THE ENGLISH REPUBLIC HAD COME INTO EXISTENCE EVEN BEFORE THE execution of the King. On January 4, 1649, the handful of Members of the House of Commons who served the purposes of Cromwell and the Army resolved that “the people are, under God, the original of all just power. . . that the Commons of England in Parliament assembled, being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme power in this nation.” On the 9th it was voted that the name of a single person should no longer be mentioned in legal transactions under the Great Seal. A new seal was presented, bearing on one side a map of England and Ireland and on the other a picture of the House of Commons, with the inscription “In the first year of freedom, by God’s blessing restored.” A statue of Charles I was thrown down, and on the pedestal were inscribed the words “Exit the tyrant, the last of the Kings.” On February 5 it was declared that the House of Lords “is useless and dangerous and ought to be abolished.” Thereafter it ceased to meet. Vengeance was wrought upon a number of peers taken prisoner in the Second Civil War, and Lords Hamilton and Holland, statesmen of high intellectual qualities and long record, were beheaded.
The country was now to be governed by a Council of State chosen annually by Parliament. Its forty-one members included peers, judges, and Members of Parliament, among them most of the principal regicides. It was found to be fearless, diligent, and incorrupt. The judiciary hung for a time in the balance. Six of the twelve judges refused to continue, but the rest, their oath of allegiance being formally abrogated, agreed to serve the Commonwealth. The highly conservative elements at the head of the Army held firmly to the maintenance of the Common Law and the unbroken administration of justice in all non-political issues. The accession of the lawyers to the new regime was deemed essential for the defence of privilege and property against the assaults of the Levellers, agitators, and extremists. This had now become the crucial issue. Fierce and furious as was the effort of the Levellers, there was no hesitation among the men in power to put them down. Even Ireton was excluded from the new Council of State, with which ah power rested. Cromwell and his colleagues were familiar with the extremists’ demands. They had originally been put forward by five cavalry regiments who had signed the “Agreement of the People,” promoted by John Lilburne at the time of the abortive negotiations between Cromwell and the King in 1647.
It was essential to divide and disperse the Army, and Cromwell was willing to lead the larger part of it to a war of retribution in the name of the Lord Jehovah against the idolatrous and bloodstained Papists of Ireland. It was thought that an interprise of this character would enlist the fanaticism of the rank and file. Lots were drawn which regiments should go to Ireland, and were drawn again and again until only the regiments in which the Levellers were strongest were cast. A pamphlet on England’s New Chains spread through the Army. Mutinies broke out. Many hundreds of veteran soldiers appeared in bands in support of “the sovereignty of the people,” manhood suffrage, and annual Parliaments. This mood was not confined to the soldiers. Behind these broad principles the idea of equal rights in property as well as in citizenship was boldly announced by a group led by Gerard Winstanley, which came to be known as “the Diggers.”
Numbers of persons appeared upon the common lands in Surrey and prepared to cultivate them on a communal basis. These “Diggers” did not molest the enclosed lands, leaving them to be settled by whoever had the power to take them; but they claimed that the whole earth was a “common treasury” and that the common land should be for all. They argued further that the beheaded King traced his right to William the Conqueror, with whom a crowd of nobles and adventurers had come into England, robbing by force the mass of the people of their ancient rights in Saxon days. Historically the claim was overlaid by six centuries of custom and was itself highly disputable; but this was what they said. The rulers of the Commonwealth regarded all this as dangerous and subversive nonsense.
No one was more shocked than Cromwell. He cared almost as much for private property as for religious liberty. “A nobleman, a gentleman, a yeoman,” he said, “that is a good interest of the land and a great one.” The Council of State chased the would-be cultivators off the common land, and hunted the mutinous officers and soldiers to death without mercy. Cromwell again quelled a mutiny in person, and by his orders Trooper William Thompson, a follower of Lilburne, was shot in an Oxfordshire churchyard. His opinions and his constancy have led some to crown him as “the first martyr of democracy.” Cromwell also discharged from the Army, without their arrears of pay, all men who would not volunteer for the Irish war. Nominated by the Council as Commander, he invested his mission not only with a martial but with a priestly aspect. He joined the Puritan divines in preaching a holy war upon the Irish, and made a religious progress to Charing Cross in a coach drawn by six Flemish horses. All this was done as part of a profound calculated policy in the face of military and social dangers which, if not strangled, would have opened a new ferocious and measureless social war in England.
Cromwell’s campaign of 1649 in Ireland was equally coldblooded, and equally imbued with those Old Testament sentiments which dominated the minds of the Puritans. The spirit and peril of the Irish race might have prompted them to unite upon Catholic toleration and monarchy, and on this they could have made a firm alliance with the Protestant Royalists, who, under the Marquess of Ormonde, had an organised army of twelve thousand men. But the arrival of the Papal Nuncio Rinuccini had aggravated the many forces of incoherence and strife. Ormonde’s army was grievously weakened before Cromwell landed. He had already in 1647 ceded Dublin a
Parliamentary general; but he had later occupied the towns of Drogheda and Wexford and was resolved to defend them. Upon these Cromwell marched with his ten thousand veteran troops. Ormonde would have done better to keep the open field with his regulars and allow the severities of the Puritan invaders to rally the Irish nation behind him. Instead he hoped that Cromwell would break his teeth upon a long siege of Drogheda, in which he placed a garrison of three thousand men, comprising the flower of the Irish Royalists and English volunteers. Cromwell saw that the destruction of these men would not only ruin Ormonde’s military power, but spread a helpful terror throughout the island. He therefore resolved upon a deed of “frightfulness” deeply embarrassing to his nineteenth-century admirers and apologists.
Having unsuccessfully summoned the garrison to surrender, he breached the ramparts with his cannon, and at the third assault, which he led himself, stormed the town. There followed a massacre so all-effacing as to startle even the opinion of those fierce times. All were put to the sword. None escaped; every priest and friar was butchered. The corpses were carefully ransacked for valuables. The Governor, Sir Arthur Ashton, had an artificial leg, which the Ironsides believed to be made of gold; however it was only in his belt that they found his private fortune. The ferreting out and slaughter of those in hiding lasted till the third day.
There is no dispute about the facts, for Oliver told his own tale in his letter to John Bradshaw, President of the Council of State. “It hath pleased God to bless our endeavours at Tredah [for thus he spelt Drogheda]. After battery, we stormed it. The Enemy were about 3000 strong in the Town. They made a stout resistance; and near 1000 of our men being entered, the Enemy forced them out again. But God giving a new courage to our men, they attempted again, and entered: beating the Enemy from their defences. . . . Being thus entered, we refused them quarter: having, the day before, summoned the Town. I believe we put to the sword the whole number of the defendants. I do not think Thirty of the whole number escaped with their lives. Those that did, are in safe custody for the Barbados. . . . This hath been a
Marvellous great mercy. The Enemy, being not willing to put an issue upon a field-battle, had put into this Garrison almost ah their prime soldiers. . . under the command of their best officers. . . . I do not believe, neither do I hear, that any officer escaped with his life, save only one. . . . The Enemy upon this were filled with much terror. And truly I believe this bitterness will save much effusion of blood, through the goodness of God____
“I wish that all honest hearts may give the glory of this to God alone, to whom indeed the praise of this mercy belongs.”
In another letter to Speaker Lenthall he gave further details. “Divers of the Enemy retreated into the Mill-Mount: a place very strong and of difficult access. . . . The Governor, Sir Arthur Ashton, and divers considerable Officers being there, our men getting up to them, were ordered by me to put them all to the sword. And indeed, being in the heat of action, I forbade them to spare any that were in arms in the Town: and, I think, that night they put to the sword about 2000 men;—divers of the officers and soldiers being fled over the Bridge into the other part of the Town, where about 100 of them possessed St. Peter’s Church-steeple. . . . These being summoned to yield to mercy, refused. Whereupon I ordered the steeple of St. Peter’s Church to be fired, when one of them was heard to say in the midst of the flames, ‘God damn me, God confound me; I burn, I burn.’” “I am persuaded,” Cromwell added, “that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood.”- A similar atrocity was perpetrated a few weeks later at the storm of Wexford.
In the safe and comfortable days of Queen Victoria, when Liberals and Conservatives, Gladstone and Disraeli, contended about the past, and when Irish Nationalists and Radical Nonconformists championed their old causes, a school grew up to gape in awe and some in furtive admiration at these savage crimes. Men thought such scenes were gone for ever, and that while moving into a broad age of peace, money-making, and debatings they could afford to pay their tributes to the rugged warriors who had laid the foundations of a liberal society. The twentieth century has sharply recalled its intellectuals from such vain indulgences. We have seen the technique of “frightfulness” applied in our own time with Cromwellian brutality and upon a far larger scale. We know too much of despots and their moods and power to practise the philosophic detachment of our grandfathers. It is necessary to recur to the simpler principle that the wholesale slaughter of unarmed or disarmed men marks with a mordant and eternal brand the memory of conquerors, however they may have prospered.
In Oliver’s smoky soul there were evident misgivings. He writes of the “remorse and regret” which are inseparable from such crimes. While brazening them out, he offers diverse excuses, eagerly lapped up by Carlyle. By a terrifying example he believed that he had saved far greater bloodshed. But this did not prove true. The war continued in squalid, murderous fashion for two years after he had left Ireland. In his hatred of Popery, which he regarded as a worldwide conspiracy of evil, he sought to identify the Royalist garrison of Drogheda with the Roman Catholic Irish peasantry who had massacred the Protestant landlords in 1641. He ought to have known that not one of them had the slightest connection with that eight-year-old horror. He shielded himself behind “the heat of action” when his troops had not suffered a hundred casualties, and when, in Ranke’s impartial judgment, “there throughout mingled a cold-blooded calculation and a violence which is deliberate.” Above all, the conscience of man must recoil from the monster of a faction-god projected from the mind of an ambitious, interested politician on whose lips the words “righteousness” and “mercy” were mockery. Not even the hard pleas of necessity or the safety of the State can be invoked. Cromwell in Ireland, disposing of overwhelming strength and using it with merciless wickedness, debased the standards of human conduct and sensibly darkened the journey of mankind. Cromwell’s Irish massacres find numberless compeers in the history of all countries during and since the Stone Age. It is therefore only necessary to strip men capable of such deeds of all title to honour, whether it be the light which plays around a great captain of war or the long repute which covers the severities of a successful prince or statesman.2
We have seen the many ties which at one time or another have joined the inhabitants of the Western islands, and even in Ireland itself offered a tolerable way of life to Protestants and Catholics alike. Upon all these Cromwell’s record was 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.” The consequences of Cromwell’s rule in Ireland have distressed and at times distracted English politics down even to the present day. To heal them baffled the skill and loyalties of successive generations. They became for a time a potent obstacle to the harmony of the English-speaking peoples throughout the world. Upon all of us there still lies “the curse of Cromwell.”
At the moment when the axe severed the head of Charles the First from his body his eldest son became, in the opinion of most of his subjects and of Europe, King Charles the Second. Within six days, as soon as horsemen could bear the tidings northward, the Scottish Estates proclaimed him King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland. Their representatives in London demanded his recognition. The oligarchs who called themselves “Parliament” thereupon expelled the envoys, declaring that they had “laid the grounds of a new and bloody war.” Charles II sheltered at The Hague. The predominant sentiment in Holland was friendly to him, and shocked by his father’s execution. Dorislaus, the Dutch lawyer who had been so helpful in drawing up the regicide tribunal, was murdered by Scottish Royalists as he sat at dinner; and although the law was set in motion against the assassins their crime was widely applauded.
Montrose, when his army fell to pieces, had on the advice of the late King quitted Scotland, believing at first that the Whitehall execution robbed his life of all purpose. His spirit was revived by a priest who preached to him a duty of revenge. With a handful of followers he landed in Caithness, was defeated by the Government forces and betrayed for a paltry bribe into their power. He was dragged through many Scottish towns, and hanged at Edinburgh on a specially high gallows amid an immense agitated concourse. Uplifted by his commanding spirit above physical misfortune, he regarded his sufferings as glorious martyrdom, abashed his fiercest foes by his noble gaze, and has left a name long cherished in Scottish ballad and romance. His body, cut into an unusual number of pieces, was distributed for an example through the scenes of his triumphs. Yet at the same time that Argyll and the Covenanters inflicted this savage punishment upon an unorthodox Royalist they themselves prepared for war with England in the cause of monarchy and entered into urgent treaty with the young King.
Hard courses were laid before Charles II. If, said the Scottish Government, you will embrace the Covenant and become the champion of the Presbyterian cause not only will we bring all Scotland under your sovereignty, but we will march with you into England, where Presbyterians and Royalists alike will join to reestablish the sacred majesty of the Crown against Republicans and regicides. Here at the darkest moment was the proclamation of the continuance of the monarchy. But the price was extortionate and deadly. Charles II must bind himself to destroy the Episcopacy and enforce upon England a religious system odious to all who had fought for his father. He had been carefully and strictly brought up, and was versed in the religious and political controversies of the times. He hesitated long before taking the grim decision of selling his soul to the Devil, as he conceived it, for the interest of the Crown and betraying the cause to save its life. The exacting Scottish Commissioners who waited upon him day by day in Holland understood all that was involved in the bargain. “We made him,” said one of them, “sign and swear a Covenant which we knew from clear and demonstrable reasons that he hated in his heart. . . . He sinfully complied with what we most sinfully pressed upon him.” Even
Queen Henrietta Maria, with the blood of her beloved husband to avenge, and to whom one Protestant heresy was no worse or better than another, was doubtful whether her son should subscribe.
The fulfilment of the contract was as harsh as the signing. On the ship before the King landed in Scotland the most precise guarantees were extracted. When the King looked out from the windows of the house in which he was lodged at Aberdeen a grisly object met his view. It was the shrivelled hand of Montrose, his devoted servant and friend, nailed to the wall. He found himself virtually a prisoner in the hands of those who had besought him to be their sovereign. He listened to endless sermons, admonitions, and objurgations. He bowed the knee in what was to him the temple of Baal. We may admire as polished flint the convictions and purposes of the Scots Government and its divines, but one must be thankful never to have been brought into contact with any of them.
It was the essence of Scottish policy to separate their new war with England from the invasion which had so lamentably failed at Preston two years before. All those who had taken part in that ill-starred attempt—“the Engagers,” as they were called, after the name of the agreement with Charles I—were barred from the new venture.
A purge of the Army stripped it of three or four thousand of its most experienced officers and men; their places were filled with “ministers’ sons, clerks, and such other sanctified creatures, who hardly ever saw or heard of any sword but that of the spirit.” Still there was again an army to fight for the Crown, and both Cardinal Mazarin in France and Prince William of Orange in Holland lent their aid to Scotland. The unhappy young King was forced, by the need to fight and the desire to win, to issue a declaration in which he desired to be “deeply humbled before God because of his father’s opposition to the Solemn League and Covenant; and because his mother had been guilty of idolatry, the toleration of which in the King’s house could not but be a high provocation to a jealous God visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children.” Charles wondered whether he would dare to look his mother in the face again, and in fact she told him she would never again be his political adviser. On this strange foundation a large Scottish army gathered on the Border.
The menace in the North brought Cromwell back from Ireland. Fairfax, thoroughly estranged from his former colleagues, refused to invade Scotland, and the Council of State at last appointed Cromwell Commander-in-Chief in form as he had long been in fact. In his Ironside troops, fresh from their Irish slaughters, he grasped a heavy, sharp, and reeking sword. He did not shrink from argument before strife. He wrestled in soulful stress with men who believed that many of the tenets he knew and measured as political counters were matters of salvation or damnation. “I beseech you,” he exclaimed, in tremendous challenge, “in the bowels of Christ Jesus, think it possible you may be mistaken.” It was in vain. But for the expense and danger of keeping armies in the field, they would have wrangled heartily till Doomsday. Meanwhile however the English troops had invaded the Lowlands, hugging the coast, where they could be victualled from the sea by their Fleet. The armies manreuvred against each other. David Leslie was no mean opponent, and his army far more numerous. Cromwell was forced back upon Dunbar, dependent on wind and weather for his daily bread. He might still escape south by sea, picking up supplies at the East Coast ports. But this was no culmination to a career of unbroken success.
In the Scottish camp there were two opinions. The first, held by Leslie, was for letting Cromwell go. The second was urged by the six leading ministers of religion; now was the time to wreak the Lord’s vengeance upon those guilty ones who would bring spiritual anarchy into the Reformed Church. Bigotry prevailed over strategy. The pious Scottish army descended from their blockading heights and closed down upon Cromwell and his saints to prevent their embarkation. Both sides confidently appealed to Jehovah; and the Most High, finding so little to choose between them in faith and zeal, must have allowed purely military factors to prevail. It was again September 3.
A year had passed since the massacre at Drogheda. Further manifestations of the divine favour might well be expected. “We have much hope in the Lord, of whose mercy we have had large experience,” remarked Oliver cheerfully. A Yorkshire officer, John Lambert, of whom more was to be heard, convinced him of the weakness of the southern Scottish flank, which he overlapped. At the first grey light Cromwell, feinting with his right wing, attacked heavily on the left. “Now,” he exclaimed, as the sun rose over the sea behind him, “let God arise and let his enemies be scattered.” Once the battle was joined among these politico-religious warriors the end was speedy. The Scots, finding their right turned, fled, leaving three thousand dead on the field. Nine thousand were prisoners in Oliver’s hungry camp, and the Army of the Presbyters was broken.
The disaster carried Scots policy out of the trammels of dogma. National safety became the cry. All haste was made to conciliate the Engagers and reinforce the depleted ranks with the officers and men so improvidently cashiered. The services of English Royalists were gratefully accepted. The King was crowned at Scone. Political ideas supervened upon the religious war. The plan of marching south, leaving Cromwell behind in Edinburgh, which he had occupied, and rousing the Royalist forces in England, captivated the majority of the Scots Council. But the religious, and what would later be called Radical, influences still retained enough strength to spoil this. The six Presbyterian ministers who professed to know what would be pleasing to the Almighty spread about the belief that the defeat at Dunbar was due to the estrangement of the Lord Jehovah from an army which espoused the cause of the son of an Uncovenanted King. Upon this reason or pretext many quitted the ranks.
A Scottish army now invaded England in 1651 upon a Royalist rather than a Presbyterian enterprise. It is proof of Cromwell’s political and military sagacity that he allowed them to pass. He could by timely marches have overtaken them almost at the Border, but his intention was to cut them off from their supplies.
The event justified his calculation. The English Royalists, bled white, mulcted, cowed, were found incapable of any fresh response; most of their active leaders had already been executed. Charles II trod his native soil as King. He marched in a chilling silence at the head of his troops. But Cromwell could now follow easily upon his track, and his concentration of all the forces of the Commonwealth against the Northern invaders was masterly. On his day of fate, September 3, sixteen thousand Scots were brought to battle at Worcester, not only by the twenty thousand veterans of the New Model, but by the English militia, who rallied in large numbers against this fresh inroad of the hated and interfering Scots. Leslie, who commanded, lingered in the city with the Scottish cavalry till the day was lost. Charles acquitted himself with distinction. He rode along the regiments in the thick of the fighting, encouraging them in their duty. The struggle was one of the stiffest contests of the civil wars, but it was forlorn, and the Scots and their Royalist comrades were destroyed as a military force. Few returned to Scotland. To Cromwell this was “the crowning mercy.” To Charles II it afforded the most romantic adventure of his life. He escaped with difficulty from the stricken field; a thousand pounds was set upon his head. The land was scoured for him. He hid for a whole day in the famous oak tree at Boscobel, while his pursuers passed by. On every side were men who would have rejoiced to win the price of catching him. But also on every side were friends, if they could be found, secret, silent, unflinching. Nearly fifty persons recognised him, and thus became privy to his escape and liable to grave penalties. The magic of the words “the King, our master,” cast its spell upon all classes. “The King of England, my master, your master, and the master of all good Englishmen, is near you and in great distress: can you help us to a boat?” “Is he well? Is he safe?” “Yes.” “God be blessed.” This was the temper of all who were trusted with or discovered the secret.
Thus after six weeks of desperate peril did the King find himself again in exile. His most faithful surviving supporter, Lord Derby, paid the last forfeit of loyalty on the scaffold, Lady Derby, who had gallantly defended her home at Lathom House, still hoped to keep the royal standard flying in the Isle of Man, the independence of which the Derbys had proclaimed; but Parliamentary ideas and later Parliamentary troops reduced this last asylum of Royalism. The valiant chieftainess was long imprisoned, and afterwards dwelt in penury. This was the end of the Civil War or Great Rebellion. England was mastered; Ireland was terrorised; Scotland was conquered. The three kingdoms were united under a Government in London which wielded autocratic power. The most memorable chapter in English history was closed by irresistible forces, which ruled absolutely for a while, but settled nothing. In harsh or melancholy epochs free men may always take comfort from the grand lesson of history, that tyrannies cannot last except among servile races. The years which seem endless to those who endure them are but a flick of mischance in the journey. New and natural hopes leap from the human heart as every spring revives the cultivated soil and rewards the faithful, patient husbandmen.