Oliver Cromwell: Hero or Villain?
by Joseph Pearce
You are aware, are you not, that there was this chap called Oliver Cromwell who came after Shakespeare and brought democracy to England, including—ultimately—free speech.
Anybody wishing to understand the nonsense that prevails in the present need only consider the nonsense that many people believe about the past. Indeed it would not be an exaggeration to say that our present woes have their roots in the woeful ignorance of the past with which most modern people are afflicted. Take, for example, the comment above, which was posted to my recent essay here, “Defending Shakespeare against Hollywood.” It beggars belief that anyone could really believe that Oliver Cromwell “brought democracy to England, including—ultimately—free speech.” Even more incredible is the fact that such a comment could be appended to an essay about Shakespeare.
Presumably my interlocutor is unaware that Cromwell’s Puritans banned the theatre completely. In 1642, the year in which the Civil War began, Cromwell’s insurgents passed a law suspending all theatrical performances for five years. After the law expired, the revolutionary government passed a new law, declaring that all actors were rogues. Under Cromwell’s rule, many theatres were destroyed as Cromwell and his cohorts sort to extinguish “sinful” theatre from the culture. It is intriguing, is it not, that the “democracy and ultimately free speech” that Cromwell brought to England included the banning of all of Shakespeare’s plays from being performed?
It was not until after Cromwell’s death and the Restoration of the Monarchy that artistic expression in general, and the theatre in particular, once again began to flourish.
Leaving aside Cromwell’s war on artistic expression, let’s explore other ways that he helped to bring “democracy and ultimately free speech” to England. One such way was his decision to suspend Parliament in 1653 so that he could be “invited” to become sole dictator of the country, assuming the title of “Lord Protector of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.” Having seized what amounted to totalitarian power, he took to signing his name ‘Oliver P,’ the P being an abbreviation for Protector, in imitation of the manner in which monarchs signed their names using an R to mean Rexor Regina. It was soon customary practice for his subjects to address him as “Your Highness.” Parallels with the hypocrisy of the aptly-named Napoleon in Orwell’s Animal Farm might spring to mind, as might those with latter-day tyrants, such as Stalin or Hitler.
As Cromwell’s popularity among the people declined, his position in power was largely secured because of his continuing popularity with the army, suggesting parallels with those generals who had seized power in the twentieth century through military juntas. Such parallels are reinforced by Cromwell’s division of England into military districts under the direct control of Major Generals, all of whom were answerable directly to Cromwell himself.
Another way that Cromwell helped to bring “democracy and ultimately free speech” to England was through his imperialistic conquest of a foreign country, namely Ireland, with such brutality and barbarism that his name remains a byword for sadistic iniquity to this day. In Drogheda, he ordered that all of the defending garrison be slaughtered and, to add religious insult to injury, he ordered that all the Catholic priests should be put to death. When the terrified people of the town sought shelter or sanctuary in a church, Cromwell ordered that the church be burned to the ground with the people still inside. By the time that Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland was complete, at least 200,000 Catholics had been killed and a further 50,000 were sold into indentured servitude, little better than slavery, being deported to the colonies in North America and the Caribbean.