Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

The First British Republic

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356 years ago today, Britain received its first elected politician as head of state, rather than a hereditary monarch. Various mediaeval states had elected leaders (from a narrow franchise), but this was the first modern republican leader in a major state. This was long before the United States got the whole world to call their republican leaders President, so we called him Protector.

He was Oliver Cromwell. After the Restoration of the monarchy (considered by many the least bad solution, rather than the best), Cromwell’s body was disinterred and posthumously hanged, drawn and quartered. Like his mortal remains, Cromwell’s political legacy has been much maligned. It is true that he was an autocratic ruler and perpetrator of massacre in Ireland. His autocracy was part a belief in his divine appointment (not divine right as the kings had it), and part the necessity for strong government in the power vacuum of the king’s execution for treason and the years of bloody war. Even then, Cromwell did participate in the Putney Debates, in which low-ranking soldiers, many Levellers, put forward their proposals for a constitution.

Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland was to prevent the country being used as a royalist staging post for the invasion of Britain. The Confederation of Kilkenny was the provisional government throughout much of Ireland. Although it is often portrayed as an independent Irish government, it was controlled by a cabal of Old English nobility for the defence of Catholicism and the royalist cause. The Confederates even felt able to form a pact with English royalist planters in Ireland against the parliamentarians.  The thousands of soldiers massacred by Cromwell’s army in Drogheda and Wexford are a terrible blot on Cromwell’s leadership. Drogheda was under English royalist control at the time of the siege, supplemented by Irish Confederate allies (half of the garrison troops were English). Cromwell was hasty to secure the town, and used his artillery to breach the walls before ordering the assault. The nature of the siege led to house-to-house fighting and the huge number of casualties. A similar event took place in Wexford where the Confederate privateers that were harrying the Parliamentary navy were based. The town was under Confederate control supported by a few English royalist troops, and the great Confederate-royalist army was moving ever closer. The Confederate commander drew out surrender negotiations for as long as possible, hoping to be reinforced by the army. Before they could arrive, a royalist captain independently surrendered the castle and allowed Parliamentarian troops into the city. The assault was not ordered by Cromwell, who was still in negotiations, and ensuing massacre was partly driven by mass panic and renewed house-to-house fighting. In the end, Ireland is for Cromwell as Iraq is to Blair.

However, let us remember that this East Anglian farmer was the first head of state of Britain not to be born into power by hereditary succession. Perhaps it’s no wonder that our received history has so demonized him as a brutal, killjoy dictator. For if we were to believe that our ordinary selves were fit for the highest office in the land, our feudal monarchy would not last long.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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