Writing Parliamentary Biography, the Commons 1640-1660. Part 4: Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the Parliament making, Parliament breaking MP

In the final of his four-part series, Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the Commons 1640-60 section, discusses parliament’s most famous figure…

John Pym, the subject of the last blog, was exceptional in his elusiveness despite his workaholism, his devotion to the Commons and his constant presence there. These qualities have made him a difficult subject for biographers, and only one conventional biography (as opposed to a study of his political associations) exists of him. With Oliver Cromwell we have the opposite problem to elusiveness. The challenges arise from his unique standing, fame and notoriety. Of the MPs of 1640-1660, if not among British MPs of all time, he stands out as being a genuine household name, not just in the UK but in the world. It is said that over 160 full-length biographies have been written of him, and over 1,000 publications bear his name in the title. Historians love to wish their sources were more plentiful, and love to point out the defects of the sources they have, but in the case of Cromwell there is no shortage of evidence about the public figure or the private man. Compared with any other Member of Parliament, Cromwell has left a rich seam of letters, speeches and papers. A collection of his letters and speeches was published as long ago as 1845, with a second edition of writings published in the US in 1937, and a third now in prospect from a Cambridge University-based project.

Oliver Cromwell and his eldest son, Richard, were exceptional in being the only members of the House of Commons who progressed to become heads of the English state. Oliver was unique in being the only person both to summon Parliaments and to break them by force, as he did in April 1653 when he expelled the Parliament of the Commonwealth, the so-called ‘Rump’. He first entered Parliament in 1628, for Huntingdon, and sat for Cambridge in the ‘Short’ Parliament of 1640 and the ‘Long’ one that met first that year and continued in some form until 1653, when Cromwell cleared the chamber with the help of his musketeers. In the Parliament of 1653, which he brought into being by issuing invitations to individual members rather than holding elections, he himself represented Cambridgeshire.

Despite Oliver’s turbulent relationship with Parliaments, there seems no doubt that he was committed to them, and he never deviated from his belief in their value and essential place in the constitution: whether under the ancient constitution, or during the protectorate of which he was head of state. To the end of his life he retained a belief in Parliament as ‘the truest way to know what the mind of the nation is’, but combined this with a willingness to countenance purges, expulsions and admission tests if ‘necessity’ so dictated, as it evidently did in 1647, 1648, 1653 and 1656.

The difficulties faced by a parliamentary historian, and indeed any biographer of Cromwell, are the judgments of proportion and the pitfalls of hindsight, perils which accompany the telling of every episode in his life. It is hard to set aside the weight of historical writing about Cromwell, but the task of the biographer in a multi-volume work where Cromwell is a subject among a group of 1,802 MPs is to treat him as one would any other member, regardless of his exceptional life-story. Setting aside his momentous military achievements, and looking in detail at his parliamentary record, certain things emerge that modify the general weight of the published biographies. Firstly, for only a very brief period in his time in the Commons can he be called a ‘backbencher’, since he was vocal, active and deliberate in his behaviour in the House, becoming a recognized authority, for example, on the subject of ‘lectureships’, which were weekday puritan sermons in parishes complementing the Sunday liturgy. Secondly, he was active in the factional disputes that marked proceedings in the Commons, working in committees and on the floor of the House in the interests of the Independents against their party enemies, the Presbyterians. Cromwell was prominent as a teller in divisions, suggesting that he was a natural leader and organizer. And thirdly, he repeatedly came back to work in the Commons when the exceptional political and military circumstances might have been expected to keep him away: after the purge of Parliament in December 1648 and the subsequent trial and execution of the king; and after his return from Scotland and the battle of Worcester in September 1651, when his political authority and power were supreme. This in itself is proof enough of his commitment to Parliaments. Apart from the matter of ‘lectureships’, already mentioned, among the topics of parliamentary business that interested Cromwell were issues of indemnity for people acting in Parliament’s service, particularly former soldiers and their families, and the reform of the law, particularly as it impacted upon the poor.

A biography of Cromwell with an emphasis on his parliamentary career tends to soften or round off some of the more spiky corners of accounts of his life. He emerges as less awkward and unpractised as a politician; less hesitant or dependent upon the revealed ‘word of God’ before acting politically; more inclined to shape what he understood as ‘providence’ than simply to wait for it to be revealed to him; and more assured about the political direction of travel than some have made him in published biographies. He emerges undiminished in scale and stature, however; with the ambiguities and obscurities of the letters and speeches left to provide fabric for future speculation about this perennially fascinating parliamentarian.


You can read the other blogs in Stephen’s series here:

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