Cromwell’s Failed Revolution: Paradise Lost Again
by E. John Winner
In April 1653, Oliver Cromwell led some twenty of his troops into the House of Commons. Berating the Parliamentarians with the strongest invective yet heard in that House, he had the soldiers boot them out without ceremony. The Rump Parliament had reached an inglorious end, and Cromwell had led what amounts to one of the first military coup d’états in Modern history. The reasons behind this sudden overthrow of government are not as clear as they once seemed. In 1973, Antonia Fraser gave what was the general understanding of the time, in her once standard biography of Cromwell.  Since then, the context of the decision hasn’t been radically challenged, but rather its interpretation. The problems that had developed in the years after the execution of Charles I arose out of relations between Parliament and the Army. First, the Army seemed never to be paid on time, and always begrudgingly. Parliamentarians had grown unhappy with maintaining a standing army, no matter how useful it was, and saw it (correctly) as a political danger. The soldiers had acquired a voice in the period leading up to the Revolution and had pronounced ideas on both religion and politics. They wanted the religious pluralism they enjoyed in the New Model to follow them into civilian life and for some sort of religious toleration to be affected by law, much to the distaste of the Presbyterians and conservative members of the Church of England. They wanted reform of the law, of property rights, and of the electoral process so they would not so heavily favor established gentry with large land holdings. Parliament was uneasy with these demands and stalled in its negotiations with the Army. There were rumors that rather than dissolve and face new elections, they would move to a Bill of Recruitment, which would allow them to retain their seats while controlling the expansion of the House so that incoming members would be favorable to those already seated. The standard narrative of what came next is that members of the Rump met with the Army Council of Officers and promised delay on any vote for such a Bill. The very next morning, word came to Cromwell that the Commons was about to vote on one, and he flew into a rage and without change of dress rode to the House with his troops. But Blair Warden suggests otherwise: that Cromwell learned that the Commons were about to grant concessions to the Army in the matter of elections, with a Bill to that effect, including dissolution and new elections.  The elections would almost certainly have brought back Presbyterians and Royalist sympathizers, kicked out of Parliament through Pride’s Purge. Tensions with the Army would have worsened, and Cromwell’s reputation with the Army would have suffered. The clouds of civil war might once again darken English skies.
We’ll never know which of these narratives is exactly on point, unless some decisive report from parliamentarian participants surfaces. Cromwell confiscated available copies of the bill the Commons was to vote on, and burnt them. Several aspects of Cromwell’s character make Warden’s narrative plausible. To begin with, Cromwell was never the radical that extremist Royalists and their later Tory apologists made him out to be. He was of the gentry, and he knew it. He wanted no major expansion of suffrage, no land reform that would disturb the status quo. He recognized the need for laws to be reformed, for existing laws had become archaic and inaccessible to all but highly trained lawyers. This had served the monarchy well, but boded ill for a young republic trying to earn the trust of the people. And he certainly wanted legalization of liberty of conscience. But even in these matters, Cromwell was willing to err on the side of conservatism. He was never capable of outright lying; but he could be shrewd at dissimulation and was capable of convincing himself that a later post-hoc explanation had been the propter-hoc intent behind his actions. Certainly, by this time Cromwell knew that his political survival depended on the admiration the rank and file soldiers in the Army held for him.
On the other hand, contrary to the impression one can get from rough outlines of history or biography, especially given his performance on the battlefield, of Cromwell as a “man of action,” capable of immediate decisions predicated on long range personal ambitions, the details suggest a different man entirely: a procrastinator who sought advice; who leaned one way and then the other on possible options; who would pause to pray for divine guidance. Once he got his hackles up, however, Cromwell acted without hesitation, often driven by the impulse or emotion of the moment. (Indeed, his temperament was so mercurial that some have suggested he suffered from manic depression, or perhaps some form of mild chronic malaria.) But as far as his understanding of religion and its place in the lives of the English were concerned, he was a visionary. This one constant thread of faith holds together the many seemingly contradictory opinions and reversals of political action: it forms the consistency of his character.
Nowhere is this vision on greater display than in a speech at the opening of what became known as the Barebones Parliament only three months after the sudden end of the Rump. The Barebones (technically, the Nominated Assembly; nicknamed for one of its members, a leather-goods dealer named Praisegod Barebone), although it was to be structured with evident religious intent, had obviously pragmatic origins. Without some minimally representative body – which after all had been the “Good Old Cause” for which the Civil Wars and the Revolution had been fought – legislation and taxation would have to be undertaken by fiat. This would have been in violation of the constitution as it had developed from Magna Carta, and such violations attempted by Charles I had proved immensely unpopular during the eleven years Charles had ruled without a Parliament. Further, there is plenty of evidence that Cromwell didn’t want to be in the position of personally authoring legislation. Even in the most autocratic periods of the Protectorate, beyond occasional temporary ordinances, Cromwell authored no laws, and pursued policy based partly on precedent and existing law, partly on economic or military exigency of the moment.
The Barebones Parliament was supposedly to achieve representation of the people through nomination by the leaders of their local churches. If one of the hopes of the Protestant faithful was that the government of England could be used to bring about a real reformation, politically, socially and religiously, it would seem to make sense to have churches actively participate in the establishment of government. This was the announced intention; however, the Army, having so recently rid itself of political opposition in the Rump, was not about to let the roll of the political die produce any new opposition. Thus, only a handful of the 140 members of the Assembly actually arrived through church nomination; the rest were personally chosen by members of the Army Council of Officers.
Nonetheless, seemingly blind to the implications of such a jiggered nomination process, Cromwell first spoke to the Barebones as if he were addressing a parliament of saints. I suppose the primary reason for this blindness was Cromwell’s profound faith in Providence; in the active participation of God in the affairs of men. From this perspective, it might seem as if what I’ve referred to as “the roll of the political die” would be the mechanism by which God brought forth the wisest leaders of the nation to serve in the Assembly. Certainly, that is how Cromwell spoke to that Assembly on its opening day.
In his Oliver Cromwell, Barry Coward writes: “What did Cromwell mean by that vague phrase [‘a godly reformation’]? Of all the problems that make up the enigma of Cromwell’s whole political career this is the one that is most difficult to resolve, largely because Cromwell never gave a clear and specific definition of what he understood by godly reformation.”  Coward is an able historian, yet I find this remark odd. In his speech to the Nominated Assembly, Cromwell makes it clear what he hoped would be a godly reformation. It’s a remarkable document, often reading more like a sermon than political oration. Nonetheless, it has a classical oratorical structure : welcoming introduction, apologia reciting recent history leading up to the Assembly, exhortation to perform expected duties, closing summary and final argument. (The version we have is apparently a transcript written by a Cromwellian pamphleteer, who doesn’t hesitate to embellish the material with parenthetical asides praising Cromwell and ridiculing his critics.)
Before considering the speech directly, let’s pause to consider the way Protestant faithful – or at least confirmed Reformists like Cromwell – understood how the Bible operated as an analogic program operating historically in human affairs. Catholic theology during the Middle Ages had developed a reasoning by analogy that is easy to grasp. Laws and relationships explicated and elaborated in the Bible could be seen as establishing fundamental structures of the universe and of human society: God is to Creation as the sun is to earth, as the king is to his kingdom, as the father is to the family, and so on. Such an analogic system made the universe easier to understand, while grounding human relationships. It also provided the structure of metaphor in sermons, speeches, poetry. Although the Canterbury Tales is quite a different poem from the Divine Comedy, they both operate with this structural device for their deployment of tropes and symbolism. It relied on the theory of interpretation in Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, which developed the structure as the central to the proper reading of the Bible.
By Cromwell’s day, the Reformist Protestants had developed an entirely different analogical code for reading the Bible. The grounding principle was no longer structural, but programmatic. Most of the Reformers held that personal reading of the Bible was a must, although they differed as to the appropriate interpretation or the need for expert guidance in this. A primary theorist for this new reading practice was John Calvin. In his Institutes of Religion, Calvin chalked off Augustinian structural analogic tropology as resulting from a superstitious fear of being overly literal (since some Biblical passages seem almost self-contradictory). Calvin insisted that the Bible be read to the letter. If there was a passage claiming God simply blinded those He didn’t care for, then, even if this appears rather cruel for a loving God, this is what He does. This suggests that the analogical application of this to contemporary life has to do with people who have been blinded somehow. Was it punishment by the Almighty? Was it warning to change their ways? If they had changed their ways, surely, they would be worthy of pity, but if not, to hell with them. Literally. Calvin’s God could choose those whose spirits he would move towards their salvation, and those whose spirits He would allow Satan to move. The Bible effectively describes a drama of daily life and historical action that sees predestined, analogical repetition down to this day. If “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” as the American folk hymn has it, then surely Cromwell had likewise “fit” the battle of Worcester, and its Royalist walls “came tumbling down.” This is where the Protestant understanding of the analogical semblance between the Bible and life is interesting: Life becomes a trope for the reality of Biblical historiography; but a lesson for the truth of God’s Word. Thus, Cromwell could claim that his decisive military success at Worcester was demonstration of the Providence of God, as described in various passages in the Bible concerning triumph in battle by God’s chosen: “And yet what God wrought in Ireland and Scotland you likewise know; until He had finished these Troubles, upon the matter, by His marvellous salvation wrought at Worcester.” 
As he begins his exhortations to the members of the Assembly regarding their duty, we find Cromwell tossing aside what little of practical politics he had invested in the first half of his speech:
And I hope, whatever others may think, it may be a matter to us all of rejoicing to have our hearts touched (with reverence be it spoken) as Christ, “being full of the spirit,” was “touched with our infirmities,” that He might be merciful. So should we be; we should be pitiful. Truly, this calls us to be very much touched with the infirmities of the Saints; that we may have a respect unto all, and be pitiful and tender towards all, though of different judgments. And if I did seem to speak something that reflected on those of the Presbyterial judgment,-truly I think if we have not got an interest of love for them too, we shall hardly answer this of being faithful to the Saints. In my pilgrimage, and some exercises I have had abroad, I did read that Scripture often, Forty-first of Isaiah; where God gave me and some of my fellows encouragement ‘as to’ what He would do there and elsewhere; which He hath performed for us. He said, “He would plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah-tree, and the myrtle and the oil-tree; and He would set in the desert the fir-tree, and the pine-tree, and the box-tree together.” For what end will the Lord do all this? That they may see, and know and consider, and understand together, That the hand of the Lord hath done “this;”-that it is He who hath wrought all the salvations and deliverances we have received. For what end! To see, and know, and understand together, that He hath done and wrought all this for the good of the Whole Flock (Even so. For “Saints” read “Good Men;” and it is true to the end of the world). Therefore, I beseech you,-but I think I need not,-have a care of the Whole Flock! Love the sheep, love the lambs, love all, tender all, cherish and countenance all, in all things that are good. And if the poorest Christian, the most mistaken Christian, shall desire to live peaceably and quietly under you, I say, if any shall desire but to lead a life of godliness and honesty, let him be protected. I think I need not advise, much less press you, to endeavour the Promoting of the Gospel; to encourage the Ministry; such a Ministry and such Ministers as be faithful in the Land; upon whom the true character is. Men that have received the Spirit, which Christians will be able to discover, and do ‘the will of;’ men that “have received Gifts from Him who is ascended up on high, who hath led captivity captive, to give gifts to men,” even for this same work of the Ministry!
Since Cromwell sings variants of this song for some three thousand words, it seems hard to miss his agenda. Of course, he is asking for religious toleration (at least for all Protestant sects), but the oratory pitch is strung high. The admonition is not simply for some bill of liberty of conscience. Especially given the way religious tolerance is linked to overt ministry, Cromwell is proposing nothing less than a Christian democracy predicated on the understanding that the truly faithful (who share the same desire for God’s grace, no matter what church they attend), through spiritually guided conversation, could be led to conformity of mind, rather than of church membership. Totalitarianism always smacks of fear-induced conformity, so it is easy to forget that it can sometimes begin with a hope that all citizens in the given community share so many of the same values that politics, of any kind, would simply prove unnecessary. The representative government of such a society would not need election, but rather any man skilled in articulating the common need of the moment would do. Cromwell’s England could be transformed into an earthly New Jerusalem, populated entirely with embodied spirits, all seeking to live according to the Word of God (except for a handful of predestinate damned, who would have to be carefully watched). Pretty heady stuff, which is why the Christian-Utopian theme of the speech might be taken as mere rhetoric. Yet everything we know about Cromwell and the way he interpreted events as signs of Providence suggests that his goal had always been an England united, not by blood, history or economics, but by faith. Such an England (evidenced by some of Cromwell’s musings over foreign policy) could then stand as example to and help construct a supra-national union of like-minded Protestant states (that could then engage a final reckoning with the Antichrist in Rome). Not apocalypse now, but apocalypse soon.
Of course, it didn’t happen. Some minor reforms were achieved, but mostly the members of the Barebones disagreed in a most unsaintly manner, quarrels erupting between radicals and moderates. By December 1653, the moderates resigned (whether voluntarily or at Cromwell’s instigation is unclear), and the remaining members voted dissolution. Shortly after, the Army, through the newly formed Council of State, established the Instrument of Government as constitution and declared Cromwell the Lord Protector. Based on the Instrument, two Parliaments would be called during Cromwell’s lifetime. Although his speech was always laced with Biblical references, he would never speak before Parliament with the kind of religious fervor and utopian optimism he had exhibited to the Barebones. His first speech to the First Protectorate Parliament, beginning with complaints against the radicals (thus insisting on the very divisions of faith he had previously sought to heal), then turned its attention to such earthly matters as treaties with Portugal, France, the Dutch, and the Danes; spiraling costs of naval warfare; and deficit spending and rising debt, with increasing need for greater taxation. The “godly reformation” of England was coming to an end. A couple of years later, the English suffered a major military defeat in the Caribbean, which Cromwell naturally took as show of God’s disapproval of England’s sinfulness. This he sought to address with the rule of the Major-Generals in the counties outside of London, as close to a “thought-police” as one could get in the 17th century. It proved such an unpopular failure that Cromwell disavowed ownership of it. Increasing political anxiety can be read in the last years of the Protectorate. Cromwell’s powerful personality and charisma had held it all together, but with his death in 1658, the Army itself splintered into it opposing factions. The strongest, under General Monk, at last intervened, and invited Charles II to the throne.
In 1655, the Swedish envoy to England reported to his King: “The country… [feels] it to be a matter of indifference to them by whom they are ruled, if only they be preserved in the free enjoyment of their law and religion.” 
What Cromwell didn’t understand – and most visionary politicians don’t – is that the temporal window of opportunity for any visionary politics is very narrow, maybe three or four years. Most people do not want or expect the world to achieve perfection. They want to take care of business, take care of their families, and take care of themselves. Any politics that makes these pursuits easier will appeal to them. They are fond of rhetorical promises of heaven, but soon will lose interest. Few wish to live as saints, who never worry about paying bills, whose orgasms are all symbolic, and who have no children to raise. Cromwell’s “godly reformation” crashed against the same rock that the Reformation itself did: the rock of the every-day; of matters secular and earthbound; the desire to live, not as God commands, but as the human condition dictates. Bread, home, children, community. Too often have cynical politicians tried to use these to manipulate people. But ultimately, they form the bulwark that no utopianism can overcome, and that no cynicism can undo.
 Fraser, Antonia; Cromwell the Lord Protector; Dell, 1975 (originally Oliver Cromwell, Our Chief of Men, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Great Britain, 1973). The discussion is in Chapter 15, “A settlement of the nation.”
 Warden, Blair; “Oliver Cromwell and Parliament,” olivercromwell.org (2014) http://www.olivercromwell.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Cromwell%20and%20Parliament.pdf
 Coward, Barry; Oliver Cromwell; Profiles in Power; Longman, 1991, page 105.
 From: Smith, David L.; Oliver Cromwell: Politics and Religion in The English Revolution, 1640-1658; Cambridge UP, 1991, page 39.