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October 2019 Meeting Report

Oliver Cromwell - Hero or Villain?, by Dr David Smith

This was the title of the October meeting of the Sawston Village History Society, which outlined the career of the only republican head of state in Britain.

He was born in 1599, into a middle gentryís family in Huntington and was educated at the local grammar school and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Having been elected to Parliament for Huntington in 1628, he became a Puritan after undergoing a religious conversion in the 1638. He strongly disliked the policies of Charles I and Archbishop Laud, and entered the Civil War on the side of the Parliamentarians or Roundheads. He showed his ability as a commander and was quickly promoted from leading a single cavalry troop to being one of the main commanders of the New Model Army and was never defeated on the battlefield.

After the war, as a politician, he struggled to see what Godís purpose was for him. By 1648 it was clear to him that Charles I must be brought to trial, and on the 1649 death warrant, his was the third name on the list, signed with some regret but seen as a cruel necessity. He dominated the short-lived Commonwealth of England as a member of the Rump Parliament.

He was chosen to command the campaign in Ireland 1649-50 and defeated the Royalist Coalition and occupied the country. He also led a successful campaign against the Scottish army in 1650-51. In 1653 he dismissed the Rump Parliament by force, and set up a short lived nominated assembly known as the Barebones Parliament, before being invited to rule as Lord Protector.

In 1655 martial law was established. He ruled for what was good for the people, not for what they wanted. He was not a social egalitarian. In 1657 parliament offered him kingship, but the army was against it, and he declined, but he was king in all but name. He carried out an aggressive and effective foreign policy. He died of natural causes in 1658 and was given a State Funeral and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His son's reign was not successful, so the Royalists returned with King Charles II in 1660.

They had his corpse dug up, hung in chains, and beheaded. The head was put on a pike where it remained for 30 years. In 1960 it was buried at Sidney Sussex College. The whereabouts of the rest of the body is unknown.

So, hero or villain? Historians are divided. His tolerance of Protestant sects did not extend to Catholics, particularly in Ireland. His measures against them have been described as near-genocidal, and his record is harshly criticised there.

Jim Butchart

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