Does Oliver Cromwell merit a statue outside the Houses of Parliament?

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Tiyash Banerjee

Does Oliver Cromwell merit a statue outside the Houses of Parliament?
In order to answer this question I will consider three lines of inquiry: what does it take to merit a statue outside the Houses of Parliament? does Oliver Cromwell fulfil the criteria for public commemoration? why is Oliver Cromwell so divisive a figure in public opinion? Cromwell’s role as Lord Protector gave him many of the powers of a monarch and he was able to provide leadership in a time of great need. Not only did Cromwell act as a constant political leader, his abilities as a military leader enabled the end of the Civil War, and the amelioration of England’s role on the global stage.
The Houses of Parliament serve as a symbol of democracy, as well as national pride, due to their antiquity and singular architectural beauty. Surrounding the Houses of Parliament are statues, and the essay invites a re-examination of Oliver Cromwell’s statue outside such a building, but first we must consider what is required to be worthy of a statue outside the Houses of Parliament. Beside the Houses of Parliament is a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffrage movement. Emmeline, in her role as leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, initially favoured non-violent methods of protest, but finding them ineffective, her organisation turned to acts of militancy. Militancy took the form of letter-bombs, window-smashing, and arson attacks, although many would now use the term political extremism, some define these as acts of terrorism. An example of this political extremism includes the WSPU’s attempt to blow up a house built for Lloyd George, news of which came on 20th February 1913. This is not to say that others that have received statues are free of guilt or wrongdoings, since it was Lloyd George who ordered the British bombing of Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran and Iraq during the First World War.1 Lloyd George was also embroiled in a scandal of selling peerages and knighthoods, in order to augment income, as a result of which the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act of 1925 was passed. Untarnished figures in politics seem rare, and these acts of militancy or others illustrative of moral ambiguity, while creating moral ambivalence, do not disqualify their overwhelmingly positive impact on society. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst still made monumental strides in allowing women to vote, and Lloyd George was key in the creation of the welfare state. This only addresses two of the statues - an examination of related monumental figures often invites debate and controversy, yet these individuals still merit statues outside the Houses of Parliament. The fundamental requirement seems to be a significant and primarily positive contribution to society. Cromwell, like many influential figures, is a complex character, about whom it is difficult to draw single and conclusive sentiments. Very few are utterly irreproachable when examined in this way, and the attempts to vilify end up diminishing Cromwell’s national contribution. Similarly, attempts to exonerate Cromwell of all crimes offer a reductive view of the military decisions taken, and the long-lasting effect these had on Irish communities.
Oliver Cromwell’s political emergence came during a time of national uncertainty, and as a leader, Cromwell was able to provide stability and a relatively tolerant government. In 1657, he declared that his duty was 'temporary, to supply the present emergency,' and this role was aptly filled. Despite his reputation of militant action, as a military leader it is inevitable that there will be blood on his hands, and critical perspectives often fail to consider totality of the situation. The actions in Ireland, namely Drogheda, whilst acts of brutality must be looked at in the total circumstances of a bloody Civil War. The military successes of Oliver Cromwell, such as the Battles of Marston Moor and Naseby, are some of his greatest achievements. Cromwell’s role in the establishment of the New Model Army was significant, and this army revolutionised a system previously determined by class, in favour of meritocracy. Soldiers were now promoted by skill, rather than birth right. Principles of equality underpinned his ideals. Oliver Cromwell’s devotion to the army was made evident through his refusal of the Crown as he believed that it was ‘godly duty,’ to reform the nation, and that the army was the means of achieving significant reform. His ascension to a position of leadership with very little military experience before 1642 displayed tremendous success. Some contend that Cromwell’s heavy dependency on the military to maintain control displays weakness, and that his actions in Drogheda and Wexford do not indicate a strong sense of democracy. This contrasts significantly to the belief that many subscribe to of Cromwell as the ‘father of democracy.’ How is it that one individual can so dramatically split opinions?

Cromwell is more than his reputation in popular history as the Puritan who banned Christmas. Taken out of context, to a modern audience, this absurdly presents him as a draconian leader, when it was the Major-Generals under his command who promoted such Puritanical traditions, which, for them, signified religious fulfilment, rather than punishment. Religion was a key component of Oliver Cromwell’s daily life, due to his own piety, yet this did not mean that he imposed religious conformity, and Cromwell notably allowed Protestants, Catholics and Jews to worship. Cromwell was described by George Drake2 as “an advocate for toleration,” and society reflected these beliefs. Significantly the Jews were readmitted in 1656, following their expulsion in 1290, under King Edward 1st. For the seventeenth century, this level of toleration was a relatively novel concept. In the wake of his death, Republican rule came to an end, but the period allowed the growth of radical groups and a constant leader during a period of uncertainty.

The financial and social prosperity of Britain following the 17th Century, can be in part accounted to Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell not only greatly strengthened the British naval strength, but the capture of Jamaica commenced the process of imperial expansion. Whilst morally the British Empire ultimately came to be a divisive matter, the capture and subsequent colonisation of Jamaica did generate huge revenue as well as creating employment overseas and in England. Secondly, Oliver Cromwell is an exemplary case of upward mobility: born into the gentry, he rose through the ranks of the army from 1642 to ultimately rule the country. Not only does the case of Cromwell question unelected power, his policies also encouraged a re-evaluation of the hierarchy at a time when birthright was prioritised over merit.
Cromwell temporarily replaced the unelected leader, that is the monarch, and brought about a further examination of the powers within monarchy. This act can be seen as one of great democratic success. The shift that followed was one towards parliamentary monarchy, with the monumental shifts taking place during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It could be argued that the foundations of this revolution were laid by Oliver Cromwell’s years of the Protectorate. The insistence of Parliament for Cromwell to take the Crown, shown in the Humble Petition and Advice, demonstrate his effectiveness as a ruler. Alongside this, whilst questioned about the Rule of the Major-Generals, this decision came as a result of a Royalist rising in 1655 led by John Penruddock in Wiltshire when Cromwell realised that the nation was being governed inefficiently. The rule of the Major-Generals saw the country divided into 11 regions and the Major-Generals allowed a less turbulent reality for post-regicide Britain.
Oliver Cromwell is one of the most influential and seminal figures of English history having led the country through its few years of being a Republic. His success is not limited to the domestic political sphere in that his military successes helped strengthen England’s position in the world. In March 1649, the House of Lords was formally abolished which established Parliament as the sole legislative power. This challenge to unelected power serves as a precedent, and whilst it is true that the Houses of Lord and Houses of Commons together work as a balance of powers, the new system denounced success sheerly as a result of birthright. The First Protectorate Parliament passed 84 ordinances as well as other laws, demonstrating an effectiveness in governance.
Ultimately, the positioning beside an emblem of democracy, the Houses of Parliament, was democratically contested in 1895, and the vote came out in favour of Oliver Cromwell’s statue, erected in 1899. Cromwell was described as “one of the greatest characters in English history, and one of the greatest rulers who ever carried the fame of England’s name to every part of the habitable globe,” by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1895 proposal of a statue.When Labour MP, Tony Banks, proposed the melting down of the statue, this was democratically refuted. Since MPs are elected by the people, it is believed that they will represent the wishes of the people, meaning that the decision that Oliver Cromwell deserves a statue was one made by the people. Volume 82 of the Parliamentary Debates shows Mr Williams’ belief that ‘Cromwell was as worthy of remembrance by the people of this country as Napoleon by the people of France,’ when statues of Hampden, Falkland and Clarendon were going up. Not only has Oliver Cromwell had a long-lasting effect on the country, his enduring legacy has been reaffirmed every time its legitimacy was contested.
In conclusion, Oliver Cromwell’s role in the history of the country has been a positive, significant one. Not only did Cromwell control the country after a tumultuous civil war, but he helped transform society into a more progressive and tolerant one. The repeated questioning of the worthiness of this statue does not seem to impact its lasting endurance. Democratically, the people have chosen the statue, and it is clear that it fulfils the criteria necessary to be in place. If statues are meant to perpetuate cultural memory, then it seems that Oliver Cromwell has fulfilled his right and deserves a statue outside the Houses of Parliament.


2 Drake, George. "The Ideology of Oliver Cromwell." Church History 35.3 (1966)

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