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Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.


Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

Oliver Cromwell: Hero or Villain?

Oliver Cromwell: Hero or Villain?

You are aware, are you not, that there was this chap called Oliver Cromwell who came after Shakespeare and brought democracy to England, including – ultimately – free speech.

Anybody wishing to understand the nonsense that prevails in the present need only consider the nonsense that many people believe about the past. Indeed it would not be an exaggeration to say that our present woes have their roots in the woeful ignorance of the past with which most modern people are afflicted. Take, for example, the comment above, which was posted to a recent article of mine about Shakespeare. It beggars belief that anyone could really believe that Oliver Cromwell “brought democracy to England, including – ultimately – free speech”. Even more incredible is the fact that such a comment could be appended to an article about Shakespeare.

Presumably my interlocutor is unaware that Cromwell’s Puritans banned the theatre completely. In 1642, the year in which the Civil War began, Cromwell’s insurgents passed a law suspending all theatrical performances for five years. After the law expired, the revolutionary government passed a new law, declaring that all actors were rogues. Under Cromwell’s rule, many theatres were destroyed as Cromwell and his cohorts sought to extinguish “sinful” theatre from the culture. It is intriguing, is it not, that the “democracy and ultimately free speech” that Cromwell brought to England included the banning of all of Shakespeare’s plays from being performed?

It was not until after Cromwell’s death and the Restoration of the Monarchy that artistic expression in general, and the theatre in particular, once again began to flourish.

Leaving aside Cromwell’s war on artistic expression, let’s explore other ways that he helped to bring “democracy and ultimately free speech” to England. One such way was his decision to suspend Parliament in 1653 so that he could be “invited” to become sole dictator of the country, assuming the title of “Lord Protector of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland”. Having seized what amounted to totalitarian power, he took to signing his name 'Oliver P', the P being an abbreviation for Protector, in imitation of the manner in which monarchs signed their names using an R to mean Rex or Regina. It was soon customary practice for his subjects to address him as "Your Highness". Parallels with the hypocrisy of the aptly-named Napoleon in Orwell’s Animal Farm might spring to mind, as might those with latter-day tyrants, such as Stalin or Hitler.

As Cromwell’s popularity among the people declined, his position in power was largely secured because of his continuing popularity with the army, suggesting parallels with those generals who had seized power in the twentieth century through military juntas. Such parallels are reinforced by Cromwell’s division of England into military districts under the direct control of Major Generals, all of whom were answerable directly to Cromwell himself.

Another way that Cromwell helped to bring “democracy and ultimately free speech” to England was through his imperialistic conquest of a foreign country, namely Ireland, with such brutality and barbarism that his name remains a byword for sadistic iniquity to this day. In Drogheda, he ordered that all of the defending garrison be slaughtered and, to add religious insult to injury, he ordered that all the Catholic priests should be put to death. When the terrified people of the town sought shelter or sanctuary in a church, Cromwell ordered that the church be burned to the ground with the people still inside. By the time that Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland was complete, at least 200,000 Catholics had been killed and a further 50,000 were sold into indentured servitude, little better than slavery, being deported to the colonies in North America and the Caribbean.

In the pursuit, apparently, of “democracy and ultimately free speech”, Cromwell confiscated all the land owned by Catholics in Ireland and forbade Catholics from living in towns. The practice of Catholicism was banned and large rewards were offered for the capture of Catholic priests who were then put to death. In January 1650, Cromwell declared that "I shall not, where I have the power... suffer the exercise of the Mass." He would also not suffer the celebration of Christmas, banning it on the astonishingly peculiar grounds that it was a pagan festival!

Such was the infernal nature of Cromwell’s policy in Ireland that historians, such as Mark Levine and Alan Axelrod, have seen fit to call it ethnic cleansing. In Axelrod’s judgment, Cromwell’s actions were akin to “something very nearly approaching genocide”.

Winston Churchill, in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, was equally scathing, describing “Cromwell's record” in Ireland as “a lasting bane”:

By an uncompleted process of terror, by an iniquitous land settlement, by the virtual proscription of the Catholic religion, by the bloody deeds already described, he cut new gulfs between the nations and the creeds. “Hell or Connaught” were the terms he thrust upon the native inhabitants, and they for their part, across three hundred years, have used as their keenest expression of hatred “The Curse of Cromwell on you.” ... Upon all of us there still lies “the curse of Cromwell”.

Dare it be suggested that one who advocates and puts into practice what Churchill dubs a “process of terror” can be called a “terrorist”? Isn’t the very definition of terrorism the pursuit of one’s political ambitions through the adoption of a “process of terror”? If so, might we not add the accusation of terrorism to those of ethnic cleansing and “something very nearly approaching genocide”?

In spite of the aforementioned monstrosities, there might still perhaps be grounds for admiring Cromwell. One might admire his military prowess, for instance, as one might admire Stalin’s ability to mobilize the Red Army to defeat Hitler, or Franco’s ability to mobilize an army to beat the communists, but is it really possible to admire him as someone who “brought democracy to England, including – ultimately – free speech”?

This essay first appeared in the Imaginative Conservative and is published here with permission.

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