Cruel Necessity Charles I of England and Oliver Cromwell, historians differ on whether they ever met. Some think they did, though most think not, and there are stories that range from them meeting when they were kids to after Charles was dead, when Oliver allegedly said sadly to Charles I’s beheaded body, “Twas a cruel necessity”1. Both were beheaded, yet one died of natural causes in his bed, and both fought parliament to create the perfect social order as they saw it. Charles failed because of his character; Cromwell persisted as long as he did because of his character, and probably would have failed even if death had not claimed him.
Charles I stuttered. Whether it was a consequence or a symptom of his insecurity is debatable. Why Charles I was insecure can be discussed by psychoanalyst, what is important to history is how it effected his rule as king. It was Charles I’s tendency to see opposing ideas as a direct attack on his person and his authority that created the most problems for his reign. He refused to compromise or listen to grievances in exchange for support from Parliament, and this was the root of his problems2. Cromwell, on the other hand, was, according to Wilson, spoilt and egotistical3 . As an only boy in a less fractured family, Cromwell was self-assured growing and he only became more so in his life experiences.
Cromwell’s success as a military leader and his deep religiosity served to convince him that God was on his side and would continue to help him if he continued to do God’s work. Cromwell and Charles I both had skirmished with Parliament, but the different outcomes of two particular instances serve to illustrate their ability to control a situation. In January, 1642, Charles I marched into a session of the House of Commons to arrest members accused of treason. The members had already fled, so an angry and sheepish Charles I had to leave empty handed4. Cromwell would not be caught in this kind of embarrassing situation. In April, 1653, Cromwell dissolved the Rump Parliament with a band of musketeers, and that was the end of it5.
It is not hard to compare Cromwell’s Protectorate and Charles I years of personal rule, because they both had a goal, both struggled with and without Parliaments, and both are marked with the sense of not having accomplished what they set out to do. According to the historian, Ashley, “virtually nothing was achieved”6 but religious nonconformity by either of their rules, but he must mean that nothing permanent or of long lasting benefit, because Charles I and Cromwell did not reach all their goals. If you asked them, they would blame the people or their representatives, Parliament.
Charles I’s eleven years of personal rule were, as Wilson writes, “following… the script of divine monarchy written by his father”7. This defines what drove him and explains the stubbornness that led him to his doom. Charles’ years of rule are underlined by two major projects: reforming the Church of England, and raising extra-Parliamentary revenue through creative means. Between the two, Charles I managed to make everyone angry, and are most likely the reasons, along with Charles’ tendency to refuse to compromise, for the ultimate break with Parliament. Outwardly, Charles’ rule without Parliament was relatively stable and calm.8 Charles did succeed in removing England from the awkward position of being in a war with France and Spain that it could not afford, a position he got England into in the first place. However, Kishlansky writes that although Charles I did improve the economy, he did so by spreading “the pain of royal necessities”9. As part of his social reform, he issued a “Book of Orders” to regulate the problems created by bad harvests, but this created resentment among Justices of the Peace, who believed that such matters as poor-relief should remain a local problem. This supports the belief held by Charles I and Cromwell that the only reason they could not effect good change was the parties’ involved resistance. This was an important theme in Cromwell’s reign.
Despite the fact that he was referred to as “his highness”10, Cromwell tried to keep the power in other hands as well during his “dictatorship”. The reason Cromwell used force at all, as with the Rump Parliament, was for the same reason he made most of his decisions, it was impeding godly reformation11. What drove Charles I to shun Parliaments was his belief that he had royal prerogative and that he did not need to consult them to make a decision, and refused to be bribed into listening to their complaints. For Cromwell, government was “for the people’s good, not what pleases them 12 and this was shown in his policy of not hesitating to act like a dictator if God’s work was being hindered. For example, when he returned to a more “constitutional” form of government and had a Parliament assembled, he dismissed it less than half a year later because he said “They had…spent most of their time attacking the Instrument of Government, instead of … [making] good and wholesome laws which the people expected of you” 13. However, although he begged judges he himself appointed to effect more reform, they rarely responded14. In this time, it is possible that Cromwell could have begun to understand Charles’ decisions to ignore the people’s wishes for their own good and rule without Parliament, but Cromwell never stopped trying to return to a more constitutional from of government and call Parliaments, and continued to refuse the crown.
Cromwell wanted to “heal and settle”15 the nation after the Civil War, and he wished to give the people what they wanted, as long as it did not contradict his plans. Ashley believes Cromwell was not able to accomplish reforms because he was too immersed in foreign affairs,16 and Coward writes that, like Charles I, Cromwell realized he could not fight wars in Europe without Parliament financial support 17 and because Parliament was more interested in constitutional debates than reform, Cromwell’s interest in foreign affairs can be charged with the lack of reform at home. While foreign affairs were an immediate hindrance to reform at home, a little recognized but very important occurrence abroad happened. In a failed attempt to conquer the Caribbean and make it Protestant, British forces retreated to Jamaica and occupied it. In the 18th century, Jamaica would become of major importance to the British Empire. 18 The next Parliament Cromwell called showed promise, offering to “regulate alehouses, set the poor to work, and put an end to ‘undecent fashions’ among women”19, but arguments about the form of government again got in the way, this time about how the Protectorate would be continued. In less time than the First Protectorate Parliament, Cromwell dissolved the Second Protectorate Parliament, and, unlike Charles I, died still as head of England.
What made Cromwell’s regime last so long was his charisma and personality, but Kishlansky believes if it were not for that, it would have been sucked into the quicksand it was built on.20 However, he ultimately failed in his attempt to bring the “’Ship of the Commonwealth’…into a safe harbour’”.21 Charles was successful in implementing change, but it all was in vain when England erupted into Civil War. The King and the gentleman22 both were thwarted in their missions by the vox populi.