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Oliver Cromwell

Trying and Executing a King

Lieutenant-General Cromwell

Crusading in Ireland and Scotland

For the first few months of 1647, Oliver Cromwell was concerned about what role he would play in the new government that followed the English Civil War. King Charles I was held hostage by Parliament, but Parliament itself had returned under the control of a conservative Presbyterian faction which favored restoration of the monarchy. From January to April, Cromwell did not sit in the House of Commons at all, and even contemplated leaving England to fight in the wars which continued to rage between Protestants and Catholics in Germany.

The troops of the New Model Army were restless as well, particularly because the soldiers had not been paid for some time. A mutiny seemed imminent, and Parliament sent Cromwell to Essex in May 1647 to bring the army back under Parliament's command. Although it was Parliament's understanding that Cromwell would offer the men only partial redress of their grievances, on May seventeen Cromwell and his fellow officers sent Parliament a startling report which said that they planned to stand united with the restless troops.

The message had immediate repercussions. Many in Parliament accused Cromwell of secretly fomenting rebellion among the soldiers, and wanted to see the Army disbanded entirely. On May twenty-five, Parliament issued an order to Cromwell and his officers to gradually disband the Army, but they refused to obey. Parliament was alarmed and voted to grant the troops their full back payment for the services they had rendered. The action came too late, however, as the Army, under Cromwell and the other officers, gathered at Newmarket in June and decided to occupy London.

On June fourteen the Army Council issued a declaration calling for a purge of Parliament, especially of the conservative Presbyterians who seemed too attached to the old system of monarchy. The declaration also proclaimed that the troops were not mercenaries at Parliament's disposal, but citizens of England wearing military uniforms. The Army Council also accused eleven leading Presbyterians of treason.

In the meanwhile, Cromwell had resumed his former position as Lieutenant-General of the Army. The troops saw him as a natural leader, but Cromwell made it clear that he was in favor of restoring military order and discipline. He rejected the democratic ideology being pushed by the radicals in the Army, who were known as the Levellers. At this point in time, in fact, Cromwell thought of the monarchy as a necessary part of social order and property rights, and worried about his soldiers' demands for populist rule.

While negotiations were being conducted between Charles I and the leaders of Parliament, the Army advanced closer to London. By July seventeen the Army was just outside the city, and the eleven accused Presbyterians resigned their seats. Conflict ensued when the deposed Presbyterians called the London mob to their assistance, and groups of armed Londoners invaded the House of Commons demanding the immediate restoration of king Charles. Parliament called the city militia to its defense. By August six, the New Model Army occupied London, restored order, and put Parliament at its mercy. Cromwell and his brother-in- law, Commissary-General Henry Ireton, resumed negotiations with the King, thereby angering the Levellers, who did not want to see a compromise settlement of any kind. Although the Levellers threatened the unity of the Army, Cromwell was able to subdue them with a fearsome speech at a meeting of the General Council of the Army.

Events took a dramatic turn on November eleven, 1647, when King Charles escaped from his captivity at Hampton Court in London and fled to the Isle of Wight. In mid-December, the King rejected a proposed settlement that had been drafted by Parliament, choosing instead to sign an agreement with the Scots, who promised to invade England with an army and fight on his behalf. The House of Commons responded to this on January three, 1648, with a motion to suspend any future negotiations with Charles. Cromwell heartily approved of this motion. While endorsing the motion in a speech in front of the House of Commons, Cromwell laid his hand on the hilt of his sword in a thinly veiled threat to all dissenters.

The Scots invaded England in the summer of 1648, initiating a short-lived "second civil war." Cromwell defeated the Scots at the battle of Preston in August, and pursued the invading army all the way back to Scotland for the next several weeks. During Cromwell's absence from London, major steps were taken under Ireton's direction. The Council of Army Officers called for the trial and execution of King Charles, and in December the House of Commons was purged entirely through a military coup d'état. When Cromwell returned to London and heard the news, he approved, although he had strong doubts about the propriety of executing the King.

Once the trial was agreed upon, however, Cromwell committed himself to the proceedings energetically. In January 1649, the King was brought before a court at Westminster Hall to answer the numerous charges that had been laid against him. Charles refused to recognize the court or to speak in his own defense, and was found guilty by just sixty-eight of the 135 judges at his trial-a majority of a single vote. Charles was beheaded on January thirty, 1649. It was reported that Cromwell, while watching the King's execution, uttered the memorable phrase, "cruel necessity."

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