Seen through the pages of John Buchan’s biography of The Lord Protector
“ Oliver realised parliament had become irrelevant. He must act.”
And in the House of Commons, on the 25th November, 1644, the day after Milton’s polemic, Oliver Cromwell “…set forth mercilessly…” all of Manchester’s short comings: his delays and hesitations, with “…these mistakes…due not to accident or to mere improvidence but to ‘…his backwardness to all action…’, and that this backwardness sprang from…an unwillingness to prosecute the war ‘…to a full victory.’ ”
After the parliamentary debate on the 9th of December, Cromwell again rose to make, in Buchan’s words “…one of the most effective speeches of his life.”
It is now the time to speak, or forever hold the tongue. The important occasion now is no less than to save a nation out of a bleeding, nay almost dying, condition, which the long continuation of the War hath already brought it into, so that without a more speedy, vigorous, and effectual prosecution of the war — casting off all lingering proceedings…we shall make the kingdom weary of us, and hate the name of Parliament…
Cromwell then goes on to say that it is time not to blame generals and other officers for their shortcomings, for he has been as guilty as the next, and that…
…waiving a strict inquiry into the causes of these things, let us apply ourselves to the remedy, which is most necessary.
With the bloodshed of Marston Moor, and Cromwell’s speech, came the hope of change, but parliament dithered with regard who should lead the New Model Army, and created a Parliamentary Committee to oversea matters. Cromwell made no move to take control (he must wait until he was asked to take control), which he could have done easily enough, instead he was asked to keep an eye on the king at Oxford, with Fairfax given effective control the rest of the army. As Buchan writes “ parliament had got itself a noble weapon, but did not know how to use it.”
But Oliver Cromwell was not going to sit still and watch the comings and goings of the King’s Men, instead he organised a raid on Oxford and, in Buchan’s words:
“ On April 23 he was at Watlington with 1500 troopers. Next day he routed the royal horse at Islip on the Cherwell, and took Bletchington house. Then he swept south-west to Witney and Bampton, till he was halted by the stubborn defence of Faringdon house, whereupon he joined Fairfax at Newbury. He had done his work, for he had carried off all the draught horses in the neighbourhood, so that none were left for the king’s artillery train. Charles had to postpone his junction with Rupert till Goring could bring up his troops from the west. The raid was a perfect instance of the strategic use of cavalry, and it had profound consequences for the general campaign.”
But the Parliamentary Committee, who could not see beyond their quills, sent Fairfax off to relieve the town of Taunton in Somerset, ordering Oliver to remain watching the king. With such a relatively small force Cromwell could not watch every exit from Oxford. The king escaped by a little known northern route.
By the time John Buchan wrote his biography of Oliver Cromwell he was an extraordinarily successful historian and novelist, whose spy thrillers would influence the majority of the coming generations of thriller writers. He was also a director of a thriving publishing company, and a man who would soon become a much loved Governor General of Canada.
So how did he find the time to write his fine biography of Oliver Cromwell? As with all he did Buchan was a driven man who over-loaded his day with work, completing more than he might actually have hoped for, with lesser men falling exhausted in his powerful wake. Oliver Cromwell was no different, with letters, dictates, orders and instructions flying out of his office in a constant stream, not unlike the musket and cannon shot he aimed so well during the Civil War. That both men died too young should have come as no real surprise, with plans for work that might have filled another ten years accumulating on their desks. Buchan died aged 64 in 1940, with Cromwell dying aged 59 in 1658. Had Buchan lived his political, publishing, and secret intelligence input during World War II would have been of incalculable use to Churchill, with, no doubt, many more thrillers written. Had Cromwell lived just a few years longer he may well have had time to establish a solid English republic, thus denying the return of Charles II. How different things might have been.
In my earlier feature about the origins of Oliver Cromwell, and, through Buchan, the journey to the English Civil War, ending at the Battle of Naseby in 1645, that would see Cromwell move relentlessly toward power: a power that could, for the leadership of the parliamentarians, only be ratified by the death of Charles I.
And that move toward power could only come about with the fall of the Royalist base in Oxford (Charles I, having escaped from the city, was now a little further north in Daventry surrounded by his yes men, who continued to pour scorn on parliament’s New Model Army — created by Cromwell of course — which they called the New Noddle Army), but, as Buchan writes, Cromwell:
“…had sheathed his sword before Oxford fell [Prince Rupert had been allowed to surrender with honour] and returned to his parliamentary duties, now by far the most formidable figure in England. In January  parliament had settled on him certain forfeited estates of the Marquis of Worcester, designed to produce an income of £2500 [a huge sum], and in April the Commons had thanked him ‘for his great and faithful services.’ ”
As Buchan explains, during the four years of war Cromwell’s family had lived quietly at Ely, in a modest house behind the Cathedral — now something of a museum — but with his return to parliament, and his much higher profile, Cromwell moved his family to London and a house in Drury Lane. His eighty-year-old mother moved in with them, following her son’s progress with a keen eye. Oliver’s wife, Elizabeth, who was distrustful of “sudden greatness”, and told her husband so, might probably have preferred to stay in Ely, but, as Buchan writes:
“ …contented herself with domestic concerns and laboured after small economies in this new expensive mode of life.”
Of their family in 1646, their eldest son Robert had died while at boarding school, with their second son, Oliver, dying of smallpox while serving with his father’s army in the spring of 1644. Richard Cromwell was a young man of twenty when the family moved to London, with his father keeping him close at hand to learn the family business so to speak. Their eighteen year old son, Henry, would, in time, become Lord Deputy of Ireland. The Cromwell daughters, Mary and Frances were still small children, with the seventeen year-old Elizabeth heading for marriage with John Claypole, a Northamptonshire land owner.
The Cromwell’s eldest daughter Bridget had, the very year the guns blazed around Oxford, and the king made his escape, married at Holtom Manor House “…five miles off on the London road, a man of thirty-six with a great square head, thick curling hair and deep set eyes…” by the name of Henry Ireton, a much loved general in the Parliamentarian Army (and something of a hero during the Battle of Naseby, and an old friend of Cromwell’s), who would die in Ireland in 1651 of the plague, just months after the second Battle of Worcester where the ineffectual Prince Charles (later Charles II) fled the field of battle for the safety of France, leaving his defeated and bloodied Scots army to face the feared fury of Cromwell’s war machine.
In 1652 Bridget married another of her father’s generals, Charles Fleetwood, who would later become Lord Deputy of Ireland, then Cromwell’s Lieutenant General, with, as previously mentioned, Henry Cromwell taking over Fleetwood’s position in Ireland. Bridget and Henry Ireton had a daughter, Jane, and with Fleetwood two sons and a daughter.
It can only be imagined what the Cromwell home in Drury Lane must have been like when Cromwell’s sons and daughters, and their children came to visit, plus the many servants, and the dogs, and the ever present secretaries. Oliver Cromwell would have loved it.
And as Buchan writes:
“ He was doing his Lord’s work, with no shadow of a doubt, and, though death was ever at his elbow, death was only a messenger to summon him to his reward. Having no fears he was merciful; he was tender with the puzzled Clubmen [local Royalist defense vigilantes], and gentle to vanquished enemies [the Scots at Worcester were disarmed and sent home]. His humanity, too, was notable, for he mixed on familiar terms with all, and could be a merry companion, a lover of horse-play and rough jests and free speech, which scandalized the prudish. ‘ He was naturally of such a vivacity, hilarity and alacrity, ‘ Richard Baxter [17th century poet and Puritan church leader]wrote, ‘ as another man is when he hath drunken a cup of wine too much.’ Had not the Son of Man come eating and drinking?”
As if trying to pull back slightly on the vivacity, John Buchan, quickly reminds us that religion dominated every aspect of Cromwell’s life, with Scripture and the Psalms, like good wine, guiding all his actions, either in parliament, or on the battlefield, or in the decisions he might very well have to make with regard the dishonest and deceitful king when the time came. Honesty must now be the rule of the day more than ever before, as Buchan applauds:
“ The style of the letters during these years is for the most part brisk, emphatic and soldierly. To the men of his faith, who had small literary knowledge behind them, the words of scripture were the only means of expressing either strong emotion or some high conception of policy. The language of Zion was soon to become a bleak conventional jargon, but it is fair to recognize that it was originally used by simple men for the reason that they could not otherwise express thoughts beyond their daily compass. When Oliver writes about supplies or pay or marching orders his style is the plain and forthright one of the fenland squire. But when he is concerned with deeper things, it becomes interpenetrated with Scriptural rhythms. Now and then he had to deal with profundities, for, as the campaign drew to a close [in 1646], even his unspeculative mind was forced to read from it certain lessons. He saw the fruits of victory in danger of being wasted, and the liberty he had fought for narrowed into a ritualism not less harsh than that which he had shattered.”
Here we have Buchan writing with a hint of the 17th century, where we can hear the very voice of Cromwell addressing his officers and men: that what had been won must not be lost:
“ With a true instinct he [Cromwell] had kept himself in the background aloof from controversies, but once and again he was forced to make his testimony. Popery and Anglicanism of Laud he ruled out as hateful to the Almighty, but within the limits of evangelical Protestantism he would admit no intolerance. In Richard Baxter’s words he was joined to no party but for the liberty of all.”
In a letter after the Battle of Bristol, Cromwell wrote:
Presbyterians, Independents, all had here the same spirit of faith and prayer; the same pretense and answer; they agree here, know no manner of difference; pity it is it should be otherwise anywhere. All that believe have the real unity, which is most glorious because inward and spiritual, in the Body and the Head. As for being united in forms, commonly called uniformity, every Christian will, for peace sake, study and do as far as conscience will permit; and from brethren in things of the mind we look for no comparison but that of light and reason.
Remember — “ Light and reason.” That was at the heart of all that Cromwell did.
In 1646 elections had taken place with some reasonable results for the Parliamentarians, but not enough to kick out Charles. Consequently the new de facto, (effectively a minority) government wanted to come to terms with Charles, since, they argued, no lasting settlement could be made without him.
At this time Charles, having effectively surrendered in 1646, was based in Newcastle under the protection of his depleted army. After much discussion parliament sent Charles a nineteen point proposal (a surrender declaration) to present to the nation. The proposal asked (demanded in effect) that Charles accept the abolition of the episcopacy, and his position at its head; to hand over his army and navy to parliament for twenty years; and that parliament would thereafter decide all high appointments. In effect he had to accept the role of a constitutional monarch.
Charles was never going to accept such a document, but kept that to himself, all the while prevaricating, as he sought alliances with France and the Netherlands. He was also losing the confidence of the Scots, who handed him over to the parliamentarian forces. He was then escorted to Holmby House in Northamptonshire, where he was greeted by the head of the army, Fairfax.
For days on end Charles further delayed the signing of the proposal by offering watered-down suggestions that included his giving up of his army for ten years (not twenty)on the understanding that the parliamentarian army be reduced in number and confined to garrison duty. The army objected, realising that Charles was taking them all as fools.
In the early summer of 1647 Oliver Cromwell, who had taken something of a back seat in national affairs, got wind (through his own intelligence team)of what Charles was trying to do, and fearing anarchy in the country, and with ‘his’ beloved army close to mutiny he decided he must show the way.
Quickly organising a meeting at his Drury Lane home in June, where, as Fairfax’s second-in-command, he ordered a young cornet officer (second lieutenant) by the name of Joyce to proceed to Oxford to check that the artillery was still in safe hands, and then, with five-hundred horse, proceed to Holmby House and take the king to “…a place of greater safety.”
Buchan writes (with a hint of the thriller writer), Joyce:
“ …found a situation which alarmed him, and he decided to remove the king to a place where he would be directly under the army’s eye. Fairfax had no cognizance of this purpose, and it clearly exceeded Oliver’s general instructions. Early on the morning of June 4 on the Holmby lawn took place the famous dialogue between the king and… [Joyce], Charles asked to see his commission, and Joyce could only point to the troopers at his back. ‘ It is as fair a commission,’ said the smiling king, ‘ and as well written as I have seen a commission in my life — a company of handsome, proper gentlemen.’ Charles chose Newmarket as his new abode, and to Newmarket they went.”
Hearing news of Joyce’s commission confusion now arose in parliament, but with the army at last calmed by Cromwell — whose profile was now growing amongst the population — who then, at the head of his cavalry, rode through the streets of London. As he did so Oliver realised parliament had become irrelevant. He must act.
To Be Continued…
John Buchan — Oliver Cromwell (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1934, republished in 2009 by House of Stratus); Ursula Buchan — A Life of John Buchan: Beyond The Thirty-Nine Steps (Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2019); Hilda Johnstone — Oliver Cromwell and His Times (The Peoples Books, London, 1912); Antonia Fraser — Cromwell: Our Chief of Men (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1973)