Extensive records survive of Cromwell’s speeches during his years as Lord Protector (1653-58), and they tell us much about both the man and the age in which he lived. They reflect his intense religious faith and his grappling with the issues and dilemmas of the English Revolution. We know that he spoke either from notes or extempore, rather than from prepared texts, but it was usual for him to authorise the versions published shortly afterwards. This means that they genuinely capture Cromwell’s ‘voice’.
Many of Cromwell’s longest speeches were to the Parliaments that met periodically during his Protectorate. One of the greatest ironies of his career was that this figure, who had played such a crucial role in Parliament’s armies during the English Civil Wars, then found it extremely difficult to establish a stable working relationship with Parliaments when he was Lord Protector. This was above all because so many members did not share his commitment to liberty of conscience and felt that extending religious toleration ran the risk of unleashing ‘errors, heresies and blasphemies’. They were anxious lest liberty turn to licence.
Cromwell’s speeches to the first Protectorate Parliament provide a good example of the pattern characteristic of all his Parliaments: his initial optimism turned to irritation and disappointment, and ultimately led to an angry dissolution. On 4 September 1654, he welcomed the members, telling them that they were ‘met here on the greatest occasion that, I believe, England ever saw’. He added that they had upon their shoulders ‘the interest of all the Christian people in the world’, and that their great goal was to bring ‘this ship of the Commonwealth…into a safe harbour’. Yet, only five months later, frustrated at the Parliament’s obsession with redrafting the constitution rather than promoting godly reforms, he dissolved it with bitter words: ‘instead of the peace and settlement, instead of mercy and truth being brought together, righteousness and peace kissing each other,…weeds and nettles, briers and thorns, have thriven under your shadow’. He concluded that it was ‘not for the profit of these nations, nor fit for the public good’ for the Parliament to continue any longer.
Such passages reflect the authoritarian side of Cromwell’s character, but there were other speeches that had a more thoughtful, almost meditative quality. The best example of this was the series of speeches he made when faced with the greatest dilemma of his career: Parliament’s offer of the kingship in 1657. It was supremely ironic that someone who had not only defeated Charles I but also been the third person to sign his death warrant should receive such an offer, and Cromwell was deeply conflicted over whether or not to accept it. Most civilian politicians urged him to say yes; by contrast, the senior Army officers were virtually unanimous in their opposition, arguing that it would be a betrayal of all that they and their fellow comrades had fought for.
Cromwell hesitated for over two months, and then decided to decline the offer. The rhetoric he used was typical of him in its fervent religiosity: ‘truly the providence of God has laid aside this title [of king] providentially…God has seemed providentially not only to strike at the family but at the name.’ As a result, he declared, ‘I would not seek to set up that that providence has destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again.’ To his audience, the Biblical allusion would have been clear. Just as, in the Book of Joshua, the walls of Jericho had fallen at the blast of the trumpets, so the monarchy had fallen, and Cromwell was not going to be the one to rebuild it.