Cromwell’s statue in Westminster

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Confederate War and Cromwell, Cromwell, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2008), Letters, Parnell & his Party, Volume 16


—In connection with Micheál Ó Siochrú’s September/October article ‘The curse of Cromwell’, you may be interested in a few more points about the Cromwell statue at Westminster, most of which I picked up while doing research on the Irish Independent of the 1890s (when it was the paper of the Parnellite party).
The proposal to finance the statue from public funds was put forward by the Liberal government in part to placate its nonconformist supporters, who disapproved of gambling and disliked the fact that the prime minister, Lord Rosebery, owned racehorses (one of which had just won the Derby). Rosebery presided over a minority government, kept in power by the votes of anti-Parnellite nationalist MPs. The government had been formed as the result of the 1892 general election, in which the veteran Liberal leader W. E. Gladstone had sought a mandate to pass Home Rule for Ireland. Although Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill was passed by the Commons in 1893, the Lords claimed that the narrowness of the Liberal/anti-Parnellite majority justified them in rejecting it, and the government decided that instead of calling a fresh election immediately on the Home Rule issue they would pass further reforming legislation, in the hope that if this was rejected by the Lords it would strengthen them at a future election.
In 1894 Gladstone retired and was succeeded by Rosebery, who was known to be unenthusiastic about Home Rule. The anti-Parnellites continued to support the government in the hope of getting reform legislation for Ireland; the Parnellites (who claimed that by turning against Parnell at Gladstone’s request the anti-Parnellites had ceased to be an independent body and become part of the Liberal Party) declared that the government ought to be turned out immediately, and attacked them on such issues as Home Secretary Asquith’s refusal to release convicted Irish-American dynamiters, Chief Secretary for Ireland John Morley’s failure to reinstate evicted tenants, and the execution of the Cork moonlighter John Twiss for an agrarian murder of which many believed he was not guilty.
The anti-Parnellites acquiesced in the introduction of the statue proposal at Westminster because it would be a free vote rather than a government measure, and because they themselves were distracted by internal disputes between the followers of John Dillon and Tim Healy; however, they hardened their position when the Parnellites accused them of practical complicity in the erection of the statue, and proclaimed that the government should have been brought down before such an insult was offered to Ireland. The defeat of the statue proposal was due to the Conservatives as much as to Irish nationalists; just as the Liberals were allied with the nonconformist churches who looked back to the Parliamentarians of the Civil War, the Conservatives were associated with the Church of England, which recalled that Cromwell had tried to suppress episcopalianism altogether and saw Charles I as a martyr because he had refused to shore up his throne by agreeing to make the Church of England a Presbyterian body. (There were, of course, some Conservative exceptions; when a Conservative front-bencher referred to Cromwell as a murderer during the statue debate, the South Belfast Orange-populist MP William Johnston of Ballykilbeg, who regarded Cromwell as a Protestant hero, stood up and declared ‘I protest at this insult to the Lord Protector’.)
The statue débâcle further weakened the Rosebery government; it fell soon afterwards and suffered a crushing defeat at the 1895 general election. The Parnellite Independent rejoiced; it described Asquith as ‘a plaster of Paris Cromwell’, declared that Morley had done more harm to Ireland than anyone since Cromwell ‘for whose statue he fittingly voted’, and suggested that if Cromwell was still alive the anti-Parnellites would have adopted him as a parliamentary candidate as an expression of their alliance with the Liberals!
When the Cromwell statue was put up some years later at Rosebery’s expense, some radical nationalists suggested that the whole thing had been a fuss about nothing. D. P. Moran commented that since Irish nationalist MPs ostensibly wished to get back to Ireland in a Home Rule parliament as soon as possible, they should have no concern with how the British adorned their parliament; if a statue of the Antichrist was put up at Westminster (a very suitable location for it), Irish nationalists should regard it with indifference. Arthur Griffith, meanwhile, suggested that Cromwell had been the only honest Englishman to govern Ireland; they all tried to exterminate the Irish, but Cromwell was the only one to admit it. In his opinion, the expression ‘the curse of Cromwell’ ought to be replaced by ‘the curse of Russell’ (Lord John Russell, Whig prime minister during the Great Famine; during the Economic War of the 1930s Patrick Belton similarly suggested that the expression ‘the curse of Cromwell’ should be replaced amongst Irish farmers by ‘the curse of de Valera’). A heated correspondence followed in Griffith’s paper, during which it was suggested that if Cromwell were still alive he would approve of the Irish Parliamentary Party as good imperialists and be a regular reader of Moran’s paper, the Leader. (Moran had antagonised Griffith by suggesting that cultural revival mattered more than politics, that separatists were impractical fantasists and that Irish nationalists should make it clear that if granted Home Rule they would thereafter be loyal subjects of the Crown.)
In general, it may be suggested that Cromwell’s reputation in Ireland owes something to the fact that as a usurper denounced by all factions in Britain he was a ‘safe’ target for denunciation (unlike, say, Queen Elizabeth I) and that the main Protestant churches, as well as the Catholic Church, recalled him with hostility. (Cromwell, who was a Congregationalist, crushed the Scots Presbyterian armies and defeated their attempt to impose the Scots Covenants across the whole of Britain; his secretary, the poet John Milton, who denounced the Presbytery of Belfast for denouncing the execution of Charles I, declared Presbyterianism as tyrannical as Catholicism—‘New Presbyter is but old priest writ large’.) The early nineteenth-century Whig commentator William Cooke Taylor (himself a descendant of the regicide John Cooke, born in the ultra-Protestant community of Youghal, Co. Cork) claimed to know of some Protestants who kept up the custom of eating a calf’s head on 30 January (the anniversary of Charles I’s execution) but claimed to know nothing of its significance except that it had something to do with being against popery.
A partial exception to this eclipse of Cromwell’s reputation among Irish Protestants came in the mid-nineteenth century as a result of Carlyle’s Life. It was at this time that Colonel William Blacker, the ‘Orange Bard’ of Armagh, wrote his ballad Oliver’s Advice, exhorting Orangemen to ‘put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry’, and that Johnston of Ballykilbeg praised the lord protector as a pan-Protestant hero (for example, in his novel of the Jacobite war Under which king?). In present-day Belfast Orange parades there is one lodge that marches under a banner that shows on one side Cromwell exhorting the viewer to put his trust in God and keep his powder dry, and on the other ‘Cromwell and his Ironsides at Drogheda’ (bombarding the walls rather than carrying out massacres within them). They, however, are massively outnumbered by representations of King Billy.

—Yours etc.,
Queen’s University, Belfast


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568