For a thousand years, England has had a monarchy. And, for the most part, the kings and queens of England have added to the country’s stability.
For a terribly violent and chaotic period in the mid-17th century, England had no king. And it got ugly.
Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell ruled the British Isles with an iron fist from 1653-58. It would be easy and appropriate for the Windsors to dismiss the Cromwell years as a shameful aberration. But, curiously, they don’t. The British ruling class and many historians tend to gloss over Cromwell’s crimes.
The pro-Cromwell film “Cromwell” does the same thing. It fabricates virtues that don’t exist while ignoring the oppression and mass murder that he perpetrated.
Most of the story takes place during the English Civil War (1640-49), which pit the mostly Puritan forces of Parliament against the mostly Anglican and Catholic forces of King Charles I.
During the Civil War, passionate Puritan nobleman Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris) distinguished himself as a great military organizer and field strategist.
With his New Model Army in toe, Lord Cromwell fought himself into the role of acting head of England. While Charles I (Alec Guinness) was on his way to losing his head entirely.
And just what motivated this warrior tyrant? According to writer/director Ken Hughes, Oliver Cromwell was fighting for the people and democracy. That is a ludicrous lie.
In theory, he wanted Puritan noblemen to rule the British Isles. In practice, he grabbed all the power for himself, backed by his standing army. The film laughably states that Oliver Cromwell established a Republic. In reality, he was a military strongman who founded a Japanese-style medieval Shogunate.
I actually liked watching the movie “Cromwell.” It is well-paced for an historical epic and I enjoyed Alec Guinness’s empathetic take on the well-meaning but ill-fated king. But I do not understand what motivated the filmmakers to put a positive spin on an objectively horrible historical figure.
Richard Harris’s Cromwell claims to be fighting for freedom and “the common people.” But the experiment of Puritan rule in England was anything but liberating.
Puritan Parliament criminalized theater, make-up, colorful dresses, most sports, and Christmas carols.
One group of people who most certainly did not feel liberated were the unfortunate Catholics of the British Isles. One thing that “Cromwell” gets right is Oliver Cromwell’s fanatical hatred of Roman Catholicism.
In the movie, Richard Harris only talks about his distrust of Catholics. In real life, he acted. Cromwell’s violent suppression of an Irish uprising was one of the most shameful episodes in the history of English imperialism.
The slaughter of countless Catholics was only the beginning. Cromwell had tens of thousands of Irish people rounded up and sold into indentured servitude in England and the Americas. He robbed Catholics of their farms and gave the estates to Protestant landlords.
Due in large part to Oliver Cromwell, Irish Catholics became mere colonial subjects in their own country for the next 250 years. Cromwell is still hated in Ireland, and rightly so.
But not in England. When the final British king is pressured to forfeit his crown, the Windsor family should look at themselves in the mirror. One of the reasons why the monarchy lost legitimacy was their disturbing and completely unnecessary respect for the legacy of Oliver Cromwell.