Under the restored Stuarts, obviously, Cromwell was vilified. Actually, his exhumed head was publicly displayed on a pike for more than 20 years during their rule (wikipedia devotes a separate article to the head's posthumous adventures).

But did the official position on Cromwell change after the Glorious Revolution as expounded by the new government?

EDIT: The question originates with my bemusement at seeing a poem by Locke, containing very high praise of Cromwell. It was written in 1654 when Cromwell was at the height of his power but it was then reprinted in a 1707 anthology called Poems on Affairs of State and which contains "Several Poems in Praise of Oliver Cromwell" It's available here and here.

EDIT #2: To make it perfectly clear, I am not asking about modern attitudes to Cromwell. I am asking about the period spanned by the reigns of, say, William & Mary, Anne, and George I.

  • 3
    What exactly do you mean by "official"?
    – fdb
    Jul 23, 2014 at 17:28
  • What exactly do you mean by "attitude"? What would constitute a change in attitude significant enough to count? Taking the exhumed head down, or erecting a statue, or somewhere in between? Jul 23, 2014 at 20:30
  • @PieterGeerkens I added an explanation. Please have a look. Jul 24, 2014 at 8:52
  • @FelixGoldberg: "The enemy of my enemy is not my enemy" seems to apply here. Jul 24, 2014 at 9:31
  • 1
    There is a statue of Cromwell near the parliament. But the good thing about England is that there is no such thing as "official attitude" to dead kings. Everyone is allowed to have his/her own attitude.
    – Alex
    Jan 26, 2016 at 3:35

5 Answers 5


First, what is an official attitude, and did one exist in Williamite England?

In modern times, governments try to influence public opinion by the use of spokesmen in democracies, and propaganda in dictatorships. They have a 'line' on this or that issue which they repeat, hoping to make it catch on. I suppose this is what you'd call an official attitude. Some countries go to the lengths of writing an official version of history which no one is allowed to deviate from, but most democracies don't go that far.

In the 17th and 18th century, both monarchs and proto-dictators like Cromwell did a fairly poor job of controlling public opinion in this way. Public opinion was anywise a new invention: the public had no opinion until newspapers were invented and told the public what their opinion was.

The official attitude was mostly expressed negatively, through the suppression of material believed to be subversive. Pre-publication censorship persisted until 1695. Contra the comments to the question above, free speech was not yet a secure principle. British constitutional history, unlike American, doesn't have many bright lines. The Glorious revolution had increased religious freedom, but less so political. Even after the licencing act lapsed, it was still possible to get arrested for something which displeased powerful people, through the sedition or libel laws.

William and Mary did not use this power to suppress praise of Cromwell. Although they didn't want to associate themselves with a regicide, there were obvious parallels between the rebellions against Charles I and James II. Both were Stuarts, both were friendly towards Catholics, both tried to do without parliament.

In his own time and after, Cromwell has always been an ambiguous figure among republicans. He was England's only identifiable leader who was not a king. However, he took on kingly airs such as a sceptre and royal sounding title, and suppressed attempts to establish a democratic state. Moreover, after the chaos and bloodshed of the civil war, people no matter what their political beliefs were very determined that the peace, order and prosperity of the Restoration period should be preserved.

After the Stuarts' Restoration in 1660, Cromwell's name had been traduced. Even his dead body was defiled. If the House of Orange had joined in with that, they basically would have been admitting that the deposed Stuarts were the rightful rulers of England. Likewise if they had robustly defended Cromwell, they would have revealed themselves as lawless usurpers, just like him. It was best to just gloss over him as much as possible. If there had been a large number of works praising Cromwell, William and Mary might have been forced to reckon with Cromwell and make a decision one way or the other, but this didn't happen.

A modern analogue is the pacto oviedo in 20th century Spain, which means the pact of forgetfulness. After the return of King Juan Carlos, Spain agreed not to pursue claims of revenge or justice against either side in the civil war, and instead to just put the whole thing to bed. A similar thing happened in contemporary England. There were a few diehard republicans, but they were left unmolested because they had no prospect of achieving a return to Cromwell's system, or to anything still more radical.

This may sound like William and Mary were just burying their heads in the sand. If they were, it worked. Pressure for reform remained, but no serious attempt to establish a republic was ever made again.


(Hint; I may be of Irish ancestry). (Hint 2: I'm trying to go over the top for humorous value; I mean no offense to anyone but Cromwell and Napoleon, and I'm relatively sure they won't take offense).

If you're Irish, then the official view is to recognize that Cromwell was a murdering bastard who only fell short of genocide because he was lazy.

Later, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern insisted that the portrait of Cromwell (‘that murdering bastard’) be taken down from a room in Westminster before he began talks with British prime minister Tony Blair. wikipedia

On the other hand if you're a bog dwelling mouth breathing revisionist historian, then the official view is that Cromwell surpasses sliced bread, and only falls short of sainted Napoleon by a thin margin.

It is a great credit to the UK constitution that there is no mechanism to generate an "official opinion". Citizens of the UK are free to have their own opinions, and even to disagree with one another.

  • 2
    But I am not asking about today! I am asking about late 17th-early 18th century (a fact that was also reflected in the tags).... Jul 24, 2014 at 12:34
  • 2
    I don't think the answer changes... Different people (within the government and without) had different opinions. For as much as I sound dismissive, I'm not really; you've got your finger on one of the really fascinating themes of the period; the presence of diversity of opinion within a constitutional state. I believe (no evidence, just observation) that from that time to the present day there is a faction that wants to return to Cromwell's republic, and a faction that opposes it as the errant nonsense it is.
    – MCW
    Jul 24, 2014 at 12:47
  • But, presumably, no one would have dared to publish a poem praising Cromwell under James. It is not obvious to me that the new authorities would have had much sympathy for a regicide, especially as both Queens of the period - Mary and Anne - were granddaughters of Charles I, whom Cromwell had killed. However, we can surmise from the book I linked to that by 1707 the times have changed - so I am pretty sure there must have been some act by the government which showed people it was no longer a crime to praise Cromwell, as under Charles II and James II. Jul 24, 2014 at 12:53
  • 2
    Excellent comment; in the Jacobean Autocracy, there was an official position, determined passively by the monarch. But in Constitutional England, the Monarch at the very least shared power with Parliament, which explicitly included a diversity of opinions. IIRC Anne was told explicitly by Parliament that her opinion on legislation was not welcome; her assent was required, not her opinion. MP's continued to agitate for a Republic well into the reign of Victoria. Were their opinions "official"? (yes, I should have sources; I will eat the crow).
    – MCW
    Jul 24, 2014 at 13:45

If we are talking about poetry: Milton’s Sonnet 16 (Cromwell, our chief of men...), written in 1652, was first published in Edward Phillips’s “Life of Milton” in 1694, during the reign of William and Mary. It does not seem that there was any official attempt to suppress it.


The "official" position during the reigns of William and Mary, Anne and George I can be seen in the national holy days, with special religious services and forms of prayer, which were ordered by them to be observed annually during their reigns. Special services were held in every parish church in England and Wales.

These were

  • A form of Prayer and Fasting to be used on the 30th January being the Day of the Martyrdom of the Blessed King Charles the First
  • A form of Prayer and Thanksgiving to Almighty God, to be used on the 29th May for having put an end to the Great Rebellion by the Restoration of the King and Royal Family (i.e. the Restoration of the Charles II in 1660)
  • A form of Prayer and Thanksgiving to be used on the 5th November for Deliverance of James I from the Gunpowder Plot and the Happy Arrival of William III (1605 and 1688)

In addition to these March 8th was observed under Queen Anne as the day she began her reign, and August 5th was observed under George I as the day he began his.

The 29th May celebration was not fully observed every year, since if it fell on Ascension Day, Whit Sunday, Whit Monday, Whit Tuesday or Trinity Sunday, then the services appointed for those days took precedence, but even then some additional prayers were said.

Although Cromwell is not mentioned by name he and the other regicides are referred to in the January 30th service as "cruel and bloody men", "cruel and unreasonable men" and "wicked men". It includes the line "we cannot reflect upon so foul an act but with horror and astonishment".

The service for Oak Apple Day, May 29th, the Restoration of Charles II, refers to "the wonderful deliverance of these kingdoms from the Great Rebellion and all the miseries and oppressions consequent thereupon".

The Fifth of November service refers to James I and his contemporaries (at the Gunpowder Plot) as having been "by Popish treachery appointed as sheep to the slaughter in a most barbarous and savage manner", giving thanks for his deliverance therefrom. It goes on to give thanks for the arrival of William III "for the Deliverance of our Church and Nation from Popish treachery and arbitrary power".

The official position, as by royal command set forth in every parish church, was not in any way sympathetic to Cromwell or to rebellion or to republicanism, nor to Popery which was seen as the other great danger. The Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 showed such worries were not ill-founded.

Here is a link to a list of on-line Prayer Books. Scrolling down to the Google Books section gives links to several prayer books from the period in which these services may be seen, usually at the end.


Cromwell had become irrelevant by now given that Parliament had fundamentally redefined its relationship with the Crown, effectively gaining supremacy. This could reasonably be argued to be Cromwell's legacy.

The primary issue now was to present William as a great Protestant champion and how normality had been restored. The official propaganda was that James had been leading the country to Popery and denying the basic rights of every Englishman.

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