NPG 3065; Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper

‘Oliver Cromwell’
by Samuel Cooper (1656) [1]

Oliver Cromwell (b. 1599 – d. 1658) lists among British history’s most enigmatic – and problematic – characters. To some, he was – or has been – a military genius, a forward-thinking Republican hero. To others he was a Machiavellian monster[2] , a vicious tyrant – a ‘murdering bastard’[3]. Many remember him as a Christmas-cancelling, wart-faced caricature, a pantomime villain or even a vampire[4]. There are many faces to the turmoil of the mid-seventeenth-century British Isles, and Oliver Cromwell has worn them all.

Here, the focus is on how Cromwell was visually represented. Cromwell does not appear to have gained the same mastery over he and others presented him to the world – unlike his predecessor and dramatic foil ‘the merry monarch’, Charles II. Since the seventeenth-century, politicians, pamphleteers, artists, academics, authors, playwrights and film directors have all presented him differently.

The image above is perhaps one of the best known portraits of Oliver Cromwell. It is also perhaps my personal favourite, because it seems the most ambiguous: with its distant yet determined gaze, it permits as many variant readings of Oliver Cromwell as history, and the historiography, calls for. Meanwhile, as it was copied and re-issued in various official and unofficial guises, Cooper’s depiction of Cromwell got a little bit wartier and a little bit uglier. It was a sign of things to come.

NPG D22714; Oliver Cromwell by William Faithorne

‘Oliver Cromwell’
by William Faithorne, line engraving, 1656[5]

This image depicts Cromwell as a British hero: ‘Olivarivs Britannicvs Heros’. Across the British Isles, even today, it is Ireland where the image of Oliver Cromwell resonates most deeply – and most darkly. In 1997, the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern famously refused to enter the Westminster office of the British foreign secretary before a portrait of Oliver Cromwell taken down[6]. In some parts, even today, Cromwell forms part of one of the worst curses to be mustered: mallacht Chromail ort[7].

Cromwell landed in Ireland, on the request of Parliament, in the summer of 1649. Although meeting with virtually no resistance, Cromwell left an almost undeniably vicious legacy behind him, with his brutal treatment of defeated opponents at Drogheda and Wexford living on still in popular memory. The armies behind Cromwell in this image, together with his militant, warlike stance, support this savage interpretation. Yet, Cromwell’s depiction as a leader of men and a ‘British hero’ are far removed from the tales of Wexford and Drogheda – as well as the enforced mass evictions and deportations to Barbados and Bermuda that Cromwell is also held to have carried out. Historians like John Morrill have even accused Cromwell of implementing a policy of deliberate ethnic cleansing. There certainly was a strong ethnic dynamic to this particular strain of anti-Catholicism. Arguments have been made that Cromwell has been made somewhat of a scapegoat for the actions of several military leaders and for events that took place after he had left Ireland. Whatever the truth in such claims, the image above good illustration of Cromwell’s depiction as a military leader, as opposed to political ruler, and the ongoing portrayal of Cromwell, and the rest of the Commonwealth, as evincing the entire British Isles.

NPG 4365; Oliver Cromwell ('The Dunbar Medal') by Thomas Simon

‘The Dunbar Medal’
by Thomas Simon, silver medal, 1650[8]

Although it has been claimed that Cromwell treated the Presbyterian Scots much better than the Catholic Irish, thousands of Scots – mainly Catholic and Gaelic-speaking highlanders – were also deported to the colonies. After the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, Presbyterianism remained but the Kirk lost almost all of its authority. With most Scottish political figures imprisoned, local rulers and tax officials were often English and imposed by the Commonwealth. On the medal given to his troops after Dunbar, Cromwell is shown in the style of a Roman conqueror, underlining his depiction at that time as a great military leader. The inscription, ‘The Lord of Hosts’, suggests that God was fighting alongside Cromwell and his army at Dunbar. The connotation God fought alongside Cromwell’s elevated him both militarily and politically.

Cromwell Lely

Oliver Cromwell
by Sir Peter Lely (c.1554)[9]

The gruesome tale – relished by centuries of slightly-bored pupils (including myself) – that Cromwell’s body was dug up and executed by the Restoration regime,[10] makes it easy to forget that he was buried in Westminster Abbey in first place. Westminster Abbey was built as the coronation and resting place for English, and later British, sovereigns: an explicitly royalist resting place for one of the men who signed King Charles I’s death warrant. Additionally, Cromwell’s funeral was inspired by that of the first Anglo-Scottish monarch, James VI & I. His funeral included a state procession featuring an effigy of Cromwell that wore full royal regalia, including a crown, and carried a scepter and orb. Cromwell was buried like a King.[11]

In 1653, under the constitutional re-settlement known as the Instrument of Government[12] , Oliver Cromwell was elected – or arguably rather selected – as ‘Lord Protector’ of the Commonwealth; a Republic which included three kingdoms within one parliament. However, although Cromwell’s person now wielded executive power, his investiture carefully avoided all forms of ‘royal’ costume and regalia. However, his signature ‘Oliver P’ – the P standing for Protector – echoed, too closely for some contemporary and later critics, the traditional regal styling of ‘R’, indicating ‘Rex’ or ‘Regina’.

As the balance of power within the Protectorate shifted, further constitutional re-structuring was needed and the Instrument of Government was replaced with 1657 Humble Petition and Advice. Parliament offered Cromwell the crown – over a month later he declined it. Cromwell was ceremonially re-installed as Lord Protector on June 26th 1657: on King Edward’s Chair. Although the ceremony took place in Westminster Hall and not Westminster Abbey, the use of King Edward’s coronation chair gave a nod to a long line of kings claiming legitimacy through religious coronation[13]. Cromwell wore a purple robe, lined in ermine, and carried symbols of monarchy, including the sword of justice and royal scepter. Lord Protector did not become a hereditary title but Cromwell was able to nominate his heir: Richard, his eldest son. The new political establishment presented Cromwell as king in all but name.

None of this is immediately clear in the picture above – but the undercurrent is there. This portrait was painted by Sir Peter Lely and is one of the later images of Oliver Cromwell[14]. Not only was Lely portrait painter to Charles I, but he would also become court painter to Charles II after the Restoration: the message might be different but the artist and propaganda machine remained the same. Famously, Lely was employed by Cromwell to paint him honestly and faithfully – ‘warts and all’[15] – which would influence all, especially negative, works to come – Above all, perhaps this image suggests that however the political establishment sought to present him as, Cromwell himself attempted to avoid the elaborate trappings of fashion and royalty. This painting is certainly noticeably different in style from much of Lely’s other, mainly lavishly-styled and posed, portraiture.

NPG D28676; Oliver Cromwell in ''A GENEALOGIE OF ANTI-CHRIST'' by George Bickham the Elder, published by  Charles Price

‘A Genealogie of Anti-Christ’
by George Bickham the Elder, line engraving, early to mid-eighteenth century[16]

A spectral caricature of Cromwell was often used as a more easily comprehensible abbreviation for the swirling mass of radical factions struggling for power in the British Isles during the seventeenth-century. In the image above, Cromwell is depicted as the father of all the British Isles’ troubles: the Arminians and Puritans that jostled for influence in England during the 1630s; the Presbytery in Scotland; Atheists and Blasphemers; Libertines and Murderers. In this genealogy, even ‘the Civil War’ itself descends from Cromwell, masking the complexity of the political situation and spectrum of political thought across the kingdoms of the British Isles. The simplification of all these issues into the image of Cromwell, the archetypal English roundhead and parliamentarian, was echoed in centuries of historiography until the term ‘the English Civil War’ was gradually replaced by ‘the War of the Three Kingdoms.’

Cromwell As King

‘Oliver Cromwell as King’ by unknown Dutch artist[17]

With the unfortunate Charles I meeting his sticky end in the background, the Oliver Cromwell of this image stands to the fore in his stolen royal regalia. In the top left-hand corner, held by two devils, is a dog. As a symbol, the dog was used to represent loyalty as the Latin name for dog, fido, derived from that for fidus (loyalty), and the sword it is holding in its mouth represented justice and authority. The image suggests that fidelity, justice, and authority have been suspended by Cromwell and his devils’ usurpation of royal power. The three bags guarded by the dog represent the three kingdoms of the Stuart monarchy. This cartoon appears to support the idea that Cromwell masqueraded as king in all but name – as discussed above – and in this way demonstrates how the Restoration regime would also use this crown-clad caricature as a tragi-comic figure to underline the necessity of monarchy and all its trappings.

Cromwell Westminster

‘Oliver Cromwell’
by Hamo Thornycroft (c.1897-1899)[18]

This statue of Oliver Cromwell was erected in 1899 and, even after the passage of time, remains extremely controversial. Whilst some celebrate Cromwell as an English or British icon, his usage as a symbol of Republicanism[19] remains a double-edged sword. Reasons to revile the statue and its subject still stand: radicalism; suppression; the creator of uncertainty; unpopular cultural and religious policies; his forced and often savage conquest of Scotland and, more especially, Ireland. Given the appearance of the ‘three kingdom’ issue – as with many of these images – and the impact of mid-seventeenth century political turmoil on the later history of entire British Isles, it is clear that Oliver Cromwell – and all that he has been used to represent – is a key figure in any understanding of these issues.

[1] S. Cooper, ‘Oliver Cromwell’ (1656), watercolour on vellum, NPG 3065. See:; [2] J. Lilliburn, The Iuglers Discovered ([London]: 1647). [3] See: and.[4] A character known only as ‘Oliver’ appears in the Morganville Vampire series of fictional novels by Rachel Caine. He shares Cromwell’s place and date of birth, many of his nicknames and claims to have been present at all of his battles. See: [5] W. Faithorne, ‘Oliver Cromwell’ (published 1656) line engraving, NPG D22714. For more information see: [6] M. O Siochru, God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland (Dublin: Faber & Faber, repr. 2008); See also, F. O’Toole, ‘The face that haunts Ireland’s history’, The Guardian (Sunday August 24th 2008). [7] Meaning ‘the Curse of Cromwell Upon You’. [8] Oliver Cromwell (‘The Dunbar Medal’) by Thomas Simon, silver medal, 1650, NPG 436. For further information see: [9] Sir P. Lely, ‘Oliver Cromwell’ (c. 1554), oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina, Florence. Accessed online and used with creative commons license, see: [10] Cromwell’s head was not finally buried until 1960 at Sidney Sussex College, the University of Cambridge. [11] T. Burton Esq., ‘Cromwell’s death and funeral order’, taken from The Diary of Thomas Burton Esq (1828) ii, pp. 516-530. [12] For more information on the Instrument of Government (1653) see: King Edward’s Coronation Chair was originally made to hold the Stone of Scone, used in the coronation of Scotland’s ancient kings, which he took during war against Scotland. Again, Cromwell is held up as ruler and conqueror of both England and Scotland. [14] Born Pieter van der Faes in Westphalia. Knighted 1680.[15] It is commonly believed that the English expression, ‘warts and all’ derives from Lely’s description of his Cromwell portrait and the instructions he received for it. [16]
G. Bickham, ‘A Genealogie of Anti-Christ’ (London: Charles Price, early-mid eighteenth-century), line engraving, NPG D28676. See: . [17] ‘Oliver Cromwell as King’, cartoon, exact date unknown. From Thomas Macaulay, The History of England (London: Macmillan, 1913). [18] H. Thornycroft, ‘Statue of Oliver Cromwell’, Westminster (c.1897-1899), bronze. Used on creative commons license from:,_Westminster.jpg#file . [19] It should be noted that not only did Cromwell become the figurehead for the Interregnum regime, but that he was one of those who actually signed Charles I’s death warrant.