This is a portrait of the ‘Chief of Men’, Oliver Cromwell, by Robert Walker. It is an oil on canvas and was painted in 1649 – the year King Charles I was tried and executed. Cromwell was a country gentleman who took up arms against King Charles I in order to protect the rights of the people – and authority of parliament. He was both a God-fearing soldier and a decisive general. This portrait shows Cromwell wearing chivalric armour, not battle worthy but symbolic of the virtues for which he stood. As with generals in military portraits and sculptures he holds a baton – containing his combat authorisation and field orders.
Born into a wealthy and influential family, Oliver Cromwell was educated at grammar school and at Cambridge University. The family could trace their heritage back to Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. Cromwell wed Elizabeth Bourchier, the daughter of an important London leather merchant and, through that, became well known among London commercial circles – who were all supporters of the law and parliament and resented the ad-hoc taxes and duties levied on them by King Charles I.
Cromwell became an MP in 1628 – but this would be the last parliament for 11 years when King Charles I dispensed with parliament – and instituted his ‘personal rule’ for 11 years. Cromwell became more active as a puritan and anti-royalist. After the failed arrest of Cromwell and anti-Royalist collaborators by King Charles I (and 500 soldiers) in parliament (the ‘birds have flown’) the King fled London and raised his banner at Nottingham.
Parliament took up arms against the King. Cromwell formed a troop in Cambridge and was rapidly promoted to command part of the New Model Army under General Fairfax. Eventually, after years of bitter civil war (1642 – 1648) the Parliamentarian forces won.
Due to the war – and the kings double dealing – King Charles I was tried for treason and executed in January 1649. His place of execution was a scaffold erected outside the new Banqueting House in Whitehall, London. It was symbolic, as King Charles I had commissioned the building with magnificent ceiling paintings of the ‘divine right of Kings’ – to rule as they see fit.
After the execution of the King, the ‘Commonwealth’ was declared. Parliament sat and governed the country (from 1649 – 1660). Around mid-way through this period due to political infighting Cromwell became head of state as Lord Protector in 1653 – although he refused the English crown when offered it, in 1657
Cromwell died in 1658 and was buried in Westminster Abbey (in the Lady Chapel at a place still marked) – only to be dug up, tried, and symbolically ‘executed’ at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
At the outset Cromwell had considered leaving the United Kingdom and joining fellow puritans in Connecticut, America. He was persuaded from doing so by his fellow MP and friend John Pym. During the English Civil War, most Virginian colonists were loyal to the English monarchy. And so, in the other colonies, Royalists fled to Virginia after their defeat in the war – many of them established what would become the most important families in Virginia today. In 1652 Cromwell sent a force to replace the Virginia colonial Government with officials loyal to the Commonwealth of England. These governors were moderate Puritans. After the Restoration of King Charles II, and in recognition of Virginia’s loyalty to the crown, the King bestowed Virginia with the nickname ‘The Old Dominion’ – which it still bears today.
(See this portrait at the National Portrait Gallery: https://www.npg.org.uk/ )
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