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?

Advertisements