Oliver Cromwell: The man who “abolished Christmas” was in some ways a pioneer of religious toleration (Illustration by Michael Daley)
As the title of her biography, still unsurpassed after four decades, Antonia Fraser chose the opening of Milton’s great panegyric of 1652: “Cromwell our chief of men”. The words of this sonnet resonate down the centuries because, with the exception of Winston Churchill, no man in English history has stood so far above his contemporaries as the Lord Protector.
He was, nevertheless, England’s only dictator. In classical political theory, a dictator was a leader appointed in time of war or other crisis for a limited period, the most famous example being Julius Caesar. Like Caesar, Cromwell was offered the crown; unlike Caesar, he was firm in his refusal. It speaks volumes for the loyalty he inspired, too, that he avoided the Roman’s fate — though after the Restoration his corpse was exhumed and hung on a gibbet, as part of Charles II’s posthumous revenge on the regicides. It says something, moreover, for the underlying awe in which Cromwell was still held, as well as for the English sense of fair play, that no such vindictiveness was shown towards Richard Cromwell, the Protector’s son, who briefly and unwillingly inherited his father’s office before being deposed by the army in favour of the Stuarts.
It would be an understatement to say that Oliver Cromwell has always divided opinion. In Ireland, the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford became a bloodstained folk memory that no historical contextualisation can cleanse. While Cromwell’s treatment of those he defeated was usually magnanimous by the standards of the time, he showed no mercy to the Irish rebels, especially the clergy. His attitude to Catholics in England, on the other hand, was exceptionally tolerant: he favoured freedom of conscience, at least in private, and the recusant community flourished under his protection. He even tried to persuade Rome to desist from placing Catholics under an obligation to rebel, in return for toleration; he was rebuffed.
But the proof of Oliver’s open mind — and in many ways the most enlightened achievement of his whole career — was his decision to reintroduce the Jews to England. Ever since Edward I’s shameful expulsion of 1290, England had been a no-go area for Jews, apart from a handful of individuals who worshipped in secret. By the mid-17th century the emerging Dutch republic, by contrast, was home to large and flourishing communities of Sephardic Jews, mostly Marranos who had sought refuge there from Spain and Portugal.
In 1650 a prominent Amsterdam rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel, published a Latin tract, Spes Israeli, that advocated the return of the Jews to England. It was quickly translated and circulated among philosemitic Puritans. Encouraged by John Thurloe, the secretary to his Council of State, Cromwell met Menasseh ben Israel in 1655. The rabbi touched “his whole body with the most exact care”, declaring that he had come “solely to see if his Highness was of flesh and blood since his superhuman deeds indicated that he was more than a man and some divine composition issued from heaven”. The Protector overcame stiff resistance in the Council and in 1656 granted the petitions that enabled Jews to re-establish themselves in England — one decision that the Restoration dared not reverse. The Jewish cemetery in Mile End, for which Cromwell personally gave permission, remains to this day.
It may seem strange to see the bogeyman who “abolished Christmas” as a pioneer of religious toleration, but the radical preacher Hugh Peter got the point: “If ’twas such a matter for King Charles to be Defender of the Faith, the Protector has a thousand faiths to protect.” Having taken the first crucial steps that would culminate in Catholic and Jewish emancipation in the 19th century, Cromwell left another surpising legacy: he encouraged a generous reception of religious refugees and other immigrants, provided it was accompanied by integration. “I love strangers,” he said, “but principally those who are of our religion.” His letters of naturalisation for more than 250 foreigners — far more than the supposedly cosmopolitan Stuarts had allowed — paved the way for Britain’s most successful demographic experiment since the Conquest: the arrival of some 50,000 French Huguenots that followed the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Britain’s later reputation as an open society owes much to Cromwell.
But is he underrated? Cromwell has a colossal statue in front of the House of Commons, erected in 1899 in the teeth of fierce opposition. His treatment of Parliament was, to say the least, cavalier. And (like most of our greatest wartime leaders, from Nelson to Churchill) he has been and will continue to be accused of war crimes.
And yet Oliver Cromwell unquestionably deserves his monument. Without his victory in the Civil War, England might not have become a constitutional monarchy, let alone a parliamentary democracy. And without his vision of Britain as a transatlantic, even global power — in contrast to the continental orientation of the Stuart dynasty — neither the British Empire nor the United States would have developed as they did. All this is the underrated legacy, not of Thomas Cromwell, but of Oliver.