On 24 March 1603 Queen Elizabeth I “of famous memory” – “We need not be ashamed to call her so”, as Oliver Cromwell once said – went the way of all flesh. She had received the last ministrations of the Church of England from her “little black husband”, John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, at her command, had chastised but not crushed the rising English Puritans. During her final days upon earth the seventy-year old Queen, ruler of England for more than forty-five years and years and proven mistress of her realm, had lain pensive and silent in her palace. Like Oliver Cromwell when he came to die two generations later, she had no wish to eat or to drink, but to make what haste she could to be gone. It was clear to contemporaries, as it has become to posterity, that an epoch in English history was ending.
Four years earlier, on 25th April 1599, a son had been born to a modest country gentleman named Robert Cromwell and to his wife Elizabeth in the country town of Huntingdon, a son whom they named Oliver after his rich uncle. Thus Oliver Cromwell, like William Shakespeare, was an Elizabethan, and was brought up to learn in his youth, while the first Stuarts were reigning, about the splendid and exciting times when England had established herself as a great Protestant Power in Europe, when English adventurers began to sail distant oceans in search of fabulous plunder, and when Sir Francis Drake had “singed the beard” of the King of Spain.
Not that those Elizabethan days had been free from many dangers and anxieties. In the opinion of not a few of her subjects and of all her foreign enemies, Queen Elizabeth I was illegitimate, a bastard and a heretic, the unwanted daughter of Anne Boleyn, the Queen whose execution had been ordered by her husband on a charge of adultery. In the wild areas of the north, rebellions had an alliance between Spain and Scotland had been adumbrated to thrust her from the throne and replace her be her Roman Catholic rival, Mary Queen of Scots, claiming descent from the founder of the Tudor dynasty. From foes abroad came the boast that 20,000 English Roman Catholics would upon a given signal, rise against the Queen of England for the sake of the old religion. For had not Pope Pius V in 1570 published a Bull deposing her from her throne? Gregory XIII, who succeeded Pius V in the papal see, welcomed the notion of assassinating the English Queen. Assassination was a fashionable political weapon of the day (Queen Elizabeth herself preferred the idea of Mary Queen of Scots being put to death by her gaoler to ordering her public execution); in August 1572 thousands of French Protestants were massacred by royal command on St. Bartholomew’s Day, and in June 1584, at a second attempt, Prince William of Orange, the Protestant heir of the Dutch, was murdered. Two years later the Pope offered a million crowns to King Philip II of Spain if he were to carry out a successful invasion of England.
Meanwhile, soon after Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, an English college had been set up at Douai to train missionary priests for the reconversion of England. In 1580 the Society of Jesus took the task in hand, and Jesuits daringly flitted to and fro from the Continent, hiding with sympathizers in nearly every county and creating alarm upon all sides. The Queen’s government retorted by making it high treason for any of her subjects to withdraw from the Church of England to Rome, and by imposing a crippling fine of £20 a month for failure to attend Anglican services. Thus both cross and sword were raised aloft to destroy Elizabethan England. Gradually but inexorably the country had been committed to the Protestant cause in Europe. In the fifteenth-sixties Queen Elizabeth promised aid to the French Huguenots; in 1558 she made a treaty with the men of the Dutch Netherlands in revolt against the Spanish Empire. Her favourite, the Earl of Leicester, left with an army for The Hague, and Sir Francis Drake scoured the world “beyond the line” to seize Spanish treasure. War against Spain followed, and it was prolonged years after the resounding defeat of the Armada in the summer of 1588. In June 1896, another of the Queen’s favourites, the first Earl of Essex, sacked the city of Cadiz. Efforts were exerted by English forces to procure a foothold on the continental mainland so as to neutralize Spanish plans to invade England from what is now Belgium. Thus there arose, largely in response to Catholic revolutionary plotting, directed from Rome and Madrid, a foreign policy of anti-Spanish character, sustained by naval might, supported by general aid and encouragement to European Protestants. That, too, was to be, by and large, the foreign policy of Oliver Cromwell.
Queen Elizabeth I insisted that foreign policy, like matters of religion (she had been made Supreme Governor of the Church of England by the Act of Uniformity in 1559), was the sole concern of the Crown. Nevertheless, she needed the assistance of her parliaments, who granted her subsidies for her war against Spain. She, for her part, continued the policy first pursued by her father, King Henry VIII, of employing the House of Commons to strengthen the monarchy. The peerage was now kept in its place, and some great men who sullied their honour by plotting against the Queen were executed. In the Commons the Queen’s policy was represented by a group of capable Privy Councillors, men like William Cecil and his son Robert, Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Christopher Hatton, who handled their fellow members with tact and skill, and while invoking their patriotism, under the Queen’s orders, prevented the House from trespassing upon the royal prerogatives – the traditional rights of the Throne.
But the early parliaments of Queen Elizabeth’s reign were both obstreperous and critical, and before she died the Queen had received her fill of them. It was under pressure from her first House of Commons that a Protestant settlement had been quickly effected after “Bloody Mary’s” death. In the Commons of 1563 a Puritan group of some forty-five members caused its influence to be felt at Court. As Elizabeth learned the craft of kingship, as the realities of the threats from abroad became obvious, and when the war with Spain broke out in the fifteen-eighties, the Commons became a little more pliable. Yet Puritan leaders, like the two Wentworth brothers, had risen to challenge the government’s policies, and claims for freedom from arrest and freedom of speech for members of parliament were regularly asserted. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, questions of parliamentary procedure were settled. But the Queen never yielded over what she deemed to be matters of royal prerogative. She had members arrested, or “sequestered”, if they stepped out of bounds; she qualified their freedom of speech; she addressed the members of her Lower House with supreme artistry and graciousness; but she ruled them with an iron hand in a velvet glove. Still, under the shadow of her throne, London was a restless, eager, energetic centre of political activity, expanding trade, religious agitation, and artistic endeavour, and Westminster lay close to the heart of it all. By the end of the reign the Commons were beginning to show signs of winning the initiative in legislation, were still striving to make their views felt about matters of high policy, and never fully abandoned their prolonged attempts to reshape the religious practices of the nation.
The House of Commons was then composed chiefly of landed gentry. It was accepted by all as an institution that conferred social prestige. The aim of any distinguished commoner was to go to Westminster as the premier knight of his shire. although the Queen enfranchised over thirty boroughs during her reign, the country gentlemen invaded these boroughs and probably not more than fifty members out of a House of 460 were merchants or tradesmen. In spite of the wider openings for foreign trade created as a result of adventuring abroad, England was still, when Queen Elizabeth I died, essentially an agricultural country, and fortunes were acquired by rising families be means of astutely arranged marriages settlements, by growing wool for cloth upon a large scale, by trade or the practice of the law, or by obtaining grants of office through royal advisers, and favourites. In the counties the people were ruled by Lord-Lieutenant first established by the Tudors, by the sheriffs who organized and frequently manipulated the elections to parliament, and above all, by Justices of the Peace who met at quarter sessions and were responsible for enforcing Acts of parliament and managing social affairs. In those days when communications were primitive, roads poor, and regular postal services almost non-existent, the government was mainly dependent upon the voluntary co-operation of the local magnates and gentry for effective administration. Every ruler in Whitehall, at a time when neither a police force nor a standing army existed, had either to bow to the wishes of the local magnates or to find some extraordinary means (as Cromwell was to do later with his major-generals) of maintaining the authority of the central government over the English provinces.
To parliament came, whenever they were summoned, these leading local gentry – the Lords-Lieutenants to the House of Lords, many of the J.P.s to the House of Commons – to give expression to their grievances, to approve legislation, and reluctantly to vote taxation. without their goodwill the Queen could neither enforce order at home nor wage war abroad. Even then she could hardly make ends meet. Careful, even parsimonious, as she was, she was compelled to sell part of the Crown lands to help pay for her armies and fleets. It was obvious that if her successor was a married man with extravagant tastes and lacking her acquired skill in the handling of parliament, these English gentlemen who gathered periodically from the shires and boroughs, assertive and conscious of their strength, would exercise a growing influence upon national policy. It was to these gentry – an expanding middle class – that Oliver Cromwell belonged.
Though, on the surface at least, the country appeared to be peaceably settled while Oliver Cromwell was a small child – King James I, when he came down from Scotland, held the most optimistic opinions about his prospects in a richer kingdom – the economic outlook was more doubtful. A depression occurred as the Spanish war waned, and the last years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign were clouded by bad harvests and by recurrent plagues. Prices were rising in consequence of the inflow of silver from South America to Europe, but, owing to the commonness of long leases, rents did not necessarily rise with prices, and the smaller landowners suffered. But landowners who had accumulated capital or proved themselves to be businesslike managers of their estates did well enough – the Spencers of Northamptonshire were examples of this prospering class – but smaller men without capital or other sources of income than rents or who were extravagant spenders, soon found themselves in trouble. On the whole, however, though families rose and fell in the scale of wealth, as at any other time in English history, the general picture is one of a thriving upper and middle class. After all, much of the wealth of the Church had been redistributed among the laity in consequence of the Reformation, and had fructified in their hands. Big fortunes were being built in the City of London, where trade, industries, crafts, and money-lender flourished.
The population of England and Wales was only about five million, out of whom a quarter was concentrated in the Home Counties and perhaps one-twelfth in London itself. A few hundred wealthy families were, under the Queen, the real power in the nation. In most counties there were a few important families which acquired a virtually prescriptive right to direct local government and represent their neighbours and dependants at Westminster. In Huntingdonshire the Cromwells were, in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, unquestionably the dominant family. But this was not a caste system. The gentry intermarried with lawyers, with other professional men, and with merchants, all of whom could earn an excellent living. Younger sons of landed families were often apprenticed and became in their turn important men in the city. The contrast between rich and poor was marked. Whereas peers of the realm might obtain a large income from lands and offices, the day labourer would be lucky to earn eightpence a day. On the coat-tails of the well-to-do hung the small landlords and hard-working farmers with incomes in the £300- to £500-a- year bracket. To that class Robert Cromwell, father of Oliver, belonged.
The gulf between rich and poor was to be observed among the clergy as well as among the laity. The bishops, it is true, had lost social status as a result of the Reformation, and had been transformed from feudal landlords into paid administrators. Since they held their properties only for their lives, they had little impulse to be improving landlords; they generally had, in effect, to pay for their appointments, and as Queen Elizabeth was “the supreme plunderer of the Church” , they were obliged to look after their material interests as best they could. Pluralism and nepotism were frequent. Most of the higher clergy held offices to which they never attended in person. One bishop used the fines, which he was entitled to exact when his leases fell in, to provide portions for his nieces whom he married to clergy and on whom he conferred preferments in his diocese; another bishop is said to have leased episcopal manors to his wife, children, sisters, and cousins. The Bishop of Durham still claimed feudal dues on a medieval scale. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York enjoyed substantial incomes, and when John Whitgift was Archbishop of Canterbury he had a big retinue and an armoury capable of equipping a troop of cavalry.
The parish clergy, on the other hand, were for the most part very poorly paid, many of them hardly above the level of subsistence. “Some are so poor” it was said, “that they cannot attend their ministry, but are fain to keep schools, nay ale-houses, some of them.” No wonder the bishops were disliked by many lower clergy. Vicars were usually dependent upon pittances from la patrons who had acquired the tithes, and although Archbishop Whitgift nad King James I tried to increase their incomes, the clergy as a whole were extremely badly off, of a low standard of education, and suffered every temptation to scamp their duties.
Although Puritanism in due course was to become a rapidly anti-episcopalian movement, it was less the wealth or corruption of the Elizabethan bishops than the ignorance and idleness of many of the lower clergy that provoked the early ardours of those who dedicated themselves to purifying the Church. Some of the first Puritans were keen to substitute nation-wide preaching of an evangelical and stimulating character for the set services of the Elizabethan Church; they wanted to press further the anti-ritualistic tendencies represented by the prayer-book of 1552, getting rid of such remaining Roman Catholic ceremonies as the use of the ring in marriage, baptism at the font, or communion at the altar. Evangelically minded clergy, who had drunk at the fountain of Calvinism in Geneva and were inspired to remodel the entire government of the Church upon a Presbyterian pattern, were in Queen Elizabeth’s reign a minority. But all of the Puritans wanted to purge church worship of its traditional Catholic characteristics, and to base its services entirely upon preaching and prayer. The Anglican clergy preached comparatively little, reading to their congregations from time to time prescribed homilies on such acceptable topics as the obligations of wives and the evils of drink. Queen Elizabeth herself disapproved of too many sermons, and was even known to interrupt court preachers with whom she disagreed or who went on too long. The early Puritan movement reached its climax five years after she came to the throne, when a motion for the abolition of all the practices most disliked by the Puritans, including even the wearing of surplices, was defeated in the Lower House of Convocation by only a single vote.
The Queen consistently opposed the Puritan principles from the very beginning of her reign, and she never changed her opinions: she suppressed a movement in the Parliament of 1571 to revise the Prayer Book; she acted rapidly when a temerarious gentleman introduced a Bill in 1587 to adopt the Geneva Prayer Book and abolish the existing government of the Church; she ordered her bishops to repress all the elaborate attempts to convert the Church from within to a kind of Presbyterian establishment. She saw to it that the archbishops, by publishing disciplinary instructions, upheld the middle way between Roman Catholicism and Presbyterianism, which she thought was the path that her Church should follow, a path persuasively mapped out by the “Judicious” Dr Hooker in his famous book, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. The supposed authors and printers of a series of outspoken Puritan tracts known as the “Marpelate Libels” were pursued and arrested. (It is significant that their probable author, who escaped punishment, was a prominent member of parliament.) Professor Thomas Cartwright of Cambridge University, who advocated the full Presbyterian system, was deprived of his Fellowship and went into exile for some years. By the last decade of the reign, because of the unrelenting exertions of the Queen and her Archbishop, the puritan drive had been checked, but only temporarily.
The Puritans were not distinguished by any differences of theology or doctrine for the rest of the Church. Although some modern writers have attempted to draw fine distinctions, the great majority of the leaders of the English Church in the latter part of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign believed in the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination. But granted that this was Christianity, England was a Christian nation under a Christian Queen, Sir John Neale, our leading authority on the reign, has recently reaffirmed his belief in the reality of the Queen’s religion; she certainly called upon the name of God often enough in her speeches. All her subjects were Christians, except perhaps for a handful of Crypto-Jews concentrated in the City of London. But within the ruling class in Church and State were nuances of faith: theirs was a flexible religion. Ministers of State like Lord Burghley, the Earl of Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham sympathized with the Puritan movement. So did some of the archbishops and bishops so long as their offices were not attacked. The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church were perfectly susceptible of a variety of interpretations, including a Puritan one. After all, once King Henry VIII had begun the reformation of the Church, why should it stop? But his daughter disliked and fought against what she regarded as the subversive, seditious, and democratic outlook of the Puritan enthusiasts, and she worked persistently against them. Nevertheless, the obvious weaknesses of the Church were not mended, the status of the clergy was not raised, the attacks on ritual were not stilled. The call for Church reform permeated society and proved particularly attractive to the new mercantile and professional classes who were beginning to command influence in the English towns and ports as the new century dawned. By the time that Oliver Cromwell was growing to manhood, Puritanism in a broad sense had already become a significant part of the English social landscape.
In the first half of the seventeenth century England was, as it has never been again since, essentially a Christian country. The large qualities of private letters for the period, which have survived in now decaying country houses and have come down to us in surprisingly legible handwriting, are suffused with a deep, personal, Christian faith. Life on earth, after all, was even shorter than it is now and fraught with extreme perils. If men and women managed to overcome the hazards of youth, including primitive midwifery, childish diseases, and horribly insanitary conditions in towns, especially in the capital, they might still be swept away by smallpox, or bubonic plague, or by illnesses for which there was no known cure. Doctoring was still elementary, consisting chiefly of blood-letting, purges, and fantastic medicines. Even physicians who rose to positions of authority and trust admitted that life was a gamble and might as well be enjoyed as long as it lasted. Consequently, few people were not obsessed with the thought that they were ever at the mercy of an inscrutable Providence, that their fate was determined for them from eternity, and that their only hope of a satisfying peace of mind was to be found in the thought of everlasting happiness in other worlds to come. to eighteenth-century rationalists, as to twentieth-century sceptics, there has seemed something ludicrous and slightly nauseating in Oliver Cromwell’s dependence upon providental guidance and in his anxiety over the right Christian approach to questions of politics (it was more understandable to the mid-Victorians), but this, after all, was the accepted and not exceptional approach to life among the men of his own generation and background.
Puritanism, as Dr. Rowse had observed, began as a movement for reform, and became, as such movements do, a campaign for power. In its first stages it did not aim to destroy or even capture the Church, but merely to remould it and rid it of its excrescences. During Quee Elizabeth I’s reign, the movement was strong both in the Lower House of Convocation and in the House of Commons. In the reign of King James I funds were raised by well-to-do sympathizers to buy up Church impropriations and benefices so as to impose the appointments of Puritan-minded preachers at key-points within the Church. A former Huguenot church in London was selected as a training centre whence preachers with a radical frame of mind should go forth to evangelize the Church from within. An idea that became popular with Oliver Cromwell was that such Christian “lecturers” should move around the country preaching both in churches and in the open air to offset the “dumb mouths” of the parish incumbents, to arouse congregations from inertia, and to destroy all the relics of popery. But the bishops, alerted by the Elizabethan tradition of scotching all such subversion, could not be by-passed by any ingenious devices of that kind. When King James I, though a new-comer from Presbyterian Scotland, refused to be cajoled into sympathizing with English Puritanism, and when King Charles I, himself a ritualist by instinct, positively rejected it, its advocates were driven in irresistibly towards an open assault upon the bishops, and in the end, sustained a revolution that temporarily overthrew not only the existing Church but also its defended, the monarchy.
No one can hope to understand a revolution without some picture of what on before. In the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I occurred a movement of the House of Commons towards vigorous independence, the spread of Puritanism, coupled with discontent over the rule of the Church of England, and, above all, the expansion of an ambitious middle class. That was the inheritance of the Stuarts who for so long had governed the unruly Scots with varying success. That was the background of the coming rebellion against them and of Oliver Cromwell’s infancy.