dupe can entertain a doubt. Like our Grand Old Man he could become absolutely incomprehensible at will, plunging into a sea of wordy distinctions which defied analysis. But the "great business of the kingship" as he called it was too much of a good thing. Not even the "creature colonels" would hear of it. Lambert, Fleetwood, and Desborough threw up their commissions, while the other officers, headed by Pride, petitioned, or rather commanded the House, "in the name of the old cause for which they had bled." to withdraw the proposal. It was condemned by Republicans and Monarchists alike and had perforce to be given up.

His Jingo policy abroad was singularly unscrupulous and short-sighted. To promote Protestantism he assailed innocuous decadent Spain instead of formidable France. His disastrous attack on San Domingo was as unprincipled as Frederick's seizure of Silesia—an unique act of royal treachery. Blake's splendid naval victories were in nowise owing to Cromwell. Vane at the head of the Republican Admiralty page 72 Committee had made the English Navy. Indeed it was with "foul ships and musty biscuits" that Blake was compelled to face the foe, Cromwell being at the time too intent on the "great business of the kingship" to attend to such trifles. The great Admiral would never for a moment acknowledge the usurper, though he sadly told his men that "it was their duty to fight for their country into whatever hands the Government fell."

At last the Protector's arts of disimulation could deceive no one. Though feared he was all but universally detested. He complained that the "godly interest" had deserted him. Eventually appeared Colonel Titus's terrible indictment—terrible in its truthfulness and remorseless logic—entitled "Killing no Murder." The tyrant read it and smiled no more. His nerves were unstrung by the constant dread of assassination. He habitually wore armour under his clothes, slept as seldom as possible in the same bed, and never stirred abroad without a strong body-guard. His precautions were those of a Russian Czar. His Government was merely a state of siege.

To the last he kept up a show of religion. On his deathbed he asked his chaplain if it were possible for a man once in grace to go to perdition—"No!" replied the chaplain. "Then," said Oliver with a fine touch of 'other worldliness' "I am safe for I know I was once in grace." If so, it were the better for him, for in this world he must ever be classed among the indescribable herd whom Dante admits neither into his Paradiso nor his Inferno "who neither faithful nor faithless were to God but only for themselves." Hence it is that this "grand juggler" as Lilburne called him has no statue.

He had magnificent opportunities. He might have played the part of an Epaminondas or a Washington and his name might have taken the first place on the bead-roll of human distinction. Instead of that he sold the mighty space of his large honours for such trash as never yet delighted the heart of a Brutus. His gigantic apostasy gave the cue to scores of minor traitors, He made patriotism a bye-word and a reproach among Englishmen. His guilty ambition restored the Stuarts, who seemed a minor evil by comparison, and threw back civilisation for a couple of centuries.

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He was no "Saviour of Society." 'Self in the Highest' was ever first in his thoughts. I care nothing for the piety of his 'Letters and Speeches:' the Directors of the City of Glasgow Bank were equally pious. I see in him only the Judas Iscariot of the English Republic on whose like let us hope Englishmen will never have occasion to look again.

His son poor "dawdling Dick" next tried the 'protecting' business for a few brief months and then "at one stride came the dark."