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Oliver Cromwell: The man who "abolished Christmas" was in some ways a pioneer of religious toleration (Illustration by Michael Daley)

As the title of her biography, still unsurpassed after four decades, Antonia Fraser chose the opening of Milton’s great panegyric of 1652: “Cromwell our chief of men”. The words of this sonnet resonate down the centuries because, with the exception of Winston Churchill, no man in English history has stood so far above his contemporaries as the Lord Protector.

He was, nevertheless, England’s only dictator. In classical political theory, a dictator was a leader appointed in time of war or other crisis for a limited period, the most famous example being Julius Caesar. Like Caesar, Cromwell was offered the crown; unlike Caesar, he was firm in his refusal. It speaks volumes for the loyalty he inspired, too, that he avoided the Roman’s  fate — though after the Restoration his corpse was exhumed and hung on a gibbet, as part of Charles II’s posthumous revenge on the regicides. It says something, moreover, for the underlying awe in which Cromwell was still held, as well as for the English sense of fair play, that no such vindictiveness was shown towards Richard Cromwell, the Protector’s son, who briefly and unwillingly inherited his father’s office before being deposed by the army in favour of the Stuarts.

It would be an understatement to say that Oliver Cromwell has always divided opinion. In Ireland, the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford became a bloodstained folk memory that no historical contextualisation can cleanse. While Cromwell’s treatment of those he defeated was usually magnanimous by the standards of the time, he showed no mercy to the Irish rebels, especially the clergy. His attitude to Catholics in England, on the other hand, was exceptionally tolerant: he favoured freedom of conscience, at least in private, and the recusant community flourished under his protection. He even tried to persuade Rome to desist from placing Catholics under an obligation to rebel, in return for toleration; he was rebuffed.

But the proof of Oliver’s open mind — and in many ways the most enlightened achievement of his whole career — was his decision to reintroduce the Jews to England. Ever since Edward I’s shameful expulsion of 1290, England had been a no-go area for Jews, apart from a handful of individuals who worshipped in secret. By the mid-17th century the emerging Dutch republic, by contrast, was home to large and flourishing communities of Sephardic Jews, mostly Marranos who had sought refuge there from Spain and Portugal.
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