John Morley.

Oliver Cromwell online

. (page 20 of 35)
Online LibraryJohn MorleyOliver Cromwell → online text (page 20 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

had much of the rudeness of the camp, little of the
solemnity of a judicial tribunal. The pathetic element
so strong in human nature, save when rough action
summons ; that imaginative sensibility, which is the
fountain of pity when there is time for tears, and lei-
sure to listen to the heart; these counted for nothing in
that fierce and peremptory hour. Such moods are for
history or for onlookers in stern scenes, not for the
actors. Charles and Cromwell had both of them long
stood too close to death in many grisly shapes, had
seen too many slaughtered men, to shrink from an en-
counter without quarter. Westminster Hall was full
of soldiery, and resounded with their hoarse shouts
for justice and execution. The king with his hat upon
his head eyed the judges with unaffected scorn, and
with unmeaning iteration urged his point, that they
were no court and that he was there by no law. Brad-
shaw, the president, retorted with high-handed warn-
ings to his captive that contumacy would be of no
avail. Cromwell was present at every sitting with
one doubtful exception. For three days the alterca-
tion went on, as fruitless as it was painful, for the
court intended that the king should die. He was in-
credulous to the last. On the fourth and fifth days


(January 24-25) the court sat in private in the Painted
Chamber, and Hstened to depositions that could prove
nothing not ah-eady fully knov^ai. The object was less
to satisfy the conscience of the court, than to make
time for pressure on its more backward members.
There is some evidence that Cromwell was among the
most fervid in enforcing the point that they could not
come to a settlement of the true religion until the king,
the arch obstructor, was put out of the way. On the
next day (January 26) the court, numbering sixty-two
members, adopted the verdict and sentence that Charles
was a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to
the good people of this nation, and that he should be
put to death by the severing of his head from his body.
On the 27th an end came to the proceedings. Charles
was for the fourth time brought into the hall, and amid
much noise and disorder he attempted to speak. He
sought an interview with the Lords and Commons in
the Painted Chamber, but this after deliberation was
refused. The altercations between the king and Brad-
shaw were renewed, and after a long harangue from
Bradshaw sentence was pronounced. The king, still
endeavoring in broken sentences to make himself heard,
was hustled away from the hall by his guards. The
composure, piety, seclusion, and silence in which he
passed the three days of life that were left, made a deep
impression on the time, and have moved men's com-
mon human-heartedness ever since. In Charles him-
self, whether for foe or friend, an Eliot or a Strafford,
pity was a grace unknown.

On the fatal day (January 30) he was taken to
Whitehall, now more like a barrack than a palace.
Fairfax, Cromwell, Ireton, and Harrison were prob-
ably all in the building when he arrived, though the
first of them had held stiffly aloof from all the pro-


ceedings of the previous ten days. A story was told
afterward that just before the execution, Cromwell,
seated in Ireton's room, when asked for a warrant ad-
dressed to the executioner (who seems to have been
Brandon, the common hangman), wrote out the order
with his own hand for signature by one of the three offi-
cers to whom the High Court had addressed the actual
death-warrant. Charles bore himself with unshaken
dignity and fortitude to the end. At a single stroke
the masked headman did his work. Ten days later the
corpse was conveyed by a little band of devoted friends
to Windsor, where amid falling flakes of snow they
took it into Saint George's Chapel. Clarendon stamps
upon our memories the mournful coldness, the squalor,
and the desolation like a scene from some grey under-
world : — ''Then they went into the church to make
choice of a place for burial. But when they entered
into it, which they had been so well acquainted with,
they found it so altered and transformed, all tombs,
inscriptions, and those landmarks pulled down by
which all men knew every particular place in that
church, and such a dismal mutilation over the whole
that they knew not where they were ; nor was there one
old officer that had belonged to it, or knew where our
princes had used to be interred. At last there was a
fellow of the town who undertook to tell them the
place, where, he said, 'there was a vault in which King
Harry the Eighth and Queen Jane Seymour were in-
terred.' As near that place as could conveniently be,
they caused the grave to be made. There the king's
body was laid without any words, or other ceremonies
than the tears and sighs of the few beholders. Upon
the coffin was a plate of silver fixed with these words
only — King Charles, 1648. When the coffin was put
in, the black velvet pall that had covered it was thrown


over it, and then the earth thrown in, which the gover-
nor stayed to see perfectly done, and then took the keys
of the church, which was seldom put to any use."

Cromwell's own view of this momentous transaction
was constant. A year later he speaks to the officers
of "the great fruit of the war, to wit, the execution of
exemplary justice upon the prime leader of all this
quarrel." Many months after this, he talks of the
turning-out of the tyrant in a way which the Chris-
tians in after times will mention with honor, and all
tyrants in the world look at with fear ; many thousands
of saints in England rejoice to think of it ; they that
have acted in this great business have given a reason of
their faith in the action, and are ready further to do it
against all gainsayers. The execution was an eminent
witness of the Lord for blood-guiltiness. In a con-
versation again, one evening, at Edinburgh, he is said
to have succeeded in converting some hostile Presby-
terians to the view that the taking away of the king's
life was inevitable. There is a story that while the
corpse of the king still lay in the gallery at Whitehall,
Cromwell was observed by unseen watchers to come
muffled in his cloak to the coffin, and raising the lid,
and gazing on the face of the king, was heard to mur-
mur several times, "Cruel necessity.'^ The incident is
pretty certainly apocryphal, for this was not the dialect
of Oliver's philosophy.

Extravagant things have been said about the exe-
cution of the king by illustrious men from Charles Fox
to Carlyle. "We may doubt," says Fox, "whether any
other circumstance has served so much to raise the
character of the English nation in the opinion of
Europe." "This action of the English regicides," says
Carlyle, "did in effect strike a damp-like death through
the heart of Flunkyism universally in this world.

From the original portrait by Van Dyck in the Louvre (detail).


Whereof Flunkyism, Cant, Cloth-worship, or what-
ever ugly name it have, has gone about miserably sick
ever since, and is now in these generations very rapidly
dying." Cant, alas, is not slain on any such easy
terms by a single stroke of the republican headsman's
axe. As if for that matter force, violence, sword, and
axe, never conceal a cant and an unveracity of their
own, viler and crueller than any other. In fact, the
very contrary of Carlyle's proposition as to death and
damp might more fairly be upheld. For this at least
is certain, that the execution of Charles I kindled and
nursed for many generations a lasting flame of cant,
flunkyism, or whatever else be the right name of
spurious and unmanly sentimentalism, more lively
than is associated with any other business in our whole
national history.

The two most sensible things to be said about the
trial and execution of Charles I have often been said
before. One is that the proceeding was an act of war,
and was just as defensible or just as assailable, and on
the same grounds, as the war itself. The other re-
mark, though tolerably conclusive alike by Milton and by
Voltaire, is that the regicides treated Charles precisely
as Charles, if he had won the game, undoubtedly prom-
ised himself with law or without law that he would
treat them. The author of the attempt upon the Five
Members in 1642 was not entitled to plead punctilious
demurrers to the revolutionary jurisdiction. From the
first it had been My head or thy head, and Charles had


'Boo\\ font



THE death of the king made nothing easier, and
changed nothing for the better ; it removed no old
difficuhies, and it added new. Cromwell and his allies
must have expected as much, and they confronted the
task with all the vigilance and energy of men unalter-
ably convinced of the goodness of their cause, confi-
dently following the pillar of cloud by day, the pillar
of fire by night. Their goal was the establishment of
a central authority; the unification of the kingdoms;
the substitution of a nation for a dynasty as the main-
spring of power and the standard of public aims ; a set-
tlement of religion, the assertion of maritime strength ;
the protectional expansion of national commerce.
Long, tortuous, and rough must be the road. A small
knot of less than a hundred and fifty commoners repre-
sented all that was left of Parliament, and we have a
test of the condition to which it was reduced in the
fact that during the three months after Pride's Purge,
the thirteen divisions that took place represented an
average attendance of less than sixty. They resolved
that the House of Peers was useless and dangerous and
ought to be abolished. They resolved a couple of days
later that experience had shown the office of a king,
and to have the power of the office in any single per-
son to be unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous,.


and therefore that this also ought to be abolished. In
March these resolutions were turned into what were
called acts of Parliament. A Council of State was
created to which the executive power was entrusted.
It consisted of forty persons and was to last a year,
three fourths t)f its members being at the same time
members of Parliament. Provision was made for the
administration of justice as far as possible by the ex-
isting judges, and without change in legal principles
or judicial procedure. On May 19th a final act was
passed proclaiming England to be a free common-
wealth, to be governed by the representatives of the
people in Parliament without king or House of Lords.
Writs were to run in the name of the Keepers of the
Liberties of England. The date was marked as the
First Year of Freedom by God's blessing restored.

We can hardly suppose that Cromwell was under
any illusion that constitutional resolutions on paper
could transmute a revolutionary group, installed by
military force and by that force subsisting, into a
chosen body of representatives of the people adminis-
tering a free commonwealth. He had striven to come
to terms with the king in 1647, ^'""^^ ^^^d been reluc-
tantly forced into giving him up in 1648. He was
now accepting a form of government resting upon the
same theoretical propositions that he had stoutly com-
bated in the camp debates two years before, and subject
to the same ascendancy of the soldier of which he had
then so clearly seen all the fatal mischief. But Crom-
well was of the active, not the reflective temper.
What he saw was that the new government had from
the first to fight for its life. All the old elements of
antagonism remained. The Royalists, outraged in
their deepest feelings by the death of their lawful king,
had instantly transferred their allegiance with height-
ened fervor to his lawful successor. The Presbyte-


rians who were also Royalist were exasperated both by
the failure of their religious schemes, and by the sting
of political and party defeat. The peers, though only
a few score in number, yet powerful by territorial in-
fluence, were cut to the quick by the suppression of
their legislative place. The Episcopal clergy, from the
highest ranks in the hierarchy to the lowest, suffered
with natural resentment the deprivation of their spirit-
ual authority and their temporal revenues. It was
calculated that the friends of the policy of intolerance
were no less than five sevenths of the people of the
country. Yet the Independents, though so inferior
in numbers, w^ere more important than either Presby-
terians or Episcopalians, for the reason that their powder
was concentrated in an omnipotent army. The move-
ment named generically after them, comprised a hun-
dred heterogeneous shades, from the grand humanism
of Milton down to the fancies of whimsical mystics
who held that it was sin to wear garments, and believed
that heaven is only six miles off. The old quarrel
about church polity was almost overwhelmed by tur-
bid tides of theological enthusiasm. This enthusiasm
developed strange theocracies, nihilisms, anarchies,
and it soon became one of the most pressing tasks of
the new republic, as afterward of Cromwell himself,
to grapple with the political danger that overflowed
from the heavings of spiritual confusion. A Royalist
of the time thus describes the position : — "The Inde-
pendents possessed all the forts, tow^ns, navy and trea-
sure; the Presbyterians yet hold a silent power by
means of the divines, and the interest of some nobility
and gentry, especially in London and the great towns.
His Majesty's party in England is so poor, so dis-
jointed, so severely watched by both factions, that it is
impossible for them to do anything on their owm score."
The other two ancient kingdoms that were joined to


the new-born State of England, were each of them
centers of hostihty and peril to the common fabric.
On the continent of Europe, the new rulers of Eng-
land had not a friend; even the Dutch were drawn
away from them by a powerful Orange party that was
naturally a Stuart party. It seemed as if an accident
might make a hostile foreign combination possible,
and almost as if only a miracle could prevent it.
Rupert had possessed himself of a small fleet, the Roy-
alists were masters of the Isle of Man, of Jersey and
the Scilly Isles, and English trade was the prey of
their piratical enterprise. The Commonwealth had
hardly counted its existence by weeks, before it was
menaced by deadly danger in its very foundations,
by signs of an outbreak in the armed host, now
grown to over forty thousand men that had destroyed
the king, mutilated the Parliament, and fastened
its yoke alike upon the Parliamentary remnant, the
Council of State, and the majority of the inhabitants
of the realm. Natural right, law of nature, one He
as good as another He, the reign of Christ and his
saints in a fifth and final monarchy, all the rest of the
theocratic and leveling theories that had startled Crom-
well in 1647, were found to be just as applicable
against a military commonwealth as against a king by
divine right. The cry of the political leveler was led
by Lilburne. one of the men whom all revolutions are
apt to engender — intractable, narrow, dogmatic, prag-
matic, clever hands at syllogisms, liberal in uncharitable
imputation and malicious construction, honest in their
rather questionable way, animated by a pharisaic love
of self-applause which is in truth not any more meri-
torious nor any less unsafe than vain love of the
world's applause; in a word, not without sharp in-
sight into theoretic principle, and thinking quite as


little of their own ease as the ease of others, but with-
out a trace of the instinct for government or a grain of
practical common sense. Such was Lilburne the head-
strong, and such the temper in thousands of others
with whom Cromwell had painfully to wrestle for all
the remainder of his life. The religious enthusiasts,
who formed the second great division of the impracti-
cable, were more attractive than the scribblers of ab-
stract politics, but they were just as troublesome. A
reflective Royalist or Presbyterian might well be
excused for asking himself whether a party, with men
of this stamp for its mainspring, could ever be made
fit for the great art of working institutions, and con-
trolling the forces of a mighty state. Lilburne's popu-
larity, which was immense, signified not so much any
general sympathy with its first principles or his rest-
less politics, as aversion to military rule or perhaps
indeed to any rule. If the mutiny spread, and the
army broke away, the men at the head of the govern-
ment knew that all was gone. They acted with celer-
ity and decision. Fairfax and Cromwell handled the
mutineers with firmness tempered by clemency, with-
out either vindictiveness or panic. Of the very few
who suffered military execution, some were made pop-
ular martyrs — and this was an indication the more
how narrow was the base on which the Commonwealth
had been reared. Other dangers came dimly into
view. For a moment it seemed as if political revolu-
tion was to contain the seeds of social revolution ;
Levelers were followed by Diggers. War had wasted
the country and impoverished the people, and one day
(April, 1650) a small company of poor men were
found digging up the ground on St. George's Hill in
Surrey, sowing it with carrots and beans, and announc-
ing that they meant to do away with all enclosures.


It was the reproduction in the seventeenth century of
the story of Robert Kett of Norfolk in the sixteenth.
The eternal sorrows of the toiler led him to dream, as
in the dawn of the Reformation peasants had dreamed,
that the Bible sentences had for them, too, some sig-
nificance. "At this very day," wrote Winstanley, a
neglected figure of those times, "poor people are forced
to work for twopence a day, and corn is dear. And
the tithing priest stops their mouth, and tells them that
"inward satisfaction of mind" was meant by the decla-
ration : The poor shall inherit the earth. I tell you the
Scripture is to be really and materially fulfilled. You
jeer at the name Leveler. I tell you Jesus. Christ is
the head Leveler." (Gooch, p. 220.) Fairfax and
the council wisely made little of the affair, and people
awoke to the hard truth that to turn a monarchy into
a free commonwealth is not enough to turn the purga-
tory of our social life into a paradise. Meanwhile the
minority possessed of power resorted to the ordinary
devices of unpopular rule. They levied immense fines
upon the property of delinquents, sometimes confiscat-
ing as much as half the value. A rigorous censorship
of the press was established. The most diligent care
was enjoined upon the local authorities to prevent trou-
blesome public meetings. The pulpits were watched,
that nothing should be said in prejudice of the peace
and honor of the government. The old law of treason
was stiffened, but so long as trial by jury was left, the
hardening of the statute was of little use. The High
Court of Justice was therefore set up to deal with
offenders for whom no law was strong enough.

The worst difficulties of the government, however,
lay beyond the reach of mere rigor of police at home.
Both in Ireland and Scotland the regicide common-
wealth found foes. All the three kingdoms were in


a blaze. The prey of insurrection in Ireland had lent
fuel to rebellion in England, and the flames of rebellion
in England might have been put out, but for the neces- '
sities of revolt in Scotland. The statesmen of the
Commonwealth misunderstood the malady in Ireland,
and they failed to found a stable system in Britain ; but
they grasped with amazing vigor and force the prob-
lem of dealing with the three kingdoms as a whole.
This strenuous comprehension marked them out as
men of originality, insight, and power. Charles II
was in different fashions instantly proclaimed king in
both countries, and the only question was from which
of the two outlying kingdoms would the new king
wage war against the rulers who had slain his father,
and usurped the powers that were by law and right his
own. Ireland had gone through strange vicissitudes
during the years of the civil struggle in England. It
has, been said that no human intellect could make a
clear story of the years of triple and fourfold distraction
in Ireland from the rebellion of 1641 down to the death
of Charles I. Happily it is not necessary for us to
attempt the task. Three remarkable figures stand out
conspicuously in the chaotic scene. Ormonde repre-
sented in varied forms the English interest, one of the
most admirably steadfast, patient, clear-sighted and
honorable names in the list of British statesmen.
Owen Roe O'Neill, a good soldier, a man of valor and
character, was the patriotic champion of Catholic Ire-
land. Rinuccini, the Pope's nuncio, — an able and am-
bitious man, ultramontane, caring very little for either
Irish landlords or Irish Nationalists, caring not at all
for heretical Royalists, but devoted to the interests of
his church all over the world. — was in his heart bent
upon erecting a papal Ireland under the protection of
some foreign Catholic sovereign.


All these types, though with obvious differences on
the surface, may easily be traced in Irish affairs down
to our own century. The nearest approach to an
organ of Government was the supreme council of the
confederate Catholics at Kilkenny, in which the sub-
stantial interest was that of the Catholic English of
the Pale. Between them and the nuncio little love
was lost, for Ireland has never been ultramontane.
A few days before the death of the king (January,
1649) Ormonde made what promised to be a prudent
peace with the Catholics at Kilkenny, by which the
confederate Irish were reconciled to the crown, on the
basis of complete toleration for their religion and free-
dom for their Parliament. It was a great and lasting
misfortune that Puritan bigotry prevented Oliver from
pursuing the same policy on behalf of the common-
wealth as Ormonde pursued on behalf of the king.
The confederate Catholics, long at bitter feud with the
ultramontane nuncio, bade him intermeddle no more
with the affairs of that kingdom ; and a month after
the peace Rinuccini departed.

It was clear that even such small hold as the Parlia-
ment still retained upon Ireland was in instant peril.
The old dread of an Irish army being landed upon the
western shores of England in the Royalist interest,
possibly in more or less concert with invaders from
Scotland, revived in full force. Cromwell's view of
the situation was explained to the Council of State
at Whitehall (March 23, 1649). The question was
wdiether he would undertake the Irish command. "If
we do not endeavor to make good our interest there,"
he said, after describing the singular combination that
Ormonde was contriving against them, "we shall not
only have our interests rooted out there, but they will
in a very short time be able to land forces in England.

From a pastel portrait by Sir Peter Lely in the Irish N.ilional Portrait
Gallery, by permission of the Director.



I confess I had rather be overrun with a CavaHerish
interest than a Scotch interest ; 1 had rather be overrun
with a Scotch interest than an Irish interest; and I
think, of all, this is the most dangerous." Stating the
same thing differently he argued that even Englishmen
who were for a restoration upon terms, ought still to
resist the forced imposition of a king upon them either
by Ireland or by Scotland. In other words, the con-
test between the crown and the Parliament had now
developed into a contest, first for union among the
three kingdoms, and next for the predominance of
England within that union. Of such antique date are
some modern quarrels.



IT is not enough to describe one who has the work
of a statesman to do as "a veritable Heaven's mes-
senger clad in thunder." We must still recognize that
the reasoning faculty in man is good for something.
"I could long for an Oliver without Rhetoric at all,"
Carlyle exclaims, "I could long for a Mahomet, whose
persuasive eloquence with wild flashing heart and sim-
itar, is : 'Wretched mortal, give up that ; or by the
Eternal, thy maker and mine, I will kill thee! Thou
blasphemous, scandalous Misbirth of Nature, is not

Online LibraryJohn MorleyOliver Cromwell → online text (page 20 of 35)