7 May 2010
Oliver Cromwell (1653–1658)
Born 25 April 1599(1599-04-25)
Died 3 September 1658 (aged 59)
Resting place Tyburn, London
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Bourchier
Relations Robert Cromwell (father)
Elizabeth Cromwell (mother)
Children Robert Cromwell
Richard Cromwell, Lord Protector
Henry Cromwell, Lord Deputy of Ireland
Alma mater Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Occupation Farmer; Parliamentarian; Military commander
Religion Puritan (Independent)
Oliver Cromwell (25 April 1599 – 3 September 1658) was an English military and political leader best known for his involvement in making England into a republican Commonwealth and for his later role as Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
He was one of the commanders of the New Model Army which defeated the royalists in the English Civil War. After the execution of King Charles I in 1649, Cromwell dominated the short-lived Commonwealth of England, conquered Ireland and Scotland, and ruled as Lord Protector from 1653 until his death from malaria in 1658.
Cromwell was born into the ranks of the middle gentry, and remained relatively obscure for the first 40 years of his life. At times his lifestyle resembled that of a yeoman farmer until his finances were boosted thanks to an inheritance from his uncle. After undergoing a religious conversion during the same decade, he made an Independent style of Puritanism an essential part of his life. Cromwell was elected Member of Parliament for Cambridge in the Short (1640) and Long (1640-49) Parliaments, and later entered the English Civil War on the side of the “Roundheads” or Parliamentarians.
As a soldier, he was more than capable (nicknamed “Old Ironsides”) and was quickly promoted from leading a single cavalry troop to command of the entire army. Cromwell was one of the signatories of Charles I’s death warrant in 1649 and was a member of the Rump Parliament (1649–1653), being chosen by the Rump to take command of the English campaign in Ireland during 1649-50. He then led a campaign against the Scottish army between 1650 and 1651. On 20 April 1653 he dismissed the Rump Parliament by force, setting up a short-lived nominated assembly known as the Barebones Parliament before being made Lord Protector of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland on 16 December 1653. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, but when the Royalists returned to power his corpse was dug up, hung in chains, and beheaded.
Cromwell has been a controversial figure in the history of the British Isles – a regicidal dictator to some historians (such as David Hume and Christopher Hill) and a hero of liberty to others (such as Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Rawson Gardiner). In Britain he was elected as one of the Top 10 Britons of all time in a 2002 BBC poll. His measures against Irish Catholics have been characterized as genocidal or near-genocidal, and in Ireland itself he is widely hated.
Early years: 1599–1640
Relatively few sources survive which tell us about the first 40 years of Oliver Cromwell’s life. He was born at Cromwell House in Huntingdon on 25 April 1599, to Robert Cromwell (c.1560-1617) and Elizabeth Steward. He was descended from Catherine Cromwell (born circa 1482), an older sister of Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell. Catherine was married to Morgan ap Williams, son of William ap Yevan of Wales and Joan Tudor (reportedly a granddaughter of Owen Tudor, which would make Oliver Cromwell a Tudor, a distant cousin of his Stuart foes). Note the Welsh dragon in the Commonwealth coat of arms shown below. The family line continued through Richard Cromwell (c. 1500–1544), Henry Cromwell (c. 1524–6 January 1604), then to Oliver’s father Robert Cromwell (c. 1560–1617), who married Elizabeth Steward or Stewart (1564–1654) on the day of Oliver Cromwell’s birth. Thomas thus was Oliver’s great-great-great-uncle.
The social status of Cromwell’s family at his birth was relatively low within the gentry class. His father was a younger son, and one of 10 siblings who survived into adulthood. As a result, Robert’s inheritance was limited to a house at Huntingdon and a small amount of land. This land would have generated an income of up to £300 a year, near the bottom of the range of gentry incomes. Cromwell himself, much later in 1654, said “I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in considerable height, nor yet in obscurity”.
Youth and education
Records survive of Cromwell’s baptism on 29 April 1599 at St. John’s Church, and his attendance at Huntingdon Grammar School. He went on to study at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, which was then a recently founded college with a strong puritan ethos. He left in June 1617 without taking a degree, immediately after the death of his father. Early biographers claim he then attended Lincoln’s Inn, but there is no record of him in the Inn’s archives. Biographer Antonia Fraser’s 1973 work Cromwell: Our Chief of Men states Cromwell likely did train at one of the London Inns of Court during this time. Fraser notes that Cromwell’s grandfather, father, and two of his uncles had attended Lincoln’s Inn; Cromwell also sent his son Richard there in 1647. His possible association with Lincoln’s Inn would also explain in part how he met his wife-to-be, who was based in London, and whom he married in 1620.
Historian John Morrill states Cromwell was more likely to have returned home to Huntingdon, for his mother was widowed and his seven sisters were unmarried, and he, therefore, was needed at home to help his family.
Marriage and family
Miniature of Cromwell’s wife Elizabeth Bourchier, painted by Samuel Cooper
On 22 August 1620 at St Giles-without-Cripplegate, London, Cromwell married Elizabeth Bourchier (1598–1665). They had nine children:
Robert (1621–1639), died while away at school.
Oliver (1622–1644), died of typhoid fever while serving as a Parliamentarian officer.
Bridget (1624–1681), married (1) Henry Ireton, (2) Charles Fleetwood.
Richard (1626–1712), his father’s successor as Lord Protector.
Henry (1628–1674), later Lord Deputy of Ireland.
Elizabeth (1629–1658), married John Claypole.
James (b. & d. 1632), died in infancy.
Mary (1637–1713), married Thomas Belasyse, 1st Earl Fauconberg.
Frances (1638–1720), married Robert Rich, (2) Sir John Russell, 3rd Baronet.
Elizabeth’s father, Sir James Bourchier, was a London leather merchant who owned extensive land in Essex and had strong connections with puritan gentry families there. The marriage brought Cromwell into contact with Oliver St John and with leading members of the London merchant community, and behind them the influence of the earls of Warwick and Holland. Membership in this influential network would prove crucial to Cromwell’s military and political career.
Crisis and recovery
At this stage, though, there is little evidence of Cromwell’s own religion. His letter in 1626 to Henry Downhall, an Arminian minister, suggests that Cromwell had yet to be influenced by radical puritanism. However, there is evidence that Cromwell went through a period of personal crisis during the late 1620s and early 1630s. He sought treatment for valde melancolicus (depression) from London doctor Theodore de Mayerne in 1628. He was also caught up in a fight among the gentry of Huntingdon over a new charter for the town, as a result of which he was called before the Privy Council in 1630.
In 1631 Cromwell sold most of his properties in Huntingdon — probably as a result of the dispute — and moved to a farmstead in St Ives. This was a major step down in society compared to his previous position, and seems to have had a significant emotional and spiritual impact. A 1638 letter survives from Cromwell to his cousin, the wife of Oliver St John, and gives an account of his spiritual awakening. The letter outlines how, having been “the chief of sinners”, Cromwell had been called to be among “the congregation of the firstborn”. The language of this letter, which is saturated with biblical quotations and which represents Cromwell as having been saved from sin by God’s mercy, places his faith firmly within the Independent beliefs that the Reformation had not gone far enough, that much of England was still living in sin, and that Catholic beliefs and practices needed to be fully removed from the church.
Oliver Cromwell’s house in Ely
In 1636, Cromwell inherited control of various properties in Ely from his uncle on his mother’s side, as well as that uncle’s job as tithe collector for Ely Cathedral. As a result, his income is likely to have risen to around £300-400 per year; and, by the end of the 1630s, Cromwell had returned to the ranks of acknowledged gentry. He had become a committed puritan and had also established important family links to leading families in London and Essex.
Member of Parliament: 1628–1629 and 1640–1642
Cromwell became the Member of Parliament for Huntingdon in the Parliament of 1628–1629, as a client of the Montagus. He made little impression: records for the Parliament show only one speech (against the Arminian Bishop Richard Neile), which was poorly received. After dissolving this Parliament, Charles I ruled without a Parliament for the next eleven years. When Charles faced the Scottish rebellion known as the Bishops’ Wars, shortage of funds forced him to call a Parliament again in 1640. Cromwell was returned to this Parliament as member for Cambridge, but it lasted for only three weeks and became known as the Short Parliament. Cromwell moved his family from Ely to London in 1640.
A second Parliament was called later the same year. This was to become known as the Long Parliament. Cromwell was again returned to this Parliament as member for Cambridge. As with the Parliament of 1628-9, it is likely that Cromwell owed his position to the patronage of others, which would explain the fact that in the first week of the Parliament he was in charge of presenting a petition for the release of John Lilburne, who had become a puritan martyr after being arrested for importing religious tracts from Holland. Otherwise it is unlikely that a relatively unknown member would have been given this task. For the first two years of the Long Parliament, Cromwell was linked to the godly group of aristocrats in the House of Lords and Members of the House of Commons with which he had already established familial and religious links in the 1630s, such as the Earls of Essex, Warwick and Bedford, Oliver St John, and Viscount Saye and Sele. At this stage, the group had an agenda of godly reformation: the executive checked by regular parliaments, and the moderate extension of liberty of conscience. Cromwell appears to have taken a role in some of this group’s political manoeuvres. In May 1641, for example, it was Cromwell who put forward the second reading of the Annual Parliaments Bill, and who later took a role in drafting the Root and Branch Bill for the abolition of episcopacy.