King Charles II and Colonel William Carlos in the Royal Oak by Isaac Fuller.
On Tuesday 10 July, 1649, Cromwell left London and travelled west in a coach drawn by six horses. He was on his way to Ireland. He had hesitated at first, not wishing to leave the country in turmoil and confusion. But once he reached his decision, or professed to believe that providence had directed him, he was very firm. ‘It matters not who is our commander-in-chief,’ he once said, ‘if God be so.’ The army leaders had feared a royalist invasion from Ireland, although in truth there was very little chance of one. Nevertheless they could not endure an enemy close to England’s shores; it presented a clear and dangerous menace to the new republic.
Cromwell arrived, in the middle of August, at a favourable moment; the royalist navy had been swept from the seas by the ships of the commonwealth, and the duke of Ormonde’s army had been all but annihilated outside Dublin after a surprise attack by parliamentary forces. Cromwell wrote from his ship that ‘this is an astonishing mercy’. He believed that he was indeed the Lord’s chosen servant and, when he landed at the port of Dublin after a stormy crossing, he promised a crusade against ‘the barbarous and bloodthirsty Irish’. They were for Cromwell vastly inferior both in race and in religion; he treated them as if they were less than human.
Cromwell wished to do his work rapidly and effectively but, despite his command of 20,000 men, no set battles were fought. Instead he proceeded to conquer the enemy in a series of sieges. He went first to the city of Drogheda, a little over 30 miles north of Dublin, where he summoned the royalist governor to surrender. On the following day, 11 September, having received no formal submission, he attacked; in a series of bloody battles and skirmishes the defenders were overwhelmed. According to Cromwell’s express orders all those who were carrying weapons were put to the sword. That was the rule of war: 3,000 of the garrison, as well as all priests and friars, were killed. ‘I am persuaded’, Cromwell wrote, ‘that this is a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches.’ The slaughter has remained in the folk memory of Ireland to this day.
From Drogheda Cromwell and his men marched down to Wexford, a little over 70 miles south of Dublin, where there was yet more killing in the name of God. The city did not need to be stormed since the gate had been opened in the face of imminent attack; yet when the soldiers entered the town they began a fierce onslaught upon the inhabitants, many of whom begged for mercy in vain. It is reported that 200 women were killed beside what is now the Bull Ring; a memorial plaque is on the site of the massacre.
Cromwell stayed in Ireland for another nine months. Any hope that the Irish would capitulate after the spectacle of bloodshed in Drogheda and Wexford was soon dispelled, and he found himself engaged in a series of struggles against stubborn resistance. At the beginning of December he abandoned the siege of Waterford under a storm of rain, ‘it being as terrible a day as ever I marched in all my life’. As soon as the army moved inland, away from the coast, the climate and geography of the country reduced them more quickly than did the enemy; fog and rain and mist descended upon them, while dysentery and malarial fever also did their work. Problems of supply were added to those of morale.
The war itself continued for another two years; it had acquired the character of what might be termed guerrilla warfare with the native forces attacking the invading army in a series of raids and skirmishes. Yet by his swift and punitive response Cromwell had achieved the task of destroying any potential for a royalist attack upon England.
The remaining enemy now lay in the north. The Scots had already invited King Charles II to travel to his kingdom, and negotiations between the two sides began in March at Breda, a city in the south of the Netherlands where the young king and his court resided. Parliament and the council of state were thoroughly alarmed at the conjunction, and Cromwell was soon made aware that his presence was needed at home. At the end of May 1650, he sailed for England, leaving behind him Henry Ireton as lord deputy of Ireland; when he landed at Bristol, he was given the welcome for a returning hero.
Charles II needed to find support wherever he could, and the chance of a Scottish army was not one to be missed. So aboard ship on 23 June, just before landing in Scotland, he signed a solemn oath to uphold the national covenant and to ensure that Presbyterianism became the official religion of England as well as of Scotland. He swore this in bad faith, having no regard for the Presbyterian cause or its proponents, but his immediate interests were of more importance. One Scottish negotiator, Alexander Jaffray, later concluded that ‘he sinfully complied with what we most sinfully pressed upon him’. The king had learned, like his father, the arts of disguise and dissimulation. Yet his signature meant that war was now certain.
Sir Thomas Fairfax refused to lead the English army into Scotland on the grounds that the invasion would violate the ‘solemn league and covenant’ that had been signed between the two nations seven years before and never repealed. Cromwell countered with the question ‘whether it is better to have this war in the bowels of another country or of our own’; his argument was persuasive and it was he who led the army once more. Fairfax, uncertain about the direction of the commonwealth and unwilling wholly to depose the king, now resigned as lord general. Cromwell was appointed to be his successor.
Cromwell crossed the border on 23 July with 11,000 horse and foot, but the enemy was not to be seen. The commander of the Scottish forces, David Leslie, had determined upon a strategy of harassment rather than open battle in order to cut off Cromwell’s communication with England; he was successful in that regard, and Cromwell was forced to draw back to the coastal town of Dunbar 30 miles to the east of Edinburgh. Leslie then swept forward to ensure that Cromwell could have no contact with England. The commanders of both armies believed in divine providence and the sacredness of their cause; both sides fasted and prayed, their respective ministers exhorting them in long sermons. In the phrase of the time, only the harder nail would be able to drive out the other.
At Dunbar Leslie believed that the English were trapped between his army and the sea; he waited on high ground but the Scottish ministers in the camp persuaded him to move down towards the enemy. Cromwell saw the manoeuvre and exclaimed that ‘God is delivering them into our hands; they are coming down to us’. And so it proved. The English called out, ‘The Lord of Hosts!’ while the battle cry of the Scots was ‘The Covenant!’ The Scots were routed after a brief resistance; 3,000 were killed and 10,000 captured. Very few English casualties were reported. A witness informed John Aubrey that, after the battle, Cromwell ‘did laugh so excessively as if he had been drunk; his eyes sparkled with spirits’. The whole of southern Scotland now fell to the English. Other consequences followed. With the apparent judgement of God against them, the Presbyterian ministers lost much prestige and authority; never again would the covenanting movement maintain its previous power over Scotland.
The young king was now in desperate circumstances. After his submission to the presbyters in the early summer of 1650 he was now at Perth in the power of the ‘committee of estates’, who governed Scotland when parliament was not in session. He hated Scotland and despised the Presbyterian ministers who exhorted him and preached at him; he detested their hypocrisy, as he saw it, and was nostalgic for the simple pieties of the Church of England. After he heard of Leslie’s defeat he tried to escape from his oppressors, but some troops from the ‘committee of estates’ managed to intercept him and to persuade him to return on the promise that he would be granted more powers. On the first day of 1651 Charles was crowned king of Scotland in Scone; the medieval village was the traditional and hallowed site of kingship.
Cromwell remained in Edinburgh for almost a year after his victory at Dunbar, while Leslie strengthened the remains of his army less than 40 miles north-west at Stirling. But there was no possibility of the two armies clashing in the vicinity; the nature of the terrain, and the wild weather of winter, made any campaign unlikely. In any case Cromwell fell dangerously sick in February 1651. He suffered from a ‘feverish ague’, perhaps contracted in Ireland and exacerbated by the campaign in Scotland; he had told his wife, the day after Dunbar, ‘I grow an old man, and feel the infirmities of age marvellously stealing upon me.’ He was on the brink of death on three separate occasions and, in alarm, parliament dispatched two physicians to his bedside. He himself was convinced that God had sent him sickness in order to test his faith.
By the early summer, however, he was fully recovered; he believed that he had been saved for a purpose, and almost at once took advantage of the more favourable weather to renew his campaign. In a series of manoeuvres he so arranged matters that the roads south to England remained open to the royalist forces. It might have seemed like an unpardonable blunder, but in fact Cromwell had wanted to remove the Scottish troops from Scotland where they could not otherwise be dislodged. He had set a trap that Charles now entered. Cromwell warned the Speaker of the Rump Parliament that ‘I do apprehend that if the enemy goes for England, being some few days march before us, it will trouble some men’s thoughts and may occasion some inconveniences’. Yet he believed that all would be well, and all manner of things would be well.
The king, hopeful that the royalists of England would flock to his banner, came across the border by way of Carlisle. Certain ‘scares’ and conspiracies had been reported in these early days; disaffected royalists met at racecourses or in taverns to plot their schemes but, without any organized direction, they remained inchoate. The government also sent agents provocateurs among them, known as ‘decoy ducks’. In the spring of this year a royalist conspiracy was discovered in the City of London that involved several Presbyterian ministers; one of their number, Christopher Love, died on the scaffold. This was considered by some to be an affront to religion while others, such as John Milton, celebrated it as a blow against disobedience and treason.
Yet few supporters joined the king on his journey south, principally because the Scots were not popular among the English people; they could not support an ancient enemy, even if a lawful monarch led them forward. David Leslie himself was doleful and, when the king asked why he was so sad in the presence of such a spirited army, he replied quietly that ‘he was melancholic indeed, for he knew that army, how well soever it looked, would not fight’. Nevertheless the king made his way down the north-western counties, through Cumberland and Cheshire and Staffordshire; he could not think of changing course towards London, since the regiments of the enemy were now pursing him. Cromwell’s strategy had been entirely successful.
Charles took refuge at last in the perennially royal city of Worcester. ‘For me,’ the king said, ‘it is a crown or a coffin.’ Cromwell had not the patience to try a siege on this occasion but decided instead upon an immediate attack, on both sides of the town, by means of the Severn. With the royalist army at half the strength of its antagonist, the result was not really in doubt. Charles, watching the action from the tower of the cathedral, made one last effort to consolidate his forces in a battle that lasted for three hours. When he rallied some of his men for another fresh sally, they threw down their arms. ‘Then shoot me dead,’ he said, ‘rather than let me live to see the sad consequences of this day.’ Brave words were not enough, however, and by the early afternoon of 3 September 1651, the royalist army had been scattered to the winds. The young king disappeared into the greenwood, among the birds and foxes, where he could not be found. It was Oliver Cromwell’s last battle and it was for him, as he wrote, ‘a crowning mercy’.
The wanderings of the young king have become the stuff of legend; he made his secret way through England for forty-two days, and was concealed in eighty-two different hiding places; forty-five people, by the smallest count, knew who he was and where he was. Yet not one of them betrayed him. The image of the king still burned brightly in some loyal hearts. It was noted that many of those who preserved him were Roman Catholic.
In the course of his peregrinations he was disguised as a labourer; he hid in a barn, in a wood and on a farm. He adopted the disguise of the son of a tenant farmer, and was recognized in silence by the butler of the manor where he rested. He stayed in a ‘priest hole’, devised to protect visiting Jesuits, and lay concealed among the boughs of an oak tree in the grounds of Boscobel House. He dressed as a country man, in a worn leather doublet, and as a servant in a grey cloak. Posters were pasted in villages and market towns asking for the capture of ‘a tall, black man, over two yards high’; the ‘black’ referred to his somewhat swarthy complexion. On one occasion he was surprised by the sound of bells and sight of bonfires, arranged after a false report of his death.
In Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, a blacksmith told him that the king should be hanged for bringing in the Scots. At Bridport, disguised as a servant, he entered a street that was filled with troops searching for him; he dismounted and led his horse as if he were taking it to a stable. At Brighton an innkeeper knelt down and kissed his hand, saying ‘that he would not ask him who he was, but bid God bless him whither he was going’. One attempt at escape by sea was abandoned, but on 14 October he sailed from Shoreham to the relative safety of Normandy. On his return to France the young king was asked if he would ever return to Scotland, to which he replied that he would rather be hanged first. When he arrived at the French court he was still ragged and dirty after his adventures.
Cromwell returned in triumph to London bearing with him, like a Roman emperor, the prisoners whom he had taken. He was granted an income of £4,000 per year, and the palace at Hampton Court was bestowed upon him. There could be no doubt that he was the first man of the state.
Yet he came back to a city very different from that which he had left at the beginning of the Irish campaign. The first ‘year of freedom’, after the heady days of the council of state, had been less than glorious. The Rump Parliament had been almost overwhelmed with the pressure of business; it set up committees for legal or ecclesiastical reform, but then did nothing to carry their conclusions into effect. Accusations of favouritism, and even of corruption, were often heard. It was widely believed that its principal concern was for its own survival.
Parliament did pass a few bills, however, designed for the supposed good of the commonwealth; one of them was an Act making adultery a capital offence. It was not a great success. Four women, and no men, were executed. In many other respects the members of parliament seemed to have lapsed into a state close to inertia. It was reported that the present government was reduced to a ‘languishing condition’ in the provinces.
Yet Cromwell’s triumphs were evident. Scotland was seized and strengthened by one of Cromwell’s key generals, George Monck, and was governed by a military regime for the next eleven years; Cromwell remarked that ‘I do think truly they are a very ruined nation’. No king of England had ever conquered Scotland. Ireland was in no better case; after Cromwell’s withdrawal another general, Edmund Ludlow, practically completed the conquest of that country. The Act of Settlement, passed in the summer of 1652, condemned Catholic landowners to the wholesale or partial forfeiture of their estates while those who had actively supported the Irish rebellion were in theory condemned to death. Cromwell had achieved the unparalleled feat of ascendancy over the three kingdoms.
When he returned from his victory at Worcester he was told that great things were expected of him in peace no less than in war; it was his task, according to a letter sent to him, to ‘ease the oppressed of their burdens, to release the prisoners out of bonds, and to relieve poor families with bread’. Yet he could only achieve these laudable aims through the agency of the Rump Parliament that seemed in no way inclined to obey his orders with the same promptness as the soldiers of the New Model Army. Those parliamentarians who were members of the council of state were in most respects still conscientious and diligent, yet others were not so easily inspired by Cromwell’s zeal or vision.