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Oliver Cromwell and Samuel Pepys

Alec Samuels

Oliver Cromwell was born 25 April 1599 and died 3 September 1658. He came from Huntingdon and was educated at the Huntingdon Grammar School, where Pepys, born 1633, also was educated. Cromwell was a country gentleman, of comparatively humble status. He came to prominence during the Civil War because of his exceptional competence and firm leadership on the field of battle, though having previously had no military training or experience. Cromwell became Lord Protector and head of state in 1653, and refused the crown in 1657. He died in bed in 1658. He left no succession, no constitutional legacy. His statue stands outside Westminster Hall.
Cromwell is a difficult man to appraise. He was ruthless: the battle of Worcester 1651 he saw as a “crowning mercie”; the brutality of the conquest of Ireland is remembered to this day; and so is the destruction of the churches and other episcopalian and royalist buildings. He was an inflexible puritan. He supported the unnecessary trial and execution of King Charles I. He became a dictator, though tyrant would probably be too strong a description.
However, he was a fine soldier. He won the civil war. He brought peace. He knew how to command. He appreciated the importance of sea power, appointing General Blake as the “General at sea” (a revealing title). He made England strong, though sober and dull.
In the National Portrait Gallery there are two fine portraits, one by Lely, a robust painting, showing the continuity of authority following the death of Charles I, in the style of Van Dyck who had frequently painted Charles I. The Lely painting is the one where Cromwell allegedly said that the painter was to paint “ruffness, pimples, warts and everything”, otherwise he would not pay a farthing, and Lely complied, although it is said that by way of compensation Lely gave Cromwell a fuller head of hair than the facts justified. The other portrait, by Walker, is altogether “softer”.
There are a number of references to Cromwell in the Diary, Cromwell often being referred to simply as “Oliver”.
Pepys admired Cromwell, particularly for pragmatism and the admiration continued after Cromwell’s death, though it was not prudent to admit to it publicly. Pepys was an undergraduate in Cromwell’s time, and began his career under the Protectorate and would have served Cromwell with the same loyalty as he served Charles II. Pepys, only a young man at the time, 27, successfully survived the peaceful transition in 1660 by reason of the patronage of Mountagu, who was appointed General-at-sea in 1656, a moderate respected by both royalists and republicans, and who brought Charles II home to England in 1660. Pepys, a distant relative, was carried along on the coat-tails of Mountagu and knew how to take advantage of opportunities.
Pepys did not approve of the exhumation and ritual hanging and display of Cromwell (and the other regicides), a dishonour to a man of great courage (4 December 1660 and 30 January 1661). Reference is made to the mystery of the destination and location of Cromwell’s head (13 October 1664), still to this day something of a mystery, believed to be under the chapel of Sidney Sussex.
The respect and admiration felt by Pepys for Cromwell is apparent throughout the Diary, often by way of unfavourable comparison with Charles II: A leader of men. Strong government. Strong support for the Navy, over half the national budget going to the Navy (2 February 1664). Trust, such that he was able to borrow money (12 April 1665), unlike Charles II. An awareness of the importance of foreign trading stations (8 September 1667). The promotion of trade, no interference with “royalist” merchants and traders, and insistence upon the payment of commercial debts (18 February 1664 and 7 September 1664). The settlement in Ireland, “liberty to the Irish” (15 December 1664). A fine intelligence service, such that he “carried the secret of all princes of Europ at his girdle” (14 February 1668). The building of real prestige abroad (3 June 1667). The Medway disaster would not have happened to Cromwell, to his fleet, as his alliances and his reputation were such that “all neighbour princes did fear him” (12 July 1667).
Pepys read with pleasure a biography of Cromwell, “soldier and politician though rebel”. Not surprisingly, Pepys knew how to appraise the character and achievements of a man.