Outside Westminster Hall stands a prominent statue of Oliver Cromwell, which was designed by the Victorian sculptor Hamo Thornycroft and erected in 1899 to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the Lord Protector’s birth. In recent days, the question of whether this statue should remain there has again been in the news. I say ‘again’ because the statue has been highly contentious throughout its history. With its fate once more in the headlines, it is worth thinking back to the 1890s and the intense feelings that the statue aroused from the very moment that it was proposed.
Cromwell has been a divisive figure ever since his own lifetime, and this was certainly true in Victorian England. To Gladstonian Liberals, he was a heroic figure and a champion of Parliaments against the tyranny of Charles I. For Tories, on the other hand, he was a regicide and a military dictator who trampled on the nation’s liberties. On this issue, if not on many others, the Tories were able to make common cause with most of the Irish members at Westminster who detested ‘the curse of Cromwell’, especially because of the notorious massacres at Drogheda and Wexford.
No wonder, then, that when the Liberal Prime Minister Lord Rosebery proposed early in 1895 that a statue of Cromwell be erected outside the Palace of Westminster to commemorate the approaching tercentenary of his birth, the suggestion sparked immediate controversy. Most Liberals were supportive, and one described Cromwell as ‘one of the greatest, finest and noblest English rulers that they had ever had in this country’. By contrast, Arthur Balfour spoke for many Tories when he said that Cromwell was ‘not honourably connected with parliamentary government’, and was indeed ‘the only man who absolutely succeeded in uprooting our whole parliamentary government’. After heated debates, the House of Commons voted by 220 to 83 not to grant any public money towards the project: this proved to be the final straw for Rosebery’s ailing government and he resigned a few days later.