Oliver Cromwell & Parliaments: David L Smith Explains Why Cromwell So Signally Failed to Establish Harmony with His Parliaments

By Smith, David L. | History Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Oliver Cromwell & Parliaments: David L Smith Explains Why Cromwell So Signally Failed to Establish Harmony with His Parliaments


Smith, David L., History Review


Oliver Cromwell's inability to achieve an effective working relationship with successive Parliaments during the 1640s and 1650s remains one of the greatest ironies of the English Revolution. It was also a crucial reason why the English Republic failed to generate lasting political stability. This article will reconsider this problem and suggest that the principal difficulty lay in Cromwell's desire to use Parliament to reconcile the interests of the English nation as a whole with those of a godly minority (including himself) who embraced a radical religious agenda. He hoped that through Parliaments the nation and the godly people could become one. His refusal to acknowledge the essential incompatibility of these two interests lay at the heart of his failure to find any Parliament that fulfilled his high hopes. Always he searched for a Parliament that would promote his vision of a godly commonwealth, and always it eluded him.

Cromwell and the Long Parliament

Cromwell's aim helps to explain, first of all, why he ultimately fell out with the Long Parliament, in whose armies he had played such a critical role during the Civil Wars. He clearly believed in the justice of Parliament's cause against Charles I in that conflict. As he wrote to Colonel Valentine Walton on 5 September 1644:

   We study the glory of God, and
   the honour and liberty of the
   Parliament, for which we
   unanimously fight, without
   seeking our own interests ... I
   profess I could never satisfy
   myself of the justness of this
   war, but from the authority of
   the Parliament to maintain itself
   in its rights; and in this cause I
   hope to approve myself an
   honest man and single-hearted.

However, it is important to notice that even here Cromwell's loyalty to Parliament was not unconditional. He believed that it had a trust imposed upon it and that it should be held accountable, above all to God's cause and to the godly people. This conviction became starkly apparent during 1647-8, as Parliament struggled to reach a settlement with the King. Cromwell believed that the worst outcome would be for Parliament to betray those who had fought for it by selling out to the King, and he argued that it would be better, if necessary, to break off negotiations with Charles by passing a Vote of No Addresses. On 3 January 1648 he made an impassioned speech in support of this Vote, urging members of the Commons to:

   Look on the people you
   represent, and break not your
   trust, and expose not the honest
   party of the kingdom, who have
   bled for you, and suffer not
   misery to fall upon them for
   want of courage and resolution
   in you, else the honest people
   may take such courses as nature
   dictates to them.

That strangely menacing final line raised the possibility of some very radical courses of action, although these were as yet left vague.

To Cromwell, the Army's decisive victory in the second Civil War, culminating in its defeat of Scottish Royalists at the battle of Preston in August 1648, gave Parliament both a divine mandate and a responsibility to bring the King to justice. Writing to the Speaker of the Commons, William Lenthall, the day after Preston, Cromwell described this latest victory as 'nothing but the hand of God ... for whom even Kings shall be reproved', and urged him to 'take courage to do the work of the Lord, in fulfilling the end of your magistracy, in seeking the peace and welfare of the people of this land'. Cromwell and other Army leaders were deeply disappointed when Parliament instead resumed talks with the King on terms that were essentially unaltered since 1642. This frustration eventually prompted Colonel Pride's decisive intervention on 6 December 1648 when he excluded the more conservative members of the Commons and thus opened the way for setting up a special High Court to try the King.

Historians have found Cromwell's behaviour in the closing weeks of 1648 and the beginning of 1649 deeply enigmatic. …

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