Oliver Cromwell was arguably the most important figure in England during the turbulent era of the English Civil War, a conflict which began in 1642 and ended with the beheading of King Charles I in January of 1649. The beheading of Charles was the most sensational symbol of the seventeenth-century Parliamentary revolution in England. It punctuated a long-standing dispute between the Royalists, who supported the king, and the Parliamentarians, who championed the legislative body.

At the center of the dispute were the issues of taxation and religion. Charles I primarily relied on the English Parliament to help him raise revenues to fight wars. Many members of parliament, however, thought they should have a more active role in government, and thought it should be mandatory for the king to consult them before raising taxes. Charles was also seen as being very friendly to Roman Catholics, which troubled the many Protestants in Parliament, especially Puritans like Cromwell. The Puritans wanted to reform the Church of England, which they saw as being too adherent to the traditions and rituals of the Catholic Church. Charles I, whose own wife, Henrietta Maria, was Catholic, was seen as an obstacle to such reform.

Also at the heart of the conflict were disagreements between powerful factions over the proper role the king should play in government. The Stuart family, which included Charles I, was inclined toward royal absolutism. This idea held that the king's power came from God, which meant the king was infallible and that no one else's views or needs could possibly be as important. Cromwell and most Parliamentarians, however, were inclined toward constitutionalism, a philosophy in which the king shares power with the nobility and the common people.

When the English Civil War came to a conclusion, Cromwell was named Lord Protector, making him the most powerful man in England. The policies Cromwell pursued as Lord Protector set him apart from the Stuart rulers who came before and after him. He was militantly Protestant, to the point where conservatives in government began to see him as a significant threat to the Church of England. Cromwell also favored a legislative body in which the government reflected more directly the interests of the English people. He was in no way a democrat, however, and abhorred radical republicanism as much as he detested royal absolutism and Roman Catholicism. As Lord Protector, Cromwell frequently used his control of the army to make sure his thoughts and wishes were heeded. He was quick to dissolve parliament when it failed to agree with him. Cromwell's government sparked a great debate in England over the role of a standing army in the state, as well as over the rightful functions of Parliament in England. His government was the focus of continued Royalist opposition, and the monarchy was in fact able to return to power after Cromwell's death in 1658.

Although the Protectorate continued for two years after Cromwell's death, a complete Restoration of the Stuart monarchy was achieved by 1660. Cromwell's mark on English political life was indelible, however. His role in the Civil War and his various reforms as Lord Protector altered the way many perceived the English constitution and the proper role of the branches of government–Crown, Lords, and Commons. Years later, in the Revolution of 1688, many of the issues that inspired such bloody fighting during Cromwell's time would resurface. Unlike Cromwell's commonwealth, however, the Revolution of 1688 would find permanent solutions to England's great constitutional crises with a minimal amount of bloodshed and lay the groundwork for the modern English state.

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