Oliver Cromwell was a legendary and controversial general who led England to many victories in the 17th century. To some, he was a hero and champion of liberty and democracy, but to others, he was a tyrant and religious hypocrite. Whether you regard him as a hero or villain, you'll agree that he left behind some compelling quotes.
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was an English general and statesman. Most notably, he led armies of the Parliament of England against King Charles I during the English Civil Wars, which lasted from 1642 to 1651. He fought on the side of the Roundheads, who opposed the Royalist or Cavalier forces of King Charles I. Cromwell called for the trial and execution of Charles I and crushed Royalist uprisings in Ireland and Scotland. With the army’s support, he took Parliament by force and was declared Lord Protector of the British Isles, acting as both head of state and head of government. He served in this role from 1653 until his death in 1858. His son Richard took over the position after Cromwell’s death, but within a year the country returned to monarchy, and Charles II, the son of Charles I, ascended to the throne.
Oliver Cromwell was a notorious and divisive figure whose reputation underwent many revisions during his lifetime and in the centuries following his death. In addition to his military career, he was also the great-great-grandnephew of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s minister, which may have played a role in his deep religious convictions. Oliver Cromwell was an outspoken Puritan who believed that God would guide him to victory and introduced many Puritan reforms to England.
Oliver Cromwell wrote or uttered many memorable quotes over the course of his career.
“No one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.”- To Pomponne de Bellièvre, Memoirs of Cardinal de Retz
“A few honest men are better than numbers.” - Letter to Sir William Spring, 1643, Cromwell's Letters and Speeches
“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.” - Letter to Sir William Spring, 1643, Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches
“The dimensions of this mercy are above my thoughts. It is for aught I know, a crowning mercy.” - letter to William Lenthall, Speaker of the House of Commons, 1651
”Men have been led in dark paths, through the providence and dispensation of God. Why, surely it is not to be objected to a man, for who can love to walk in the dark? But providence doth often so dispose.“ - quoted in The Diary of Thomas Burton
“My desire is to make what haste I can to be gone.” - last words, 1658; quoted in Oliver Cromwell by John Morley
Cromwell was not one to mince words. He often expressed exactly what he was thinking, as evidenced by these quotes.
“Not what they want but what is good for them.” - Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches
“Do not trust the cheering, for those very persons would shout as much if you and I were going to be hanged.” - The New Speaker’s Treasury of Wit and Wisdom
“Necessity hath no law.” - speech to Parliament, Sept. 12, 1654
“I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” - letter to the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland, 1650
“Cruel necessity.” - on the execution of King Charles I, Jan 1649
As a military man and politician, Cromwell was intimately familiar with the brutality of the times and he often expressed this in his speeches to Parliament as well as his letters.
“I profess I could never satisfy myself on the justness of this war, but from the authority of the Parliament to maintain itself in its rights; and in this cause I hope to prove myself an honest man and single-hearted.” - Statement to Colonel Valentine Walton, September 1644
“(Kingship) is not so interwoven in the laws…truly though the kingship be not a mere title but a name of office that runs through the whole of the law….as such a title hath been fixed, so it may be unfixed…” - Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches
“I desire not to keep my place in this government an hour longer than I may preserve England in its just rights, and may protect the people of God in such a just liberty of their consciences….” - to the First Protectorate Parliament (January 22, 1655)
“The State, in choosing men to serve it, takes no notice of their opinions. If they be willing faithfully to serve it, that satisfies.” - letter to Lawrence Crawford (March 1643)
“Truly England and the church of God hath had a great favour from the lord, in this great victory given us.” - on the Battle of Marston Moor (1644)
“We are Englishmen; that is one good fact.“ - speech to Parliament (1655), Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches
The quote “He who stops being better stops being good” is often attributed to Oliver Cromwell, but is this accurate? The answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. This expression is derived from the Latin saying:
Qui cessat esse melior, cessat esse bonus.
He that ceases to be better, ceases to be good
The adage was actually in circulation sometime around 1620, so Cromwell likely would have been familiar with it. Evidence suggests that Cromwell wrote the Latin phrase in his pocket Bible.
Another witty quote attributed to Cromwell is:
Put your trust in God, but keep your powder dry.
This quote was attributed to Cromwell by William Blacker in his poem “Oliver’s Advice.” The quote that appears in Blacker’s poem is actually, “Put your trust in God, my boys, but keep your powder dry.” A footnote reading “well-authenticated anecdote" attributes the quote to Cromwell.
Explore quotes from other historical figures who changed the course of history and language.