It was the middle classes that prospered most under Cromwell; above all, the merchants engaged in foreign trade. Parilament now included many men representing or possessing commercial interests. It was in their behalf that the Navigation Act of 1651 required all colonial imports into Britain to be carried in English ships—a measure obviously aimed at the Dutch. Cromwell at times played with the idea of an alliance with the United Provinces for the protection and advancement of Protestantism, but the London merchants preferred profits to piety, and soon (1652) Cromwell found himself engaged in the First Dutch War. The results, as we have seen, were encouraging.
The imperialistic fever rose as the navy grew. Memories of Hawkins and Drake suggested to the merchants and to Cromwell that the Spanish hegemony in the Americas might be broken, the lucrative trade in slaves could be captured for England, and the precious metals of the New World could be directed to London; moreover, as Cromwell explained, the conquest of the West Indies would enable English preachers to convert those islands from Catholicism to Protestantism. 65 On August 5, 1654, Cromwell sent to Philip IV of Spain assurances of friendship. In October he dispatched a fleet under Blake to the Mediterranean, and in December another, under William Penn (father of the Quaker) and Robert Venables, to seize Hispaniola from Spain. The latter attempt failed, but Penn captured Jamaica for England (1655).
On November 3, 1655, Cromwell and Mazarin, both subordinating religion to politics, signed an Anglo-French alliance against Spain. The war that Spain had continued to wage with France, after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), had kept those powers too busy to interfere with Cromwell’s rise to leadership in England; now it gave his foreign policy a brilliant if passing success. Blake for a long time watched for the Spanish Silver fleet coming from America. He found it in the harbor of Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands, and totally destroyed it (April 20, 1657). English soldiers took the lead in defeating a Spanish army in the Battle of the Dunes (June 4, 1658). When the Peace of the Pyrenees ended the war (1659), France ceded Dunkirk to England, and Cromwell appeared to have retrieved the ignominy of Mary Tudor in losing Calais a century before. He had proposed to make the name of Englishman as great as ever that of Roman had been, and he came close to realizing his aim. The mastery of the seas had now fallen to England; consequently it was only a matter of time until England would dominate North America and extend her rule in Asia. All Europe looked in awe upon this Puritan who praised God but built a navy, who preached sermons but won every battle, who founded the British Empire by martial force while invoking the name of Christ. The crowned heads who had counted him an upstart now sought his alliance, making no fuss about theology.
But John Thurloe, secretary to the Council of State, warned Cromwell that it was a mistake to help France against Spain; France was rising, Spain was declining; England’s policy of supporting a balance of power on the Continent, as a surety for England’s freedom, required, if not help to Spain, certainly none to France. Now (1659) France was supreme on land; the road was open for her expansion into the Netherlands, Franche-Comté, and Lorraine. Many an Englishman’s life would be laid down to check the aggressive ambitions of Louis XIV.
Meanwhile the merchant princes prospered from the wars. The East India Company was reorganized in 1657 as a joint-stock enterprise; it “lent” Cromwell sixty thousand pounds to avoid governmental scrutiny of its affairs; 66 It was now a powerful factor in the economy and politics of England. The cost of the wars was met by raising taxes beyond any point reached in the reigns of Charls I or II. Most of the crown lands, those of the Anglican Church, many Royalist estates, half of Ireland, were sold by the government; even so it operated at an average annual deficit of £450,000 after 1654. The simple citizen profited little. All the goals for which the Great Rebellion of 1642–49 had been fought had now been set aside. Taxation without representation or parliamentary approval, arrest without due process of law, trial without jury, were as flagrant as before; and rule by the army and naked force was made still more offensive by being coated with religious cant. “The rule of Cromwell became hated as no government has ever been hated in England before or since.” 67
England waited impatiently for its Protector’s death. Plots to assassinate him multiplied. He had to be always on the watch, and now he raised his bodyguard to 160 men. A former radical, Lieutenant Colonel Sexby, engaged one Sundercombe to kill him; the plot was detected (January, 1657). Sundercombe was arrested, and died in the Tower. In May Sexby published a pamphlet under the title Killing No Murder, which was an outright appeal for the murder of Cromwell. Sexby was found, and he too died in the Tower. Conspiracies against the Protector took form in the army, and in royalist circles where hope for a Stuart restoration was rising feverishly. Cromwell’s eldest daughter, married to the radical Major General Charles Fleetwood, adopted republican principles, and deplored her father’s dictatorship. 68
Cares, fears, and bereavements broke the iron man’s spirit. Like so many others who had tasted power to the dregs, he sometimes regretted that he had ever left the quiet of his early life as a rural squire. “I can say in the presence of God . . . I would have lived under my woodside, to have kept a flock of sheep, rather than undertook such a government as this is.” 69 In August, 1658, his best-loved daughter, Elizabeth, died after a long and painful illness. Shortly after her funeral Cromwell took to bed with intermittent fever. Quinine might have cured him, but his physician rejected it as a newfangled remedy introduced into Europe by idolatrous Jesuits. 70 Cromwell seemed to recover, and spoke bravely. “Do not think that I shall die,” he told his wife; “I am sure of the contrary.” 71 His Council asked him to name his successor; he answered, “Richard”—his eldest son. On September 2 he suffered a relapse, and sensed his end. He prayed God to forgive his sins and protect the Puritans. The next afternoon he died. Secretary Thurloe wrote, “He is gone to heaven, embalmed with the tears of his people, and upon the wings of the prayers of the saints.” 72 When news of Cromwell’s death reached Amsterdam the city “was lighted up as for a great deliverance, and children ran along the canals, shouting for joy that the Devil was dead.” 73