Would it not be better to let bygones be bygones mindful of the old adage “grass may grow over the battlefield, over the gallows never”? The history of Cromwell shows that grass grew over the battlefields of the English Civil War, but not over the scaffold of Charles I
In recent days, the decision taken nearly 350 years ago by the restored ‘civilian’ government to disinter Cromwell’s corpse and to hang and decapitate his body has been cited by some in support of the demand that General Pervez Musharraf (retd) be tried for treason. It is claimed that this posthumous punishment for a general who had put Britain under martial law ensured that Britain was never again faced with a threat of military rule.
The historical facts are, alas, a little different. Oliver Cromwell was born a year before the beginning of the 17th century into a middle class farming family. He graduated from Sidney Sussex College of Cambridge University, which had a very strong Puritan ethos. Puritans were the Deobandis of the Protestant faith. They believed in simplicity of religious practice and for them the rituals of even the Anglican Church of England were a Popish imitation of the elaborate rites of worship of the Roman Catholics.
Cromwell was elected to Parliament from Cambridge in 1628 and then again in 1640. He was, to start with, a parliamentarian and not a military man.
The 17th century was a century of great religious intolerance in Europe, including Britain. It was a century of religious wars primarily between Roman Catholics and Protestants but also between different sects of Protestants. In England, the religious divide was aggravated by the struggle between a monarch who believed in the Divine Right of Kings and an increasingly assertive Parliament.
The combination of these and other factors led to the English Civil War of the 1640s which pitted King Charles I, who was suspected by the Puritans of being a closet Roman Catholic, and the Royalists, including large numbers of Church of England Protestants, against Parliament in which the majority were Puritans (also called Roundheads because of their short cropped hair).
When both sides took up arms in 1642, Cromwell raised a troop of cavalry from his Cambridgeshire constituency and became its colonel. He turned out to be a first-rate military commander and was soon the second-in-command to Sir Thomas Fairfax who led the parliamentary forces.
The parliamentary armies prevailed, and Charles I was captured. The victors, comprising Puritans, Presbyterians, Levellers and others, could not agree among themselves on what to do next. Charles I escaped, the Civil War resumed.
Cromwell was now in full command of the parliamentary forces. Charles I was once again defeated and re-captured. 59 members of parliament including Cromwell tried and convicted Charles I of high treason and sentenced him to death. Charles I was beheaded on January 30, 1649.
Parliament proceeded to abolish the monarchy and declared England a republic viz the Commonwealth of England to be ruled by a Council of State drawn from Parliament. Cromwell was a member of the Council.
The Royalists, led by Charles II, the elder son of the executed King, tried to re-group in Ireland and Scotland. The English Army, under Cromwell’s command, invaded Ireland and, as they were fighting Roman Catholics, carried out large-scale massacres which in today’s world would undoubtedly be categorised as genocidal war crimes.
Thereafter Scotland too was conquered and suppressed but as the Scots were Presbyterian Protestants, there were no pogroms such as those seen in Ireland. Charles II reportedly hid in a hollow oak tree before escaping to France. His younger brother James II was already there.
On his return to England in 1651 after his conquests of Ireland and Scotland there were protracted negotiations and disagreements between Cromwell and Parliament. Eventually Parliament was dissolved and a new Parliament elected which converted the Commonwealth into the Protectorate and made Cromwell the Lord Protector. Later Parliament offered Cromwell the Crown but he declined to become King.
Cromwell died in 1658. His son Richard succeeded him but did not command the power and authority of his father. He resigned and went abroad. There followed a period of confusion, unrest and uncertainty.
One of Cromwell’s top commanders, General Monck, was the Governor of Scotland. He marched on and captured London. On his watch, Parliament was dissolved and a new Parliament elected which was evenly divided between royalists and parliamentarians, Anglican Protestants and Presbyterian Protestants. Puritans were in a minority. The national mood had turned against them.
The new Parliament received a message from Charles II that he was ready to forgive and forget. Parliament thereupon invited him to return as King. Charles II re-entered London on his 30th birthday, an event known in British history as the Restoration. Parliament then proceeded, as its first order of business, to pass the General Pardons, Indemnity and Oblivion Act of 1660 whereby, except for the restoration of royal and church properties, all that happened during the period of the Civil War and the Commonwealth and the Protectorate was indemnified, and all persons responsible for these happenings were forgiven and pardoned except for those directly responsible, including Cromwell, for convicting and signing the death warrant of Charles I. Each of these persons (the Regicides) inclusive of those who had died were named as exceptions to the pardons and indemnities in the 1660 Act.
One of the notable beneficiaries of the Indemnity and Oblivion Act was the great English poet John Milton, who later wrote the epic “Paradise Lost”, reflective of his personal despair over the failure of the Commonwealth and the Protectorate. Milton served as Secretary of State of Foreign Tongues under Cromwell, a sort of information-cum-propaganda minister.
It was after the passing of this Act that on January 30, 1661, after exactly 12 years to the day on which Charles I was beheaded, Cromwell’s body was exhumed from its burial place in Westminster Abbey, hung in chains and decapitated, the body thrown into a pit and the severed head placed on a pole. Years later the head, or rather skull, was retrieved by Sidney Sussex College and re-buried within its precincts.
Charles II was a Roman Catholic but did not publicly announce his faith till on his deathbed in 1685. His brother James II was a professed Roman Catholic and when his second wife gave birth to a boy during his short three-year reign the English elite, the bishops and the lords and the leaders in Parliament, fearing a continuation of Roman Catholic monarchs, invited a Protestant Dutch ruler, Prince William, to invade.
When he did so, having some years earlier married Mary, who was a daughter of James II but had been raised a Protestant, the English elite joined forces with him, and James II was forced into exile once again in what the British call the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which effectively ended the Restoration of 1660. Prince William became William III and ruled jointly with his wife.
So who won at the bar of history?
There is a statue of Cromwell in Parliament Square, in front of the House of Commons. There are roads and other monuments named after Cromwell in London and many other British cities. Cromwell’s temporary grave in Westminster Abbey is marked with a prominent floor stone in what is known as the Air Force Chapel. Towns in New Zealand and the United States are named after Cromwell. In 2002, the BBC conducted a poll to decide who were the 100 greatest figures in British history. The final list of the top 10 included Cromwell along with Churchill, Darwin, Queen Elizabeth I, Nelson, Newton and Shakespeare.
So what lessons or analogies can we draw with relevance from the history of Cromwell?
Nearly 350 years ago, the British people realised their national need for reconciliation and passed their version of a law that covers the same territory as our National Reconciliation Ordinance and the various versions of Article 270, single A, double A and triple A, passed in 1973, 1985, 2002 and 2007 respectively. Through their General Pardons, Indemnity and Oblivion Act they laid to rest the divisions and wounds of their Civil War and all that followed. However, this was done by Parliament after three months of debate and not, as in the case of our National Reconciliation Ordinance and Article 270AAA, by the out-going military ruler.
With reference to the proposed Article 6 trial of Pervez Musharraf, the example of Cromwell has no relevance at all. The body of Cromwell, and also those of Ireton and Bradshaw, were exhumed and decapitated for their role in the execution of Charles I and not because of their involvement in the Civil War or the establishment of the Commonwealth and later the Protectorate.
The issue as to whether or not Musharraf should be tried for treason has to be decided by us in the light of our own history and circumstances and not on the basis of incorrect analogies drawn from the history of Cromwell. It appears to me that in deciding this matter we should be seeking answers to the following questions:
Were Zia-ul Haq and his generals aware of Article 6 on July 5, 1977 when they took over? If so, why did it not stop them?
Ziu-ul Haq was certainly made aware of Article 6 after his take-over. Is this why he did not lift martial law till he got his indemnity from Parliament in the form of Article 270A in 1985; and is this why he nevertheless retained his uniform as army chief, just to make doubly sure?
Treason trials are quite often divisive events. Consider, for instance, what happened when Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman was tried for treason in the Agartala Conspiracy case. While many in West Pakistan continued to believe that Mujib-ur-Rehman was a traitor, the abortive trial transformed him into the undisputed leader of East Pakistan. Is the danger that a Musharraf trial may be divisive, and may have unintended consequences with reference to his former constituency, an acceptable risk?
If a future army chief and his generals of that time are faced with a situation in which, in their opinion, their loyalty to the State of Pakistan requires them to take over, and a significant body of public and political opinion supports their act to dislodge the government of the day, will they be deterred by the fact that Musharraf was tried for treason or will they think they can deal with the Article 6 threat in the same way as Zia-ul Haq?
Will a Musharraf trial contribute to and promote good governance inclusive of its various ingredients viz the rule of law, parliamentary supremacy, independence of the judiciary and the implementation of effective policies for the social and economic welfare of the common man which, in the long-run, are the only sure foundations and guarantees for the continuance of our federal parliamentary democratic system?
What are the foreign policy implications? Will the British agree to repatriate Musharraf in violation of the guarantees that they, and the Americans, reportedly gave at the time of his resignation?
Would it not be better to let bygones be bygones mindful of the old adage “grass may grow over the battlefield, over the gallows never”? The history of Cromwell shows that grass grew over the battlefields of the English Civil War, but not over the scaffold of Charles I.
The writer is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court, and a former civil servant, cabinet minister and Governor of Punjab
Article originally published in Daily Times on 3rd September 2009, reproduced by permission of DT.