Image of Hammer and Sickle

New Communist Party of Britain

OLIVER CROMWELL - And the Good Old Cause

by Andy Brooks

OLIVER CROMWELL, the leader of the English Revolution, was born in Huntingdon on 25th April 1599. This year is the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of England. It is being marked by a variety of events all around the country. Meetings, exhibitions, battle re-enactments and even the odd television or radio broadcast will mark the memory of those epic events associated with his fame.

The organisers are mainly academics or Civil War enthusiasts. There’ll be no tribute from the bourgeois state which owes its very existence to Cromwell’s victory, let alone the monarchy he briefly extinguished or the state Church of England the revolutionary parliament abolished. For the ruling class these are events best forgotten.

But other people remember other things. During the 1832 Reform Bill riots it was said that Cromwell’s shade returned to haunt the London house of the premier, the Duke of Wellington, pointing a spectral hand to the angry mobs outside.

And down the ages Cromwell’s memory continues to haunt us. In Victorian days he was seen as the champion of parliamentary freedom. Some streets were named after him and his statue was erected in the grounds of the House of Commons. For the Irish he remains a symbol of Protestant bigotry and English oppression - his rule a brutal episode in the colonisation of Ireland which continues in the north to this day.

Today the ruling class would have us believe that the English Revolution is irrelevant. That there was no Republic of England, or Commonwealth as it was known at home. That it was, as the Royalists of Cromwell’s day claimed, a "great rebellion" - a period "between kings" an "Interregnum" or a military dictatorship, which is what some of the radical leaders who emerged during the fighting accused Cromwell and his generals of setting up.

Of course, the ruling class can’t simply erase a large chunk of 17th century history. But they view it from a distorting mirror to serve their own class interests. So the English Revolution must be dismissed as a struggle between two extremes - the Puritan "Roundheads" versus the autocratic "Cavaliers" - a duel between conflicting religious bigots which involved only a fraction of the population. The Civil War and the republic that followed is therefore a blip, an aberration in the gradual and peaceful advance of society to the "Cool Britannia" they would have us believe we live in today.

Events tell another story. Charles I came to power in 1625. He was the son of the Scottish King, James Stuart, who inherited the throne of England and united the two kingdoms, which included the English possession of Ireland, in 1603.

The new king quickly came into conflict with the new rising class, the merchants, manufacturers, entrepreneurs, capitalists, and their allies amongst the landowners. Many were indeed already members of the "gentry" investing their profits in land and becoming landowners themselves. Others had married into the land-owning class.

They were not prepared to be taxed without representation; they regarded the King’s feudal rights as an obstacle to their advance; they turned to militant Protestantism in opposition to the official reformed Church of England. Many of them saw the King and his crowd as idle parasites who lived on their backs.

Their voice was parliament - not like our parliament today - but one that had emerged from the old feudal assembly of knights and lords. Only men with property could vote, though in England this covered 25 per cent of the population. The House of Commons was the focus of their demands.

Divine right

Charles had another theory to justify the privileges of the Crown and its supporters, the "divine right" of kings to rule.

In the past feudal rulers had claimed that their authority came from God. But in practice and in law it rested on the feudal contract. Vassals supplied services to the king in the form of soldiers, goods or money in return for acknowledged use of the land which they held as tenants to a Crown which was expected to finance its court through its own personal estates except in times of crisis.

The "sacred right" of kings was the theory used by the mighty Catholic rulers of Spain and France, and a whole host of minor princes, to deny any role to the fledgling bourgeois class in their own realms and to justify the crushing of all political or religious dissent.

But in England, as long ago as the 14th century, it had been established that no new taxes could be imposed without the consent of the Parliament in Westminster. In the past this was almost automatically given as the new bourgeois class allied itself with the Crown against the feudal landlords.

The Tudor monarchs had ended the War of the Roses - thirty years of feudal civil war. The Tudors had provided rich pickings for the up-and-coming merchants out of the plunder of the monasteries following the break with the Roman Catholic church. Now these new people wanted their say.

Civil War

Charles played the tyrant for 11 years, imposing arbitrary taxes on the bourgeoisie. Those who dared to complain were dealt with in secret by the Star Chamber and flung in the Tower. Eventually the King was forced to recall Parliament in 1641 to deal with a revolt in Scotland. Parliament wasn’t interested in fighting their Scottish cousins and moved to strip Charles of all his powers. His chief henchman, Thomas "Black Tom Tyrant" Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, was condemned to death as a traitor by Parliament. Charles’ other prop, Archbishop Laud, eventually followed him to the scaffold.

Civil War was inevitable and it erupted in 1642. Charles relied on the powerful lords of the north who could raise armies from their tenants and retainers. He counted on the loyalty of people from all classes who believed that the monarchy was entitled to rule as it had done so for centuries before. He knew that the Catholic minority - perhaps 15 per cent of the population then - feared Puritanism and would rally to a monarchy whose foreign alliances and personal beliefs turned increasingly to Rome.

This was England’s taste of the Thirty Years’ War, which had devastated northern Europe in the name of religion. Up and down the country our ancestors fought in fierce set-piece battles while old scores were settled in the name of Parliament or the King in country lanes and bloody skirmishes. Massacre, the firing squad and military law came in its wake.

The fighting ended in 1649 with the final victory of a new parliamentary force, the New Model Army, and a determination to settle accounts with the King and the Crown once and for all. Charles Stuart was put on trial and beheaded on 30th January 1649 "as a public enemy to the good people of this nation".

The Republic

Charles Stuart’s execution sent a frisson of fear throughout the courts of Europe. Kings had been murdered or executed before but never had the monarchy itself been tried and abolished at the same time.

The House of Commons declared before the trial 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, are the supreme power in this nation; that whatsoever is enacted or declared for law by the Commons in Parliament assembled hath force of law and all the people of the nation are concluded thereby; although the consent of the King or House of Peers be not had thereunto".

After Charles Stuart’s execution the monarchy was declared to be "unnecessary, burdensome and dangerous to the liberty, safety and public interest of the people". The House of Lords was declared to be "useless and dangerous" and was also abolished. On 19th May 1649 the Republic of England - as it was known abroad, or the Commonwealth - as it was styled in English, was proclaimed.

This wasn’t the first republic in Europe by any means. The Italian guilds and merchants had kicked out their feudal lords in the early Middle Ages establishing communes and republics like the great Republic of Venice which was still a power in Cromwell’s day. The Dutch mercantile class had already set up a republic after a long struggle to expel the Spanish from their country. But in Holland it was a national struggle between the Protestant Dutch against the Catholic King of Spain. In Europe the English Revolution was seen as something new, a class struggle and an event of momentous importance.

Levellers and Grandees

What was more frightening to the men of property was the rise of democratic demands amongst the rank-and-file of the New Model Army that threatened the very basis of private property itself. The Army was a political force from the start, made up of men who knew that they were fighting for and believed in the cause. Cromwell paid tribute to this spirit, at least amongst the officers, when he said: "I had rather have a plain russet-coated gentleman that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else".

The officers, like Cromwell, were Puritans, steeled by the conflict with a determination to rid the country of a tyrant and establish religious freedom. They wanted a "godly" state governed by the tenets of the Bible. They agreed with the demands for the end of the Crown, the nobility and the feudal rights that went along with them. But for many private soldiers they were "Grandees" and used another Spanish word "Junto", redolent of autocracy, for the Army Council.

The very army they led created new forces drawn from men without land or property - cobblers, smiths, draymen, artisans who had not vote but fought for a New England - still based on Biblical strictures but also one which would give them equal rights in this new Jerusalem.

The word "Leveller" was first used back in 1606 when a group of men in Warwickshire tried to resist the landowners’ seizure of common land by tearing down or "levelling" the hedges which marked out the new enclosures. They too used Scripture but in order to argue for equal political rights for all men regardless of how much property they owned.

Their influence grew up in the Army and amongst the apprentices and artisans in London and other cities through their pamphlets and newspapers. Eventually, they elected soldiers’ representatives - "Agents" and "Agitators" - to raise complaints with their officers and even with Parliament itself. Their demands formed the basis of two political programmes, "The Case for the Army" and "An Agreement of the People" drawn up by their leaders.

Leveller demands included religious toleration for all; the abolition of tithes and excise duties which hit the poor; the abolition of all privileges and the treatment of everyone equally under the law; the simplification of all laws so that anyone could understand them; the restoration of common land enclosed by the landowners and provision for disabled soldiers, widows and orphans.

For Cromwell this was nonsense. Only people who had a stake in the country could have a say in the way it was governed, his followers reasoned. If everyone had the vote then servants would vote for their master and the King would come back. While this was almost certainly true it wasn’t the reason Cromwell and the Grandees opposed the Levellers. Cromwell himself declared: "What is the purpose of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces".

Cromwell and the Grandees needed their support to deal with the waverers and Presbyterians in Parliament who were ready to deal with the King. Once the King was dead matters came to a head.


Cromwell ordered the Army to Ireland. Militarily, he had to crush the Royalists, who allied with the Catholic faction held most of the country in the name of Charles’ son, now proclaimed Charles II.

Hatred and loathing of Irish Catholics was widespread in England. It was widely believed that the Irish had carried out brutal atrocities against their Protestant neighbours in 1641. It was feared they were ready to form a new army for Charles. Significantly, the City of London, a Presbyterian base but always ready to use the new circumstances for its interests, had bought vast tracts of land in Ireland and wanted the Army to ensure it got its profits.

The Levellers refused to go. Some because the troops were months in arrears. Others took the principled stand against fighting to strip other people of their freedom. One Leveller, William Walwyn said that "the cause of the Irish natives in seeking their just freedoms’was the very same with our own cause here in endeavouring our own rescue and freedom from the power of our oppressors".

A Leveller leaflet called on the Army to disobey orders asking:

"Have we the right to deprive a people of the land God and nature has given them and impose laws without their consent?

"How can the conquered be accounted rebels, if at any time they seek to free themselves and recover their own?

"Whether Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, William Duke of Normandy or any other great conqueror of the world were any other than great lawless thieves, and whether it be not as unjust to take laws and liberties from our neighbours as to take goods from another of the same nation?

"Whether those who pretend for freedom (as the English now) shall not make themselves altogether inexcusable in entrenching upon others’ freedoms, and whether it be not the character of a true patriot to endeavour the just freedom of all men as well as his own?

"Whether the English would not do as the Irish have, if the Irish should dispossess and tyrannise over them?"


broke out in London followed by mutinies in the Army. Cromwell rallied his own supporters. The Levellers were isolated and some of the mutineers were shot. The most militant regiments were in fact sent to Ireland to get them out of the way.

Cromwell crushed Royalist and Irish resistance with fire and the sword. The cities of Drogheda and Wexford were stormed and their garrisons massacred. The bulk of the land was given to English landowners and troops in lieu of wages - many of them so poor they sold their rights to officers who founded new estates on seized land. Irish Catholic landlords were driven to the far west of the island. The Irish peasants were reduced to farm labourers or impoverished smallholders. Others were shipped off to virtual slavery to work in the English American colonies and the West Indies.

In 1653, Oliver Cromwell, the MP for Cambridge and parliamentary general during the Civil War, became head of state, the Lord Protector. Scotland had been brought under Commonwealth control. Royalist hopes of a counter-revolution were crushed with the defeat of their forces at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The democratic movement borne from the New Model Army, the Levellers, was crushed by Cromwell’s supporters and the most militant regiments sent to Ireland in a reconquest whose brutality is remembered to this day. Attempts to set up farming co-operatives by the Diggers, another group born from the Army, were also suppressed.

During its brief life the Commonwealth became of force in Europe. Culturally it inspired the great poetry of Milton and Marvell and other radical and pacifist religious movements like the Quakers who are still with us today.


The fighting had taken a fearful toll in lives and property in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The death toll including civilians came to around 870,000, some 11.6 per cent of the pre-Civil War population. Material damage was immense particularly in Ireland.

Oliver Cromwell died on 3rd September 1658 and was succeeded by his son, Richard. Unable to reconcile republican generals with the demands of the rich merchants and landowners to curb the influence of the Army, Richard Cromwell resigned the following year. The government collapsed and the monarchy was restored in 1660.

Cromwell’s death had been the occasion of genuine mourning. His funeral, modelled on that of the King of Spain, was the biggest London had ever witnessed.

Two years later his body was dug up and ritually hanged in public at Tyburn. Those still alive who had signed Charles Stuart’s death warrant were hanged, drawn and quartered. And the "good old cause" they had fought for was buried with them.

It was clear that a great revolution had taken place. It is equally clear that it was incomplete. The price of that historic failure has been paid by working people to this day. They are paying through their taxes and often with their lives to keep a Royal Family and its hangers-on in immense wealth, along with a privileged hereditary nobility which retained political power until the beginning of the 20th century.

The reasons for that failure are easily understood. No revolution can succeed unless it meets the material needs of the mass of the population. The high hopes of the revolutionary pioneers - the Levellers who wanted a democratic constitution and basic rights for all and the Diggers early co-operativism - were dashed within months of the establishment of the Republic.

Parliament’s supporters were divided almost from the start closing ranks only at moments of extreme crisis. The wealthy merchants and sympathetic landowners always wanted a compromise with the monarchy. They wanted a "mixed monarchy", an oligarchy of the landowners and the new bourgeoisie. They did want a Protestant church, but a Presbyterian Calvinist church that would replace Anglicanism as the state and only official creed. In the end they got what they wanted, dumping their religious scruples to pave the way for William of Orange in 1688.

Cromwell and his supporters from the Independent churches stood for complete religious freedom - including Jews but not Catholics - but because they were men of property and business themselves, albeit on a smaller scale than the Presbyterians, they crushed the radical elements in the New Model Army, losing rank-and-file support from the most militant supporters of the revolution for ever.

This middle strata, which included army officers who had done well out of the war, could only maintain power through reliance on an expensive regular army which the Presbyterians didn’t want to pay for - not to mention the defeated Royalist gentry and the Catholic minority.

But it wasn’t just paying for the army or putting up with senior officers they considered their social inferiors that the exploiters loathed. Many of them, after all, had tolerated it throughout the Commonwealth. It was the very real fear in the confusion after Cromwell’s early death of a new upsurge of radicalism from rank-and-file troops that led to the stampede to put another Charles on the throne.

It’s not surprising that in 1688, when they’d had enough of the Stuarts again, they offered the Crown to William of Orange, in the "Glorious Revolution" - glorious because the mass of the people played no part in it whatsoever.

The "Glorious Revolution" Marx said:

".....brought into power, along with William of Orange, the landlord and capitalist appropriators of surplus value. They inaugurated the new era by practising on a colossal scale thefts of State lands, thefts that had hitherto been managed more modestly. These estates were given away, sold at a ridiculous figure or even annexed to private estates by direct seizure. All this happened without the slightest observation of legal etiquette.

"The Crown Lands thus fraudulently appropriated, together with the Church estates, so far as these had not been lost again during the republican revolution, form the basis of the today princely domains of the English oligarchy. The bourgeois capitalists favoured the operation with the view, among others, to promoting free trade in land, to extending the domain of modern agriculture on the large farm system, and to increasing their supply of agricultural proletarians ready to hand. Besides, the new landed aristocracy was the natural ally of the new bankocracy, of the new hatched haute finance and of the large manufacturer, then dependent on protective duties."

The good old cause

Though four centuries have passed the ruling class still cannot come to terms with the English Revolution. Cromwell’s remains and those of the other "regicides" are still denied the Christian burial they would have wanted. The very fact that England was a republic from 1649 until 1660 is virtually ignored in most school text books and a recent television programme on Cromwell based on the Leveller stance could appear without mentioning the republic or commonwealth once or dealing with the events in Ireland.

For communists the English Revolution is a paramount importance. It influenced the thinking of the American revolutionaries. The Victorian utopian socialist and co-operator, Robert Owen, embodied some of the ideas of the Digger philosopher, Gerrard Winstanley, in his writings. And even today the question of the monarchy and the House of Lords is still unresolved.

In 1948 the Communist leader Harry Pollitt said: "When the growing capitalist class, the poor farmers and craftsmen, led by Oliver Cromwell, shattered the system of feudalism, and executed Charles I in the process, reigning monarchs and ruling nobilities everywhere saw the pattern of future history unfolding. The name of Cromwell was reviled, then, as much as Stalin’s is today, by the ruling powers of the old and doomed order of society.

"The English Revolution is "great", because it broke the barriers to man’s advance. It allowed the capitalist class to open the road leading to modern large-scale industry. It permitted science to serve the needs of the new capitalist society. And, because of these developments, it provided the basis on which, for the first time, a new class, the working class, began to grow, to organise and itself to challenge the prevailing system of society".

Major-General Harrison was one of the "regicides" sentenced to a gruesome death in 1660 when the monarchy was restored. Just before he stood on the scaffold some-one cried out "Where is your Good Old Cause?"

The old veteran smiled, clapped his hand to his heart, saying: "Here it is, and I am going to seal it with my blood".

It was a cause well worth fighting for.