Describing Cromwell as a self-made man, risen from obscurity, does not get things quite right

There are conflicting views on Oliver Cromwell’s rise to prominence, and whether he should be seen as a “self-made man”. His prominent role in the Long parliament has lead some historians to believe that family connections were an essential factor in Cromwell being able to accumulate so much power so quickly. Despite Cromwell’s political inexperience, he sat on all eighteen committees in the parliament’s first session, and only six days after its start, it was him who presented the petition of John Lilburne against sentence passed on him by the star chamber. Gaunt raises the point that, as a relatively obscure figure, it seems that Cromwell must have had some assistance from within parliament in order for him to have such a prominent role in the proceedings- thus going against the concept of the “self-made man”.

Furthermore, Morrill questions why Lilburne would entrust Cromwell with handling his petition, barely having spoken to him before, if Cromwell had not been seen as someone with powerful friends. Although not rich himself, Cromwell had connections through birth and marriage with influential opposition leaders such as John Hampden, who could have given Cromwell the step-up he needed in order to play a significant part in the Long Parliament. Coward speculates on this view: he disagrees with the claim that there is evidence enough to say that Cromwell was close allies with the parliamentary leadership before the Long Parliament, but concedes that his family connections must have at least played a part in pulling him “into the orbit” of these influential figures at Westminster. However, Coward also stresses the danger of assuming that “family relationships are necessarily the basis for firm political alliances”.

Another problem with seeing Cromwell as a “self-made man” can be found in his seemingly questionable political skills. Adamson claims that there is little evidence before the war that Cromwell was an effective collaborator- or that people had any wish to collaborate with him. Cromwell’s speeches were often longwinded and emotional (he was described by one member of parliament as “dropping tears down with his words”) and he was often not seconded in parliament, implying that his motions had little support, and that as Hyde commented, he was “little taken notice of”- his motion to appoint Saye and Bedford as guardians of the Prince of Wales failed for want of a seconder. Coward even goes as far as to describe Cromwell as a “political liability”: he repeatedly got into trouble in parliament due to his excitability and impetuosity, for example in the row over the Huntingdon trials in 1630. His speech as the seconder of Vane’s motion to sequester charges against thirteen bishops in October 1640 was so undiplomatic that Sir Simonds D’ewes, who was at first in favour of the motion, felt obliged to change his viewpoint and speak against it. This lack of political tact seems to go against the idea of a man who had “risen from obscurity” on his own merit- suggesting that some other key factor must have lead to his being able to do so. Cromwell did find success, however, as the country slid into civil war- as Morrill points out, Cromwell was one of a few who took initiative in these conditions- this can be seen in the way he energised the militias of his home counties.

Although Cromwell was a major voice in terms of smaller, religious issues, he appears to have kept silent on essential issues likely to be very divisive- notably Strafford, the Grand Remonstrance and the Militia Ordinance. The issues that he spoke on, and the views he supported, all seem to have been closely congruent with the interests of puritan parliamentary reformers such as Saye and Sele, Hampden, and the earls of Essex, Warwick and Bedford. Gaunt suggests that Cromwell worked with this group in preparation for the coming parliament, and owing his return as MP for Cambridge to them, worked as their “agent” in the Long Parliament. This view is supported by Morrill, who describes Cromwell as “an unguided missile” who could in certain situations be “useful” but could not be trusted with the handling of larger issues that might require a tact and sensitivity that Cromwell was not able to deliver. Cromwell is seen as a puppet for other, more important people, helped into parliament by them in order to represent their views, and act as an “agent” for their interests. However, this seems to be oversimplifying. Cromwell appears to have truly believed in what he was trying to do. He believed that he was personally responsible to God for the success of the reformation- this is evident in his use of religious language throughout his political career (“The Lord forsaketh me not”). He was a man ruled by his faith- increasingly so from 1642 onwards, as the civil war progressed. It seems unlikely that Cromwell would have had such a passion, if he were merely a ‘puppet’ to parliamentary radicals.

In conclusion, Cromwell cannot be seen as a completely “self-made man”. Family connections to leading critics of royal government at the very least helped to account for his prominence so early on in the Long Parliament, despite his lack of political experience, but the view of Cromwell as a ‘puppet’ to those who helped him to gain his position does not seem accurate. His apparent lack of political tact also implies that Cromwell had some help in securing his position in the Long Parliament, although later, at the break of the civil war, he worked on his own initiative very successfully. His belief that he was part of a divine plan motivated and sustained him, and over time this became an increasingly important factor in his rise to prominence- overtaking the initial ‘push’ that his family connections gave him. However, it does seem unlikely that Cromwell would have risen to prominence in the way that he did without having connections to “pull him into the orbit” of the great reformers at Westminster.

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