Oliver Cromwell


Talk by David Cozens, 12 July 2016

Most Staplefordians probably know that Oliver Cromwell was practically our neighbour. There’s a statue of him in Huntingdon, his birthplace; you can visit a house of his near the Cathedral at Ely; he studied for a year at Cambridge (Sidney Sussex college), until his father died and he had to leave; he was MP for Cambridge and garrisoned his New Model Army troops in King’s College chapel during the Civil War … You won’t know precisely where his head is buried in the grounds of his old college, though, because only the Dean and one other person know where it lies, it is said.

But what do we know about his family life? David Cozens, long-time chair of Huntingdon Local History Society, decided to find out, and shared the fruits of his researches with us on 12 July. Originally the family name was Williams, but Richard Williams adopted the surname of his uncle and patron Thomas Cromwell, the powerful and devious protagonist of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Richard was Oliver Cromwell’s great grandfather. He did well, building Hinchingbrooke House near Huntingdon, but two generations later the family fortunes had been spread among multiple descendants, so Oliver was merely a yeoman farmer.

David brought to life for us characters such as Oliver’s doughty mother, Elizabeth (née Steward), who lived with him till she died at 89, in Whitehall. For the mother of a Puritan republican, she had quite a funeral, with hundreds of torches and a stately burial in Westminster Abbey. This became something of a theme in David’s stories of the lives of Oliver’s nine children. The elder ones had a fairly normal upbringing and education, for their status as offspring of comfortably-off yeomen, and became either Roundhead soldiers or married to them. However, by the time Cromwell was England’s Lord Protector, his life and theirs took on more and more regal characteristics. The two youngest daughters, Mary and Frances, were treated as virtual princesses. Mary married Viscount Falkenberg at Hampton Court palace, with a dowry of £15,000, and there were even suggestions that Frances might marry the son of King Charles I, the future Charles II! When she did marry one Robert Rich, guns were fired in tribute at the Tower of London, and the Lord Protector wore velvet, with gold-laced garters on his silk stockings – not very ‘Puritan’ at all! No wonder that when his mostly incompetent son Richard inherited his father’s role as Protector, in dynastic fashion, it wasn’t long before he was deposed and Charles II was invited to return as King. It was one thing for the Puritans to banish Christmas festivities and other harmless pleasures – but altogether too much to have your ‘republican’ leader turn himself into a monarch by any other name!

We learned much more – about Oliver’s admirable wife Elizabeth, his cousins and so on, such that our Chair Lesley Ford remarked afterwards that David’s talk had been as entertaining as reading about celebrities in Hello! magazine today.

Maureen Street