CROMWELL, Oliver (1599-1658), of Austin Friars, Huntingdon, Hunts.; later of St. Ives, Hunts., Ely, Cambs. and the Cockpit, Whitehall
Available from Cambridge University Press
Family and Education
b. 25 Apr. 1599, 2nd but o. surv. s. of Robert Cromwell† of Huntingdon and Elizabeth, da. of William Steward of Ely, Cambs, wid. of William Lynn of Bassingbourne, Cambs.1 educ. Huntingdon (Mr. Long); Huntingdon free sch. (Dr. Thomas Beard); Sidney Sussex, Camb. 1616;2 DCL, Oxf. 1649.3 m. 22 Aug. 1620, Elizabeth (d. c.1665), da. of Sir James Bourchier, Leatherseller of London and Little Stambridge Hall, nr. Rochford, Essex, 5s. (3 d.v.p.), 4da. (1 d.v.p.).4 suc. fa. 1617; uncle Richard Cromwell† 1628; uncle Sir Thomas Steward 1636;5 d. 3 Sept. 1658.6 sig. Oliver Cromwell.
Common cllr. Huntingdon ?by 1621-30, bailiff 1626-7;7 j.p. Huntingdon 1624-30,8 I. of Ely ?1636, 1638-53,9 Mon. 1649-53, Eng. and Wales 1650-3, custos rot. Mon., I. of Ely, Hunts. and Bucks. 1650-53;10 feoffee, Parsons’ charity, Ely 1636;11 commr. assessment, Cambs. 1642-3, Hunts. 1643-53, Hants 1648-53, Glam. 1649-53, Essex 1651-3,12 militia, Hunts. Dec. 1642-8, Cambs. 1643-8,13 levying of money and sequestration, Cambs. and Hunts. 1643;14 gov. (jt.) Charterhouse, London 1650;15 chan., Oxf. univ. 1650-1;16 high steward, Cambridge 1652-?d.17
Commr. scandalous offences 1646-8.28
Ld. protector of England, Dec. 1653-d.29
In justifying his assumption of the protectorship to Parliament in 1654, Cromwell recalled
I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height, nor yet in obscurity. I have been called to several employments in the nation - to serve in parliaments - and ... did endeavour to discharge the duty of an honest man in those services, to God, and His people’s interest, and [that] of the commonwealth.30
His earliest biographers said little about his origins,31 but royalists gleefully purveyed tales of youthful misdeeds to reinforce their portrait of him as an amoral opportunist.32 Historians have largely taken Cromwell’s claims at face value,33 although John Morrill has questioned some of their most important conclusions.34
Morrill’s assertion that the young Cromwell was ‘a man in humbler circumstances ... than has usually been allowed’ seems to be correct, at least until the later 1630s.35 The protector’s grandfather bequeathed each of his four younger sons a house, a few acres of land and the profits of an impropriated rectory near Huntingdon. Mark Noble, the earliest serious historian of the family, valued the estate given to Cromwell’s father Robert at £300 a year, but this sum seems too high, as the property was later sold for just £1,800, which suggests a yield of around £90 p.a.36 However, the sale price was probably discounted to allow for the fact that Cromwell’s mother (who did not die until 1654) held a substantial jointure interest.37 The latter is said to have run a brewery in Huntingdon, an assertion supported by a visitor in 1664.38 As her husband’s executor, she was also heir to the estate of his cousin Capt. Henry Cromwell, which was clearly of some value, as the probate of the will was challenged by Cromwell’s uncles.39 Yet at least one of these assets, a loan of £300 to Sir Richard Whalley†, ultimately proved to be worthless: when called in, it emerged that the lands against which the debt was secured had already been extended by another creditor.40
Although Cromwell’s inheritance was modest by gentry standards - his 1628 subsidy rating of £4 in goods was little more than that of Huntingdon’s leading tradesmen - his interest in his mother’s jointure estate, which was valued separately at £3 in goods in the same subsidy roll, made him a figure of some stature within the town.41 His status was further enhanced by his connection with the senior branch of the family, whose main seat at Hinchingbrooke lay just outside the town, and by the fact that his father served as one of the town’s two bailiffs at least once, and represented the borough in Parliament in 1597.42
Morrill rejects the claim that Cromwell’s religious opinions were formed by his schoolmaster, Thomas Beard, whom he sees as ‘a greedy pluralist’ and one whose published works suggest ‘a complacent Jacobean Calvinist conformist: not the man to ignite the fire in Cromwell’s belly’.43 Later disputes between the two men tend to confirm this assessment, but one respect in which Beard may have influenced his pupil was in the providentialism of his book The Theatre of God’s Judgment. The work’s assumption that the triumphs and reverses of daily life could be attributed to divine intervention was a commonplace of seventeenth-century religious belief, but an awareness of the immanence of God’s grace also formed the basis of the evangelical faith which Cromwell so conspicuously espoused in his later life.44
The only independently verifiable fact about Cromwell’s education is that he matriculated as a fellow-commoner at Sidney Sussex, Cambridge in April 1616. Few families of such slender means chose to pay the high fees required of such students, but Cromwell’s father had been a fellow-commoner at Queen’s College in 1579.45 One of Cromwell’s earliest biographers stated that ‘his parents designed him to study of the Civil Law’, a plausible suggestion, but possibly the result of a confusion with his uncle Henry*, who received a Civil Law degree from Oxford in 1588.46 Cromwell himself took no degree, and is generally assumed to have left university at his father’s death in June 1617. Early authorities state that he then spent some time at Lincoln’s Inn, but while his father and his son Richard† are both known to have studied there, no evidence of his own admission survives.47 One other contemporary source, a dispatch of December 1655 by the Venetian ambassador, purports to shed light on Cromwell’s early life: ‘a Jew came from Antwerp and cleverly introduced himself to the protector, having known him in that city when he was privately travelling in Flanders before he reached his present elevation’. Cromwell is not otherwise known to have travelled abroad, and the report is probably garbled: the Amsterdam Jew Menasseh ben-Israel, to whom it refers, is more likely to have claimed an acquaintance with Sir Oliver Cromwell’s* son Giles, who had inherited land in the Low Countries from his mother, a native of Antwerp, and served as a gentleman of the privy chamber to Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia during her exile in The Hague.48
Cromwell inherited very little at his father’s death: the family home and other freehold lands were reserved for his mother’s jointure, and two-thirds of Hartford rectory was also assigned to his mother for 21 years, to be used to raise portions for his unmarried sisters.49 The fact that a third of the rectory was left to Cromwell suggests that his father expected it to be liable to wardship, but an inquisition post mortem of September 1617 recorded the Austin Friars as the only part of the estate held in capite, and this was exempted from wardship for the duration of Cromwell’s mother’s jointure interest.50 Hartford rectory was evasively cited as being free from feudal service, but this verdict had clearly been overturned by July 1619, when Cromwell’s wardship was sold for £150 to three Londoners, who were possibly acting as trustees for Cromwell’s mother.51
Four months after coming of age, Cromwell married the daughter of Sir James Bourchier, a London Leatherseller who had also acquired a small estate in south-eastern Essex. The size of his wife’s dowry is unknown, but on the eve of his marriage, Cromwell entered into a bond for £4,000 to settle Hartford rectory (which Noble valued at £40 a year) on her as a jointure estate.52 Cromwell may have been godfather to his brother-in-law Oliver Bourchier,53 but there is no other evidence to suggest that he was close to his wife’s family. More of his Essex contacts can be traced to his uncle Sir Thomas Barrington*, whose son-in-law Sir William Masham* appears to have secured places for Cromwell’s sons at Felsted school.54
Little is known about Cromwell during the 1620s. It is tempting to suppose that he was the Capt. Cromwell who took a company of recruits from Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire to the Low Countries in Count Mansfeld’s army in the winter of 1624-5, but this was almost certainly his cousin John, who went on to make a career in the Dutch army.55 Cromwell himself remained in Huntingdon, where he may have been elected to the Common Council soon after reaching his majority, as he was a signatory of the town’s parliamentary election return of January 1621. He became a magistrate for Huntingdon liberty in 1624 and was one of the bailiffs in 1626-7.56 His return to Parliament in 1628 is often represented as ‘the dying embers of the family interest’, but this ended with the sale of Hinchingbrooke in 1627, and in the following year the house’s new owner, Sir Sidney Montagu*, secured a seat at Huntingdon for his nephew James Montagu. Cromwell’s return probably owed more to his position within the municipal hierarchy.57
The surviving records of the sessions of 1628-9 mention Cromwell on a single occasion, during a debate of 11 Feb. 1629, when he informed the committee for religion that Thomas Beard had been ‘exceedingly rated’ by Bishop Neile about 12 years earlier for criticizing a sermon by William Alabaster, a former Catholic, as ‘flat popery’. Although Morrill considers the speech to be ‘very stale beer’, it highlighted the bishop’s longstanding opposition to orthodox Calvinism and thus complemented the previous speaker, Christopher Sherland, who reported that Neile had secured the pardons granted to several Arminian clergymen shortly before the parliamentary session. The attack was quickly reinforced by further claims that Neile had treated another cleric, Dr. Marshall, in the same way, and both Beard and Marshall were summoned to give evidence, with the Speaker’s letter to Beard being entrusted to Cromwell for delivery.58 The smooth way in which the debate proceeded suggests that there was some degree of prior collusion among the speakers, with the intention of preparing the way for the impeachment proceedings which some of the leading figures in the House openly hoped to bring against the senior Arminian clergy.59
Cromwell’s early foray into national politics was brought to an abrupt end by the dissolution of 10 Mar. 1629. Little is known about his attitude to government policies in the 1630s. He displayed no perceptible reluctance to compound for his knighthood fine, which he settled for £10 in April 1631, shortly after a test case had been concluded in the Crown’s favour in the Exchequer.60 Surprisingly, he is not known to have registered an opinion on Ship Money, the test case for which was brought against his cousin John Hampden*. Several royalist biographers asserted that he was a key organizer of opposition to fen drainage during the 1630s, and in 1637 it was claimed that he was taking contributions from the commoners of Ely ‘to hold the drainers in suit of law for five years, and that in the mean time they should enjoy every foot of their common’. Although he attacked the drainers in 1641 for using Parliament to further their private ends, and later criticized them for seeking too great a share of the drained lands in return for their efforts, he supported subsequent drainage projects,61 and his chief concern in 1637 may have been for the impact that enclosure would have on the tithe agreements which then formed a major part of his income.
Almost all the evidence which survives for the 1630s suggests that local and personal issues ranked uppermost in Cromwell’s mind. The first of these concerned a dispute over a bequest of £2,000 to the town of Huntingdon by the London Mercer Richard Fishbourne. The corporation, having resolved to use the sum to buy lands worth £100 a year, pressed the Mercers’ Company to assign £40 of this annuity to pay for the twice-weekly lectureship at All Saints’ church held by Thomas Beard, which they had hitherto funded from the town’s corporate income.62 Cromwell’s views on this dispute are unknown, but his exclusion from the closed corporation of 12 aldermen established under the town’s new charter of July 1630 suggests that he may have opposed his colleagues in the earlier dispute.63 Although Cromwell was allowed to retain his place as a magistrate, four months later he and William Kilborne, the town’s postmaster, were summoned before the Privy Council to answer for their ‘disgraceful and unseemly speeches’ to the new mayor and the recorder, Robert Bernard†. The dispute was referred to the 1st earl of Manchester (Sir Henry Montagu*), who learnt from Beard that Cromwell and Kilborne had only raised objections to the new charter once it became clear that they would not be appointed aldermen. He thus reported that their accusations that the corporation would make exorbitant charges for leases, fines and common rights were ‘causeless and ill-grounded’.64
Six months after his appearance before the Privy Council, in a move which was probably designed to allow him to escape the derision of his enemies while keeping in touch with local affairs, Cromwell sold his entire patrimony to Richard Oakeley* and Richard Owen (servants of Bishop John Williams) and took up a lease of a farm at St. Ives, less than three miles away.65 A large part of his residual influence in Huntingdon came from his continuing connection with the Mercers’ Company. In January 1636 he appealed to a London Mercer to continue funding a Godmanchester lectureship held by Dr. Walter Welles, which may have been established as a rival to Beard’s lecture at Huntingdon, and four years later he lobbied the Company to support the revival of the Fishbourne lecture, which had been suspended after the appointment of an unbeneficed preacher in 1638.66
Cromwell’s decision to exchange a guaranteed rental income for the unpredictable life of a tenant farmer was ill-advised by contemporary standards, and his willingness to undertake such a risk suggests that he already expected to succeed to at least part of the estates of his childless uncle, Sir Thomas Steward of Ely, estimated to be worth £500 to £700 p.a. in 1636. Steward’s freehold estate comprised a mere 100 acres of arable and 200 acres of marsh scattered across the fens of the Isle of Ely and Norfolk, entailed on the grandson of his second cousin Sir Simeon Steward* of Stuntney, but he held a larger portfolio of lands in lease from the bishop and dean and chapter of Ely cathedral, which were not subject to this entail. His main lease of Ely rectory had been granted for three lives in 1610, these being his wife, Sir Simeon Steward’s heir and Oliver Cromwell; this arrangement imposed no obligation on Sir Thomas, but suggests that he may have considered Cromwell as one of his heirs at this early date.67
According to royalist accounts, Cromwell was an inept farmer at St. Ives, and after failing to secure financial help from Steward, he ‘endeavoured by colour of law to lay hold of his estate, representing him as a person not able to govern it’. This claim has been dismissed by historians, but it probably refers to the commission of lunacy held for Steward at Cambridge on 30 Sept. 1635, which, most unusually, returned the verdict that the subject was not insane.68 It cannot be proved that Cromwell procured the writ for the inquisition, but as Sir Simeon Steward and his son were both dead, leaving the Stuntney estate in the hands of an underage heir, Cromwell was the closest relative in a position to purchase Sir Thomas Steward’s wardship in the event of his being declared insane. Cromwell’s initiative would make sense of a lawsuit of 1636, which mentioned ‘the disfavour wherein the complainant [Cromwell] stood with the said Sir Thomas [Steward] not long before his death’.69 It would also explain the warning Archbishop Williams gave the king about Cromwell in 1645: ‘Your Majesty did him but justice in refusing his petition against Sir Thomas Steward of the Isle of Ely; but he takes them all for his enemies that would not let him undo his best friend’.70
Steward was understandably cool towards his nephew in his will of January 1636, but he did not completely disinherit him, a decision which one generally unreliable source ascribed to the intercession of Cromwell’s friends among the puritan clergy.71 Even so, Steward chose not to break the entail on his freehold lands, which thus passed to Thomas Steward of Stuntney. Moreover, he left his second cousin Humphrey Steward, whom he made his executor, all his goods and a lease of his estates until sufficient revenues had been raised to pay off his debts,72 which included over £1,000 owed to Humphrey himself as co-executor of the will of Dr. Nicholas Steward*. This meant that the estate would not pass to Cromwell for several years, a penalty Steward presumably considered an appropriate response to his nephew’s greed. Cromwell subsequently challenged his uncle’s will in Chancery, alleging, quite falsely, that Sir Thomas had intended that his goods, which were valued at over £2,000, should also be put towards the settlement of his debts.73 The suit apparently never came to trial, possibly because Humphrey compromised by surrendering Sir Thomas’s leases, which Cromwell renewed in his own name from October 1636.74
Perhaps the most important question about Cromwell’s early life concerns his religion. His writings up to 1636 demonstrate a conventional piety,75 but conspicuously lack the distinctive language which first appeared in a letter which has been called ‘a model description of a Calvinist conversion experience’, in October 1638:
My soul is with the congregation of the firstborn, my body rests in hope, and if here I may honour my God either by doing or by suffering, I shall be most glad ... The Lord accept me in His Son and give me to walk in the light ... Blessed be His name for shining upon so dark a heart as mine!76
There has been much speculation as to the source of this inspiration. Cromwell’s father omitted even the most formulaic claim to assurance of salvation in his will of 1617, and in the light of John Morrill’s findings, Thomas Beard cannot be regarded as a major influence either.77 Dr. Walter Welles or Job Tookey, the curate of St. Ives in the early 1630s, may have played a more active role, but if Cromwell had regarded either as a key influence upon his spirituality he would surely have acknowledged their contribution in his later years. It is likely that the crucial inspiration for Cromwell’s leap of faith came from within himself, a revelation which underpinned his later contempt for religious formalism.
The other important question about Cromwell’s religion concerns the date at which his conversion occurred, and speculation as to whether it was provoked by any particular event. It is tempting to identify the circumstances of Cromwell’s departure from Huntingdon in 1631 as the catalyst for his spiritual quest, but it probably began earlier than this, as Sir Theodore Mayerne, one of the royal physicians, recorded his patient ‘Monsieur Cromwell’ as being valde melancholicus corpus in September 1628. This is often taken to be a diagnosis of depression, but actually signifies an excess of black bile, leading to vomiting - perhaps an ulcer, or an infection of the gall bladder.78 It should also be noted that this could have been the MP’s cousin Henry Cromwell of Ramsey. However, the future protector’s disturbed mental state is also attested by a local doctor, who later informed the royalist Sir Philip Warwick† that his patient was prone to ‘a strong fancy which made him believe he was then dying’.79 While there was much hyperbole in Cromwell’s description of himself in 1638 as ‘the chief of sinners’, the greed and folly he had shown in his treatment of his uncle a few years earlier may have taught him a vital lesson in humility. It may well have been this controversy which brought his spiritual crisis to a head, and gave him an understanding of his own unregenerate nature and an acceptance of God’s grace, the key to a true evangelical conversion.
The remainder of Cromwell’s career is well known: MP for Cambridge in the Long Parliament, second-in-command of the army of the Eastern Association and then the New Model Army, conqueror of Scotland and Ireland and ultimately lord protector of England. Yet he remained, in many ways, the same awkward individual he had been in his early years, a chancer inclined both to prevaricate, and then to take decisions of astonishing boldness, not to say foolhardiness, which stunned both friend and foe alike. Moreover, his evangelical faith - with its ambiguous origins - explains his reluctance to be ‘wedded and glued to forms of government’, and his willingness to support the regicide and the constitutional experiments of the 1650s.80
Ref Volumes: 1604-1629
Author: Simon Healy
- 1. W.C. Abbott, Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, i. 10; M. Noble, Mems. Protectoral-House of Cromwell (1787), pp. 82-4.
- 2. Noble, 93; Abbott, i. 22-7; Al. Cant.
- 3. Abbott, ii. 73.
- 4. Noble, 132-59.
- 5. C142/361/140; 142/710/35.
- 6. Abbott, iv. 872.
- 7. Ex inf. Christopher Thompson.
- 8. C231/4, f. 163; R. Carruthers, Hist. Huntingdon, app.
- 9. SP16/405; C231/5, p. 304.
- 10. JPs in Wales and Monm. ed. Phillips, 359-61 and passim.
- 11. Abbott, i. 85.
- 12. SR, v. 149; A. and O. i. 90 - ii. 680, passim; Essex Q. S. Order Bk. ed. D.H. Allen, p. xxxv.
- 13. A. and O. i. 50, 243, 293-4, 1234, 1237.
- 14. Ibid. i. 111, 113, 146, 148.
- 15. G.S. Davies, Charterhouse in London, 353.
- 16. Al. Ox.
- 17. Hunts. RO, Cromwell-Bush 138.
- 18. Harl. 1332, f. 1.
- 19. A. and O. i. 331-2.
- 20. CJ, iii. 392b; CSP Dom. 1648-9, p. 1.
- 21. A. and O. i. 1254.
- 22. Ibid. ii. 2, 335, 500.
- 23. Abbott, ii. 81-2.
- 24. SP28/143 (unnum. pt.), f. 11v; Abbott, i. 210-1; C.H. Firth and G. Davies, Regimental Hist. Cromwell’s Army, i. 67-73, 200-4, 330, 332; ii. 481-6, 593-4, 625-6.
- 25. A. and O. i. 297.
- 26. Abbott, i. 272, 355.
- 27. A. and O. ii. 393.
- 28. Ibid. i. 853, 1209.
- 29. Ibid. ii. 821.
- 30. Speeches of Oliver Cromwell ed. I. Roots, 42.
- 31. J.S. Morrill, ‘Cromwell and his Contemporaries’ in Cromwell and the Eng. Rev. ed. J.S. Morrill, 277-81.
- 32. Particularly J. Heath, Flagellum (1663); W. Dugdale, Short View of the Late Troubles (1681).
- 33. Noble; T. Carlyle, Letters and Speeches; Ibid. ed. S.C. Lomas; Abbott.
- 34. J.S. Morrill, ‘The making of Oliver Cromwell’ in Cromwell and the Eng. Rev. 19-48.
- 35. Ibid. 19.
- 36. C142/361/140; Noble, 82; Abbott, i. 71-2.
- 37. PROB 11/130, f. 115; C142/361/140.
- 38. Noble, 84; Life of Marmaduke Rawdon ed. R. Davies (Cam. Soc. o.s. lxxxv), 112-13.
- 39. PROB 11/99, ff. 22v, 309; Noble, 77.
- 40. PROB 11/130, f. 115; C2/Jas.I/W2/52; C3/418/135; HP Commons, 1558-1603, iii. 607.
- 41. Morrill, ‘Making’, 21-2; E179/122/213.
- 42. Noble, 83-4; HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 682.
- 43. Abbott, i. 22-7; Morrill, ‘Making’, 27-8.
- 44. We owe this point to Michael Questier. See also B. Worden, ‘Cromwell and the sin of Achan’ , Hist., Soc. and the Churches ed. D. Beales and G. Best, 125-45.
- 45. Al. Cant. (Oliver, Robert Cromwell).
- 46. Abbott, i. 28; Al. Ox. (Henry Cromwell).
- 47. Abbott, i. 32-4; LI Admiss.; Morrill, ‘Making’, 24, n. 19.
- 48. CSP Ven. 1655-6, p. 160; Add. 33462, ff. 126-7.
- 49. Abbott, i. 29-30; C142/361/140.
- 50. C142/361/140; WARD 9/93, ff. 145-6. See also Abbott, i. 31.
- 51. WARD 9/162, f. 311v.
- 52. Noble, 123-4; LC4/199, f. 220v; Abbott, i. 36.
- 53. PROB 11/167, f. 249.
- 54. Barrington Letters ed. A. Searle (Cam. Soc. ser. 4. xxviii), tables 2-3; Abbott, i. 97, 107; Morrill, ‘Making’, 23, 42-3.
- 55. SP14/178/10, 14/179/16; Noble, 50-3; HMC 5th Rep. 411.
- 56. Noble, 83-4; Abbott, i. 46; C231/4, f.163; ex inf. Christopher Thompson.
- 57. Abbott, i. 54; Morrill, ‘Making’, 25; HUNTINGDON.
- 58. CD 1629, pp. 58-60, 139, 192-3; Morrill, ‘Making’, 25-6; CJ, i. 929a.
- 59. C. Thompson, ‘Divided Leadership of the House of Commons in 1629’, Faction and Parl. ed. K. Sharpe, 259-61.
- 60. Abbott, i. 70-1; S.R. Gardiner, Hist. Eng. 1603-42, vii. 107; B.W. Quintrell, ‘Oliver Cromwell and Distraint of Knighthood’, BIHR, lvii. 224-30.
- 61. Morrill, ‘Making’, 37-8; K. Lindley, Fenland Riots and the Eng. Rev. 59-60, 94-6, 116-19.
- 62. Morrill, ‘Making’, 26-7, 29-31.
- 63. Ibid. 31-3; R. Carruthers, Hist. Huntingdon, app.
- 64. APC, 1630-1, pp. 128, 140; Duke of Manchester, Court and Soc. from Eliz. to Anne, i. 339-41; Morrill, ‘Making’, 32-3.
- 65. Abbott, i. 71-2.
- 66. Abbott, i, 80-1; Morrill, ‘Making’, 38-42.
- 67. C142/710/35; PROB 11/170, ff. 72-4; Vis. Cambs. (Harl. Soc. xli), 11; C2/Chas.I/C92/53; C3/399/163; CUL, EDC 2/4/1, ff. 284-6.
- 68. Abbott, i. 81-2; C142/727/157.
- 69. C2/Chas.I/C92/53.
- 70. Abbott, i. 82.
- 71. Ibid.