Government and Politics
Why was Oliver Cromwell important to British history?
English soldier and statesman Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) was a key player in a chain of events that shaped modern British government. The events began when Charles I (1600–1649), House of Stuart, ascended the throne in 1625 and shortly thereafter married a French Catholic princess, immediately raising the ire of his Protestant subjects. This was not the end of England’s problems with King Charles: After repeated struggles with the primarily Puritan Parliament, Charles dismissed the legislative body in 1629 and went on to rule without it for 11 years. During this period, religious and civil liberties were seriously diminished, and political and religious strife prevailed. Fearing the king’s growing power, Parliament moved to raise an army, and soon civil war broke out (1642–48). Like the French Revolution (1789–99), fought 150 years later, the struggle in England was largely one between a king who claimed to rule by divine right and a government body (in this case Parliament) that claimed the right to govern the nation in behalf of the people.
Enter military leader Oliver Cromwell: After two years of indecisive battles in the English civil war, Cromwell led his parliamentary army troops to victories at Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645), which resulted in Charles’s surrender. But when Charles escaped his captors in 1647, the fighting was briefly renewed. It was ended once and for all in 1648. When the king was tried the following year, Cromwell was among those leading the charge to have Charles executed. The king’s opponents had their way and, having abolished the monarchy, soon established the Commonwealth of England, installing Oliver Cromwell as “Lord Protector.”
Though Cromwell endeavored to bring religious tolerance to England and was somewhat successful in setting up a quasi-democratic government (he declined to take the title of king in 1657), his leadership was constantly challenged by those who wished to restore the Stuart monarchy. When Cromwell died in 1658, he was succeeded by his son, Richard (1626–1712), whose talents were not up to the challenges put to the Lord Protector. The movement to restore the monarchy—particularly the Stuart line—gained impetus, and Richard Cromwell was soon dismissed and went to live outside of England for the next 20 years.
Charles II (1630–1685), the son of Charles I, ascended the throne in 1660, beginning the eight-year period known as the Restoration. Both Charles and his brother, James II (1633–1701), who succeeded him in 1685, worked to reassert the absolutism of the Stuart monarchy. But both kings butted heads with Parliament, particularly when it came to financial matters. Finally in 1688, James II was deposed in the so-called Glorious Revolution. William III (1650–1702), grandson of Charles I, and his wife, Queen Mary II (1662–1694), daughter of James II, were placed on the throne the following year. Though the House of Stuart remained in power, there was an important hitch: Parliament compelled William and Mary to accept the Bill of Rights (of 1689), which asserted that the Crown no longer had absolute power in England and that it must rule responsibly through the nation’s representatives sitting in Parliament. Thus, the English civil war (also called the Protestant Revolution) and the influence of Oliver Cromwell and other parliamentarians laid the foundation for England’s constitutional monarchy.