Cromwell did not know at first whether he would be an ecclesiastic or a soldier. He was both. In 1622 he served a campaign in the army of Frederick Henry Prince of Orange, a great man, brother of two great men; and when he returned to England, he went into the service of Bishop Williams, and was his grace's theologian, while his grace passed as his wife's lover. His principles were those of the Puritans; thus he had to hate a bishop with all his heart, and not have a liking for kings. He was driven from Bishop Williams' house because he was a Puritan; and there is the origin of his fortune. The English Parliament declared itself against the throne and against the episcopacy; some of his friends in this parliament procured the nomination of a village for him. Only at this time did he begin to exist, and he was more than forty before he had ever made himself talked of. In vain was he conversant with Holy Writ, in vain did he argue about the rights of priests and deacons, and preach a few poor sermons and libels, he was ignored. I have seen one of his sermons which is very insipid, and which bears sufficient resemblance to the predications of the quakers; assuredly there is to be found there no trace of that persuasive eloquence with which later he carried the parliaments away. The reason is that in fact he was much more suited to public affairs than to the Church. It was above all in his tone and in his air that his eloquence consisted; a gesture of that hand that had won so many battles and killed so many royalists, was more persuasive than the periods of Cicero. It must be avowed that it was his incomparable bravery which made him known, and which led him by degrees to the pinnacle of greatness.
He began by launching out as a volunteer who wished to make his fortune, in the town of Hull, besieged by the king. There he did many fine and happy actions, for which he received a gratification of about six thousand francs from the parliament. This present made by the parliament to an adventurer made it clear that the rebel party must prevail. The king was not in a position to give to his general officers what the parliament gave to volunteers. With money and fanaticism one is bound in the long run to be master of everything. Cromwell was made colonel. Then his great talents for war developed to the point that when the parliament created the Count of Manchester general of its armies, it made Cromwell lieutenant-general, without his having passed through the other ranks. Never did man appear more worthy of commanding; never were more activity and prudence, more boldness and more resource seen than in Cromwell. He is wounded at the battle of York; and while the first dressing is being put on his wound, he learns that his general, Manchester, is retiring, and that the battle is lost. He hastens to Manchester's side; he finds him fleeing with some officers; he takes him by the arm, and says to him with an air of confidence and grandeur: "You are mistaken, my lord; it is not on this side that the enemy is." He leads him back near the battlefield, rallies during the night more than twelve thousand men, speaks to them in the name of God, quotes Moses, Gideon and Joshua, at daybreak recommences the battle against the victorious royal army, and defeats it completely. Such a man had to perish or be master. Nearly all the officers of his army were enthusiasts who carried the New Testament at their saddle-bow: in the army as in the parliament men spoke only of making Babylon fall, of establishing the religion in Jerusalem, of shattering the colossus. Among so many madmen Cromwell ceased to be mad, and thought that it was better to govern them than to be governed by them. The habit of preaching as though he were inspired remained to him. Picture a fakir who has put an iron belt round his waist as a penitence, and who then takes off his belt to beat the other fakirs' ears: there you have Cromwell. He becomes as intriguing as he was intrepid; he associates himself with all the colonels of the army, and thus forms among the troops a republic which forces the commander-in-chief to resign. Another commander-in-chief is nominated, he disgusts him. He governs the army, and by it he governs the parliament; he puts this parliament in the necessity of making him commander-in-chief at last. All this was a great deal; but what is essential is that he wins all the battles he engages in in England, Scotland and Ireland; and he wins them, not in watching the fighting and in taking care of himself, but always by charging the enemy, rallying his troops, rushing everywhere, often wounded, killing many royalist officers with his own hand, like a desperate and infuriated grenadier.
Amid this frightful war Cromwell made love; he went, his Bible under his arm, to sleep with the wife of his major-general, Lambert. She loved the Count of Holland, who was serving in the king's army. Cromwell took him prisoner in a battle, and enjoyed the pleasure of having his rival's head cut off. His maxim was to shed the blood of every important enemy, either on the field of battle, or by the executioner's hand. He always increased his power, by always daring to abuse it; the profundity of his plans took away nothing from his ferocious impetuosity. He goes into the House of Parliament and, taking his watch, which he threw on the ground and which he shattered to atoms: "I will break you," he said, "like this watch." He returns there some time after, drives all the members out one after the other, making them defile before him. Each is obliged, as he passes, to make him a deep bow: one of them passes with his hat on his head; Cromwell takes his hat from him and throws it on the ground: "Learn to respect me," he says.
When he had outraged all kings by having his own legitimate king's head cut off, and when he started to reign himself, he sent his portrait to a crowned head; it was to Christine, Queen of Sweden. Marvell, a famous English poet, who wrote very good Latin verse, accompanied this portrait with six verses where he made Cromwell himself speak. Cromwell corrected the last two as follows:
At tibi submittit frontem reverentior umbrq,
Non sunt hi vultus regibus usque truces.
This queen was the first to recognize him as soon as he was protector of the three kingdoms. Almost all the sovereigns of Europe sent their ambassadors to their brother Cromwell, to this bishop's servant, who had just caused a sovereign, their own kin, to perish at the hand of the executioner. They vied with each in soliciting his alliance. Cardinal Mazarin, to please him, drove out of France the two sons of Charles I., the two grandsons of Henry IV., the two first cousins of Louis XIV. France conquered Dunkirk for him, and sent him the keys. After his death, Louis XIV. and all his court wore mourning, excepting Mademoiselle, who had the courage to come to the company in a coloured habit, and alone maintained the honour of her race.
Never was a king more absolute than he was. He said that he had preferred governing under the name of protector rather than under that of king, because the English knew the point to which a King of England's prerogative extended, and did not know to what point a protector's might go. That was to understand men, who are governed by opinion, and whose opinion depends on a name. He had conceived a profound scorn for the religion which had served to his fortune. There is a certain anecdote preserved in the house of St. John, which proves sufficiently the little account which Cromwell made of the instrument which had produced such great effects in his hands. He was drinking one day with Ireton, Fleetwood and St. John, great-grandfather of the celebrated Lord Bolingbroke; they wished to uncork a bottle, and the corkscrew fell under the table; they all looked for it and did not find it. Meanwhile a deputation from the Presbyterian churches was waiting in the antechamber, and an usher came to announce them. "Tell them," said Cromwell, "that I have retired, and that I am seeking the Lord." It was the expression which the fanatics used when they were saying their prayers. When he had thus dismissed the band of ministers, he said these very words to his confidants: "Those puppies think that we are seeking the Lord, and we are only seeking the corkscrew."
There is barely an example in Europe of any man who, come from so low, raised himself so high. But what was absolutely essential to him with all his talents? Fortune. He had this fortune; but was he happy? He lived poorly and anxiously until he was forty-three; from that time he bathed himself in blood, passed his life in turmoil, and died before his time at the age of fifty-seven. Let us compare this life with that of Newton, who lived eighty-four years, always tranquil, always honoured, always the light of all thinking beings, seeing increase each day his renown, his reputation, his fortune, without ever having either care or remorse; and let us judge which of the two had the better part.