A meteoric rise to the top

Oliver Cromwell was a fanatical puritan who enforced the abolition of Christmas. He rose from relative obscurity as an MP to become one of the most controversial figures in British history.

Cromwell won the first civil war involving the whole of Britain and was the key figure in the execution of Charles I. Find out how a revolutionary who toppled a king, only to become a despot himself, paved the way for parliamentary democracy.


An early religious radical

Cromwell and parents

Portraits showing Oliver Cromwell's wife Elizabeth and son Richard.

Cromwell was born into a fairly wealthy family of landowners in Huntingdonshire. He was the only surviving son.

His religious beliefs were shaped at school. He was influenced by his teacher, Thomas Beard, who wrote a well known puritanical book called The Theatre of God’s Judgement, which portrayed the Pope as the Antichrist. It likely made Cromwell more anti-Catholic. He studied briefly at Cambridge University, but chose sport over his books. After his father’s sudden death, Cromwell returned home to assume control of the house.


Opposed to a despot

Triptych portrait Charles I

Portrait of King Charles I by Sir Anthony Van Dyck.

Cromwell became MP for Huntington. His first term in Parliament lasted less than a year, not enough time to make an impression.

King Charles I didn’t recall Parliament for another 11 years and Cromwell remained in obscurity. He became increasingly opposed to the King’s interpretation of Protestantism, which was at odds with his own austere puritan outlook.


A radical, militant MP

The Flight of the five members

MPs who had supported the Scots rebels. Flight of the Five Members by John Seymour Lucas.

When the King declared war on Scotland and was forced to recall parliament to raise taxes to pay for it, Cromwell became a leading opposition figure.

He encouraged MPs to turn down the King’s request. Charles I responded by entering the House of Commons with troops to arrest five rebellious MPs, but they had already fled. A radical group formed with Cromwell as one of the leaders, which responded by demanding the surrender of much royal power to Parliament. Indignantly, Charles I refused. Britain was set on the path to civil war.


Revered as a war hero

Battle of Marston Moor

Cromwell at the Battle of Marston Moor, 1644.

Cromwell further established his military prowess at the Battle of Marston Moor, when Parliament took control of northern England for the first time.

His horsemen broke the Royalist cavalry and successfully attacked their infantry from the rear. Cromwell led from the front, even though he was injured in the neck. He returned to the battlefield to take part in the Parliamentarians' biggest victory to date. Now, Cromwell epitomised their cause.


A supreme tactician

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Find out how the discipline of the New Model Army made it so effective. Clip from Roundhead or Cavalier: Which one are you? (BBC Four, 2012)

Cromwell helped establish the New Model Army, for the first time a force recruited on merit, not social class - the basis of today's army.

He introduced discipline into his troops, which allowed his officers to better control and direct their men. For the first time, the soldiers were paid their wages on a regular basis. The result was a loyal and dedicated army. The most feared section of the New Model Army was the ‘Ironsides’ cavalry. A devastatingly effective military force, it inflicted the Royalists’ biggest defeat at the Battle of Naseby in 1645. Within a year the Civil War was over and Charles I was under house arrest.


Revenge became genocidal

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See how more butchery was unleashed, notably at Wexford, leaving an indelible mark on Anglo-Irish relations. Clip: Story of Ireland (BBC Two, 2011).

The Royalists regrouped and allied with the rebellious Catholics in Ireland. They aimed to invade Britain and overthrow the parliamentary regime.

Cromwell invaded Ireland and attacked a heavily fortified stronghold at Drogheda, on Ireland’s east coast. He stormed the city and slaughtered thousands – a bloody act, which he said was retribution for a Catholic massacre of Protestants in 1641. Cromwell returned to England and in 1651 crushed a Scottish invasion led by King Charles I’s son at the Battle of Worcester. Cromwell called it his ‘crowning victory’. Now Parliament had full control of the country.

The man who could take Drogheda could take hell

Sir Arthur Aston, Royalist commander of Drogheda


Toppled any weakness

Oliver Cromwell dismissed the rump parliament

Illustration of Oliver Cromwell ejecting the rump of the Long Parliament from the House of Commons.

After the fighting had ended, Cromwell turned his attention to replacing an English government he thought had become corrupt.

He found a ‘Rump Parliament’ of MPs, who appeared determined to extend their rule indefinitely. Cromwell harangued them on the floor of the House of Commons for being self-serving and then his troops forcibly shut down Parliament. He replaced it with ‘the assembly of saints’, a nominated group of men he considered suitably puritan. But, when they too proved unsatisfactory, he had them removed as well.


Cromwell's legacy

Cromwell statue wide

The statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament.

Cromwell died on September 3 of natural causes. An event still commemorated by the Cromwell Association.

His son Richard inherited the title of Lord Protector, but he could not control the army. So in 1660 Charles I’s son was restored to the throne. When Charles II became King the British celebrated the end of Cromwell’s rule with arguably the biggest booze-up the country has ever seen. However the Restoration Settlement did not give back to the King financial control over the government and military. It was the start of the road to parliamentary democracy. This was Cromwell’s greatest legacy,