Richard Cromwell succeeded his father as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland upon Oliver's death on 3rd September 1658. His regime was not a success- and lasted barely a year before being replaced eventually by a return of Charles II. Richard retired to the country from politics. Historians have speculated for years about why Richard was summoned to the Protectorate and about whether his father, Oliver Cromwell, knew that his son's rule would be a failure. A parlour game for early modernists is the discussion of what would have happened had Henry Ireton (d. 1651), Cromwell's son-in-law and early collaborator, lived or John Lambert, Cromwell's later collaborator not fallen out with the protector in 1657. The assumption of those parlour games is that Richard was incapable and too inexperienced to be Protector. However more recent scholarship does not support the latter of those charges.
Jason Peacey in a fascinating article in Patrick Little's volume on reassessing Cromwell suggests that Richard Cromwell was prepared for the Protectorate by his father. The key thing to remember about Richard is that he was born in 1626- he was therefore too young to fight in the first civil war (which started when he was 16 and finished when he was 20). Furthermore he had a senior brother until Oliver junior's death in 1644. Richard's career was enhanced when his brother died- and Oliver sent him to the Inns of Court to learn law, under the tutelage of John Thurloe (eventually Cromwell's Secretary of state and at this point closely connected to that other crucial interregnum politician, Cromwell's cousin, Oliver St John). He did not become a lawyer- many including Ireton in the 1630s went to study but did not attain the qualification, rather Oliver married him to the daughter of an important Hampshire Parliamentarian (Richard Maiior) and there are rumours that Richard was elected just before Pride's Purge to Parliament for Portsmouth in 1648. Whatever happened in Portsmouth, during his early twenties Richard was deeply involved in local government in Hampshire. He was elected at the age of 28 to the first Protectorate Parliament in 1654 and again was elected to the second Parliament in 1656 for Cambridge University (his father's seat in the Long Parliament). Richard was included on various committees within the Parliaments he sat in: committees that had to do with his Hampshire interests- for example about wood for the navy, but also broader committees which reflected on Scotland and Ireland. Peacey detects a drift towards Presbyterianism within Richard's politics- especially in Oxford where he succeeded his father as Chancellor of the University in 1657. He was included in the Protectoral Council of State from 1657 and was nominated by Cromwell to the upper house after the Humble Petition and Advice. Peacey suggests that there is some credibility in the suggestion that Richard was being prepared to become the Lord Protector's Deputy in Scotland- a role that Peacey argues he was unable to take up because of accident and illness.
What are we to make of this, was Richard Cromwell being prepared as a plausible Protector in the later 1650s? Many contemporaries that Peacey quotes believed him to be- though others including the well informed Venetian ambassador were not so convinced. It does look as though Richard was being accelerated to high office and one must not forget that Oliver did not believe he was to die in 1658- one must not see the succession back through the moment of succeeding! But its worth remembering as well that Richard, despite holding a colonel's commission (he succeeded William Goffe as commander of Goffe's regiment of horse), had not held executive office beyond local government in the Protectoral regime. Compare that to his brother Henry who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1654 to 1658 and therefore had to cope with the morass that was Irish politics in those four years. (Peacey never addresses the comparative dignity of the two brothers- important I would suggest in establishing Cromwell's esteem for both.) We may here be guilty of turning the question around- let us agree with Peacey that Oliver intended his son for a career at the centre of politics, possibly as his successor- but in that case, we have to ask whether the preparation that Richard received was the right one. He never, as his brother had to, had to cope with using power or patronage on a national or semi-national stage- he was limited in his political utterances within England and his most formidable executive challenge was to, possibly, dismiss John Owen as chancellor of Oxford. Compared to his brother Henry's challenge in subduing the fifth monarchists in Ireland, Richard's challenge seems inadequate as preparation for dealing with the egos of Lambert, Disborough, Fleetwood and the rest who were to destabilise his eventual regime. If Cromwell intended his son for the Protectorate, we may suggest the training he gave him was insufficient as a means of preparation.
Peacey may overstate his case- but what he has proved is that Richard was hardly a neophyte emerging onto the political scene- he had had a political education. This points us though to reflect on a further issue- if Peacey is right, and Richard's political education was extensive, then either Richard was incapable of receiving his education or lacked the right education (the lack of executive experience) or (and?) there was something in the structure of the Protectorate that meant after Cromwell it could not survive. That structural flaw, again something we should be cautious about- had Cromwell lived another twenty years it might not have appeared, is something that historians are wary of examining but if anything it is the great question at the heart of the English interregnum, the regime was established, great minds (Milton, Harrington, Nedham) and politicians (Cromwell, Marten, Lambert etc.) worked to fortify it and yet it failed, and yet we live in a regime formed by its failure. Peacey presents convincing evidence that the answer is not to be found solely in Richard Cromwell's lack of education, it may be found in Richard's views or in the structures of the regime- but that question remains and haunts English history.