Cromwell and His Inconsistency


"If you choose godly, honest men to be captains of horse, honest men will follow them… I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else."

Oliver Cromwell, English politician


Born in 1599, at the dawn of the 17th century, into a noble English family, the man the BBC considers the tenth most important English person in history, and one of the great characters of the Modern Age: Oliver Cromwell.

The mere mention of his name can exasperate many Irish and Catholics, a country and religious minority who suffered the greatest reprisals of this general and puritanical politician, who treated the English Civil Wars against the realists as real crusades.

The controversial figure has been referred to by many as a proto-fascist and the cause of one of the greatest massacres inflicted on a Western people. However, Trotsky saw him as an English equivalent to Lenin, a fighter of the people and a leader of the struggle against tyranny.

In examining his life, we see two events in his youth that may have shaped his character. The first, the death of his father shortly before Oliver was an adult. He dropped out of school and in the ensuing years, before getting married, he served as head of his extended family. It is one of those life experiences that build character; given the resolution and strength of Cromwell, we can intuit this to be so.

The second, linked to the aggressive and conflictive character of his youth, dates from 1630. Cromwell had been in Parliament, likely thanks to the influence of some friend of the nobility, before King Charles I decided to dissolve it and rule alone until 1640. Oliver had not made a mark with his participation, but he did with some parishioners in the taverns near his house. After a particularly violent fight, Cromwell decided to move with his entire family and went through a period of humiliation and deep inner radicalization.

That is when he converted to the Puritan current of the Protestant Church. Notably, at that time the Anglican Church (whose head was, like today, the monarch of England) was approaching the Catholic Church through King Charles I. This was a move that the more radical Protestant branches saw as heresy and extreme betrayal.

Thus, in 1638 when Cromwell had planned to live his faith in the United States, where there was freedom of worship, he decided to stay in England to rejoin Parliament, this time as the voice of the Puritans against the king.

Tensions between the monarch and Parliament ultimately flared into a civil war, in which Scotland, Ireland, Wales and some English provinces rose up in support of the king, while the rest backed Parliament. Here was Cromwell's chance.

With his own money (gained by assailing a caravan with the king's treasure[DO1] ) he bought a cavalry regiment, which he himself trained on the ideas that he would eventually infuse into the New Model Army, which later, when under the command of the anti-monarchical forces, he would build up and train. In that army, according to Cromwell, the soldiers would no longer fear men, only God.

During that first civil war, Cromwell gained his military prestige. Oddly enough, he was not the great strategist that one might think: those around to witness it spoke of his simple and rudimentary tactics. What distinguished Cromwell's troops was a great sense of purpose, a communion among them, and total allegiance to their commander. They fought with a determination that the enemy troops could only envy.

The end of that first civil war is no mystery: After a battle, King Carlos is captured; a circumstance that many (including the Puritans) see as an opportunity to settle on a more democratic government that is less dependent on the king. But Cromwell cannot ignore what he still considers high treason: the shift of the monarch toward Catholicism. Thus, he pushes forward on the first trial and first public execution of a king. And thus begins the brief historical period in which England was a republic.

We say that Cromwell was a somewhat inconsistent figure, since he defended ideas and principles that he later failed to uphold when in power; that is the definition of inconsistency, but our analysis would be superficial if we ended there. Cromwell was resolute in his decision to execute the king, who had endangered the freedom of worship, among other things; and his decision to reject the crown when it was offered to him, since he considered it necessary to do away with the monarchy. But when he was in power, all of the Catholic clerics captured were persecuted and executed; and he established as hereditary the position of Lord Protector, a title that was for all intents and purposes equivalent to king.

His inconsistency may have reflected his changing interests and personal circumstances. Although in these inconsistencies we also see the tragic reality of every man with ideals who later must govern and ultimately realizes that those ideals are not always feasible, and cannot be realized. That the principles he defended must be concretized through government decisions and no preexisting criteria serve as a true guide in a completely new phase of English history. Therein lay his greatness and also his misery and opportunism.

Cromwell's ending was tragic: On August 29, 1658, his daughter Elizabeth, the apple of his eye, would die at the age of 29. And on September 3, 1658, on the anniversary of his great victories in Dunbar and Worcester, Oliver Cromwell died, the winner of two civil wars, and chief of the first (and only) Parliaments of the English Republic. A great Puritan reformer who, after the reinstatement of the monarchy, was publicly condemned as a traitor. But that left such an imprint on the institutions that the monarchy would never be tyrannical again.

Here are some of the many lessons we could highlight from the story of Cromwell:

  • An ideological view of politics and society attracts the masses and gives consistent discourse to those who embody it... until they come to power.
  • In power, ideology is either fully applied, and then leads to fanaticism... or realpolitik is embraced to hold onto that hard-earned power that is so attractive to retain.
  • Consistency is hard to maintain when the preached ideals emerged from simplistic and unreliable conceptions of reality.
  • Moralism, even when seemingly based on good intentions, usually degenerates into an obsession with rules that leads to Manichaean conceptions of people and reality; in extreme cases, it leads to a very unhuman inflexibility. Function (the desired good) is totally annihilated by form (rules and laws).