Oliver Cromwell died in 1658 after an attack of "malaria" followed by a bout with a kidney infection. But his enemies didn't consider such a death good enough for the man who led England through its period of Puritan dominance. Two years after Cromwell's death, Parliament restored Charles II to the throne, and royalists exhumed Cromwell's body from Westminster Abbey, hanged it, cut off its head and put it on a pole at Westminster Hall.

Richard Baxter later reflected, "Never man was higher extolled, and never man was baselier reported and vilified than he." Cromwell's fighting men adored him, and Puritan giants like John Owen and John Milton backed him. Yet history largely reviles him. Foreign leaders feared and admired him. But the English public loathed many of the reforms he endorsed. He deposed a king and dabbled with republican ideas far ahead of their time. Still, he ruled with an iron fist and gained infamy for ruthlessly butchering Irish rebels. The great Puritan leader embodies the contradictions of these remarkable years.

Charles in charge

Cromwell was born in 1599, four years before Queen Elizabeth died. His family, like most Puritans, wholeheartedly supported the queen as she projected English power against the hated Spanish Catholics. The queen, however, did not support the Puritans' relentless efforts to finish the Reformation, purge the church of incompetent clergy, and remove high-church elements from the Book of Common Prayer.

James I, who succeeded Elizabeth in 1603, clashed with the Puritans—who composed an influential minority in Parliament—over his foreign policy, especially his failure to give enough aid to Protestants fighting the Thirty Years War on the continent. He also thumbed his nose at ...

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