|Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar, 3rd September 1650|
Today is the 3rd September, a memorable day, a historic day, a day worthy of remembrance. Bear with me for a few minutes. A special day for me. A day remarked on by people at the time, a day that gave rise to long lived folk tales, a day special in the history of this country, a day that not all in this country of ours have forgotten. Indeed, a ceremony will be held today by some true believers beside a statue in the precinct of Parliament as it is every year on this day. I’ll explain why I’m one of them.
In the early hours of 3rd September, 1650, the English Parliamentary Army was surrounded and heavily numbered, its back against the sea at Dunbar in Scotland, trapped by a large and well generalled Royalist Scottish army. Disease was taking its toll on the English invaders, dispatched by a Parliament determined to launch a pre-emptive strike on a Scotland that had proclaimed Charles II as king on the execution of his father with the express intention of restoring him to the English throne.
The English New Model Army, commanded by the newly promoted Commander-in-Chief of Parliamentary forces, Oliver Cromwell, was perhaps in the most perilous position in its history and was preparing to evacuate by sea. The Scots, increasingly confident of moving in for the kill on the morrow, settled down for the night on the surrounding heights. They were awakened in a tumult as the English crossed the streams and ascended the hill in a pre-dawn attack, breaking them and destroying the larger army in a stunning assault. It was the most brilliant victory of a brilliant military career of England’s only Commoner head of state.
One year later to the day, another Scottish Royalist army, commanded by Charles II, was surrounded at Worcester by massively superior English forces. Cromwell had conquered much of Scotland in the intervening year and the desperate Royalists decided on a march on London, aiming to raise new Royalist forces as they progressed. Few came. The English wouldn’t rise for the Scots against an English Parliament.
Cromwell waited a couple of days, the trapped Royalists sweating, until the anniversary of Dunbar arrived and then struck. A huge battle was fought, the Royalists annihilated, Charles barely escaping as a fugitive. Parliament, Oliver, was supreme, the British Isles for the first time a unified state, and now the Dutch, the French, the Spanish, the Barbary Moors, trembled as the Cromwellian state started to exert its power overseas.
Such was the complete nature of Worcester, its sheer impact, that a myth arose, spread by Royalist propagandists, that the night before the battle Cromwell was seen meeting Lucifer in his tent, negotiating to sell his soul for victory if granted seven years of subsequent successful life.
Late August 1658, almost seven years to the day later, the Lord Protector lies seriously ill, health ravaged by malarial fever caught campaigning in Scotland or Ireland, his heart broken by the death by cancer of his closest daughter Betty only three weeks earlier whom he had nursed personally through her last days. In his sixtieth year, a great age for an active man of that time, his health is failing, He rallies, lingers, declines, rallies again, and finally, on the 2nd September the final descent but still he lingers. Then what was for decades later called ‘The Great Storm’ arrives, causing devastation on a scale of that of 1987, the Devil coming to claim his prize said the Royalists, and finally the 3rd arrives, the anniversary of Dunbar and Worcester, and the great man departs in the early hours. Grief engulfs those close to him, a stunned quietitude the rest of the world.
And so the seven years are up. Whatever his, its, failings The Lord Protector, the Parliamentary cause, showed what could happen if patriotic Englishmen stood up to arbitrary power, didn’t back down, put their lives on the line. Absolute monarchy was finished, England on the path of greatness, of empire, of representative government. Challenges still were to come, defeats even, but in those few years what was possible was seen and the memory could not be erased no matter how the restored Stuarts tried.
Only a few years later Charles II complained to the Venetian ambassador that foreign states showed him so much less respect than they had Cromwell. “But Sire,” came the reply, “Cromwell was a great man who made himself feared by land and sea…”
And so I do not forget. I remember today, Cromwell’s Day, what was and can be. And I say a prayer for his soul, a soul described by his valet, “Seldom hath so great a soul dwelt in a house of clay.”
More from 1642again here.