Front Page Titles (by Subject) ON CROMWELL. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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ON CROMWELL. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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Cromwell is commonly represented as one who was an impostor through the whole course of his life. This is what I can hardly believe. My opinion of the matter is, that he was first of all an enthusiast, but that afterwards he made his very fanaticism subservient to his greatness. A novice possessed of extreme religious fervor at twenty often becomes a consummate knave at forty. In the great game of human life, men begin by being dupes, but end knaves. A statesman may sometimes take for his chaplain a monk covered over with the little pedantry of his convent; fanatic, devout, credulous, awkward, and quite raw in the world, the monk acquires knowledge, politeness, learns to intrigue, till at last he supplants his patron.
Cromwell at first hardly knew what to make of himself, and was puzzled whether to be a churchman or a soldier. He was actually both. He made a campaign with Frederick Henry, prince of Orange, in 1622, who was not only a man of great capacity himself, but also brother of two illustrious personages. When he returned to England, he entered into the service of Bishop Williams, and was my lord’s chaplain, while my lord was thought to be rather too great with his wife. His religious principles were those of the Puritanical sect; so that he could not but mortally hate the bishop, nor could he have any great affection for kings. He was banished from the bishop’s family on account of his being a Puritan, and this accident was properly the fountain and first beginning of all his grandeur.1 The English Parliament had declared against royalty and episcopacy, when some friends Cromwell had in that parliament had him chosen for a borough. He may be said to have existed only from this time, and was turned of forty before he made any noise in the world. In vain had he studied the Bible, learned to wrangle about the institution of priests and deacons, and made some wretched sermons and libels; he was still in obscurity. I have seen a sermon of his, pretty much like one of the Quaker’s harangues, in which one cannot discover the smallest traces of that persuasive eloquence1 by which he afterwards swayed the parliaments. The true reason of this is, that he was much better qualified for the State than the Church. But his eloquence consisted wholly in his air and in the tone of his voice; the single motion of that hand that won so many battles and killed so many royalists was more persuasive than all the studied periods of Cicero. It must also be acknowledged that the reputation he acquired was wholly owing to his incomparable valor, which laid the first steps of that ladder by which he reached the highest summit of human grandeur.
He began by serving as a volunteer desirous of making his fortune, in the city of Hull,2 which was then besieged by the king. Here he performed so many gallant and successful exploits that he was rewarded by the parliament with a gratuity of about six thousand livres of our money. Such a present, bestowed by the parliament on a simple volunteer, was a sure prognostic that their party must one day get the better. The king was not then in a position to make such a present to his general officers as the parliament gave on this occasion to their volunteers. With money and fanaticism, they must, in the long run, overcome all that stood in their way; they made Cromwell a colonel; then it was that his great talents for war began to display themselves; insomuch that, when the parliament made the earl of Manchester their general, they made Cromwell a lieutenant–general, without passing through the intermediate ranks. Never did man seem more worthy of command; never was there seen a greater share of prudence and activity, or a more daring and undaunted spirit, joined to such an infinity of resources as were in Cromwell. He was wounded in the battle of York; and while the surgeons were preparing to dress his wounds, he was told that his general, Lord Manchester, was retreating, and that the battle was entirely lost. He ran to Lord Manchester, whom he found flying, with some of his officers; he immediately took him by the arm; and, with an air of intrepidity and greatness, said: “You are mistaken, my lord; this is not the way the enemy have fled.” He led him back near to the spot on which the battle was fought; rallied in the night more than twelve thousand men; exhorted them in the name of the Lord; cited the examples of Moses, Gideon, and Joshua; beseeched them by all means not to neglect to engage the victorious royalists at break of day; and entirely defeated them. Almost all the officers in his army were enthusiasts, who carried their Bibles tied to the pommels of their saddles; there was nothing talked of, either in the army or in parliament, but the overthrowing of Babylon, the establishment of the Lord’s worship in the New Jerusalem, and the breaking of the great idol. Cromwell, though amidst a host of fools, grew wise at last, and bethought himself that it was better to guide them than to be governed by them. The habit, however, of preaching like one inspired still remained with him. Imagine to yourself a Fakir, with his loins bound about with a girdle of iron out of mere mortification, who afterwards pulls off his girdle, and falls to knocking down his brother Fakirs. This is Cromwell; he became fully as good a politician as he was a soldier; he entered into an association with all the colonels of the army; and thus he formed his soldiers into a kind of republic, who forced their general to abdicate. Another generalissimo was named, with whom he was soon dissatisfied; he governed the army, and with them the parliament, whom he at last compelled to create him generalissimo. All this is certainly a great deal; but what is more remarkable is that he gained every battle he fought, whether in Scotland, England, or Ireland; and gained them not like other generals, by being a mere spectator, solicitous about his own safety, but by continually charging the enemy in person; rallying his troops; by being present everywhere; often wounded; killing several of the royalists with his own hand; like some furious grenadier, that delights in carnage.
In the midst of this cruel and bloody war, Cromwell was making love, and went with his Bible under his arm to lie with the wife of his major–general, Lambert. This lady was in love with the earl of Holland, who was then serving in the royal army. Cromwell took him prisoner in one of his battles, and had the pleasure of cutting off his rival’s head. His maxim was to cut off every enemy of any consequence, either in the field of battle, or by the hand of the executioner. He increased his power on every occasion by perpetually abusing it; and the depth of his designs lack nothing of his natural ferocity. He entered the parliament; and taking out his watch, throws it on the ground and breaks it to pieces, with this expression: “I will break you, just as I have done that watch.” Some time after he returned, and dissolved them by his own authority, making them file off, as it were in review, before him. Each member was obliged, as he passed him, to make him a profound bow. One of them, it seems, thought proper to pass him with his hat on; when Cromwell, taking it off, threw it on the ground. “Learn,” said he, “to show me the proper respect.”
After having insulted every crowned head, by cutting off that of the king, his lawful sovereign, and when he had even begun his own reign, he sent his picture to Queen Christina of Sweden. Marvel, a famous English poet, who made very good Latin verses, composed six lines on the occasion, which were to accompany that present, in which he introduced Cromwell himself. Cromwell corrected the last two, which are these:
The bold sentiment expressed in those three couplets may be turned in this manner:
This queen was the first who acknowledged him on his being made protector of the three kingdoms. Almost every sovereign in Europe sent ambassadors to their brother Cromwell, to this once menial servant of a bishop, who had put his sovereign, who was of their blood, to death by the hands of the executioner; nay, they disputed who should have the honor of being in alliance with him. Cardinal Mazarin, to please him, banished the two sons of Charles I., the two grandsons of Henry IV., the two cousins–german of Louis XIV. of France, conquered Dunkirk for him, and the keys of that place were accordingly sent him. When he died, Louis XIV., with his whole court, put on mourning, except Mademoiselle, who had the courage to come to the circle in colors, thus singly maintaining the honor of her family.
Never was there king more absolute than Cromwell. He said he liked better to govern under the quality of protector than that of king, because the power of the latter was well known to the people of England, whereas that of a protector was not. This showed a thorough knowledge of mankind, who are slaves to opinion, which opinion often depends on a mere name. He had conceived a thorough contempt for religion, though he was indebted to it for all the power and honors he enjoyed. We have an undeniable anecdote of this preserved in the St. John family, which is a sufficient proof of the sovereign contempt Cromwell entertained for that instrument which had produced such wonderful effects in his hands. He was one day cracking a bottle with Ireton, Fleetwood, and St. John,1 who was grandfather of the present Lord Bolingbroke; they wanted to draw the cork of a bottle, when the corkscrew happened to fall under the table; they were all of them in search of it, but could not find it. In the meantime word was brought in that a deputation from the Presbyterian churches waited for an audience in the antechamber. “Tell them,” said Cromwell, “that I am in private seeking the Lord.” This was the canting expression of those fanatics for being at prayers. When he had in this manner dismissed the deputation of ministers, he made use of these very words to his companions: “Those knaves think we are seeking the Lord, whereas in truth we are looking for the corkscrew.”
Europe has no example of any man who raised himself to such a height of glory, from so humble an original. What could such a man want? Success. This success he enjoyed; but was he happy with all his good fortune? He lived in very narrow and uneasy circumstances till past forty; he then bathed himself in blood, passed the rest of his days in perpetual anxieties, and died at last in his fifty–seventh year. Let any man but compare the life of this man with that of Newton, who lived four–score and four years, in perfect tranquillity, full of honor, the light and guide of all intelligent beings, his reputation and fortune daily increasing, without care or remorse; and then tell me whose was the happier lot of the two.
[1 ]We know not where our author picked up these anecdotes; but we will venture to say they are not true. Cromwell had been a libertine in his youth; but he all at once became a fanatic, and was so engrossed by his exercises of devotion that he neglected his temporal affairs, which were in great disorder when he was returned member of parliament for the town of Cambridge. He had attained his fortieth year before he embraced the military profession, and then the civil war had broken out.
[1 ]He never possessed the least talent for eloquence; on the contrary, his public harangues were insipid, perplexed, and often unintelligible.
[2 ]He was not in the town of Hull, which was never besieged, though Sir John Hotham refused to surrender it to the king. The first specimen of Cromwell’s soldiership was his raising a troop of horse for the service of the parliament, and quartering them at Cambridge.
[1 ]The St. John here mentioned was no more than a natural son of Lord Bolingbroke’s family, and a lawyer by profession.