Richard Cromwell

Henry Reece

Before Her Majesty's death, Richard Cromwell was England's longest living head of state.
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Richard Cromwell had one of the strangest and saddest public lives in English history. An obscure country gentleman until he was 30, he then underwent a brief schooling in politics and government, before ruling as the second Protector for eight months. Vulnerable to his creditors for debts incurred during his brief pomp, Richard left England and his family after the Restoration and lived in Europe for twenty years. By the time he returned in the early 1680s, his wife had died. He spent his last thirty years as a paying lodger to a merchant. He died in 1712, fifty-three years after his moment in the sun.

The second Protector possessed attributes that many rulers who came before and after him singularly lacked. His diligence and devotion in implementing the duties of office, coupled with a devout character, embodied the virtues of the godly magistrate. He knew how to carry himself in public, could deliver a speech ably, and possessed an easy personal manner that endeared him to many.

By the time of Oliver Cromwell’s death in September 1658, the Protectorate had deeper roots in the political nation than is often appreciated. We underestimate the simple appeal of domestic peace, order, and the moderate religious settlement that the Protectorate brought after the civil wars of 1642 to 1651. This sense of the restoration of normality was reinforced by the huge reduction in the size and financial burden of the army. In senior government circles loyalty was now more important than historical allegiance. Oliver appointed men from royalist backgrounds and engineered the return of many who had withdrawn from public life after Pride’s Purge in December 1648.

Richard Cromwell embodied this sense that the animosities of the civil wars could be buried. The Presbyterian cleric Richard Baxter wrote: ‘many are perswaded that you have been strangely kept, from participating in any of our late bloody contentions, that God might make you an Healer of our breaches’. Richard came without his father’s baggage as the prime mover of the regicide, breaker of parliaments, and personification of the military domination of politics.  Richard was both a change from the past – of a different generation than the men who had fought in the wars – and a ruler whose political sympathies sat comfortably with the moderate, conservative agenda that had characterized the last years of his father’s reign.

By the end of March 1659 Richard Cromwell’s position looked secure. He had calmed initial unrest in the army with two muscular speeches that offered reassurance to the officers about his intentions. The third Protectorate parliament, that met in January 1659, had done much to consolidate Richard’s standing by working to improve the Humble Petition and Advice, the constitution introduced by the second Protectorate parliament in 1657, as the basis for a lasting settlement.

What then happened in the next three weeks to leave the Protectorate barely breathing on life support?

In April 1659 parliament and army began to butt heads over a range of issues including indemnity, pay, officers’ meetings, and religious toleration. Oliver Cromwell had always acted as the army’s advocate to parliament while maintaining a beady watch on any parliamentary attempt to interfere with the running of the army. Richard’s passivity in the critical early weeks of April was interrupted by an ill-advised series of interventions between 18 and 21 April. He and his advisers misjudged the level of his support within the army where he inspired little personal allegiance. Ordering a counter-rendezvous of the regiments in London against army command was a recipe for disaster. On 22 April the army forced Richard to dissolve parliament. Even then, a different individual might have attempted to muster support from the armies in Scotland, Ireland, and Dunkirk, and the navy, all of which were in the hands of his loyalists. Instead, passivity reasserted itself; Richard did nothing but indulge in self-pity. ‘3 crowns were not worthy a drawn sword’, was the scornful verdict of one contemporary. By 7 May the Rump Parliament had been restored, and Richard was referred to as nothing more than ‘the Eldest Sonne of the late Lord General’.

Richard Cromwell would have proved an admirable ruler for a nation with a stable political culture and an established regime. But, as the memoirist Lucy Hutchinson recognized, he lacked the spirit to succeed his father and manage ‘such a perplexed government’. He had little stomach or aptitude for the political in-fighting and instinctive decision-making that might have saved the Protectorate. At some level, seventeenth-century rulers required the capacity to inspire fear. In the cruel but accurate judgement of the post-Restoration historian James Heath: ‘The Vultur died, and out of his Ashes rose a Titmouse’.

Henry Reece is the author of The Fall: Last Days of the English Republic published by Yale University Press.