Cromwell's Foreign Policy
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
A system of government which depends for its effectiveness upon one man of exceptional capacity and unique moral force cannot be permanent. It was created in England under the Commonwealth because the man was there; the old system had broken down, and for the time being there was no practical possibility either of reconstructing it or of setting up any other in its place.
The period of the Commonwealth presents a breach in the continuity of constitutional development which was resumed with the Restoration. For the first and the only time in English history England had attempted to break with tradition, and the experiment collapsed with the disappearance of the great figure in whom it had centred. But it is remarkable that in the course of the experiment England won for herself such prestige as she had before known only in the latter years of Queen Elizabeth's reign, in Henry V's day of triumph, and during a part of the reign of Edward III.
After the storm of the great Civil War, England, instead of being exhausted, organised the most powerful navy afloat and could put in the field troops superior to any in Europe. She could interfere with effect on the Continent, and made her alliance desired by States which at first refused even to recognise the regicide Commonwealth. The fighting strength of the Puritan soldiery and mariners lay in the combination of complete discipline with religious enthusiasm, superimposed upon the normal qualities of Englishmen. Officered by men selected on account of their proved capacity, while the services were moulded by organisers of the highest class, English fleets and English troops could go anywhere and do anything if they felt themselves to be fighting tor The Cause. Even with baser and more material incentives they played their part manfully, as in the Dutch War, a war in which the religious motive bad no place.
Cromwell, then, had the instrument to his hand for carrying out an aggressive Protestant policy; and to guide him in such a policy he had the Elizabethan tradition, the tradition not of Elizabeth herself but of the Elizabethan seamen. That tradition fixed upon Spain as the enemy of Protestantism and the legitimate prey of Protestant sailormen. Cromwell had hardly made his peace with the Dutch, very advantageously for England, when he turned his eyes upon Spain as the fitting object of attack by English ships. But for once he blundered into under-rating the efficiency of the enemy and the quality of the force required to attack him within his own seas.
Although there was no war between England and Spain, a fleet was despatched across the Atlantic at the end of 1654, under the Admirals Penn and Venables, which found itself under orders for the Spanish Main. But the fleet had been fitted out hastily and carelessly. It failed completely before Cartagena, but, while retreating, it seized upon the then very slightly inhabited island of Jamaica, which was thenceforward retained as an English colony. The result was a declaration of open war between Spain and England.
The challenge to Spain was thrown down quite in the Elizabethan spirit, and precisely on the old excuses, that Spain treated the wealth of South America as a private preserve, and that English sailors in Spanish ports were refused the free practice of their religion. When the two countries were at open war again the blunder of the first expedition was not repeated. The work to be done was placed in the competent hands of Blake, who had just been congenially occupied in smiting the swarms of Arab and Berber pirates who infested the African shores of the Mediterranean. Blake blockaded the Spanish coasts, and one of the incidents especially favourable to Cromwell at the moment when his second parliament was called in 1556 was the arrival in England of a Spanish prize laden with vast wealth.
The most striking of all Blake's victories was that achieved in the following year, when he drove the Spanish fleet to take shelter under the guns of Teneriffe, silenced the land-batteries with his own guns, sailed in, and sank the Spanish fleet without losing a ship of his own.
Before opening his attack on Spain there was perhaps some uncertainty in Cromwell's mind as to the correctness of that policy. Puritanism hesitated to decide whether France or Spain was the real foe of Protestanism. France and Spain were anyhow at enmity with each other, their quarrel having been left undecided when the Thirty Years' War was brought to a close by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Richelieu, and after Richelieu Mazarin, in France, aimed at the policy of toleration within the country, the policy of the Henry IV tradition, the policy of national consolidation.
Political factions, however, had associated themselves with the religious parties for their own ends, and Spain, in order to foster disintegration in France, was giving support to the Huguenots. But when Cromwell made overtures to Spain, he immediately found that she was as bigoted as ever in her Romanism. Hence he attacked her without waiting for a French alliance.
Indeed, he was quite ready to fight France as well as Spain in the cause of Protestantism; and, even while his fleets were pursuing their first unsuccessful career in the West Indies, he was threatening France with armed intervention on behalf of the Vaudois, the Protestant mountaineers who were suffering from the persecution of the Duke of Savoy. The persecution was stopped, and the French government welcomed an English alliance, to be directed against Spain.
Battle of the Dunes
The sham religious basis of the civil troubles in France itself broke down, and the armies of the state were captained by the Huguenot Turenne. In 1657 the Anglo-French alliance was completed. In 1658, the last year, of Cromwell's life, English Puritan troops were fighting under Turenne in the Spanish Netherlands, winning in June the battle of the Dunes, which gave Dunkirk to England as her share in the spoils of the alliance. A hundred years after the loss of Calais England once more had a foothold on the Continent.
Ostensibly the continuity of Cromwell's foreign policy was preserved bv Charles II at the Restoration - ostensibly, because the French alliance remained in force. But the whole meaning of the policy was changed Cromwell united England with a Power which appeared likely to recognise the principle of toleration more thoroughly than any other, and which had every political inducement to stand in antagonism to the Hapsburg leaders of aggressive Romanism. England and Holland together could sweep the seas. England, Holland, and France together could dictate at least toleration to the Catholic States. If France played her allies false, England, with her new Calais and with Holland behind her, could be dangerous on land, and her fleets would be able to command the Mediterranean as well as the Channel and the French Atlantic ports.
Cromwell's scheme. was perhaps fundamentally erroneous, because the time was past for the opposition between Catholic and Protestant to be made the basis of a national policy. Also it was no doubt a fundamentally false position for England to seek deliberately to involve herself in the affairs of the Continent. She would not have been able to bear the strain of posing as a Power of the first magnitude both on sea and on land. It was an error also to seek war rather than to seek peace. But it was for none of these reasons that Cromwell's policy actually failed after Cromwell was dead.
It failed because Charles II deliberately played into the hands of France and helped the aggrandisement of France, precisely when, if Cromwell had been alive, she would have found herself under the necessity of adapting her policy to that of the Protector or else of facing the immediate and vigorous hostility of the Puritan fleets and armies. In fact Cromwell's foreign policy, like his government in England, was powerful and effective so long as Cromwell himself was at the head of affairs. It would have failed even with a second-rate Cromwell. But with Charles, who skilfully preserved its outward semblance while entirely transforming its spirit and intention, it was more than a failure; it was converted into an instrument for the aggrandisement of Louis XIV. Yet for England one feature of the Commonwealth foreign policy survived, the feature which made the preservation of naval supremacy supreme over all other considerations.
The battle of the Dunes was the last triumph of the Puritan arms. Cromwell was not yet sixty years old, but his mortal frame was worn out by the tremendous labours and responsibilities which had fallen to his lot for the last fifteen years. Two of his great victories, those of Dunbar and Worcester, had been won on the 3rd of September. On the 3rd of September his great lonely soul passed away. Three days before a terrific storm had burst over England; "the-devil," the Cavaliers said,"had come to claim his own." But Cromwell went before another Judgment Seat than that of the Cavaliers.