Today, the 8th of May, is a day with a fair deal of royal baggage. This year, it is a bank holiday set aside to celebrate the coronation of Charles III, who has just become the first person crowned as British monarch to have studied for a Cambridge degree. It also marks the anniversary of one man turning down the chance to beat him to it by well over three centuries.
During the hundreds of years since Oliver Cromwell left his alma mater, he has remained the University of Cambridge’s most consistently controversial alumnus. Described by a contemporary as “a brave, bad man,” he has been remembered as a religious zealot and cautious pragmatist, an architect of democracy and genocidal dictator, the English Revolution’s champion and betrayer. Now is not the time to wade into the many debates that rage over what he did, but it is an interesting moment to reflect on one thing he didn’t do: namely, accept the crown for himself.
This was by no means a foregone conclusion. By early 1657, our present king’s namesake Charles I had been in his grave for nearly a decade, but his regicides had not yet hit upon a settled system of government to replace him. After short-lived experiments with elements of theocracy and military rule, several leading Parliamentarians had come to believe that the instability and bitterness caused by the civil wars could only be healed by the resumption of traditional forms of rulership. Meanwhile, Cromwell had steadily risen from being Cambridge’s backbench MP to the New Model Army’s commander, and then the Lord Protector at the head of the English republican state. A group of moderate MPs and civic leaders (with the chancellor of Cambridge, Oliver St John, prominent among them) now wanted him to go further, and thus drafted a ‘Humble Address and Remonstrance’ calling upon him to resurrect the title of king.
The extent to which this proposal presented Cromwell with a dilemma is illustrated by the fact that he took several months to formally respond. The precise balance of reasons that made him reluctant is hard to assess, but his customary mixture of piety and practicality undoubtedly played a part. While not a strong republican by nature, he was fearful of the possibility that God might have cursed the royal title. He was also wary of upsetting the delicate balance between moderates in parliament and radical reformers in the army, the latter of whom might be offended by his reviving the kingship they had vanquished at such high cost. His motives were thus hardly those of pure humility and self-effacement. Nonetheless, it is still no small thing to refuse a crown which others are begging you to take, and it is tempting to speculate about how many others would have had the strength of purpose to do the same.
But did it really matter at all? While the dramatic renunciation which Cromwell made before a constitutional committee lives long in the memory – “I will not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust,” he declared, adding “I would not build Jericho again!” – we should not forget that the vast majority of the proposal’s substance was in fact accepted. After he finally rejected the title of king on the 8th of May, a lightly revised ‘Humble Petition and Advice’ was ratified by Parliament a few weeks later, confirming him in possession of all powers formerly belonging to the monarch. The trappings and rituals of the royal court were also revived, and on the 26th of June Cromwell took part in an inauguration ceremony in Westminster which (apart from the lack of cruelty-free anointing oil and recycled robes) differed remarkably little from that which Charles underwent on Saturday. Not for nothing has Cromwell been called “king in all but name,” and England under his Protectorate a “monarchical republic.”
This holds up an interesting mirror to our present situation, which is largely that of a republican monarchy headed by a king-in-name-only. Charles III may be hailed as sovereign on every passport and postage stamp, and in the mumbled oaths of millions of royalists watching along on TV, yet it is ministers and mandarins (along with Eton, Wall Street, and social media algorithms) who truly determine the nation’s fate. Perhaps, then, to dream of the Windsors’ removal is merely to repeat the mistake made by the “simple soldiers” of Cromwell’s England, whom a Venetian envoy condemned for “being content with the surface of things without piercing the marrow”, as they seemed “satisfied with the refusal of the title, not realising that even without it the Protector has all the powers of a king.” In other words, who cares if we’re citizens or subjects, when all that matters is we’re not the boss?
This is a compelling line of thought, but it only goes so far. It’s certainly wise to focus on substance over style, and now that civil wars are culture wars, we can see the pitfalls of too much fighting over what to call things. Nonetheless, on some level names do matter; they shape the bounds of our political imaginations, and belief in their power goes right back to Genesis. Cromwell himself seems to have had an instinctive sense of how to wield them when it counted. After all, he always made a point of not underestimating simple soldiers, and his rebranding of them as the “plain russet-coated captain” did much to elevate their place in history. Note also how he chose to end his most famous speech – “in the name of God, go!” – and that this line, more than any other he spoke, remains in political currency to this day.
Perhaps the best illustration of the importance held by names and titles might lie not in Cromwell’s successes, but in his failures. For, in the end, the crownless kingship he created did not endure. Despite his hopes of a stable compromise between moderates and radicals, the Protectorate regime fell apart soon after his death, and on another 8th of May – in 1660, the year of the Restoration – Parliament opted to formally proclaim Charles II as monarch. At that moment in history, it seems that the people of Britain were not ready to permanently accept any government, no matter how ingeniously it was constituted, unless its head bore the name of king. Now, standing at the start of another Charles’s reign, it is our responsibility to decide whether the same is true of us.
Written by Louis Morris
References  It should be noted that, in the interim, Edward VII and George VI were both briefly tutored at Cambridge before ascending the throne. However, neither were seriously intended for a degree, whereas both Charles and Cromwell enrolled as ‘normal’ undergraduates; Charles received his BA in 1970, and Cromwell’s studies were only interrupted by his father’s death in 1617.  Edward Earl of Clarendon, The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England: A New Edition, vol. 7 (Oxford University Press 1826), p. 301.  Thomas Carlyle, ed., Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, vol. 4 (Bernhard Tauchnitz 1861), p. 72.  Roy Sherwood, Oliver Cromwell: King in All but Name, 1653-1658 (Palgrave Macmillan 1997); David L Smith, ‘The Monarchical Republic of Oliver Cromwell’, The Cromwell Association (2015).  Quoted in Roy Sherwood, ‘Oliver Cromwell, Kingship and the Humble Petition and Advice’, The Cromwell Association (1999).  Harry Sherrin, ‘“In the Name of God, Go”: The Enduring Significance of Cromwell’s 1653 Quote’, History Hit (21 June 2022).