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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.

Oliver Cromwell

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 Rex or 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.

Massacre_at_DroghedaAnother 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.

In the pursuit, apparently, of “democracy and ultimately free speech,” Cromwell confiscated all the land owned by Catholics in Ireland and forbade Catholics from living in towns. The practice of Catholicism was banned and large rewards were offered for the capture of Catholic priests who were then put to death. In January 1650, Cromwell declared that “I shall not, where I have the power… suffer the exercise of the Mass.” He would also not suffer the celebration of Christmas, banning it on the astonishingly peculiar grounds that it was a pagan festival!

Such was the infernal nature of Cromwell’s policy in Ireland that historians, such as Mark Levine and Alan Axelrod, have seen fit to call it ethnic cleansing. In Axelrod’s judgment, Cromwell’s actions were akin to “something very nearly approaching genocide.”

Winston Churchill, in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, was equally scathing, describing “Cromwell’s record” in Ireland as “a lasting bane”:

By an uncompleted process of terror, by an iniquitous land settlement, by the virtual proscription of the Catholic religion, by the bloody deeds already described, he cut new gulfs between the nations and the creeds. “Hell or Connaught” were the terms he thrust upon the native inhabitants, and they for their part, across three hundred years, have used as their keenest expression of hatred “The Curse of Cromwell on you.” … Upon all of us there still lies “the curse of Cromwell.”

Dare it be suggested that one who advocates and puts into practice what Churchill dubs a “process of terror” can be called a “terrorist?” Isn’t the very definition of terrorism the pursuit of one’s political ambitions through the adoption of a “process of terror?” If so, might we not add the accusation of terrorism to those of ethnic cleansing and “something very nearly approaching genocide?”

In spite of the aforementioned monstrosities, there might still perhaps be grounds for admiring Cromwell. One might admire his military prowess, for instance, as one might admire Stalin’s ability to mobilize the Red Army to defeat Hitler, or Franco’s ability to mobilize an army to beat the communists, but is it really possible to admire him as someone who “brought democracy to England, including—ultimately—free speech?”

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18 replies to this post
    • The massacre at Droghedra was probably in accordance with the accepted rules of war of the time; if a city refuses to surrender, its population will be massacred in revenge for the lives that had to be sacrificed making the assault.

      The Pope had endorsed the Spanish Armada of 1588 as a Crusade, and was still telling his parishioners that they should ignore promises of loyalty to the English crown. In that context executing Catholic priests as proponents of sedition seems entirely reasonable.

      Ireland was not a ‘foreign land’ – it had been granted to the English crown by the Pope in the 12th century, and had been ruled by them since to a greater or lesser extent.

      This is not to defend the ethnic cleansing that ensued – but given the treatment of the Muslims who rebelled against the Spanish throne in 1492, resulting in their expulsion from Spain, it doesn’t appear to be unprecedented.

        • This still disputed episode aside, all one has to do to imagine the utter destruction that Cromwell brought to many lands and peoples is to visit the many ruined castles throughout Ireland and Wales that bear his name on the plaques as the destroyer.

          • Granted, and I am the last person to give a character reference to the second dreadful Cromwell to Afflict England.
            However, if the Drogheda massacre didn’t happen, we shouldn’t say it did, and all the evidence points to that it didn’t.

          • Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

            The castles were slighted because they were military installations, whose continued existence would have been a problem to the imposition of central government rule. The idea that that proves anything about the treatment of the local people surely shows a failure to understand the logic of the day.

  1. In answer to the original question, O.C. was a necessary Evil as demanded by the laws of entropy. The same laws, by the way, that continue progressively to manifest increasingly worse Evils all over the world. To put Franco in the same category as Hitler and Stalin is precisely to miss the point. Franco stopped Spain’s fall into the Communist evil and paved the way to a restoration of a Catholic Monarchy which tragically but inevitably, following those same laws of entropy has now caught up with the same faithless,vacuous, evil banality which is the Modern World.

  2. Needless to say, as someone who wears a King Charles the Martyr pendant, my opinion of Oliver Cromwell is rather low. At his mockery of a trial the Royal Martyr declared “I do stand for the liberty of my people than any here that come to be my pretended judges” and on the scaffold declared “For the people – and truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever – but I must tell you that their liberty and their freedom consists in having of government those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government, sirs, that is nothing pertaining to them.” The tyranny of Oliver Cromwell demonstrates the truth of his words. Never was England less free than under his “protectorate”. Excellent article, Mr. Pearce.

  3. Amusing. Let us presume for a moment that the comment reflects historical fact, that “democracy and free speech” came “after Shakespeare”, ergo Shakespeare could not “benefit” from them. This would mean that great theatre arises only under tyranny and with censorship? Sounds correct.

  4. I do believe that your conclusion does not follow from your evidence. Great theater can arise under tyranny and censorship, cf Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson etc. It can also arise under democracy, and lack of censorship, cf Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes spring immediately to mind. You have achieved a logical no-no called an improperly excluded middle.

    • Mr. Pierce was refuting the claim that Cromwell brought about free speech, not whether theater can thrive under oppression. You do agree that Cromwell brought oppression?

  5. For Manny,
    I was addressing Mr Rieth’s comment, not Mr. Pierce”s essay. Forgive me for not making that clear. That is, forgive me if you are not addressing my comment; if you are you are not, you seem to have made the same mistake I have.

  6. Cromwell is the inevitable result of what happens during a revolution. Usually the best organized, narrow minded bigots become rulers. Cromwell’s Protectorate was largely a disaster and while Cromwell is not a particularly odious man by the day’s standards, he in fact was little more than a tyrannus absque titulo.

  7. In the UK people often comment that “you should not talk about religion or politics in pubs”. This is because these subjects were considered to be such dangerous topics of conversation during the ” protectorate” that they were effectively banned!

  8. A clarihew I wrote a year ago that seems to pertain:

    Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell
    Decided Christmas was not swell
    And banned it, calling himself the Puritan Moses.
    When dead, they dug him up and beheaded him as bogus.

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