Just how evil was Oliver Cromwell?

A while ago, my wife bought me a pack of ‘Terror Top Chumps’ playing cards as a stocking-filler. I hadn’t really looked at them until the other day and was a bit surprised to see that the only British entry in this rogues gallery was Oliver Cromwell. I reproduce his card and that of Mussolini below for comparison.

Now, I, of course, complained that the Cromwell card was terribly inaccurate. How could he be responsible for 600000 deaths? As far as I know, the usually quoted figure (taken from Charles Carleton’s Going to the Wars) for England is 85,000 killed in combat with a further 100,000 dying from injuries or disease. The fighting in both Scotland and particularly Ireland was nastier, though their populations were smaller and, as I recall, the civil wars accounted for 20% drop in Ireland’s population, not a 40% one. (Which is still pretty horrendous.) So, even if you make Cromwell accountable for every single death in Britain’s civil wars, 600k still seems too high.

At this point, my wife, who I was boring with all this, pointed out that I was really saying that Cromwell was probably only responsible for 10000s of deaths rather than 100,000s, which didn’t really make him a swell all-round guy.

Which got me thinking. Leaving aside the good or bad taste of basing a card game on historical mass-murderers, how do we assess ‘evil’ historically? For many English people, Cromwell remains a ‘Great Briton.’ For many Irish people, he’s the Devil in human form and synonymous with everything bad about British rule. What, if anything, distinguishes Cromwell from Mussolini? Were the deaths Cromwell was responsible for acceptable because they were mostly armed combatants? (What successful general won’t be responsible for the deaths of many people in some way?) Or is it just a question of which side of the Irish sea you are looking at him from?

Cromwell’s 350 years dead this year. Will we be commemorating a great hero or a historical villain?



  1. The “facial hair” category is excellent.

  2. […] were intertwined in the medieval period. Edward Vallance offers us some thoughts on whether or not Oliver Cromwellwas one of the most evil men in English history. Finally at Siafuddin we have a post on the effect […]

  3. Even some Irish have a soft spot for Noll … a book published here some years ago was called “Cromwell: an Honourable Enemy”, the main argument being that under the military custom of his time, Cromwell was not excessively brutal. There is a point here e.g. there are no evidence for civilians slaughtered at Drogheda, though the Royalist (not Irish nationalist!) garrison was put to the sword (some were burned alive in a tower).

    As a chopper-off of royal heads, Cromwell also excites admiration.

    However, I think the general feeling is that Cromwell was not “a good thing” for Ireland. His conquest was the penultimate conquest of the country by the English; William of Orange completed the job. But it was under the Commonwealth that most Irish Catholic-owned land was transferred to “New English”, or the Anglo-Irish. In may ways, this is the reason for much of the bitterness against him.

  4. O’Reilly’s thesis has a lot of problems – not least, as Jason McElligott pointed out, that women and children were killed at Drogheda.

    I’m cutting and pasting Jason McElligott’s comment from the Amazon website in here – not least because it makes me chuckle:

    This review is from: Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy (Paperback)
    This is a remarkable attempt to revise the accepted view of Cromwell in Ireland. For Reilly, a native of Drogheda, Cromwell was an honourable soldier who did not cause the death of a single unarmed civilian in his hometown. In Reilly’s account Cromwell is a reasoned, enlightened, “humanitarian” who has been the victim of his enemy’s black propaganda. This is a startling thesis which, if it were true, would put generations of academic historians to shame.

    It would be easy to ridicule Reilly’s dreadful prose; his enthusiastic description of the McDonald’s outlet in modern Drogheda will, unfortunately, remain with me for a very long time. Yet, the main weaknesses of this book are not stylistic, but historical. To be blunt, Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy owes more to Reilly’s often expressed desire to “rehabilitate the memory of Cromwell in Ireland” than it does to any generally accepted rules of historical practice.

    The author exhibits a profound unfamiliarity with the history of the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century. In his mind, Cromwell was a democrat, the leader of an oppressed nation which rose up against monarchical tyranny, thereby securing freedom and liberty. This was certainly the view of a number of historians writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it is an untenable position for anyone familiar with an undergraduate textbook written in the last fifty years. In actual fact, Cromwell was no more a democrat than Charles was a tyrant, and the English Revolution was not an expression of the popular will, but the product of a civil war fought between two small groups which were unrepresentative of the wishes of the population as a whole.

    Furthermore, Reilly has chosen to write about perhaps the most controversial period of Irish history without consulting a single book or pamphlet dating from the time of the sack of Drogheda. Instead, he bases his thesis on extracts of contemporary sources reproduced, with varying degrees of accuracy, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As such, he makes a number of serious blunders, the most important of which concerns Cromwell’s letter to the House of Commons after the battle at Drogheda. The original letter does not survive but the official printed version confirms that “many inhabitants” were among those killed by Cromwell’s forces at Drogheda. If this pamphlet is authentic, Reilly’s thesis is in ruins. He, therefore, latches onto a nineteenth-century, pro-Cromwellian book which claimed that these words do not appear in the original pamphlet. When it was subsequently pointed out to Reilly that they do indeed appear in the pamphlet in question, he was forced to fall back on another argument from a nineteenth-century defender of Cromwell; the incriminating words must have been added without Cromwell’s knowledge, possibly by the printer of the pamphlet. Yet, Reilly provides no evidence for this assertion and does not explain why the printer might have done this or how he avoided punishment for accusing Cromwell of killing civilians.

    Even among the limited range of nineteenth and twentieth-century books which he consulted, Reilly found a number of contemporary references to the slaughter of civilians at Drogheda. As such, he is forced to adopt a number of disturbing sleights of hand. He dismisses all accounts of the massacre which were not written by eyewitnesses. At first glance this is entirely reasonable, but when one considers the nature of the sacking of a town it seems churlish to discount all testimony written by individuals who spoke to eyewitnesses or survivors. For example, Reilly dismisses Anthony Wood’s testimony that his brother Thomas, who served in the Cromwellian forces at Drogheda, had spoken on numerous occasions of his part in the killing of women and children in the town. Reilly denigrates Anthony Wood as a gossip, buffoon, and drunk, and suggests that we would be unwise to put much faith in him. Yet, if Anthony Wood is unreliable why does Reilly accept his description of the royalist governor of Drogheda, Sir Arthur Aston, as a reprehensible tyrant? The only logical answer is that Wood’s description of Aston’s character helps Reilly to explain away the fact that Cromwell’s men beat his brains out with his own wooden leg after he had surrendered.

    In other words, anything which tends to lessen the enormity of Cromwell’s actions at Drogheda is accepted uncritically, while any evidence which implicates him in the murder of civilians must pass the highest possible standards of proof. Reilly explains away eyewitness accounts of civilian deaths by magnifying slight inconsistencies between them and by attacking the character and motivations of the witnesses themselves. Once again, Cromwell is innocent until proven guilty while his opponents are guilty until proven innocent. Finally, having, to his satisfaction at least, demolished the evidence against Cromwell, Reilly asserts that there is no contemporary evidence for the massacre of civilians at Drogheda. At times one cannot but feel something approaching admiration for Reilly’s ability to deal from the bottom of the deck, but one cannot get away from the fact that he has done too little research to support his extravagant claims. He is completely unaware of John Evelyn’s diary entry for 15 September 1649 which tells how he received “news of Drogheda being taken by the Rebells and all put to the sword.” Neither is he familiar with a report in a newspaper named Mercurius Elencticus, dated 15 October 1649, which tells how the Cromwellians at Drogheda “possessed themselves of the Towne, and used all crueltie imaginable upon the besieged, as well inhabitants as others, sparing neither women nor children.” Had Reilly been aware of these sources he would, undoubtedly, have found some grounds to dismiss them, but when they are read in conjunction with the numerous other accounts of civilians deaths at Drogheda there can be no doubt about what happened in that town in September 1649. This is a painfully bad book, and it is tempting to suggest that its main use will be to teach students how not to conduct research, assess evidence or write prose.

    Jason Mc Elligott St John’s College Cambridge

  5. thanks this site helped me alot with my history homework

  6. […] sad indictment of modern Britain? My silly post on the evilness of Oliver Cromwell has now overtaken my very serious and important post on How We Should Remember the Levellers as the […]

  7. Ah…I see Jason McElligot’s review of my book posted here. How interesting. Firstly the academics dismissed my thesis, then they rubbished it, then they said that they knew this all along. McElligot of course is my nemisis. It would be disingenuous to label some seventeenth century experts pompus, arrogant pricks. But that is not the sort of language that is suitable for this sort of a forum. So I won’t. The pompus, arrogant prick.

    Thankfully I no longer have to defend my book. The facts speak for themselves. McElligot’s review is based on the vitriol that he feels for me and my response is vice versa. His review holds no water. The guy’s a fool. So sue me.

    Cromwell was NOT responsible for the deliberate deaths of ONE unarmed civilian during the nine months of his Irish campaign. I dare anybody to attempt to ‘prove’ otherwise. McElligot! Jeez don’t make me laugh. What a bigoted gobshite.

    History will prove me right. My confidence is sublime. The facts do not lie.

    Tom Reilly

  8. At EdwardVallance.com we always give people the right of reply.

    However, I would point out that the foremost scholar of Cromwell, Professor John Morrill, in his ODNB article, also acknowledges that a number of civilians were killed at both Drogheda and Wexford ‘in hot blood’ (his words, not mine.)

    He’s probably just another arrogant, pompus (sic.) academic though, right?

  9. Thankfully there is a world of difference between Mr Morrill and Mr McElligott. I have frequently used John Morril’s support for my book as an argument – so much so that I want to have his children. He completely agrees that civilians were not killed in cold blood. Peter Gaunt is of the same mind.

    See, here in Ireland Cromwell is blamed for indiscriminate massacres of unarmed civilians on a wholesale scale. Look at the trump card here on this site. 600k massacred at the last time of counting.

    Of course civilians could have got caught in the crossfire, killed as a result of collateral damage, etc. etc. etc. I’m not that naive. It’s my cavalier (pun intended) approach that irks.

    But there was no policy to kill the innocent. Nor is there any evidence – aside from the speculation in which you and I have just engaged. I simply state that the evidence strongly suggests nobody was killed ‘deliberately.’ Yes, as overall commander Cromwell was responsible. I drive that very point home in my book.

    But when you are brought up in an environment that tells you the entire population of the town was virtually wiped out, you will see the disparity between a deliberate wholesale massacre and a scenario that suggests unarmed civilians may have died as the result of collateral damage.

    Now we’re down to symantics. In other words – I’m right.

  10. […] finally, of course, over here I asked ‘Just How Evil Was Oliver Cromwell?’ Published […]

  11. Tom Reilly (hack or loyalist?), offers such a considered and erudite defence of Dr Jason McElligott’s critique of his book ‘Lets love Cromwell cuz he was so nice in my hometown’. Never mind that Dr McElligott is a reaearch fellow at Merton College Oxford (formerly of St, John’s College, Cambridge). I think its quite clear which of the two gentlemen is a true scholar, and which a “bigoted gobshite”, to say nothing of “pompous arrogant prick” – the words so elegently expressed speak for themselves Tom!

  12. […] references,” and delivers.  There’s an interesting thread about the relative evil of Oliver Cromwell that I found all the more compelling when I found two historians pummelling each other in the […]

  13. Oh dear. I seem to have triggered a weird response from The Jackal again. You’re out of your depth here me auld son. You have no idea of the history that exists between Dr McElligot and myself and why I know him to be one of the most arrogant people I’ve ever known. He makes my skin crawl and has done for years now. I’m right about Cromwell and that’s all there is to it. Check out Phillip McKeiver’s ‘A New History of Cromwell’s Irish Campaign’ published by Advance Press and you’ll see I’m right. I don’t get you people. Seriously. The evidence isn’t there for a deliberate civilian massacre – on any scale. Don’t you get it? Am I missing something? The tide is turning. McElligot and OSiochru are wrong. Its quite simple. If they were right they’d have evidence to support their case. It ain’t there.

  14. If that is actually Tom Reilly posting here and not a wind-up merchant imposter, I’m embarrassed for him. There’s plenty of evidence there Tom but you just pick & choose, which ones best fit your theory and ignore the rest.

  15. I think I’m going to lock comments here – at least for a while – we do seem to be descending into fairly pointless tit-for-tat posting and I think everyone has said pretty much what they need to say.

  16. Ok, this is absolutely the last word, a late entrant from someone claiming to be ‘Tom Reilly’:

    “Damn. My cover is blown. I really need to get myself one of those cool nickname thingys. I wonder if Old Ironsides would be appropriate? Hmm.

    Anyhoo, Am Gaiusc (is it?) please don’t be embarrassed. There’s really no need. Okay. Let’s do this. Say…you give me…hang on…okay…just ONE piece of solid evidence…I shoot it down…then you give me another one…and I shoot that down too…and so on…get the picture?

    Let’s do this. You and me right now. ‘Take it outside’ so to speak. Please don’t let me down. I’m ready when you are.

    Having trouble? Okay, I’ll give you a headstart. Shall we start with Cromwell’s words ‘and many inhabitants’? No? How about the evidence of Thomas a Wood? Wanna do that one? No? Tell you what, you decide.

    Oh…wait a second…I know what’s going on here. Very clever! Omigod I nearly fell for it. See, I would explain what really happened, and then you don’t buy any of it because you simply can’t. It’s actually impossible. We’re even feckin’ starting off on the wrong foot. You already think I’m a complete womble and your mind is already well and truly closed. Aw crap!

    Ah well. It would have been a great craic. There’s me on one side – a complete loon with all the evidence – taking on the might of academia – with none – and you win hands down beating me into a cocked hat – never to be heard from again. It could have been your crowning glory – whoever you are. Imagine the headlines: ‘Am Gaiusc’ (?) Destroys Reilly’s Thesis’. The subheadline reads: ‘Tons of New Evidence Found Under Rock’.

    God. I love being me. I’m so cavalier and arrogant it beggars belief. And that’s what makes this so great. Reilly’s a complete prick – ergo his thesis is off the wall. Wonderful logic.

    Nine years. Nine years, my good friend. That’s what I got so far. Not one person has seriously challenged my book in that time. Not O’Siochru, not McElligott, not Lenehan, not anybody. Bland generalisations don’t quite cut the mustard. If you can do it, then I await your answer.

    In fact Morrill and Gaunt completely agree with me…or didn’t you get that part?

    Jaysus, if you were embarrassed for me last time you must be mortified now. Touche.

    The real Tom Reilly. Or is it?”

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