KING OLIVER! A New TV Series Shows Cromwell as a Brutal War Criminal. in Fact, He Was This Nation's Saviour

By Hattersley, Roy | Daily Mail (London), May 7, 2001 | Go to article overview

KING OLIVER! A New TV Series Shows Cromwell as a Brutal War Criminal. in Fact, He Was This Nation's Saviour


Hattersley, Roy, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: ROY HATTERSLEY

MY FATHER first told me about Oliver Cromwell.

And, because he had been a Roman Catholic priest before he met and married my mother, he gave me a highly biased account of the Lord Protector's life and times.

What I remember most vividly is his description of Cromwell's dying moments.

The wind howled outside the windows of his bedchamber. Thunder crashed and lightning flashed across the sky.

Oliver Cromwell, fearful of the fires of hell, prayed for forgiveness and the remission of his many sins. The crime which my father had particularly in mind was the massacre at Drogheda - a Roman Catholic citadel about 30 miles north of Dublin.

Drogheda had resisted as Cromwell advanced through Ireland, a country which he was determined to subjugate after its inhabitants had revolted during the Civil War, murdering many of the English settlers who had grabbed estates to establish themselves as a land-owning class to the fury of the local populace.

Cromwell's hatred of the Roman Catholic, rebellious Irish made him determined to restore English Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. The execution of the garrison which had rejected an offer of surrender and amnesty was common in those barbarous times, but Cromwell added the priests in Drogheda's monastery to his death list.

His men then proceeded to exterminate the entire population of the town, men, women and children. It was even said that they used children as living shields and that Cromwell himself boasted of the slaughter of 1,000 people who had sought safety in a church.

He also observed with interest how one man screamed with pain as the steeple in which he had taken refuge was set on fire by the soldiers.

CROMWELL later happily admitted that 2,000 Irish had been killed that day, a slaughter he saw as entirely justified, but other estimates put it at 3,000 or upwards.

This was not the only massacre that - at least according to my father - booked Cromwell's passage to hell. By the time of his death on September 3, 1658, he had made himself Lord Protector, monarch in all but name having dismissed or muzzled successive Parliaments.

But three years later, his corpse was dug up from Westminster Abbey and hung on the gallows at Tyburn. Cromwell's remains were then exhibited like the body of a common criminal.

So the historian Simon Schama is correct in his new BBC series about the Civil War between Roundheads against Cavaliers that Oliver Cromwell was a war criminal.

At least he was by the standards of the 21st century, but other times, other ways. Compassion and forgiveness came into fashion in politics and government only about 100 years ago.

Until then, most of our national heroes - from Richard the Lionheart, who made his name by massacring Moslems, to Horatio Nelson, who gave an amnesty to the Neapolitan rebels and then hanged them one by one - murdered and maimed without a second thought.

We cannot judge great figures of the past against the standards of the Geneva Convention and the European Declaration of Human Rights.

Thomas Jefferson kept slaves.

Elizabeth I burned heretics.

Henry VIII beheaded unwanted wives. More recently, the British Army in South Africa invented what came to be known as concentration camps and thousands of Boer women and children died in consequence.

Certainly, Cromwell was what today we regard as a brutal despot. But he changed England for the better and established what was at least the beginning of our parliamentary democracy.

By inclination - though not by training - Cromwell was a soldier in an era when wars were savage.

And civil wars - brother against brother and father against son - were the most savage wars of all.

The farmer who studied at Cambridge and thought of becoming a London barrister so despaired of success in England that he planned to emigrate to America. …

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