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The forgotten county


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Oliver Cromwell and our Parliamentary Democracy

- Open Meeting 5th February 2016

Oliver Cromwell.

Not such a bad chap after all!


    We perhaps think of Cromwell as England's most tyrannical kill-joy, who not only banned dancing but installed himself as a republican dictator. So when Howard Robinson came to tell the Society about Cromwell and his role in our democracy, Rachel Surman was prepared for an evening of scathing boos and scornful hisses. But she was in for a surprise, as she explains below.


  It was with not a little trepidation that our speaker, Howard Robinson, swung his car into Stow Town Square to park for the evening.  He then walked up the stairs of St. Edward’s Hall into the venue for his talk, a venue how appropriately decorated with over 50 portraits of Civil War personalities and protagonists (from the town’s Christie Crawfurd Collection).  How would his assessment of Oliver Cromwell be received by the 91 audience members?  Would there be any hecklers amongst us, perhaps, in what he imagined to be a Royalist stronghold?  After all, Howard clearly knew he had to ask the “Marmite” question:  Oliver Cromwell – are you a lover or a hater?”


  Howard began by explaining he was not a historian – but had always been interested in Cromwell since he was a little boy and found a document in his mother’s desk which showed his own ancestry as 9 x great grandson of Oliver Cromwell!  (Howard is descended from Henry Cromwell, Oliver’s 4th son and who duly became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland).  Howard also mentioned he had a friend at school by chance called David Villiers, a direct descendant of the Duke of Buckingham (a supporter and friend of Charles I) – what an amazing coincidence was that!


  We were given an account of Cromwell’s life packed to the hilt with personal details few of us really knew:  born 1599 in Huntingdon into an upper middle class family, a portrait commissioned of Oliver at 2 years of age now hangs in Chequers; Oliver attended the same school as Samuel Pepys; he sold his house in 1630 for £1,800 which equates to something like £1.5 million today, proving Oliver was a wealthy man.


  But Howard also wanted to dispel many of the untruths or myths which he felt had been mistakenly and unfairly attributed to Cromwell.  For instance, we learnt that Cromwell did not in fact ban Christmas or close the theatres.  This had happened as the result of Bills passed in 1642 by the Independent Party in Parliament, years before Cromwell came to prominence.  (Apparently it was felt that Christmas had become too commercial ... sounds familiar? .... and theatres had become places of ill-repute, harbouring much drunkenness and prostitution!)  Howard felt the idea of Cromwell as a ‘kill-joy’ was untrue as he actively promoted music and drama and it was only during the period of the Protectorate that women were first allowed to act on stage.  Howard also argued that the idea of Cromwell as iconoclast, destroying monuments etc was also false quoting the case of Ely Cathedral tower supposedly brought down by Cromwell’s troops and artillery but, rather, brought down by storms and subsidence over 100 years after Cromwell died.


  Following this Howard went on to try and correct what he felt were common misinterpretations of Cromwell’s part in the execution of the king and subsequent role in the country’s governance.  Cromwell was portrayed by Howard as a man not hungry for power himself and who had not been driven by a cold desire to remove a king and take over his role himself.  Instead we heard how Cromwell was a back-bench MP at the time Charles I declared war on Parliament in 1642 and had not been 1 of the 5 MP’s (or agitators) arrested for high treason when Charles had forcibly entered Parliament.   Cromwell’s star rose as he became an inspirational army leader who set up the New Model Army, based on proper training, discipline and regular payment, which contributed to the ultimate defeat of the Royalist forces.  In fact Cromwell had a proud military record: he never fought in a battle in which he was defeated.


  Surprisingly for some of us, Howard illustrated that during all this time of the Civil War Cromwell continued to remain a monarchist!  From the time of Charles’ house arrest in 1646, through the Putney Debates the following year, the 2nd phase of the Civil War and the king’s subsequent re-capture in 1648, Cromwell sought to negotiate a settlement with Charles I:   not to have him removed but rather asking him to accept a diminution of his authority over Parliament.  In fact the decision to have the king tried for Treason against the People was made by a Council of State – which didn’t include Cromwell who was at the time on parliamentary business at the siege of Pontefract – and Howard explained there was more than a hint of a suggestion that Cromwell had even tried to negotiate with Charles on the very night before sentence was passed.  Not the action of someone pressing for the removal of the sovereign.  When Cromwell saw the executed body of the king he called it a “cruel necessity” – parliament had become so frustrated that this had been the only way to deal with such a stubborn monarch who believed in his absolute right to rule.


  Any ‘misplaced’ ideas that Cromwell wanted sole power for himself were robustly challenged by our speaker explaining instead that Cromwell worked hard to establish Parliament and a Council of State of which he was Chairman.  In 1653 he was approached, and consequently agreed, to become Lord Protector – 4 years after the execution of the king.  In this position he had the power to call and dissolve parliaments but was obliged to seek the majority vote of the Council of State.  Until his death in 1658 it was pointed out that Cromwell only vetoed 2 Council decisions over 5 years – again not the action we would probably subscribe to a would-be dictator!


  Would Cromwell have been well pleased with our modern day democracy with governmental powers residing in the hands of the Houses of Parliament rather than the sovereign?  Howard definitely thought so!  He described Cromwell as a man who, despite being a moderate, came ‘out of the pack’ – a figure of hatred among some and unfairly accused of everything disliked for whom ‘mud sticks’.  But Howard also quoted Professor Richard Holmes in saying: “Cromwell was an ordinary man with a passion for this country.  When Britain stood on the verge of anarchy he emerged from obscurity to help give us parliamentary democracy, our proudest ever achievement.  Not bad for a Fenland farmer!”


  So, in conclusion, after a fascinating talk, nearly all of us were ‘newly-acquainted’ with our speaker’s ancestor who looked down on us from the walls of St. Edward’s Hall:  his background, his role in removing the king and thus laying the foundation of our modern parliamentary democracy – Oliver that is, not Howard!


Cromwell portt Cromwell parliament

The best known portrait of Cromwell - as he said himself "Warts and all."

Cromwell in parliament

Cromwell stat

Cromwell 's statue in a prominent position outside the Houses of Parliament