Oliver Cromwell

David J. B. Trim November/December 2006

The middle years of this decade, 2005-2007, see the 350th anniversary of three very significant episodes in the history of political and religious liberty:

  • The English intervention in the Principality of Savoy-Piedmont (the forerunner of modern Italy) to halt persecution of the Waldenses––arguably the first humanitarian intervention in history;
  • The readmission of the Jews into England after nearly four centuries in which their presence had been illegal; and
  • The rule of the Major-Generals in England—the only time in history that an English-speaking people has been governed by an out-and-out military dictatorship.

These episodes are of more than merely historical interest, for they illustrate a tendency that is still alive and well today.

All three not only roughly coincided; they also are linked by one man whose life both well illustrates this tendency and helped to shape its legacy in North America: Oliver Cromwell, still British history’s most controversial figure. Logically, it might seem that the same man should not be responsible both for two of the outstanding examples of state intervention on behalf of religious liberty and for the imposition of an authoritarian government that aimed as much at moral as political reform. But there is no contradiction or schizophrenia involved here—Cromwell’s actions were entirely consistent for someone with his worldview. And that view, repressed in England after Cromwell’s death, survives and influences American politics and debates over religious liberty today.

The first part of this article examines the first two of these significant episodes—those of the Waldenses and the Jews—and highlights the significant points. The second part considers the third episode—that of the Major-Generals—and shows how Cromwell’s authoritarian and libertarian sides can be reconciled. Cromwell combined conflicting aims: freeing all people who believed in God as revealed in the Bible to worship Him as they saw fit, and freeing all the people of his country from arbitrary government, but also imposing on all the people godly standards of living. These aims were in tension and led both to toleration and to something at times approaching tyranny; but his concept of how polity, society, and church should function was transmitted after his death to the British colonies in North America and continues to be a force in American politics.

What was Cromwell’s situation in the mid- to late-1650s? His outstanding skills as a leader of men and a military commander had been instrumental in the success of Parliament over King Charles I in the English Civil Wars (1642-1648). When the wars were over, the fervently Puritan Cromwell forged an alliance between the army and radical members of the House of Commons, which in 1649 abolished both the House of Lords and the monarchy, executed the king, and established a republic—the Commonwealth. Yes, a lifetime before the American Republican experiment England briefly became a republic! Four years later, after commanding the army in a series of military campaigns that extended the republic over the whole of the British Isles, and having become the dominant figure in the government of the Commonwealth, Cromwell became dissatisfied by the reluctance of the House of Commons to introduce a series of constitutional, religious, and legal reforms aimed at creating what he regarded as a more just and more godly society. So, in April 1653, with the army’s support, he forcibly dissolved the House of Commons, replacing it with an assembly whose members were nominated by “godly” congregations across the country: “the parliament of saints,” as it was known. But its members could not agree, and so, in late 1653 it too was dissolved, and the Commonwealth became a “Protectorate,” taking its title from the installation of the commander-in-chief of the army, Cromwell, as head of state with the title “Lord Protector.” Cromwell was moved throughout not by personal ambition but by his firm conviction that Providence had chosen him to do the Lord’s work in England and the world.

Two of the key episodes in the history of liberty in which he was about to take part are easy for us to admire today. The first has a particular resonance for evangelical Protestants: Cromwell’s intervention in the domestic politics of Savoy-Piedmont to save the Waldenses.

The Waldenses originated in the late twelfth century, named after a French merchant, Peter Waldo (or Valdes), who began to read the Bible for himself and, appalled by the corruption that he perceived in the medieval church, renounced his wealth and began a movement of reform. Persecution drove the followers of Waldo/Valdes into the remote Alpine mountain valleys of what today is southeastern France/northwestern Italy. Here, the Waldenses (the name by which they were and still are most frequently known in England) or Vaudois (as the name evolved in local usage) found shelter and made their permanent home. They continued in existence, despite periodic persecutions, into the sixteenth century, when they were discovered by the Protestant Reformers.

By this time, while some Vaudois were to be found in southern France, most lived in the lands ruled by the Duke of Savoy, whose small sovereign principality, spanning parts of modern-day Italy, France, and Switzerland, included the region of Piedmont, by which name the duchy was sometimes called. The House of Savoy was gradually able to extend its territories until, by the nineteenth century, it was the leading independent Italian state, and thus the descendants of the early-modern Dukes of Savoy became the first Kings of modern, unified Italy. The Dukes were firmly Roman Catholic, but as rulers of a small state perched precariously between larger, warring neighbors, were rarely able to mount internal campaigns against dissidents.

The Waldenses gradually adopted the doctrines, and merged into the mainstream, of the Protestant Reformation; indeed, those living in the south of France were absorbed into the Calvinist French Huguenots, but those in Savoy remained separate and, as one historian comments, evolved into “the modern Waldensian Church.”1 It is impossible to overstate the admiration the Protestant Reformers felt for the Vaudois, who had courageously (and almost uniquely) maintained the primacy of Scripture (studied by all believers, in their own tongue) over canon law and tradition for four centuries. Protestants regarded the medieval Vaudois as an alternative tradition to that of Rome, potentially connecting the early church and Luther. The primacy ascribed to the Waldenses made the latter iconic figures for Protestants, whether of Lutheran, Calvinist, or other persuasion, and this Protestant veneration of the Vaudois was to be crucial in their survival.

In 1561 they had been formally granted free exercise of religion in certain districts of Piedmont, but in practice many Waldenses lived outside these, their presence accepted partly for fear of the strength of the Huguenots across the border. A century later, however, the Huguenots had lost their political power and with the conclusion of the Thirty Years’ War the House of Savoy was free to wage war inside its territories. In 1655 all those living outside those mountain valleys granted freedom of worship in 1561 were ordered to move to those valleys on pain of death. But little time was given for this major movement to take place, and that April thousands of the Vaudois were massacred in what became known as “Bloody Easter.” Further, it became clear that the troops would move next against the valleys previously excepted under the terms of the 1561 edict.

England was shocked when the news from Savoy-Piedmont arrived, foreshadowing as it did the final extermination of the Waldenses. Such a fate could not be allowed to befall those who had been, as it was thought, Protestants before the Reformation. Cromwell promptly declared May 30 a day of “national humiliation,” prayer, and fasting, and launched a public appeal for funds to aid the decimated Waldensian communities, to which he donated £2,000 from his own purse (more than US$260,000 in current values). But he did not merely act to help the survivors of the massacres, for he was well aware that they, too, might be put to the sword in due course.

He therefore also took political action. Cromwell appealed to all the Protestant states, urging them to intervene. His foreign secretary, the great poet John Milton, drafted the official letters and then composed his own personal, passionate rejection of religious massacre and plea for divine justice, in language that is still extraordinarily moving:

“Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones

Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,…

Forget not: in thy book record their groans

Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold

Slain by the bloody Piemontese that rolled

Mother with infant down the rocks.”2

Cromwell meanwhile set an example to Protestant Christendom (and, dare it be said, to later generations of Western statesmen confronted with “ethnic [or religious] cleansing,” whether in Bosnia or the Sudan). He dispatched an extraordinary ambassador to the Savoyard court at Turin and ordered the English fleet then in the Mediterranean to act against the commerce and coast of Savoy if the embassy was rebuffed. The dispatch of the fleet also had implications for the government of France—a Catholic state, but which at this time still permitted (very limited) liberty of worship to its Huguenot minority and which exercised considerable influence over its much smaller neighbor. France desired an alliance with Britain against Spain, but Cromwell’s ambassador, Samuel Morland, stopped in Paris en route to Turin and made it plain that no British military aid would be forthcoming unless the persecution of the Vaudois was halted. He hinted that if it were not, the English fleet might act against French maritime trade. France duly swung its weight behind the British demands, and when Morland arrived in Turin, the government capitulated to Cromwell’s demands.

The House of Savoy not only halted the massacres; it was also compelled to conclude a formal treaty between Duke and Protector that guaranteed to Savoy’s “heretical” minority the free exercise of their faith. Morland then distributed to the poorest of the Vaudois the money raised by popular donation in response to Cromwell’s appeal; it totaled a remarkable £39,000—equal at today’s prices to more than US$5,000,000. The Waldenses had been spared and provided with a basis for rebuilding their lives. Across Europe, Cromwell was regarded as the savior of the Vaudois, a point of view shared by the modern Waldense community, which regards his intervention as one of the most significant events of their long history. It was not, alas, the last time the Vaudois were to be vigorously persecuted, but at no other time was there such danger that they might be entirely exterminated.

The 350th anniversary of Cromwell’s intervention was marked by a special service of thanksgiving in London, organized jointly by the modern Waldense community in Italy, the English Committee of the Waldensian Church Mission, and the Cromwell Association. The prayers were led by Pastor Claudio Pasquet, traditional hymns were sung by the Youth Choir of the churches of Val Pellice (one of the traditional Vaudois valleys), and the Italian state, the successor to Savoy-Piedmont, was represented by Senator Lucio Malan—appropriately himself a Waldense and, like Pastor Pasquet, descended from those slaughtered in the “Bloody Easter” of 1655. It was fitting that the service concluded with them laying bouquets of heather, picked on the slopes of Val Pellice, underneath the statue of Cromwell outside the British Houses of Parliament.

What is there to learn from the events of 1655? I put this question to Senator Malan after the service of commemoration, and he felt it showed that “the precious and fragile values of our open, tolerant democratic society must never be taken for granted.” But what do the events tell us about Cromwell and his values?

Cromwellian Britain intervened in Savoy even though special foreign embassies were expensive to mount, and fleets expensive to maintain in foreign waters. Although force was not ultimately used, Cromwell seriously contemplated ordering the bombardment of Nice (then part of Savoy, not France). He had no economic incentives to act, for British commerce with Savoy was of minimal importance; the region was also strategically unimportant, for Cromwell’s foreign policy objectives focused on the Low Countries and the West Indies. He put preserving the Vaudois ahead of the valuable prospect of an alliance with France. And he was to do so again, for when a treaty was concluded with France, soon after, the price for British military aid against Spain was much greater rights for the Huguenots.

There were no benefits for Cromwell’s government or for Britain more generally to be gained by Cromwell’s actions on behalf of endangered minorities. His intervention in Savoy was altruistic and motivated by genuine concern for those who, in Milton’s vision, “kept thy truth so pure of old, when all our fathers worshipped stocks and stones.”3

It was arguably the first humanitarian intervention. It certainly demonstrates the depth of Cromwell’s concern for the preservation of religious liberty.

However, given that this was the seventeenth century, we would be justified in asking, liberty for whom? Was it only for Protestants threatened by Catholics, such as the Vaudois and Huguenots? Soon after, Cromwell was to demonstrate a much more generous spirit.

In 1290 King Edward I, distraught with grief at the death of his beloved wife and believing malicious stories that Jews had helped encompass her death, had expelled all of England’s Jews and made it a crime for any Jew thereafter to live in England. From the late sixteenth century there were Jews living in London, but they were careful to hide their identity.

In September 1655 a group of Jews from Amsterdam, led by a Portuguese émigré rabbi, printer and scholar, Menassah Ben Israel, applied to the Council of State for readmission to England. They had good grounds to hope they would be successful. The merchants of the city of London, looking to exploit more effectively trade with North America and Asia, were keen to allow English residence to members of the Jewish community of Amsterdam, for they had unparalleled contacts, skills, and experience of doing business in both the West and East Indies. In addition, they could provide access to the immensely wealthy Dutch commercial networks, which could finance larger and therefore more profitable mercantile ventures.

In addition to these economic factors, however, there were also eschatological considerations. Many Baptists and Puritans interpreted biblical prophecies to mean that the conversion of the Jews must precede the millennium, which would itself precede the second coming of Christ. It was widely believed that to readmit the Jews into England would expedite their reconversion; there were even some English exegetes who felt biblical prophecies identified 1656 as the year the Jews would be won to Christ. The Jews had end-time prophecies of their own, of an era of universal peace in which the Jews were restored to Palestine, ruling a renewed kingdom of Israel: a Jewish parallel to the Christian millennium. But, it was believed, before this could happen, the Jews must be scattered “to the end of the earth,” as prophesied by Moses (Deuteronomy 28:64)—and Menasseh Ben Israel had identified England as “the end of the earth.”

There were thus various currents, within both England and the Jewish community in the Netherlands, which came together in 1655; they were incorporated into a formal petition, requesting citizenship, freedom of worship, discrete burial grounds, freedom to do business, and repeal of all laws against Jews. However, there was still a deep and ingrained anti-Semitic prejudice in England to overcome.

Cromwell himself met with Jewish representatives—a significant gesture—and called a “conference” of clergymen and lawyers at which all the arguments for and against the Jewish petition would be debated. The general tenor of the conference, held in December 1655, was negative, but Cromwell’s secretary of state so steered the meetings that no formal refusal was issued, and Cromwell himself chaired the final session, in which he voiced his dissatisfaction with the arguments against readmission. This was partly because he hoped that readmitting the Jews would expose them to the gospel—not an example of genuinely pluralist views! But he also attacked the prejudice of some participants, mocking the characterization of Jews as “the meanest and most despised of all people […] contemptible and despised.”4 Observing that he and the council would have to steer their own course, he then called the proceedings to a halt.

Legal opinion had meanwhile been received that, because the law prohibiting a Jewish presence in England had been imposed by a king and England was now a republic, there was actually no existing legal impediment to Jews residing in England. And on this basis, Jews indeed began once more to emigrate and to live openly in England.

Thus, although there was never actually a de jure decision formally readmitting the Jews, there was a clear de facto decision to accept a Jewish presence. Historians debate the nature and significance of Cromwell’s role in this process, but it is important to note that it was his government that decided not to prosecute (or persecute!) any Jews who did return, and even if he merely accepted the suggestions of others, nothing could have happened had he himself been unwilling to accept a change in the status quo.

In any case, Cromwell went further. He intervened personally to protect Jewish merchants from legal harassment on religious grounds.5 In addition, although the council had opposed allowing public worship, in 1656 the Protector expressly permitted them to “meet in [their] private houses for devotion,”6 putting the informal practice of recent years on a formal basis and allowing London’s Jews as much as they were permitted in Amsterdam. Moreover, by the end of the 1650s a synagogue and cemetery were allowed to the Jewish community, and it is surely significant that this followed a direct appeal to the Lord Protector. He may not have taken the initiative in this notable step, but he could have prevented it and did not.

All in all, then, while some scholars have overstated Cromwell’s significance in readmitting Jews to England (and others have understated it) and while Cromwell’s actions stemmed partly from the hope that the Jews would become Protestants, they nevertheless were very significant in the history of relations between different ethnicities as well as different faiths. They demonstrate openness to people significantly different from himself that remains far from common among zealous Christians.

These two episodes demonstrate superbly Cromwell’s belief in religious liberty and his willingness to accept minority groups, in an age when Protestant and Catholic alike believed that, without ethnic and confessional uniformity, communities would collapse into chaos. As will be seen in the second part of this article, Cromwell’s clear-cut commitment to liberty—liberty of conscience and liberty of worship—was one of the chief themes of his government as Lord Protector. However, the third of the episodes, whose 350th anniversary has recently been marked, is less attractive to the twenty-first-century mind—and, given what we seem to have established about Cromwell’s character, not a little perplexing. For it involved the imposition of authoritarian, military government on the British Isles.

Part 2 will continue in the Jan./Feb. issue.

1 Peter Biller, “Medieval Waldensians’ Construction of the Past,” Proceedings of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 25 (1989-95): p. 41.

2 John Milton, “On the Late Massacre in Piemont [sic]” (1655), lines 1-2, 5-8.

3 Ibid., lines 3, 4.

4 Quoted in Edgar Samuel, “Oliver Cromwell and the Readmission of the Jews to England in 1656,” in At the End of the Earth: Essays on the History of the Jews in England and Portugal (London: Jewish Historical Society, 2004), p. 187.

5 Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, 1655-6, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London: Longmans, 1882), p. 16 (vol. ci no. 118), 294 (vol. cxxvi no. 105).

6 Ibid., p. 237 (vol. cxxv no. 58).

Article Author: David J. B. Trim