If his highness can be moved to accept of it [the crown], the services he hath done the nations have abundantly deserved it; but if he who hath so much merited it do judge it fit to continue his refusal of it, the contempt of a crown--which can not proceed but from an extraordinary virtue--will render him, in the esteem of all whose opinion is to be valued, more honourable than any that wear it.
WHEN THE AMBASSADOR to France, Sir William Lockhart, wrote this in April 1657, it had been nearly two months since the first formal offer by Parliament to make Oliver Cromwell king, and in England people were waiting anxiously for the Lord Protector to make up his mind. Would he choose to become King Oliver or not?
The offer of the crown in the spring of 1657 marked the end of a long series of rumours, backed up by indiscreet comments by those around the Protector, that he would soon assume the crown of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, which had been in abeyance since the execution of Charles I in 1649. Cromwell's position since the founding of the Protectorate in the closing weeks of 1653 was already quasi-regal. As Protector, he was head of state, and enjoyed many of the trappings of power--he lived in the former royal palaces, he held sway over his own court, and he was the dominant figure not only in the government but also in Parliament. There were certain restraints: he had to govern in accordance with a written constitution, and he had to rule with the consent of a council. The importance of the army in drawing up that constitution, and the presence of senior officers on the council reinforced Cromwell's reliance on the military, which was the Achilles heel of the protectorate. Military rule was expensive and unpopular, and condemned the regime to receive support from only a minority of the people. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the hostile reaction received by the Major-Generals, who ruled the counties of England and Wales from the autumn of 1655. To secure the 'healing and settling' of the nations, and provide permanent solutions to the problems raised and exacerbated by a decade of civil war, a more broadly based, civilian government was needed. It was this that prompted the first offer of the crown to Cromwell, under a new constitution known as the 'Remonstrance', presented to Parliament on February 23rd, 1657. Parliament debated the proposals long and hard, and after substantial modification, the renamed 'Humble Petition and Advice' was formally submitted for Cromwell's approval on March 31st. After a long period of deliberation and prayer, on May 8th, Cromwell rejected the crown, while accepting the main tenets of the new, civilian, constitution.
Most historians agree that the rejection of the crown was Cromwell's finest hour. Like Sir William Lockhart, they see his decision to refuse the top job as a touchstone of his greatness, the benchmark of his 'extraordinary virtue'. In recent years historical explanations for Cromwell's refusal have shifted. Sir Charles Firth, writing a century ago, emphasized Cromwell's prudence in not antagonizing the army, whose officers had grown suspicious of the Protector's worldly ambition, which they saw as a betrayal of all that they had fought for during the civil wars. Cromwell's religious motives are now emphasized by many historians. The delay in Cromwell making up his mind was caused by a kind of spiritual paralysis. Although tempted by the fruits of a return to traditional forms of government, Cromwell was acutely aware of God's judgement on him and his actions. While the godly New Model Army continued to be victorious, it was clear that Providence was on his side; but recent reverses, especially the disastrous 'Western Design' to take Hispaniola in the West Indies from the Spanish in 1655, had raised doubts in his mind. The religious radicals (including many in the army) were insistent that Cromwell risked incurring God's anger. …