Was history wrong about Oliver Cromwell’s persecution of Catholics? | history books
OAccording to new research, Cromwell was much more committed to religious freedom and equality than historians previously thought. The results suggest that he wanted Jews to be allowed to worship openly in England and Irish Catholics to be allowed to worship freely, as long as it was in private.
Academics have unearthed an obscure 17th century pamphlet that reveals that despite his bloody and well-established reputation as a ruthless persecutor of Catholics in Ireland, by 1650 Cromwell was in fact willing to allow Irish Catholics the freedom to practice their religion in private without interference.
Newly discovered documents detailing meetings the Puritan leader had with lawyers, merchants and clergy in 1655 also reveal for the first time the precise reasons why Cromwell “strongly supported” the readmission of Jews to England and its desire to offer them religious freedom. “Cromwell’s commitment to religious freedom and religious equality is much more radical than many historians thought,” said John Morrill, emeritus professor of British and Irish history at the University of Cambridge.
Along with eight other researchers, Morrill has spent the past 11 years tracking down and examining the 1,253 documents containing Cromwell’s words that exist in libraries and archives around the world: “Cromwell believes that persecution is always counterproductive, because if you target militants, you end up radicalizing moderates. He also believes that the way to convert people is not through persecution, but through kindness.
Traditionally, historians have held that Cromwell invaded Ireland in 1649 to punish the Catholic Irish nation and commit atrocities, which led to an immense transfer of wealth and power from Irish Catholics to English Protestants. “However, our general examination of his letters and speeches in Ireland shows that his main purpose in going to Ireland was, in fact, to settle the problem of the royalists,” Morrill said.
Many English royalists had fled to sanctuary in Ireland to regroup after Cromwell’s execution of Charles I and were forming new alliances with Irish Catholic confederates and Ulster Scots: “These are the people he treats hardest in Ireland”.
A key piece of evidence that historians have previously relied on to demonstrate that Cromwell despised Catholics is a statement he made denouncing the Irish Catholic clergy, printed in London in 1650. Morrill and his team unearthed two earlier versions of this statement, printed only in Ireland, with a different title.
“The new versions we have found make it clear that while Cromwell harshly criticizes the Irish clergy for encouraging rebellion and supporting the slaughter of Protestants, he is trying to demonstrate to the common people of Ireland that they have nothing to fear from him,” Morrill said. “What the priests have told the people – that they have come to ‘root out’ or destroy Catholics and Catholicism in Ireland – is completely untrue, and on the contrary, they will protect religious freedom in Ireland.”
The Irish versions of the pamphlet claim that Cromwell will tolerate private Catholic worship and that ordinary Catholics will not be forced to conform to Protestantism.
Although Cromwell later killed dozens of Irish priests and forced hundreds more into exile, Morrill – who is himself an ordained Roman Catholic deacon – argues that this happened because Cromwell was convinced that many priests had provoked the rebellion of 1641, where terrible atrocities were inflicted on Protestants.
There is little in Cromwell’s writings, he said, to suggest that Cromwell wanted to persecute Catholics for being Catholics, rather than for their politics and support for the king.
This matches the documents his team found showing that Cromwell negotiated with prominent Catholics to agree that, if they guarantee political loyalty and live in peace with him, he will give them religious freedom.
Another recently discovered correspondence confirms the sincerity and provenance of a letter which historians have, until now, doubted that Cromwell wrote to a French cardinal. In it, Cromwell indicates that he is currently prevented by Parliament from carrying out his desire to offer more freedom to Catholics, but the Cardinal has evidence that Catholics suffer less persecution under Cromwell than his predecessors, the Stuart Kings. .
Many of the original documents that scholars have found, often using web catalogs and newly digitized archives, have been thought to be missing for hundreds of years or were incompetently transcribed in the 18th century. This includes accurate records of meetings revealing how keen Cromwell was to invite the Jews, expelled by Edward I in 1290, back to England. “He wanted Jews who could help fund trade with the Caribbean and he had no problem granting religious freedom to get their expertise.”
Lawyers advised “rather reluctantly” that Cromwell’s Jews could return legally, but that he would not be able to give them new rights without the consent of Parliament, which he would not get. “So he does what he can, allowing them to come back and have a synagogue and a cemetery. And from that time there were Jews in England.
The research will be published in a three-volume book, The letters, writings and speeches of Oliver Cromwell, in September. Morrill hopes it will offer a more nuanced view of Cromwell as “a flawed man, deeply tolerant, but grappling with the responsibilities of power in a fractured and divided nation”.
University of Essex professor John Walter, an expert on modern history, says the ‘exciting’ documents Morrill has uncovered suggest Cromwell was in fact an extraordinarily tolerant leader by the standards of the time “Morrill is absolutely right to present this portrayal of Cromwell as a complex and pious man who – not least for political reasons – wants to readmit the Jews to England and bring stability to Ireland, offering religious freedom to Catholics”, a- he declared.
In the 17th century, Royalist and Catholic propaganda portrayed Cromwell as a man of blood and violence, and historians have so far failed to properly question the accuracy of this depiction, a- he declared. “This analysis rightly says: look at these key documents and think again.”