John Morley.

Oliver Cromwell online

. (page 2 of 35)
Online LibraryJohn MorleyOliver Cromwell → online text (page 2 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

art at all, but only Norfolk Styward.

The story of Oliver's early life is soon told. He
was born at Huntingdon on April 25, 1599. His
parents had ten children in all ; Oliver was the only
son who survived infancy. Homer has a line
that has been taken to mean that it is bad for char-
acter to grow up an only brother among many sisters ;
but Cromwell at least showed no default in either the
bold and strong or the tender qualities that belong to
manly natures. He was sent to the public school of
the place. The master was a learned and worthy
divine, the preacher of the word of God in the town of
Huntingdon; the author of some classic comedies; of
a proof in two treatises of the well-worn proposition
that the Pope is Antichrist; and of a small volume
called "The Theater of God's Judgments," in which
he collects from sacred and profane story examples of
the justice of God against notorious sinners both great
and small, but more especially against those high per-
sons of the world whose power insolently bursts the


barriers of mere human justice. The youth of Hunt-
ingdon therefore drank of the pure milk of the stern
word that bade men bind their kings in chains and
their nobles in links of iron.

How long Oliver remained under Dr. Beard, what
proficiency he attained in study and how he spent his
spare time, we do not know, and it is idle to guess.
In 1616 (April 23), at the end of his seventeenth year,
he went to Cambridge as a fellow-commoner of Sidney
Sussex College. Dr. Samuel Ward, the master, was
an excellent and conscientious man and had taken part
in the version of the Bible so oddly associated with the
name of King James I. He took part also in the
famous Synod of Dort (1619), where Calvinism
triumphed over Arminianism. His college was de-
nounced by Archbishop Laud as one of the nurseries of
Puritanism, and there can be no doubt in what sort of
atmosphere Cromwell passed those years of life in
which the marked outlines of character are unalterably

After little more than a year's residence in the uni-
versity, he lost his father (June, 1617). Whether he
went back to college we cannot tell, nor whether there
is good ground for the tradition that after quitting
Cambridge he read law at Lincoln's Inn. It was the
fashion for young gentlemen of the time, and Crom-
well may have followed it. There is no reason to sup-
pose that Cromwell was ever the stuff of which the
studious are made. Some faint evidence may be
traced of progress in mathematics ; that he knew some
of the common tags of Greek and Roman history ; that
he was able to hold his own in surface discussion on jur-
isprudence. In later days when he was Protector, the
Dutch ambassador says that they carried on their con-
versation together in Latin. But, according to Burnet,


Oliver's Latin was vicious and scanty, and of other
foreign tongues he had none. There is a story about
his arguing upon regicide from the principles of Mari-
ana and Buchanan, but he may be assumed to have
derived these principles from his own mother-wit, and
not to have needed text-books. He had none of the
tastes or attainments that attract us in many of those
who either fought by his side or who fought against
him. The spirit of the Renaissance was never
breathed upon him. Cromwell had none of the fine
judgment in the arts that made King Charles one of
the most enthusiastic and judicious collectors of paint-
ings known in his time. We cannot think of Cromwell
as Sir John Eliot, beguiling his heavy hours in the
Tower with Plato and Seneca; or Hampden, ponder-
ing Davila's new "History of the Civil Wars in
France" ; or Milton forsaking the "quiet air of delight-
ful studies" to play a man's part in the confusions of
his time; or Falkland, in whom the Oxford men in
Clarendon's immortal picture "found such an im-
menseness of wit and such a solidity of judgment, so
infinite a fancy bound in by a most logical ratioci-
nation, such a vast knowledge that he was not ignorant
in anything, yet such an excessive humility as if he had
known nothing, that they frequently resorted and dwelt
with him, as in a college situated in a purer air."
Cromwell was of another type. Bacon said about Sir
Edward Coke that he conversed with books and not
with men, who are the best books. Of Cromwell the
reverse is true ; for him a single volume comprehended
all literature, and that volume was the Bible.

More satisfactory than guesses at the extent of
Oliver's education is a sure glimpse of his views
upon education, to be found in his advice when the
time came, about an eldest son of his own. "I would


have him mind and understand business," he says.
"Read a little history; study the mathematics and cos-
mography. These are good with subordination to
the things of God. . . . These fit for public services,
for which man is born. Take heed of an unactive,
vain spirit. Recreate yourself with Sir Walter
Raleigh's History; it's a body of History, and will add
much more to your understanding than fragments of
story." "The tree of knowledge," Oliver exhorts
Richard to bear in mind, "is not literal or speculative,
but inward, transforming the mind to it."

These brief hints of his riper days make no bad text
for an educational treatise. Man is born for public
service, and not to play the amateur; he should mind
and understand business, and beware of an unactive
spirit; the history of mankind is to be studied as a
whole, not in isolated fragments; true knowledge is
not literal or speculative, but such as builds up coher-
ent character and grows a part of it, in conscious
harmony with the Supreme Unseen Powers. All this
is not full nor systematic like Ascham or Bacon or
Milton or Locke; but Oliver's hints have the root of
the matter in them, and in this deep sense of education
he was himself undoubtedly bred.

His course is very obscure until we touch solid
ground in what is usually one of the most decisive
acts of life. In August, 1620, being his twenty-sec-
ond year, he was married to Elizabeth Bourcliier at
the Church of St. Giles in Cripplegate, London, where,
fifty-four years later, John Milton was buried. Her
father was a merchant on Tower Hill, the owner of
land at Felsted in Essex, a knight, and a connection
of the family of Hampden. Elizabeth Cromwell
seems to have been a simple and affectionate character,
full of homely solicitudes, intelligent, modest, thrifty.


and gentle, but taking no active share in the fierce
stress of her husband's Hfe. Marriage and time hide
strange surprises ; the Httle bark floats on a summer
bay, until a tornado suddenly sweeps it out to sea and
washes it over angry waters to the w'orld's end. When
all was over, and Charles II had come back to White-
hall, a paper reached the Council Office, and was
docketed by the Secretary of State, "Old Mrs. Crom-
well, Noll's wife's petition." The sorrowful woman
was willing to swear that she had never intermeddled
with any of those public transactions which had been
prejudicial to his late or present Majesty, and she was
especially sensitive of the unjust imputation of detain-
ing jewels belonging to the king, for she knew of none
such. But this was not for forty years.

The stories about Oliver's wicked youth deserve not
an instant's notice. In any case the ferocity of party
passion was certain to invent them. There is no cor-
roborative evidence for them. Wherever detail can
be tested, the thing crumbles away, like the more harm-
less nonsense about his putting a crown on his head at
private theatricals, and having a dream that he should
one day be King of England ; or about a congenial
figure of the devil being represented on the tapestry
over the door of the room in which Oliver was born.
There is, indeed, one of his letters in which anybody
who wishes to believe that in his college days Oliver
drank, swore, gambled, and practised "uncontrolled
debaucheries," may if he chooses find what he seeks.
"You know what my manner of life hath been," he
writes to his cousin, the wife of Oliver St. John, in 1638.
"Oh, I lived in darkness and hated light; I was the
chief of sinners. This is true ; I hated Godliness, yet
God had mercy on me."

Seriously to argue from such language as this that


Cromwell's early life was vicious, is as monstrous as
it would be to argue that Bunyan was a reprobate from
the remorseful charges of "Grace Abounding." From
other evidence we know that Cromwell did not escape,
nor was it possible that he should, from those painful
struggles with religious gloom that at one time or
another confront nearly every type of mind endowed
with spiritual faculty. They have found intense ex-
pression in many keys from Augustine down to Cow-
per's "Castaway.'' Some they leave plunged in gulfs
of perpetual despair, while stronger natures emerge
from the conflict with all the force that is in them puri-
fied, exalted, fortified, illumined. Oliver was of the
melancholic temperament, and the misery was heavy
while it lasted. But the instinct of action was born in
him, and when the summons came he met it with all
the vigor of a strenuous faith and an unclouded soul.

After his marriage Cromwell returned to his home
at Huntingdon, and there for eleven years took care
of the modest estate that his father had left. For the
common tradition of Oliver as the son of a brewer
there is nothing like a sure foundation. We may ac-
cept or reject it with tolerable indifference. Robert
Cromwell undoubtedly got his living out of the land,
though it is not impossible that he may have done occa-
sional brewing for neighbors less conveniently placed
for running water. The elder branch of his family
meanwhile slowly sank down in the world, and in 1627
Hinchinbrook was sold to one of the house of Mon-
tagu, father of the admiral who in days to come helped
to bring back Charles II, and an uncle of that Earl of
Manchester by whose side Oliver was drawn into
such weighty dispute when the storms of civil war
arose. Decline of family interest did not impair
Oliver's personal position in this town, for in the


beginning of 1628 he was chosen to represent Hunting-
don in ParHament.

This was the third Parhament of the reign, the great
Parhament that fought and carried the Petition of
Right, the famous enactment which recites and con-
firms the old instruments against forced loan or tax;
which forbids arrest or imprisonment save by due pro-
cess of law, forbids the quartering of soldiers or sail-
ors in men's houses against their will, and shuts out
the tyrannous decrees called by the name of martial
law. Here the new member, now in his twenty-ninth
year, saw at their noble and hardy task the first gener-
ation of the champions of the civil rights and parlia-
mentary liberties of England. He saw the zealous
and high-minded Sir John Eliot, the sage and intrepid
Pym, masters of eloquence and tactical resource. He
saw the first lawyers of the day — Coke, now nearing
eighty, but as keen for the letter of the law now that it
was for the people, as he had been when he took it to
be on the side of authority; Glanvil, Selden, "the
chief of men reputed in this land" — all conducting the
long train of arguments legal and constitutional for
old laws and franchises, with an erudition, an acute-
ness, and a weight as cogent as any performances ever
witnessed within the walls of the Commons House.
By his side sat his cousin John Hampden, whose
name speedily became, and has ever since remained, a
standing symbol for civil courage and lofty love of
country. On the same benches still sat Wentworth,
in many respects the boldest and most powerful politi-
cal genius then in England, now for the last time
using his gifts of ardent eloquence on behalf of the
popular cause.

All the stout-hearted struggle of that memorable
twelvemonth against tyrannical innovation in civil

From the portrait by Sir Peter Lely in the collection of the Rev. T. Cromwell Bush.




things and rigorous reaction in things spiritual Crom-
well witnessed, down to the ever-memorable scene
of English history where Holies and Valentine held
the Speaker fast down in his chair, to assert the right
of the House to control its own adjournment, and to
launch Eliot's resolutions in defiance of the king.
Cromwell's first and only speech in this Parliament
was the production of a case in which a reactionary
bishop had backed up a certain divine in preaching flat
popery at St. Paul's Cross, and had forbidden a Puri-
tan reply. The Parliament was abruptly dissolved
(March, 1629) and for eleven years no other was
called together.

There is no substance in the fable, though so circum-
stantially related, that in 1636 in company with his
cousin Hampden, despairing of his country, he took
his passage to America, and that the vessel was stopped
by an order in Council. All the probabilities are
against it, and there is no evidence for it. What is
credible enough is Clarendon's story that five years
later, on the day when the Great Remonstrance was
passed, Cromwell whispered to Falkland that if it had
been rejected he would have sold all he had the next
morning, and never have seen England more, and he
knew there were many other honest men of the same
resolution. So near, the Royalist historian reflects,
was this poor kingdom at that time to its deliverance.

His property meanwhile had been increased by a
further bequest of land in Huntingdon from his uncle
Richard Cromwell. Two years after his return from
Westminster (1631) he sold his whole Huntingdon
property for eighteen hundred pounds, equivalent to
between five and six thousand to-day. With this cap-
ital in hand he rented and stocked grazing-lands at the
east end of St. Ives, some five miles down the river, and


here he remained steadily doing his business and
watching the black clouds slowly rise on the horizon
of national affairs. Children came in due order, nine
of them in all. He went to the parish church, "gener-
ally with a piece of red flannel round his neck, as he
was subject to an inflammation in his throat." He
had his children baptized like other people, and for one
of them he asked the vicar, a fellow of St. John's at
Cambridge, to stand godfather. He took his part in
the affairs of the place. At Huntingdon his keen pub-
lic spirit aiVI blunt speech had brought him into
trouble. A new charter in which, among other pro-
visions, Oliver was made a borough justice, trans-
formed an open and popular corporation into a close
one. Cromwell dealt faithfully with those who had
procured the change. The mayor and aldermen com-
plained to the Privy Council of the disgraceful and
unseemly speeches used to them by him and another
person, and one day a messenger from the Council
carried the two offenders under arrest to London ( No-
vember. 1630). There was a long hearing with many
contradictory asseverations. We may assume that
Cromwell made a stout defense on the merits, and he
appears to have been discharged of blame, though he
admitted that he had spoken in heat and passion and
begged that his angry words might not be remembered
against him. In 1636 he went from St. Ives to Ely,
his old mother and unmarried sisters keeping house
with him. This year his maternal uncle died and left
to him the residuary interest under his will. The
uncle had farmed the cathedral tithes of Ely, as his
father had farmed them before him, and in this
position Oliver had succeeded him. Ely was the home
of Cromwell and his family until 1647.


He did not escape the pang of bereavement: his
eldest son, a youth of good promise, died in 1639.
Long afterward Oliver lying ill at Hampton Court
called for his Bible, and desired an honorable and
godly person present to read aloud to him a passage
from Philippians : "Not that I speak in respect of
want : for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am
therewith to be content: I know both how to be
abased, and I know how to abound : everywhere and in
all things I am instructed both to be full and to be
hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do
all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."
After the verses had been read, 'This scripture," said
Cromwell, then nearing his own end, "did once save my
life when my eldest son died, which went as a dagger
to my heart, indeed it did." It was this spirit, praised
in Milton's words of music as his "faith and matchless
fortitude," that bore him through the years of battle
and contention lying predestined in the still sealed
scroll before him.

Cromwell's first surviving letter is evidence alike
in topic and in language of the thoughts on which his
heart was set. A lecturer was a man paid by private
subscribers to preach a sermon after the official parson
had read the service, and he was usually a Puritan.
Cromwell presses a friend in London for aid in keeping
up a lecturer in St. Ives ( 1635). The best of all good
works, he says, is to provide for the feeding of souls.
"Building of hospitals provides for men's bodies; to
build material temples is judged a work of piety; but
they that procure spiritual food, they that build up
spiritual temples, they are the men truly charitable,
truly pious." About the same time (1635) Oliver's
kinsman John Hampden was consulting his other kins-


man, Oliver St. John, as to resisting the writ of ship-
money. Laud, made Archbishop of Canterbury in
1633, was busy in the preparation of a new prayer-
book for the regeneration of stubborn Scotland. Went-
worth was fighting his high-handed battle for a better
order in Ireland.



STUDENTS of the struggle between monarchy and
ParHament in the seventeenth century have worked
hard upon black-letter; on charter, custom, franchise,
tradition, precedent, and prescription, on which the
Commons defended their privileges and the king de-
fended his prerogatives. How much the lawyers
really founded their case on the precedents for which
they had ransacked the wonderful collections of Sir
Robert Cotton, or how far, on the other hand, their
"pedantry'' was a mask for a determination that in
their hearts rested on very different grounds, opens a
discussion into which we need not enter here. What the
elective element in the old original monarchy amounted
to, and what the popular element in the ancient deliber-
ative council amounted to; what differences in power
and prerogative marked the office of a king when it
was filled by Angevin, by Plantagenet, or by Tudor j
how the control of Parliament over legislation and tax-
ation stood under the first three Edwards and under
the last three Henrys ; whether the popular champions
in the seventeenth century were abandoning both the
accustomed theory and the practice of Parliament from
Edward I to the end of Elizabeth; whether the real
conservative on the old lines of the constitution was



not King Charles himself — all these and the kindred
questions, profoundly interesting as they are, fill little
space in the story of Cromwell. It was not until the
day of the lawyers and the constitutionalists had
passed that Cromwell's hour arrived, and "the meager,
stale, forbidding ways of custom, law, and statute"
vanished from men's thoughts.

To a man of Cromwell's political mind the questions
were plain and broad, and could be solved without
much history. If the estates of the crown no longer
sufficed for the public service, could the king make
the want good by taxing his subjects at his own good
pleasure? Or was the charge to be exclusively im-
posed by the estates of the realm? Were the estates
of the realm to have a direct voice in naming agents
and officers of executive power, and to exact a full
responsibility to themselves for all acts done in the
name of executive power? Was the freedom of the
subject to be at the mercy of arbitrary tribunals, and
were judges to be removable at the king's pleasure?
What was to be done — and this came closest home of
all — to put down cruel assumptions of authority by the
bishops, to reform the idleness of the clergy, to provide
godly and diligent preachers, and sternly to set back
the rising tide of popery, of vain ceremonial devices,
and pernicious Arminian doctrine? Such was the
simple statement of the case as it presented itself to
earnest and stirring men. Taxation and religion have
ever been the two prime movers in human revolutions ;
in the civil troubles in the seventeenth century both
these powerful factors were combined.

In more than one important issue the king undoubt-
edly had the black-letter upon his side, and nothing is


easier than to show that in some of the transactions,
even before actual resort to arms, the Commons defied
both letter and spirit. Charles was not an English-
man by birth, training, or temper, but he showed him-
self at the outset as much a legalist in method and
argument as Coke, Selden, St. John, or any English-
man among them. It was in its worst sense that he
thus from first to last played the formalist, and if to
be a pedant is to insist on applying a stiff theory to
fluid fact, no man ever deserved the name better.

Both king and Commons, however, were well aware
that the vital questions of the future could be decided
by no appeals to an obscure and disputable past.
The manifest issue was whether prerogative was to
be the basis of the government of England. Charles
held that it had been always so, and made up his mind
that so it should remain. He had seen the Court of
Paris, he had lived for several months in the Court of
Madrid, and he knew no reason why the absolutism of
France and of Spain should not flourish at Whitehall,
More certain than vague influences such as these, was
the rising tide of royalism in high places in the church.

If this was the mind of Charles, Pym and Hamp-
den and their patriot friends were equally resolved
that the base of government should be in the Parlia-
ment and in the Commons branch of the Parliament.
They claimed for Parliament a general competence in
making laws, granting money, levying taxes, super-
vising the application of their grants, restricting
abuses of executive power, and holding the king's ser-
vants answerable for what they did or failed to do.
Beyond all this vast field of activity and power, they
entered upon the domain of the king as head of the
church, and England found herself plunged into the
vortex of that religious excitement which, for a whole
century and almost without a break, had torn the Chris-


tian world and distracted Europe with bloodshed and
clamor that shook thrones, principalities, powers, and
stirred the souls of men to their depths.

This double and deep-reaching quarrel, partly re-
ligious, partly political, Charles did not create. He
inherited it in all its sharpness along with the royal
crown. In nearly every country in Europe the same
battle between monarch and assembly had been fought,
and in nearly every case the possession of concentrated
authority and military force, sometimes at the expense
of the nobles, sometimes of the burghers, had left the
monarch victorious. Queen Elizabeth of famous
memory — "we need not be ashamed to call her so,"
said Cromwell — carried prerogative at its highest. In
the five-and-forty years of her reign only thirteen ses-
sions of Parliament were held, and it was not until near
the close of her life that she heard accents of serious
complaint. Constitutional history in Elizabeth's time
— the momentous institution of the Church of Eng-
land alone excepted — is a blank chapter. Yet in spite
of the subservient language that was natural toward
so puissant and successful a ruler as Elizabeth, signs
were not even then wanting that, when the stress of
national peril should be relaxed, arbitrary power
would no longer go unquestioned. The reign of James
was one long conflict. The struggle went on for
twenty years, and for every one of the most obnoxious
pretensions and principles that were afterward sought
to be established by King Charles, a precedent had
been set by his father.

Neither the temperament with which Charles I was
born, nor the political climate in which he was reared,
promised a good deliverance from so dangerous a
situation. In the royal council-chamber, in the church,

Online LibraryJohn MorleyOliver Cromwell → online text (page 2 of 35)