An Irishman's Diary

SEPTEMBER 3rd has a resonance in British history as the day when the country declared war on Germany in 1939

SEPTEMBER 3rd has a resonance in British history as the day when the country declared war on Germany in 1939. However, it was also the day when Oliver Cromwell died, way back in 1658. Cromwell’s death was heralded by one of the wildest storms ever to hit Britain – a night that saw devastation across the country, with houses blown down and ships sunk around the English coast. Within a few days, it began to be said openly that the storm was the devil coming to claim the soul of Cromwell.

The bizarre story emerged, and was actively encouraged when Charles II returned from France, and England once again became a monarchy.

In 1650, the Parliamentarian armies under Cromwell were fighting the Scots, in a pre-emptive attack because the Scots had declared for Charles. Cromwell’s army entered Scotland, and at the battle of Dunbar defeated the Scots – on September 3rd, 1650.

The following year, Cromwell’s Ironsides were again in action, this time fighting against a royalist army (composed mainly of Scots), which was thoroughly routed by the Cromwellians, once again on September 3rd.

Cromwell had positioned his artillery to the east of Worcester, in a place called Perry (or “Pirie” as it was then spelt locally) Wood.

Cromwell entered the wood, with a Col Lindsay – who later became the chief exponent of Cromwell’s “pact with the devil”. Lindsay claimed that he saw “something strange in the aspect of his leader, was seized with horror and trembling”, which prevented him going farther.

Cromwell proceeded a short distance alone into the wood, where he met an old man whom Lindsay took to be the devil: the old man had a roll of parchment in his hand, which he gave to Cromwell, who read it. An altercation took place between Cromwell and the old man or devil, during which Lindsay heard Cromwell say, “This is but for seven years; I was to get 21 years”. The old man replied that only seven years could be given.

Cromwell, modifying his demands, tried to bargain for 14 years, but the old man answered: “Seven years, and no more.” Then the parchment was signed by both Cromwell and the old man. The old man then vanished. Immediately after, Cromwell returned to Lindsay, saying, “Now the battle is ours!” In the battle that followed, Col Lindsay apparently fled away as fast as his horse would carry him, while Cromwell led his troops to victory. Before the result of the battle was known, Lindsay spoke to a clergyman, telling him of Cromwell’s signing up with “the devil”, and adding: “I am sure the king’s forces are beaten, and I am certain Cromwell will die this day seven years, for he has sold himself to the devil, who will not fail to claim him then.”

The Parliamentarian victory at Worcester effectively ended Charles II’s attempt to restore the monarchy and, after hiding up an oak tree to dodge his pursuers, he fled to France where he stayed until the Restoration in 1660 – two years after Cromwell’s death.

Seven years after the battle of Worcester and Oliver Cromwell’s “pact with the devil”, on September 3rd, 1658, he died. He developed malarial fever, followed by illness symptomatic of a urinary or kidney complaint, and died quite suddenly.

Again, it was claimed that despite his body being embalmed and put into a lead coffin, the stench was unbearable, and Cromwell’s remains had to be immediately buried, with the funeral ceremonies being conducted over an empty coffin. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, but wasn’t there for long – on January 30th, 1661, the 12th anniversary of the execution of Charles I, Cromwell’s decayed body was disinterred, brought to Tyburn where it was hanged, then cut to pieces, with the trunk being thrown into a pit, while his head was stuck on a pole at Westminster Hall.

Many of the other regicides were tried and executed, and a full-scale campaign of denigration was launched against Cromwell and his followers.

Hence the widely circulated charge of being in league with the devil which, having served its purpose of placing Cromwell firmly amid the “hosts of Satan”, was quietly allowed to rest.

It may well have served its purpose. The killing, mainly by burning or hanging, of hundreds of witches during the English civil war showed that it was quite commonly believed that many people were “in league with the devil”. The killing of witches was particularly prevalent in areas which were more Puritan – extreme Protestant – than much of the country: many of these regions were around East Anglia, Cambridge and Huntingdonshire, from where Cromwell drew much of his support. Even some 40 years after his pact with the devil, the Salem witch trials in New England were begun by Puritan settlers from England. So perhaps the charge of a pact between Cromwell and Satan was not so bizarre as it seems today.

As a damning indictment of Oliver Cromwell among the gullible, it could have chimed neatly with the spirit of the times and, having done its work, could discreetly be ignored.