In light of the recent vote held in the United Kingdom to depart from the European Union, we highlight the man many historians refer to as the Father of British Democracy, Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was a 17th Century English military and political leader. He was born in 1599 and went on to become a very passionately religious individual, describing himself as an Independent Puritan but very tolerant of all Christian Protestant denominations. Contention had been building between the English Parliament and the English Crown throughout the 16th Century. Things came to a head in 1641 when embellished reports of Catholics slaughtering Protestants triggered a perceived need to stand up an Army in order to quell the emerging Irish Rebellion. This created a rift between the supporters of Parliament and the supporters of King Charles I. Parliament felt if the King was given command of the Army he would use it to eliminate Parliament by force. The King feared if Parliament was given command of the Army the Monarchy would become a thing of the past. Charles’ failed attempt to arrest five members on charges of treason set the wheels in motion for an English Civil War.
So, both sides stood up an Army. It was during the English Civil War the Parliamentarians employed a new structure of military called the New Model Army, commanded by Thomas Fairfax and his second-in- command, Oliver Cromwell. This was unusual at the time because Cromwell was a military commander and a Member of Parliament. After the defeat of Charles I’s forces Charles was tried and executed. This brought about the emergence of the Commonwealth of England. Cromwell led a Parliamentary invasion of Ireland to quell the civil instability and the influence of Catholics in Ireland. Later historians would describe the English tactics against the Catholics as near-genocide. Cromwell returned to London to discover in-fighting within Parliament. When his urgency to schedule elections fell on deaf ears, he and 40 musketeers disbanded Parliament by force. In 1653, General John Lambert put forward a new constitution known as the Instrument of Government. It made Cromwell “Lord Protector” for life to undertake “the chief magistracy and the administration of government”. In 1657, the new Parliament offered Cromwell the position of King. He turned it down, expressing God’s Providence had spoken against the office of King by saying, “I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again”. After his passing, due to Malaria, the Monarchists were able to regain Parliamentary power in 1660 and Charles II took the throne as King. As a show of disdain for Cromwell his body was exhumed on 30 January 1661, his body was hung by chains, thrown into a pit and his head was cut off and placed on a pike outside Westminster Abbey.
Cromwell is still a very polarizing figure, called a “regicidal dictator” by historian David Sharp, a “military dictator” by Winston Churchill, and a recent British Broadcasting Company poll identified Cromwell as one of Britain’s greatest heroes. What cannot be denied is that Cromwell’s efforts paved the way for the British government position of Prime Minister and changed how Great Britain has been administered, with a dual leadership rule, since.
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