History's HEROES? 1599 - 1658

Oliver Cromwell

What he did


His legacy

The disagreements surrounding Oliver Cromwell's extraordinary rule have divided both the public and those studying history. To some, Oliver was a defender of principles and liberties, the champion of fairness and religious tolerance, while for others, he was nothing more than a tyrant and the murderer of a king.

There are few people today who haven't heard of Oliver Cromwell and the part he played in the history of Britain. Cromwell himself understood that his portrayal by future historians might not be very favourable. He knew that his religious and moral reforms, along with his part in executing the king, might make him a villain to many.

Throughout different periods in history, Oliver Cromwell has been portrayed in very different lights. After his death, and particularly in the Victorian period, when the life of King Charles l was very much romanticised, Cromwell was depicted as an evil character. For other, more recent historians, Cromwell is one of England's greatest sons. In an age when extremists were in power, he was a moderate. Under his rule, England's laws were made much less severe and justice less corrupt. In matters of religion, he allowed freedom of worship.   

However, nowhere is Oliver Cromwell's legacy more controversial than in Ireland, after the massacres in Drogheda and Wexford. At Drogheda, Cromwell, in the heat of battle and very angry at what he saw as the useless shedding of the blood of his men, ordered the defenders not to be spared. Almost 3,500 Royalist soldiers were killed, and some civilians died in the chaotic events after the battle. At Wexford, Cromwell did not, in fact, give an order for a massacre but nor did he punish those who took part. He may have been remembering events a few years earlier, when the Protestants in the town had been violently persecuted by the Catholic majority. These massacres were not the only ones to take place in the Civil Wars. For example, the people who lived in Bolton, in Lancashire, were massacred by Royalist troops in 1644. The infamy of Drogheda and Wexford lies in how they affected the future violent history of Ireland.

Debate continues about what effect Oliver Cromwell had on the British political system after his death. However, the period of his rule was one of the key turning points in England's history. In winning the Civil War, parliament made sure that never again would a king of England be able to rule on his own. The military successes of Oliver Cromwell played a key part in bringing this about; and for this, the country should be grateful.  

What emerges from the historical record is a picture of a tough, uncompromising soldier but also a balanced and sincere man, bent on doing good for his country. In this, he faced huge challenges from people to the left and right of him; this was an age when most men seemed to work either to further narrow ideals, or to promote their own selfish interests (in many cases, both). Oliver stands out from the crowd for his moderation, sincerity and selflessness.

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