Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker

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    Oliver Cromwell,    by Robert Walker,    circa 1649,    NPG 536,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
The only person to be head of state in Britain who was not a member of a royal family.
Oliver Cromwell
by Robert Walker
oil on canvas, circa 1649
49 1/2 in. x 40 in. (1257 mm x 1016 mm)
NPG 536
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 6 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) is best remembered as the only person to have ruled Britain who wasn’t a king or queen. He was the only Commoner A person who does not come from a royal or noble family. to become the head of state, ruling as ‘Lord Protector’ from 1653 to 1658.

Cromwell played a major role in the Civil war A war between groups of people in the same country. in England in the mid 1600s. The wars resulted in the execution of King Charles I and ended the British Monarchy A system of government with a king or a queen at the head. for the next eleven years. Charles is the only king of England ever to be put on trial and executed. Cromwell was one of the main people responsible for his death.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Oliver Cromwell,    by Robert Walker,    circa 1649,    NPG 536,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Oliver Cromwell, by Robert Walker, circa 1649

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time - look at it for at least a minute. What can you see?

This portrait was painted around the time that King Charles I was executed, in 1649.

    • Oliver Cromwell is wearing full armour – a metal suit, which was worn by soldiers to protect them in battle from swords and other weapons.
    • This is perhaps to remind us of how Cromwell led his army and beat King Charles I and his supporters in the Civil war A war between groups of people in the same country. .
    • The style of armour is from an earlier time. It is the kind of armour worn by Knight During the Middle Ages, this was a man of high social rank who had a duty to fight for his king. They are often pictured riding horses and wearing armour. in the Medieval period A time period connected with the Middle Ages, from about AD 1000 to AD 1450. . Knights from this time are remembered for chivalry – a particular way of behaving which included being polite, kind, generous, loyal and brave. The portrait is trying to show that Cromwell is like this.
    • The boy is tying a sash around the waist of Oliver Cromwell’s Medieval period A time period connected with the Middle Ages, from about AD 1000 to AD 1450. armour.
    • Medieval Knight During the Middle Ages, this was a man of high social rank who had a duty to fight for his king. They are often pictured riding horses and wearing armour. had boys who worked for them called pages, while training to become knights themselves.
    • This is another symbol showing Cromwell as a chivalrous leader, with integrity and honour.
    • Cromwell is shown holding a baton under his arm. These were traditionally carried by high-ranking officers in battle.
    • The baton shows Cromwell as a military leader and is another reminder of his victory over King Charles I in the English Civil Wars A series of wars between King Charles I and his parliament from 1642–51. .
I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a Gentleman and is nothing else.
Oliver Cromwell, 1643

Who was Oliver Cromwell?

  • Oliver Cromwell came from a relatively ordinary but well-connected family.
  • He became a Member of Parliament (MP) A person who has been elected to represent the people of a particular area in a parliament. . He strongly criticised King Charles I, who wanted to rule the country alone, without having to include Parliament The group of people who are elected to make and change the laws of a country. in his decisions.
  • When a series of Civil war A war between groups of people in the same country. broke out in England in 1642, Cromwell fought for Parliament against the king. He became leader of the Parliamentarian A person who supported Parliament during the English Civil Wars from 1642–51. army, which eventually defeated the king and his supporters.
  • In 1649, the king was put on trial by Parliament and executed for Treason The crime of doing something that could cause danger to your country, such as helping its enemies during a war. . Cromwell was a major figure in the trial and one of the people who signed the king’s Death warrant An official document stating that somebody should receive the punishment of being killed for a crime that they have committed. .
  • In 1649, a rebellion broke out in Ireland against the new English Republic ​A country that is governed by a president and politicians elected by the people and where there is no king or queen. . Cromwell led his army to Ireland to crush the rebellion and the support for the Monarchy A system of government with a king or a queen at the head. . The brutal massacre of soldiers and ordinary people by Cromwell’s army is still remembered with bitterness in parts of Ireland today.
  • In 1653, Oliver Cromwell was given the new title of Lord Protector by Parliament. He was now head of state, in place of the monarchy, ruling over England, Scotland and Ireland.
  • After Cromwell died in 1658, the monarchy was restored. Charles II, the son of Charles I, became king – but the monarchy now had less power.
  • Cromwell helped lay the foundations of modern Democracy A system of government in which the people of a country can vote to elect their representatives. in Britain. To this day, real political power is held by Parliament, which is elected by the people, rather than the monarchy (the kings and queens who become rulers as a birth right).
  • Cromwell’s government was also the first in Britain to have a written constitution – rules for how the government should work. This included greater acceptance of people with different religions. Jewish communities had been expelled from England in 1290 but they successfully fought for the right to return under Cromwell. 

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This portrait of Oliver Cromwell was painted around the time that King Charles I was executed, in 1649.
  • The artist, Robert Walker, was an English portrait painter who was popular with Cromwell and the Parliamentarian A person who supported Parliament during the English Civil Wars from 1642–51. . He is showing Cromwell as a strong leader, with integrity and honour.
  • Walker was influenced by Anthony van Dyck, a Flemish The people – and language – of Flanders in northern Belgium. artist who had worked for Charles I as his ‘Principalle Paynter’. Van Dyck transformed Charles I’s public image, making it powerful, heroic and more Flatter To make somebody appear more attractive, more powerful or better than they are in reality. , through the portraits he painted.
  • Van Dyck became the most influential portrait painter to have ever worked in Britain. He changed the way portraits were painted, making them more expressive and less formal, and setting new standards in skill and technique.
  • This portrait is very similar to Van Dyck’s style. Walker copied Cromwell’s Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. and the pose of the page tying the sash from earlier paintings by Van Dyck. 
  • Although Cromwell had replaced the Monarch A person who rules a country, for example a king or a queen. as a new type of leader, this portrait shows him in a way that is similar to Charles I and his royalist supporters. Parliamentarians thought being shown in this way added power to their own images.

Questions

  1. Why do you think Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians did not want a monarchy in Britain?
  1. Find out more about why the monarchy was restored after Oliver Cromwell died.
  1. What is the role of the monarchy in Britain today?