The Era of Cromwell And The Commonwealth

Chapter II --The Era of Cromwell And The Commonwealth


THE execution of Charles I. was an event at which but few rejoiced. The groan of anguish and terror which greeted the stroke of the headsman found an echo in all Christian lands. Continental Europe was substantially unanimous in expressions of abhorrence. Among the foremost in this respect were the Protestant countries. The sympathy of Romish zealots with the royal house in its desolation was somewhat modified by the fact, that the victim, as well as the perpetrators of the tragedy, belonged to the ranks of schism and heresy. Conveniently forgetful of the lauded knife of Jacques Clement, and of sundry assassination plots hatched within the sacred precincts of their own communion, they could affect to see in the horrible fate of Charles the natural result of the insubordination of princes and people to the true Church. Protestants, on the other hand, were impelled by all the pride which they felt in their religion to express unbounded detestation of the violence which had brought a great sovereign to the block. In Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Holland, emphatic denunciations were poured forth against the impiety and sacrilege of the regicides.


Only a fraction of the English nation, only a fraction of the Puritan party, approved the execution of the King, or shared directly in the responsibility for the same. In that daring act the army took the lead; of the civilians only the more radical sectaries and republicans seconded the regicidal zeal of the army. The Presbyterians held back. In Scotland so little sympathy did they feel for the ruling faction and its bloody work that they forthwith acknowledged Charles II. as their King, and repudiated all connection with the Parliamentary government of England. The young prince was received in Scotland, and preparations were made for defending his claims, though not till after the Covenant had been forced down his unwilling throat, together with other Presbyterian nutriment equally repulsive to the Stuart constitution.

Charles subscribed to an oath and a declaration. The former reads:
"I, Charles, King of Great Britain, &c., do assure and declare by my solemn oath, in the presence of Almighty God, the Searcher of all hearts, my allowance and approbation of the National Covenant and of the Solemn League and Covenant, and faithfully oblige myself to prosecute the ends thereof in my station and calling." In signing the declaration he acknowledged the sin of his father in marrying into an idolatrous family, the responsibility of his father for the blood shed in the late wars, his detestation of all popery, superstition, and prelacy, and his resolve not to tolerate them in any part of his dominions. (Neal, History of the Puritans, pt. iv. chap. ii.)
This doubtful process for making a covenant King met with a poor recompense. The arms of Cromwell, which had just subdued Ireland, speedily annihilated the Scottish army and left Charles a fugitive (1650-51).


Although Cromwell had greatly contributed to the supremacy of the radicals, he soon showed a determination not to be overruled by them. After the violent ejection of the surviving remnant of the Long Parliament had thrown the chief power into his hands(1653), he began to reveal conservative instincts, a desire to return to the old constitutional forms. Experience taught him that the enthusiasts whom the revolution in the State had brought to the front, though some of them cherished noble ideas and purposes, had little capacity for the intricate work of carrying on the government. "He came to understand that such innovators, though useful instruments of destruction, were themselves destructive of the very power they had established, and that the classes among whom conservative interests prevail were the natural and permanent allies of authority. . . . The landed proprietors, the clergy, and the lawyers had need of him, and were ready to support him if he would defend them. He made alliance with them, thus completely changing his position, and becoming an aristocrat and conservative instead of a democrat and revolutionist. But he was an able and prudent man, and he knew the art of breaking with old allies only so far as suited his purpose, and of humoring them even when he intended to break with them." 1 Guizot, Histoire de la République d'Angleterre et de Cromwell, liv. v.


During the five years (1653-1658) in which Cromwell, as vested with the title of Protector, might properly be held responsible for the control of affairs, Great Britain was in many respects well governed. The blemish of autocratic rule was indeed apparent; for, while Cromwell never relinquished the idea of governing in conjunction with a legislative assembly, he found his successive Parliaments so little congenial that he in fact made small account of their functions, and treated them in a very summary fashion. But he was no mere despot, and, whatever regard he may have had for his own aggrandizement, he was ever concerned for the prosperity of the people. Worthy men were placed in judicial positions. The safety of property and the exact administration of justice between man and man had never been better cared for. If the presence of a large body of soldiers increased the burden of taxation, it brought little inconvenience beside, since a standard of morals and discipline was maintained in the army which has few parallels in history.


In ecclesiastical respects the condition of the country under Cromwell was somewhat anomalous. There was not, however, such a complete religious chaos as has sometimes been imagined. An exaggerated impression has been produced by the repetition of such names as Ranters, Seekers, Familists, Behmenists, Muggletonians, Vanists, Rouicrucians, Fifth-Monarchy Men, and Socinians.'

The terms Ranters, Seekers, and Vanists are vague designations of kindred types of subjective piety. They express the revolt against the letter, and in favor of the dispensation of the Spirit, which found its organized form in the Quakers. The Behmenists were inclined to the theosophic mysticism of Jacob Boehme. Pordage, rector of Bradfield, was the most noted of the party. The Rosicrucians, as represented by Robert Fludd, who wrote shortly before this era, had also a leaning to a speculative mysticism. They emphasized the Divine immanence so strongly as seemingly to affiliate with pantheistic teaching. The Familists, or Family of Love, were a species of Anabaptists, who originated in Holland from Henry Nicholas. Queen Elizabeth had occasion to notice them in 1580. Not attempting to set up a separate church; the Familists considered it their vocation to advocate in the existing establishments the religion of the Spirit, as opposed to forms and ceremonies. The Muggletonians, headed by Ludowick Muggleton and John Reeve, mixed depreciation of the letter with anthropomorphic conceptions of the Deity, and with various strange notions. The mention of Fifth-Monarchy Men indicates that millenarian tenets had considerable currency. In some instances they were associated with political theories. There seem to have been no congregations of socinians in England at this time. The proper seat of organized Socinianism, or Unitarianism, had continued to be Poland and Transylvania since the latter part of the sixteenth century. Still, we meet at this time the most distinguished forerunner of the sect in England, John Biddle, whose writings and sufferings won him an honored place in the memory of his co-religionists. He was thrice imprisoned, first under the Long Parliament, then in the time of the Commonwealth, and lastly after the accession of Charles II. Biddle's conception of Christ was identical with that of Faustus Socinus, who gave name to the Unitarian party in Poland. He esteemed him a man in essence, but holding so elevated a position since his ascension as to be properly an object of worship.
These are not the names of sects proper, and most of them do not stand for any conspicuous parties or associations. No doubt, amid the upheaval of old foundations, the profound excitements of the age found vent in some eccentric outbursts of religious enthusiasm. Still, the complexity in-belief and worship was not vastly in excess of that which usually has place where no system of repression has induced a blessed condition of uniformity, unthinking passivity, and general saplessness. Aside from Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, the sects proper were the Presbyterians, the Independents, the Baptists, and the Quakers. The Baptists, it may be noted, were a considerable body at this time, although their organized existence on English soil does not date back farther than the reign of James I.
1 The Arminian branch originated among the Brownist refugees in Holland, and shortly afterwards (1612-1614) had a congregation in London. The first well authenticated congregation of the Calvinistic branch dates from the year 1633.
As respects all these parties, Cromwell was personally inclined to restrict religious tolerance only so far as was demanded by the security of the State. The Romanists, of course, as being objects of intense political suspicion, received little consideration. Still the administration of Cromwell was not marked by any peculiar rigor against Romish recusants in England, and one of his eminent counselors advised that they should be spared all penal inflictions.
1 White Kennett says: "The Protector indeed, for reasons of state, did in May (1655) publish his proclamation for the better execution of the laws against Jesuits and priests, and for conviction of Popish recusants. But one of his principal judges, Commissioner Whitlock, declared his opinion to be for no way of penal proceedings against them. And well might the Papists hope for indemnity when the Jews were treating for the purchase of the same privilege." (History of England, p. 198, edition of 1706.) As respects the Jews, it may be added that public opinion hindered Cromwell from according them that open tolerance which he had in mind. He nevertheless connived at their settlement in London, and allowed them to build there a synagogue.
The Episcopalians, being looked upon as royalists, or partisans of the exiled Stuart, obtained no legal sanction for their worship. The practices of the restless and intriguing compromised the standing of the more peaceable. In 1655 the irritation of Cromwell reached such a point that he forbade the employment of any ejected clergymen as chaplains or schoolmasters. But, as was stated in the enactment itself, there was no design to apply the full rigor of the legal provision to those who should manifest a good disposition toward the government, and we have testimony from the time that the Protector left considerable opportunity for a quiet use of the Prayer Book.
2 George Bates, belonging to the royalist party, wrote: "The Protector indulged the use of the Common Prayer in families, and in private conventicles; and though the condition of the Church of England was but melancholy, yet it cannot be denied that they had a great deal more favor and indulgence than under the Parliament." (Neal, History of the Puritans, pt. iv. chap. iii.)
In place of the fallen Anglican Establishment and the Presbyterian scheme of the Westminster Assembly, Cromwell introduced a kind of Broad Church. The old framework of patronage and ministerial support was indeed left standing; but the incumbents were not required to to be of one definite theological persuasion. The Commission of Triers, which decided upon qualifications for the ministry, included Presbyterians, Independents, and Baptists. Members of any one of these, which might be styled the three favored communions, were eligible to benefices, as were also Episcopalians who would renounce the Prayer Book and pledge their allegiance to the government. To secure respectable character in the incumbents a board in each county was charged with the duty of detecting and removing scandalous and inefficient ministers. Beyond a general acceptance of Christianity, in the Trinitarian interpretation, no articles of faith were prescribed. Not a very homogeneous establishment perhaps, nor very comely in the eyes of high-church propriety! Yet it met very well the great difficulties of the situation, and tended toward quite as good a result as has ever flowed from an act of uniformity. 1 A lucid account of Cromwell's ecclesiastical scheme is given by Stoughton, Religion in England, vol. ii. chap. iii


The eccentricities of the Quakers necessarily placed them beyond the Cromwellian establishment. It must be allowed, too, that their general fortune under the Protectorate was far from being enviable. While Cromwell himself was not disposed to disturb them, he took no effectual pains to shield them from the natural effects of popular hatred. Hundreds of them had experience of the tender mercies of the prison. Nor was it strange that they were put to some hardships. While Quakerism became erelong a synonym for a very amiable type of mystical or subjective piety, while it obtained a very plausible guise in the exposition of Barclay, and acquired through Penn an association with gentility and philanthropy, it was a severe tax on Christian charity at its first entrance into the world. The founder, George Fox, who began his public career shortly before the time of the Commonwealth, sometimes allowed his honest zeal to get the better of his discretion, and disturbed public worship with his impertinent testifying. Some of his followers carried extravagance to a still greater pitch. Exhibitions were indulged which compelled the interference of the magistrate. But no just discrimination was used. Penalty enormously transcended the measure of offense. The Quakers were beaten with many stripes where they deserved but few, or where in fact most of them did not deserve any at all. No doubt, their system carried subjectivity and anti-ceremonialism to an extreme. But their history gave ample proof of sincerity and religious earnestness, and some points in their belief stood in favorable contrast with the creeds which had long been in the ascendant. Their early extravagances were a vanishing appendage to their essential system,-the religion of intuition and inner consciousness.


As in the political system of Cromwell Scotland and Ireland were brought into legislative union with England, so they were placed under a like ecclesiastical régime. In the former country Presbyterianism naturally remained dominant, but it was not allowed to maintain an exclusive right. The Episcopal Church in Ireland shared the misfortunes of the mother Church in England. The Presbyterians, who held the next place in point of numbers among the Irish Protestants, were shown more consideration; but they too, at least in the earlier part of the Commonwealth era, were subjected to privations, on account of their pronounced leaning to the cause of the Stuarts. Of the one hundred and fifty ministers who were distributed through the Protestant districts of Ireland in 1655, upwards of one hundred and thirty were Independents or Baptists. 1 Killen, Eccl. Hist. of Ireland, ii. 123, 124. To Irish Romanists Cromwell was a stern master. The "terrible surgery" with which he cut through the rebellion in 1649, and enthroned the authority of the revolutionary government, was followed by confiscation of lands, and by expulsion of priests and Jesuits.

2 The massacre of the garrisons at Drogheda and Wexford is explained -not justified -by the necessity, as Cromwell apprehended it, of hastening through the Irish war by stress of terror, in order to meet serious dangers which were threatening the Commonwealth from other quarters. Another, but subordinate, design was retribution for the massacre of Protestants in 1641. Cromwell himself said of his procedure: "Since my coming into Ireland, I have this witness for myself, that I have endeavored to avoid effusion of blood; having been before no place to which such terms have not been first sent as might have turned to the good and preservation of those to whom they were offered." (Letter lxxiii. in Carlyle'e edition.)

For these rigors, it is true, there were some compensations. Under the rule of Cromwell, Ireland not only had peace and order, but also the benefit of a liberal system of trade. The country, therefore, advanced to an unwonted degree of material prosperity.


In the management of foreign affairs, Cromwell admirably sustained the honor of the nation and the interests of Protestantism. "After half a century, during which England had been of scarcely more weight in European politics than Venice or Saxony, she at once became the most formidable power in the world, dictated terms of peace to the United Provinces, avenged the common injuries of Christendom on the pirates of Barbary, vanquished the Spaniards by land and sea, seized one of the finest West India islands, and acquired, on the Flemish coast, a fortress which consoled the national pride for the loss of Calais. She was supreme on the ocean. She was the head of the Protestant interest. All the Reformed churches scattered over Roman Catholic kingdoms acknowledged Cromwell as their guardian." 1 Macaulay, History of England, i. 103.


The only serious weakness in the rule of Cromwell was lack of legitimacy. He was admired or feared upon every hand. He crushed conspiracy after conspiracy with great celerity and apparent ease. But he was out of the regular line, a self-appointed power, a usurper; and with so conservative a people as the English, this meant a great deal. It stood in the way of any hearty complacency in his rule. Only by constant tension and the prestige of his mighty successes was he able to hold the position which he arrogated to himself. Had he claimed more and actually assumed the crown, which, at one time, he was strongly disposed to grasp, the balance might easily have been turned against him. With a discretion as remarkable as his boldness, he stopped at the right point.


The greatness of Cromwell did not consist in the clear grasp and steadfast pursuit of great principles. His course was never marked out far ahead. He acted according to the conditions of the times. But he acted with a wonderful insight into those conditions, and with an irresistible will-power to carry through any resolution with which he had become inspired. His extraordinary abilities as military captain and administrator are beyond dispute. Said one who knew him well: "He was a strong man; in the dark perils of war, in the high places of the field, hope shone in him like a pillar of fire, when it had gone out in all the others." His bitterest opponents have not been able to refuse the tribute of admiration to his unique mastery over the conditions of his time. "He was one of those men," wrote the Earl of Clarendon, "whom his very enemies could not condemn without commending him at the same time; for he never could have done half that mischief without great parts of courage, industry, and judgment. He must have had a wonderful understanding in the natures and humors of men, and as great a dexterity in applying them, who, from a private and obscure birth, (though of good family), without interest or estate, alliance or friendship, could raise himself to such a height, and compound and knead such opposite and contradictory tempers, humors, and interests into a consistence that contributed to his designs, and to their own destruction. . . . To reduce three nations, which perfectly hated him, to an entire obedience to all his dictates, to awe and govern these nations by an army that was indevoted to him, and wished his ruin, was instance of a very prodigious address." 1 History of the Rebellion, book xv.


As respects the moral character of the great usurper judgment has been as wide apart as the poles. But this diversity results rather from the force of prejudice than from lack of adequate means of decision. In the letters and speeches of Cromwell one finds a tolerably trustworthy mirror of the man.

1 See Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, with Elucidations by Thomas Carlyle. Among the speeches, that addressed to Parliament, Sept. 17, 1656, is especially noteworthy. Carlyle thus describes it: "Rude, massive, genuine; like a block of unbeaten gold. A speech not so fit for Drury Lane, as for Valhalla, and the Sanhedrin of the Gods. The man himself, and the England he presided over, there and then, are to a singular degree visible in it; open to our eyes, to our sympathies. He who will see Oliver, will find more of him here than in moat of the history-books yet written about him."

The image which is there reflected is certainly not that of unmitigated deceit and selfishness. It may not be that of a pure patriotism and heart integrity, such as the name of Washington brings before the mind; there may be traces of personal ambition and self-seeking; but there are also notes of higher qualities. One cannot read far without reaching the conclusion that Cromwell's religious profession was no mere cloak or politic accommodation. He was as evidently a man of theocratic consciousness, deeply filled with a sense of the presence and immediate agency of God in the world, viewing his own life as under the pressure and guidance of an almighty hand. To describe him as a hypocrite is wide of the mark. A far more authentic description is given when we say, that a strong religious enthusiasm, too ready with its interpretations of Divine Providence, was blended in Cromwell with personal ambition. The influence of the former was modified by the latter, but never wholly extirpated thereby.


Though Cromwell's son, Richard, succeeded in name, the army was the real successor of the great Protector. Had the army been united, the nation would have had no easy task in escaping its domination, though the great body of the people were averse to military rule. But through the action of General Monk and the troops which had been stationed in Scotland, the army became divided. Means were thus found of calling a new Parliament. Many in this Parliament were friendly to the House of Stuart, and many others saw no hope of escape from anarchy save in a recall of the banished prince. Hence, Charles was restored to the throne (1660) which had been made vacant by the execution of his father. To many, who had fought against despotism and high-churchism, this recall of the Stuarts must have appeared as a surrender of all that had been achieved. The sacrifices of many years seemed to have been made to no purpose. The conflict was, indeed, unfinished. Yet the battles already fought were not fruitless; for who can tell how much of the elements of stability and self-governing faculty date back to that season of national discipline. In the immediate reaction, far more may seem to have been lost than gained. But no royalist or high-church reaction could long shut out of the national life and character, the natural influence of such a season of high endeavor. "As soon as the wild orgy of the Restoration was over, men began to see that nothing that was really worthy in the work of Puritanism had been undone. The revels of Whitehall, the scepticism and debauchery of courtiers, the corruption of statesmen, left the mass of Englishmen what Puritanism had made them, serious, earnest, sober in life and conduct, firm in their love of Protestantism and of freedom." 1 Green, History of the English People, iii. 321, 322.