Oliver Cromwell’s letters as Lord Protector – The Property Chronicle
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Oliver Cromwell’s letters as Lord Protector

The Historian

In an earlier article, I discussed Cromwell’s speeches during his years as Lord Protector (1653-58).  His private letters during this period show many similar characteristics, and especially the same religiosity and intensity.  Also very striking was the considerable variety of tone: much depended on the contexts and the recipients of the different letters.  A few examples will illustrate something of the diversity that is found among the 150 or so of his personal letters that survive from these years. These are now widely scattered: Cromwell kept no record of out-going correspondence unless it was in his capacity as Head of State, with the result that his letters have ended up in many different archives depending on where, and whether, their recipients preserved them.

In some of his letters, Cromwell could still adopt the tone of the military commander, especially when he found himself faced with a Royalist rebellion, as in March 1655, when John Penruddock attempted an insurrection in Wiltshire. Cromwell’s response was brisk and decisive.  For instance, he wrote to the Mayor of Sandwich, on the Kent coast, warning of the ‘late insurrections and rebellions which have been raised in several parts of the nation by some vile and lewd persons of the old Cavalier party’. Through ‘the goodness and blessing of God’ the Royalist rebels had been ‘in a great measure dispersed, and put to flight’.

A few days later he wrote to the militia commissioners in several counties giving thanks for ‘the good hand of God going along with us in defeating the late rebellious insurrection’, and praising ‘the readiness of the honest people to appear’.  Cromwell often used that word ‘honest’ as a synonym for godly or righteous.  He now urged that ‘diligent watches be kept’ for ‘taking a strict account of all strangers, especially near the coast’. Some of Cromwell’s letters take on the urgent tone of military despatches.

Throughout his career, Cromwell regarded success in battle as a sign of God’s favour.  This was seen repeatedly in his reactions to his own military victories during the English Civil Wars.  But in 1655 he faced a major disappointment when he launched a campaign against Spanish power in the Caribbean.  His attempt to invade the large island then known as Hispaniola (nowadays divided between Haiti and the Dominican republic) was repulsed with heavy loss of life, and it was only after a considerable struggle that his forces were able to capture Jamaica.

Cromwell’s letters show that he interpreted these setbacks as a ‘rebuke’ from God.  He told Vice-Admiral William Goodson that ‘the Lord has greatly humbled us in that sad loss sustained at Hispaniola’, adding that ‘no doubt we have provoked the Lord,…and therefore we should lay our mouths in the dust’.  Equally, Cromwell’s own faith gave him a means of coping with the difficulties and pointed a way forward: ‘let the reproach and shame that has been for our sins…work up your hearts to a confidence in the Lord, and for the redemption of his honour from the hands of men’.  He saw the defeats as a divine punishment for the Army’s sins, and shortly afterwards he wrote to another senior officer, Major-General Richard Fortescue: ‘we have cause to be humbled for the reproof God gave us at Santo Domingo upon the account of our own sins, as well as others, so truly upon the reports brought hither to us of the extreme avarice, pride and confidence, disorders, and debauchedness, profaneness, and wickedness commonly practised in that Army’.  He hoped that in future ‘virtue and godliness may receive due encouragement’.

The Historian

About David L. Smith

David L. Smith has been a Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge, since 1988 and Director of Studies in History since 1992. His books include Constitutional Royalism and the Search for Settlement, c. 1640-1649 (1994), A History of the Modern British Isles, 1603-1707: The Double Crown (1998), The Stuart Parliaments, 1603-1689 (1999), and (with Patrick Little) Parliaments and Politics during the Cromwellian Protectorate (2007). He has also edited two series of A-level History textbooks for Cambridge University Press.

Articles by David L. Smith

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