The Pamphleteers Protestant Champion: Viewing Oliver Cromwell Through the Media of his Day

The years between 1640 and 1660 witnessed in England a greater outpouring of printed material than the country had seen since the first printing press had begun operating in the 1470s.1 The breakdown of government and Church censorship in the early 1640s was almost total until the mid-1650s when Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector reimposed some controls. Not until the return of the Stuarts and their royal censors did the flow of pamphlets cease. This tumultuous period of English history therefore became a crowded arena for free expression of radical religious, social, and political ideas. This fact, coupled with the euphoria surrounding the victories of the New Model Army, the uninhibited exchange of ideas, and the general millennial atmosphere, especially following Charles Is execution, led many Englishman to see their nation as the emerging leader of the Protestant world.

A recurring theme among these pamphlets, sermons, and broadsides was the idea that Oliver Cromwell was the man to lead England into this new age. Like the second coming of the Swedish soldier-king Gustavus Adolphus, Cromwell would champion the Protestant cause wherever it was in need. As a Civil War hero, conqueror of the Irish and Scots, and later as Lord Protector, the devoutly religious Cromwell certainly had the background to fit the role. Yet in practical terms, England of the 1640s and 1650s was not the military juggernaut that many writers pictured it to be. The nation was not capable of wiping out the Turkish menace, unseating the Pope, and defending persecuted Protestants on the Continent all in one fell swoop. Thefinancial difficulties of the Stuarts did not disappear with the execution of Charles, and though the navy was strong, it was not logistically feasible for the army to get involved in a large Continental war.

Despite this, even Cromwell himself had some occasional delusions of religious and military grandeur. A well known quote has him saying that, were he ten years younger, there was not a king in Europe I would not make to tremble.2 In moments of religious fervor Cromwell might have seen himself and England in a millenial light, yet he was first and foremost a pragmatic politician. His genuine belief in the need to aid and protect his co-religionists took a secondary position to the day-to-day realities of English society and politics. His alliance with the Catholic French against the Spanish and his acquiescence to the war agaist the Protestant Dutch provide ample evidence of his heeding realpolitik considerations over any Pan-Protestant ideology.

Why then was Cromwell cast by the pamphleteers as a Protestant champion? The answer lies in the fact that the world view of the average Englishman was limited to either what he read or what was read to him, either at informal gatherings or in church. Thus, the power of the printed word is hard to exaggerate in this time of upheaval and millennial anticipation. How and why Oliver Cromwell was cast in the role of English savior is directly related to the outlook of his contemporaries as shaped by the literature of the era.

After distinguished service in the early years of the Civil War, Cromwell was firmly thrust into the limelight following his participation in the Battle of Naseby on 14 June 1645, the conflicts decisive engagement. Having only recently rejoined the army following his exemption from the Self Denying Ordinance, he was to play a major role in this Parliamentary victory. Despite an overwhelming numerical advantage (14,000 vs. 7,500), the Parliamentary forces were on the verge of collapse following a Royalist charge against one end of their line. Cromwell, however, led the better disciplined Parliamentary horse on a charge against the opposite flank and succeeded in getting behind the Royalist infantry and thus swinging the victory toward Parliament. Though the King held out for another year, Naseby effectively crushed the Royalist cause.3

Cromwells letter to the Speaker of the House William Lenthall following the battle set the tone for future Cromwellian victory announcements. In its two paragraphs, the letter, which was read to Parliament as well as in the Churches in and around London,4 credited the victory to God no less than six times. He wrote, This [victory] is none other but the hand of God;