To What Extent Can Oliver Cromwell be described as King in all but name between the years 1649 and 1660?

Oliver Cromwell’s position as Lord Protector, agreed under the Humble Petition and Advice was a monarchial position, albeit not under the name of King, and with some limiting factors. Cromwell ruled through a system that drew many comparisons with the Stuart Kings that came before him. The historian Mark Kishlansky writes ‘Though he had no desire to be King in name, he knew that he would be King in fact,’1 as head of the Army, leader of the Government and fundamental ruler of the people of England. The major factors in establishing the idea of Cromwell as ‘King in all but name’2 were his relationship with the army, the traditional role of Protector against that of the role of King, Cromwell’s association with Government and the Humble Petition and Advice and its effects.

A major argument suggesting Cromwell could not be King was the fact that at the time ‘the role of Lord Protector was felt to be much less permanent than a King.’3 This to an extent was a fair assumption, as previous Protectorates including Somerset’s during Edward VI’s reign from 1547 to 1550 were overthrown because of political failings, proving that unlike a King, a Protector was a more temporary rule and such more liable to being overthrown with their lack of divine right. However, stark differences can be drawn between previous Protectorates and Cromwell’s own Protectorate. Cromwell was not ruling on behalf of a young monarch, after all ‘it was hardly plausible to see the new Lord Protector as a regent for a Stuart prince.’4 Cromwell had led a civil war against the previous King, and as a result the title and role were abolished and so Cromwell could not chiefly be King in title, but his rule could follow the basic principles of Kingship such as Leading the Army, the Government and being the figure head of the country as well as the executive law making power. This meant that Cromwell’s position was unique and hard to classify, as he was not officially a King, but he did not take the role of a traditional protector. As this was an unprecedented situation, at a time of caution when approaching the question of the leadership of the country, this meant it was much harder for the Government and Council to offer Cromwell the crown.

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That is not to say that the title was never offered to him as it was in March 1647, and Cromwell’s decision to reject the Crown in favor of a Protectorate shows how even before he was officially Monarch, Cromwell carried a lot of power and influence. Cromwell had good reason to reject the Crown, not only because he risked losing the support of the army, and the people of Britain who had fought a war for him to remove the monarchy, but also because of Cromwell’s religious background. Cromwell’s policy of godly reformation would no longer hold any weight, and turning his back on the saints would have proven the assumption of many that Cromwell was always self motivated in his actions. Therefore the assumption that Cromwell was not ruling in a monarchial system because he was a Protector and not a King is undeveloped and does not take into account Cromwell’s role with the army, the church and parliament. ‘Cromwell’s argument had been why should the person in which supreme authority resides be any less a King simply because his style is spelled Protector.’5

Another argument that historians debate is Cromwell’s right to rule the country. After all Cromwell was of humble origins and not Royal blood. He did not marry into the royal family and therefore he did not have the divine right, however on the other hand Cromwell was a staunch believer that there was no divine right in existence and therefore it was not something he needed to consider. Likewise his role in the execution of Charles I could be seen as ‘an act of regicide,’6 and therefore making him a criminal, not the man in which supreme power should be installed. Charles felt that his trial and execution was unjustified due to the fact that ‘A King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth.’7 Although in theory this is true, the English throne is not one that has always been won by right, but often as the result of conflict. ‘The right of conquest was seen as a legal basis for a claim to the throne,’8 and since Cromwell had defeated the preceding King, and carried the support of the nation, he had the right of conquest. All of these points can be demonstrated through the ascension of Henry VII to the throne.

Henry’s claim to the throne was extremely tenuous and based on illegitimate lineage, almost a century old. Despite this, because of his right of conquest and him having ‘mustered enough support to win the crown for himself,’9 Henry Bolingbroke became Henry VII, a legitimate King. Similarly, Cromwell had won the civil war and although Charles believed ‘he was responsible to God alone for his actions,’10 by losing the war he had lost his throne and his rights as King. Looking at the claim that he was King in all but name, Cromwell had won the crown in a method that was historically acceptable and therefore even if he chose to call himself a Protector rather than a King, that was his right and could not be contested. The historian Howard Tomlinson puts it that ‘ Kingship be not a title, but a name of office that runs through the law, yet is not so ratione nominis, from the reason of the name, but from what is signified.’11 This is true, even if Cromwell was not King in name, he had earned his position and the title was not as important in his position as ruler of all England.

A direct comparison between Oliver Cromwell and King Charles I show an almost identical role. Both had the right to name their successor, both had the money to run the country as they saw fit, both had an army that was sworn to serve them. Cromwell, just as Charles had previously, ‘was to be known as His Highness.’12 Cromwell was even treated slightly better than Charles in some ways, for example his funeral ‘where he was buried in Westminster abbey in a ceremony based off King James II,’13 although this was mainly due to the fact that at the end of his reign Charles was regarded as a traitor and his execution was a public show of this. Interestingly after his death and the re-establishment of the monarchy, Cromwell himself was dug up and executed as a sign that his revolutionary era was over. Cromwell even went so far as to describe Charles as ‘The grand author of our troubles, responsible for the bloodshed of the Civil Wars.’14 Perhaps the most important ceremony of a monarchs reign is their coronation, where again many parallels can be drawn between Cromwell’s and previous monarchs.

Charles’s ceremony was five hours long, and in that time he was treated to each and every ancient custom that would ‘wash away the mere human in him, leaving him purely, indefeasibly and absolutely a King.’15 Cromwell’s ceremony saw him take an adapted coronation oath, with the purple velvet robes and golden scepter and just as Charles had done, Cromwell ‘left Westminster hall in a coach of state,’ albeit his to cheers of ‘God save the Lord Protector.’16 In terms of his role and coronation, he was just as much a King as Charles I, and so on this fact it is fair to describe Cromwell as a King in all but name.

Cromwell stood no chance of taking the English throne himself, or even rising to any particularly high level in politics and therefore it was his involvement with the army that gave Cromwell his power and leverage. The Army throughout history had sworn an oath of loyalty to the monarch, and so Cromwell’s ability to earn the loyalty of the army was a large step in his eventual rise to power. After all if Cromwell had the army, King Charles I had lost one of the fundamental rights of a Monarch, the Loyalty of the national army. Cromwell’s use of the army to dissolve ineffective parliaments, to win a civil war and the establishment of the major generals to rule the country made Cromwell, to some extent a military dictator that used the army to run the country. This is why the historian David Sharp has said that ‘Cromwell’s power rested on Bayonets.’17 It has been said that Cromwell only gained his position because of the army, and if you took the army away then Cromwell would not have been Monarch, however the fact of the matter is Cromwell did gain control of the majority of the army, and with it gained a fundamental right of the monarchy.

Cromwell even before he was official Monarch was using the power of the army to his personal advantage. This is not a bad thing however, as the country was still reeling from the effects of civil war and so anyone trying to install some form of leadership even if it was a military dictatorship was not necessarily entirely self-motivated. The country lacking any true form of leadership was constantly at risk of the advances of revolution from groups such as the Muggletonians and the Levellers, making an “English revolution” extremely likely. Cromwell had the control over the army because they believed in what he was doing, stamping out the revolutionary forces and trying to restore some peace. Also getting rid of a tyrannical King and everything he stood for in an effort to restore peace back to the country. By doing this however Cromwell was in effect forfeiting his claim to the throne as a King.

After having fought two bloody wars to remove Charles, ‘the soldiers particularly objected to the idea of another King,’18 and the negative reputation of the name made Cromwell unwilling to use it. The historian Richard Wilkinson suggests ‘he (Cromwell) knocked down parliaments in a way no Stuart ever attempted. Levellers and Royalists were suppressed and his power rested on the new model army. He was a Military dictator.’19 The tone of Wilkinson’s description is very negative however the primary facts of his writing are true, and Cromwell did rely on the army heavily; however this was mainly due to the fact that he had led the Parliamentarian forces, leaving the country divided and his regime constantly at risk. Just because his rise to power was mainly militarily influenced, this does not take away from the fact that essentially, he was King of England, and it was only right he had a loyal military.

To conclude, Oliver Cromwell was without doubt King in all but name. Although he was ‘lacking in crown,’20 he still embodied the fundamental roles of a Monarch. He had the power to legislate without Parliament which he, unlike other Kings actually used. He was sworn into the role of protector in a coronation to rival other Kings, and he operated on a similar level of power to them. Charles I had described the monarchy as ‘Corruptible,’21 however Cromwell’s reign was one of ‘little patronage or corruption’22 this just proves that Cromwell was a new type of monarch, with a new title but the same responsibility. After-all ‘the scene in which Cromwell formally accepted the title of Lord Protector was as serious, as ritualized as anything seen in the age of Kings. ‘

The title Lord Protector was proven to be as meaningful as King, Cromwell proved himself as the rightful claimant of the throne and he had an army that was loyal to him, as a person and as a ruler. The poor reputation and connotations of the word King meant he did not use it, even though he was effectively doing the same role by leading the army, heading up the Council and using his power to establish a parliament that worked. On an even simpler note a true show of Cromwell’s power and influence over the country was that he himself dictated the terms under which he would rule. In 1899 a statue of Oliver Cromwell was erected outside the palace of Westminster, alongside every other English monarch. Interestingly this suggests that 250 years after his death, Cromwell was finally accepted by parliament as one of the English Monarchs. He was and still is recognized both countrywide and worldwide as leader, and although he was not a King in name, every other part of his leadership embodied the nature of a King. For these reasons Cromwell was not just a stop-gap between Stuart Monarchs, but a King in his own right.


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