Having won two civil wars, conquered Ireland and Scotland and seen off Charles II, the all-powerful Oliver Cromwell assumed the title Lord Protector in 1653. The same Protestant wind that had filled the sails of Drake's ships in 1588 was surely behind him. Determined to avenge the loss of the Puritan colony of Providence island (in the Caribbean) to the Catholic Habsburgs, Cromwell took on the Spanish in the New World by implementing the 'Western Design'. A poorly planned and inadequately funded assault on the island of Hispaniola, it proved a disaster.
To Cromwell, obsessed with God's plan for an elect nation, this was a grievous blow. Concluding that God had deserted him and his people because his domestic reforms had not gone far enough, he introduced the hardline puritan rule of the Major-Generals. Sectarian and fundamentalism ran riot; Levellers and royalists joined together in conspiracy against Cromwell. The only way out seemed to be a return to the ancient constitution of Parliament presided over by a King. But would Cromwell accept the crown?
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Paul Lay is editor of History Today. He sits on the advisory boards of the Institute of Historical Research and the History and Policy unit at KCL. His book, History Today and Tomorrow, was published by Endeavour Press in Spring 2012.
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