The Lord Protectorby Antonia Fraser
“Rich and extraordinary.” –The New York Times
“Rich and extraordinary.” –The New York Times
No Englishman has had a greater impact on the history of his nation, and no one has been more consistently misunderstood and misrepresented. He called himself Oliver Protector while others called him traitor, usurper, hypocritical, and cruel. Still others found him broad-minded, tolerant, passionately religious, and ferociously moral.
The author of the brilliant and best-selling Mary Queen of Scots gives us a magnificent biography of a complex and enigmatic Oliver Cromwell–the young radical agitator on behalf of the poor commoners, the confident and victorious general during the Civil War, the nervous politician on the eve of King Charles’s execution, and the man who, in a savage outburst of Puritan hatred, commanded the massacre of a thousand people in the streets. In this fascinating and revisionist biography, Fraser shows us the many sides of the man who ultimately led England to a new conception of government and religious freedom, replete with his dynamic complexities, shortcoming, and unforgettable strengths.
“A classic above almost all others in its class.” –Oxford Times
“Rich and extraordinary.” –The New York Times
“A magnificent success . . . [Fraser] presents us with a more human and real portrait than do Victorian authorities. . . . irresistibly readable.” –A.L. Rowse, Sunday Telegraph
“Lady Antonia wishes us to know that Cromwell was no tyrant, was not ambitious, had a bursting conscience, and was civilized. The evidence she has assembled is overwhelming.” –Sunday Times (London)
1 By birth a gentleman
I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height, nor yet in obscurity.
In the spring and on the eve of the seventeenth century, a son was born to Robert and Elizabeth Cromwell of Huntingdon. The child was named Oliver; the date was 25 April 1599, four years before the end of the long reign of Queen Elizabeth 1. The house where this unexceptional birth took place lay in the main High Street of the little town: for all its modesty it did provide its own echoes of English history, having been built on the site of a thirteenth-century Augustinian Friary, and in the course of its structure many of the original stones and part of the original foundations had been used.*
A tradition arose later that Oliver had been born in the early hours of the morning, the preservation of which may be ascribed to the contemporary preoccupation with horoscopes.
While his birth date gave him his sun in florid expansive Taurus, this early hour of his nativity added an ascendant in Aries, ruled by warlike Mars, especially satisfying to those who wanted the stars to give their imprimatur to events long since passed on earth. A later reckoning by John Partridge in the eighteenth century “containing the Nativity of that wonderful Phenomenon Oliver Cromwell calculated methodically according to the Placidian canons’ was based on an approximately 1.30 a.m. birth time. Not only was Mars, the planet of action, at home in its own sign of Aries, but there was further evidence of “a natural and native sharpness at all times’, based on the conjunction of Mercury and the Sun. Thomas Booker, the almanac astrologer, gave Cromwell the birth time of 3 a.m. producing Aries rising. In addition, John Aubrey heard that Cromwell, like Thomas Hobbes, had a satellitium, or conjunction of five out of seven known planets in the ascendant, which destines the native to become ‘more eminent in his life than ordinary”.1 It is perfectly possible in an age when such phenomena were taken extremely seriously not only by the gullible, but also by many prominent members of Cromwell’s own party, that the information on which these divinations were based had been elicited from the subject himself. An even more likely source would have been Cromwell’s mother, who lived on to a colossal age, in the centre of the Court at Whitehall, where it would have been easy for an interested astrologer to have approached her; she may also be supposed to have a clearer memory of the time of her child’s birth than the child in question. At all events it seems quite probable that the tradition of the early morning birth time has a sound basis in fact.
In no other way did coming events cast their shadow before, unless the strange story of “a non-juror” who afterwards inherited the house is accepted, that the room in which Oliver was born was adorned with a tapestry of the devil (the idea presumably being that a strong post-natal influence was exercised for the worse on the new-born baby).2 But at least Oliver was born into a family where a satisfyingly large number of children seem to have escaped the hovering grasp of infant mortality: for although the rate was now beginning to fall, still only ten per cent of the population could expect to reach the age of forty. Out of the ten children recorded as born to the Cromwells, seven survived. It was even more important that six of these were girls and that Oliver grew to manhood as the only boy amidst a large brood of sisters. His elder brother Henry, baptized in August 1595, four years before Oliver’s own birth, died at a date unknown but certainly well before their father in 1617. Another boy, Robert, was born and died almost immediately, ten years after Oliver. Otherwise there was Joan, born in 1592 and dead before Oliver was two, Elizabeth, some six years older than Oliver, Catherine, two years older, Margaret, two years younger, Anna, born the year following, Jane born another three years later in 1605, and a final daughter, Robina, born at some date unknown. If old Mrs Cromwell was eighty-nine at the date of her death in 1654, then she was already thirty-four when Oliver was born, although the Secretary to the Council of State, Thurloe, actually estimated her to be five years older.3 The fact remains that Oliver was the son of her later years, and the only one to survive to adulthood. It does not need the perception of a psychologist to see that he was therefore born into a position where certain natural family ambitions would be centred upon him, certain natural family responsibilities would inevitably be his when the time came.
We know from later years that the warm embrace of a mother’s love encircled Oliver not only in childhood but in his maturity; indeed one avowed critic was to ascribe Oliver’s “rough and intractable temper” as an adult to the early spoiling of his doting mother. Once more it is not so much fanciful as sensible to see in Oliver’s unchallenged male position within the younger ranks of the family, the initiation at least of this affection. As it happened these little Cromwells were not the first family of the lady who in extreme old age was to excite the admiration of foreign Ambassadors as “a woman of ripe wisdom and great prudence”.4
Oliver’s mother was born Elizabeth Steward. She had been first married to William Lynne, son and heir of John Lynne of Bassingbourn; the tomb of her husband, who died in 1589, together with that of the daughter of this brief marriage, Katherine, who died as a baby, lie together in Ely Cathedral. Elizabeth carried the jointure of this first marriage, worth about “60 a year, with her when she remarried, and it is also possible that she derived from the Lynnes the “brew-house” (for making ale) persistently attached by tradition to the Cromwell household, of which more later. Otherwise the details of Elizabeth Steward’s first marriage have vanished into the mists. Her portrait shows her to be, in middle age at all events, a woman of a downright English cast of countenance, with the unabashed gaze of one who knows her position in society. Her features display the length of face, especially the nose, and the rather heavy-lidded eyes which she handed on to her son. It is a homely face, but not altogether devoid of charm and it has much strength. It is easy to see how Clarendon was able to bring himself to describe her fairly as “a decent woman”.5
The position which Elizabeth Steward occupied in society did in fact need no apology. She was the daughter of a respectable Norfolk family, and her father, “a Gentleman of a Competent Fortune”, farmed the cathedral lands of near-by Ely; it was a profitable labour later performed by her brother, Thomas Steward. Commentators would be excited by the coincidence of Oliver’s mother’s surname; for had not the royal house of Stuart originated as Stewards before passing through a phase of Stewart), a reference to their role at the Scottish Court before the curical marriage of Walter Stewart to Marjorie, daughter of Robert the Bruce? In an age obsessed equally with ancestry and omens, it seemed too happy – or too impressive – a coincidence to be tossed lightly aside without due consideration being given to the surprising ways of fate. It was decided that Oliver was endowed with proper Stewart descent, his lineage being traced back to the shipwreck of a Scottish prince in 1406, on the Norfolk coast. However more sceptical investigation shows the Stewards to have originated as Stywards from Calais, rather than Stewarts from Scotland.6 It was strange for example that the arms granted to the Stywards unaccountably failed to make use of the Scottish descent, which would certainly have been prominent had it then been considered genuine.
Not only that, but there were numerous Stywards of Swaffham and resident in Wells in Norfolk, long before the date of the alleged landing; even more disconcertingly the original John Styward of Calais seems to have been of comparatively plebeian descent. Perhaps it was hardly surprising that as the Stewards rose in prominence on the basis of monastic lands round Ramsey and Ely, and formed connexions with London, the notion of a royal pedigree should have sprung to their enterprising minds in order to emphasize the fitness of the family for greatness. But it had in fact no basis of reality – nor did Oliver himself in his lifetime give vent to any serious opinion on the subject of his putative relationship to the man he came to regard as England’s chief enemy, Charles Stuart. It was true that when he was in Edinburgh in 1651 he was said to have observed jokingly to the family of the Royalist Sir Walter Stewart that his mother too was a Stewart. But the incident, accompanied by a good deal of wine-drinking, some of it Sir Walter’s Canary wine and some of it Oliver’s own which he sent for, seems to have been more an example of Oliver’s desire to win over the Scots than of any deeper ancestral feelings. It was more significant, and no doubt more satisfactory to the quasi-Stewart General that at the end of the episode (in which Oliver also allowed Sir Walter’s small son James to handle the hilt of one of his swords and called him “his little captain”) Lady Stewart was said to have become ‘much less Royalist”.7
Oliver himself would have agreed with the judgement of one of his earliest biographers, the minor poet Robert Flecknoe. His work, despite the fact that he was rumoured to be both an Irishman and a Catholic priest, was highly eulogistic, perhaps because it was published in 1659 before the Restoration. Flecknoe announced: “Whilst others derive him from Principalities, I will derive his Principalities from him, and only say he was born a Gentleman.” It was a point of view Cromwell shared. Many years later, as Lord Protector, he reflected on his paternal inheritance in one of his famous speeches to Parliament, on the grounds that it was “time to look back ” I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height, nor yet in obscurity”.8 It was a fair estimate of the position of the Cromwells by the end of the sixteenth century, and Oliver’s father Robert Cromwell, by being the second son of a knight, did indeed seem to occupy a perfectly median position in the society of his day; that is to say, there was room for manoeuvre either way, in a manner characteristic of the fluidity of England at this period – upwards perhaps into the aristocracy to outstrip his forebears, or down into the ranks of yeomen. AsFlecknoe put it, the nobility were “higher” but not necessarily “better than he”. One thing however was clear, and Oliver’s firm words confirmed it. Robert Cromwell and his family did not at this point identify themselves in any way with these yeomen. It was a distinction which those more radical than Oliver would also draw: John Lilburne, captured after the battle of Brentford and brought to trial, refused to plead when named in court as “yeoman” on the grounds that his family were gentlemen, and had been so since the time of the Conquest.9
The longevity of the Cromwellian gentle pedigree was somewhat less than that boasted of by Lilburne. “The very ancient Knightly family” of Cromwell, as even James Heath, author of the most derogatory early life of Oliver,* allowed it to be, was founded in royal patronage in the reign of Henry VIII, only a few generations before Oliver’s birth. Earlier Cromwells had come from Nottinghamshire, where the name originally meant “winding stream”, a poetic concept reduced possibly a little by its derivation from the Old English “Crumb” for crooked. There had been other prominent Cromwells, an ennobled family which had died out at the end of the reign of Henry VI. But when the representative of the new family, Thomas Cromwell, stepped out into the fierce light of the Court as Henry VIII’s chief minister in 1520, he specifically refused to claim alliance with the ancient branch on the grounds that “he would not wear another man’s coat, for fear the owner thereof should pluck it off his ears.” His modesty seems to have been well justified since his father Walter Cromwell was variously described as a fuller, smith or a brewer. Walter’s own father, a cloth-fuller named John Cromwell, had come from Norwell in Nottinghamshire to Wimbledon, on the outskirts of London in the fifteenth century, to pursue his trade. Of John’s other sons, one was a brewer and two of this brewer’s own sons in turn followed their father’s profession. Walter Cromwell lived in Putney and had land close to the Thames, with a hostelry in Brew-House Lane; by the time of his death in 1516 he had amassed a fair amount of property in the neighbourhood, not only in Putney but also in Wandsworth and Roehampton. It is noticeable that Walter was twice Constable of Putney, a parochial office performed in turn by the principal householders in the vicinity. If Thomas Cromwell’s origins were lowly, compared with the heights to which he rose, they were none the less solid and, one might fairly say, worthy.10
Oliver however was not descended from the famous – or infamous – Thomas Cromwell but from Walter’s daughter, Thomas’s sister Katherine. It was the marriage of the young Katherine Cromwell to Morgan Williams which brought into the sturdy English Cromwell line that exotic strain of Celtic blood which one likes to think, even at a century’s remove, gave it the peculiar genius which flowered in the mysterious character of Oliver Cromwell. Thus the Cromwells – Oliver’s branch – were not strictly speaking Cromwells at all, but by the rules of English surnames, Williamses. The direct descendants of Thomas Cromwell were in fact ennobled as Earls of Ardglass, and representatives of this branch of the family fought on the Royalist side in the Civil War. It is easy to understand however how the family of an enterprising young Welshman would wish to hitch their own name to the rising star of Thomas Cromwell’s reputation, especially as the Welsh attitude to surnames even as late as the sixteenth century was a totally alien one to our own today.
Morgan Williams had begun life under the guise of Morgan ap William (or son of William) in accordance with the traditional Welsh fashion for identifying the son of a father, whereby the second name tended to change with each generation, unless a son was given the same Christian name as his father, in which case he would be known as “Fychan” or the Younger. The changeover to the English fashion of a stabilized patronymic was only occurring slowly among the Welsh: it was just about this period, for example, that the Welsh family of Sitsyllt settled in England and were henceforth known in succeeding generations as Cecil. Generally speaking, the Welsh merely added an ‘s’ to their father’s Christian name in order to Anglicize themselves, as did Morgan ap William: thus many Anglo-Welsh surnames tended to be based on male Christian names.
Since Williams itself was a concept comparatively new to Morgan, it was not surprising that his son Richard found the change to his mother’s maiden name of Cromwell easy enough. The adoption of the more celebrated English name was perfectly open. The Williams’ arms were used by Richard’s descendants, the family continued to be listed as “alias Williams’ for several generations including an Indenture of Sale signed and executed by Oliver’s uncle in 1600, an official query concerning his father’s will, and Oliver’s own marriage contract. In his period as Protector, one of Oliver’s Royalist kinsmen wrote to him frankly that he had had considerable trouble being accepted under the name of Cromwell, and now that Oliver had made it odious it might be time to change it back to Williams again (a course which the eldest branch of this side of the family, the heirs of Oliver’s uncle, did in fact adopt after the Restoration). It could even be said to be poetic justice that Oliver should later be blamed for many of the crimes, especially the architectural depredations, of his great-great-great uncle Thomas:
Much ill cometh of a small noteAs Crumb well set in a man’s throat”
So ran a spurious prophecy of Tudor times invented to vilify Thomas Cromwell.11 In the growth of folklore, the coincidence of the Cromwell name was to prove a “Crumb well set” in Oliver’s throat when it came to apportioning blame for the wreck of monasteries and churches. Perhaps it was fate’s revenge on the family which had originally adopted the name for purely opportunist reasons.
It was William ap levan, Morgan’s father, who was the first to make the successful transference from Wales to England. Referred to as “the best archer that in those days was known”, he served Jasper Duke of Bedford, then lord of Glamorgan, having himself been born in the parish of Newchurch near Cardiff. No doubt impressed by the quality of William’s archery, Bedford transferred him to the service of his nephew, Henry VII, newly King of England, and at the English Court William married, picking up sufficient profits in posts or grants from the Crown to acquire property in England. Thus the descent of Morgan and his father upon English pastures paralleled the general Welsh descent upon England of Henry VII and his entourage. To some Welsh bards the accession of Henry Tudor to the English throne fulfilled the ancient prophecy that a Welsh conqueror would one day take over England, it being an essential tenet of bardic history that the Welsh were descended from the ancient Britons, and as such were the rightful rulers of Britain, cruelly deprived of their inheritance by the Saxons. These prophecies were to be revived in Oliver’s favour at the time of his Protectorate by certain of his admirers.12
It is certainly possible to trace Oliver Cromwell’s Welsh ancestors with some exactitude, since the Welsh custom referred to earlier of tacking the father’s name to that of the son facilitates genealogical research.* Oliver Cromwell’s forebears were a very typical minor Welsh gentry family, the estate of the last actual dweller in Wales being worth between two and three hundred pounds a year. It is true that once Cromwell had reached fame, and more particularly when he became Lord Protector, with the need for personal arms and seals, the temptation to escalate the princely magnificence of his Welsh ancestors proved stronger than the call of historical accuracy. Fortunately a detailed family tree known as the Llyfr Baglan or Book of Baglan was compiled between 1600 and 1607 by one John Williams of Monmouthshire. Although this Williams was clearly interested in the connexion with Thomas Cromwell, he could have had no possible vested interest in magnifying the descent of Oliver, then scarcely more than a baby.13
The line stretches back through names which Cromwell’s eighteenth-century biographer the Reverend Mark Noble was to dismiss with English condescension:* “their history” he wrote “could afford no pleasure and but little knowledge”. The modern genealogist may take a more enlightened view. The main point of interest is that the original male line of this tree, if traced back sufficiently far, sprang not after all from Wales but from England, and from one Sir Guyon le Grant, a late eleventh-or early twelfth-century Norman adventurer, part of that group known as Advenae who came to Wales and settled there. Sir Guyon’s arrival would coincide with that period when the Normans, mainly from the area of Gloucester, were invading South Wales, especially Glamorgan; many of them did marry locally and adopt the Welsh system of nomenclature. Thus, to pursue the matter of Oliver Cromwell’s surname still further back it would be possible to make a case, by strict English rules, for Grant, not Williams, having been his rightful name: it was after all only after the time of Sir Guyon’s son, Sir Gwrgenau le Grant, that his descendants began to change their name with each generation according to the Welsh custom (Gwrgenau Fychan or the Younger was followed by Goronwy ap Gwrgenau, and so forth through several centuries down to levan ap Morgan, father of William ap levan, and grandfather of Morgan Williams).
It is pleasant to reflect that Oliver Cromwell had at least his dash of Norman blood (as well as simple faith), and the pioneering blood of the immigrant at that. However the Grants, quickly assimilated, made an unbroken series of Welsh marriages. Much was made under the Protectorate, heraldically speaking, of Cromwell’s descent from the Princes of Powys, notably Madoc ap Meredith, last Prince of Powys, whose arms formed part of the Protectoral crest. This descent was not, as we have seen, actually in the direct male line. But in view of the interconnexions of Welsh families, there was of course no reason why the Cromwells should not descend from the Princes of Powys in the female line several times over, and no doubt they did so. It is certainly interesting to observe that over a hundred years after the emigration of the family to England, when Morgan Williams’s great-great-grandson Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England, it was to his Welsh ancestry that the heralds turned to provide his arms. It is evident that pride of Welsh descent was preserved among a family who otherwise became very firmly (and profitably) Anglicized.
In the age of Morgan Williams himself, the first half of the sixteenth century, the Court of Henry VIII was amongst other things an excellent arena in which the speculator might operate to his own advantage, more especially after the dissolution of the monasteries. Now there were rich prizes indeed to be had for the picking, particularly by those who enjoyed the royal favour. In 1538, at a time when his famous uncle Thomas’s influence was still paramount, Richard Cromwell, son of Morgan Williams, was granted the large and fruitful nunnery at Hinchingbrooke, as well as various other properties. He made the change of surname at some date unknown but definitely before this grant which was made in the name of Cromwell – much encouraged in the change by the King, who wanted him to adopt the ‘mode of civilized nations in taking family names’ and disapproved of these “aps and naps’ which, amongst other disadvantages, made those of Welsh descent hard to identify in English judicial procedure. One story of Richard’s upward progress is splendidly chivalric. He had entered the lists of a tournament, richly apparelled, with his horses draped in white velvet, and his prowess was commensurate with his magnificence. King Henry, much delighted, dropped a flashing diamond ring from the royal finger, and exclaimed to his favourite: “Formerly thou wert my Dick, but hereafter thou shalt be my Diamond!” Fortunately for the future history of the Cromwell family, Dick dexterously caught his diamond; other benefits followed including a change in the family’s crest – the lion now bore a ring on its foreleg in place of a javelin.15
Sir Richard, knighted by the King, survived the fall of his uncle in 1540. Already establishing the power of the Cromwells in the east Midlands, based on formerly monastic lands, he was made high-sheriff of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire in 1541 and he sat for Parliament in 1542. Thanks to the King’s generosity, he seems to have left estates at his death worth about “3,000, a considerable fortune by the standards of the time. It was his son and Oliver’s grandfather, Henry Cromwell having been dubbed in turn by Queen Elizabeth in 1563, who for his lavish display was to be known as the Golden Knight. He indeed cast an opulent glow over the history of his family. Although Sir Richard had begun the conversion before his death, it was Sir Henry who was mainly responsible for building that magnificent pile at Hinchingbrooke, partly adapted from the old nunnery, partly re-created in striking red brick diapered in black, which Oliver was to know as a boy.
With extensive views across the surrounding flat but fertile countryside, close by watery tributaries of the Ouse, Hinchingbrooke was well suited to the gracious role in which Sir Henry cast it, a family seat of much splendour; and incidentally the stained-glass windows did not fail to commemorate the family’s Welsh origins, with due heraldic acknowledgement. Neither Sir Richard nor Sir Henry cut themselves totally from the city from whence they had come, since both in turn chose wives who were daughters of Lord Mayors of London. But like his father, Sir Henry also took on traditional county duties. He was sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire four times and became a member of Parliament, where his harangues, in the opinion of Sir Charles Firth, had something in common with the oratorical style of his grandson.16 Sir Henry also quickly learnt other habits of the landed classes; privileged to entertain Queen Elizabeth at Hinchingbrooke in 1564 – an expensive pastime but one which might at least reap future benefits – the Golden Knight was also pleased to throw sums of money to the poor at Ramsey, an activity much less calculated to bring an earthly reward.
Oliver’s father Robert Cromwell was the second son of this glittering character. There were other members of the family to be noticed, including the fifth son, later knighted as Sir Philip Cromwell, whose daughters Elizabeth and Frances by marrying a Hampden and a Whalley respectively, provided Oliver with two first cousins within leading Puritan circles. But it was the eldest son and heir of the Golden Knight, Sir Oliver Cromwell, who took the attention of the world for most of his long life, until the dramatic rise of his nephew in political and military importance usurped the ageing knight’s position as the most famous member of the family. Sir Oliver married twice, and from his second marriage to Anne Hooftman, a lady of Dutch extraction, widow of the Genoese financier Sir Horatio Palavicini, sprang the story, still sometimes repeated today, that his nephew Oliver enjoyed Jewish descent. Two Palavicini stepchildren of Anne Lady Cromwell, Baptina and Henry, the offspring of her husband’s first marriage, made marriages with two of her own Cromwell children. It was the sort of arrangement, complicated to describe, which was often found convenient at that time for considerations of property as well as propinquity; it was especially convenient in this case in view of Sir Oliver’s own declining financial situation. These Palavicini-Cromwell marriages, which took place around the time of Oliver’s own birth, were obviously of no direct relevance to his branch of the family, let alone his ancestry (quite apart from the fact that the Palavicinis were actually of an ancient Catholic Genoese family) but of course the story may have gained further credence from Oliver’s favourable treatment of the Jews as Lord Protector half a century later.
Sir Oliver was clearly a man of charm and bounty, to whom the musician John Dowland dedicated a book of songs and airs, and under whose sway Hinchingbrooke continued to provide patriarchal warmth for lesser relations living roundabout, including the Robert Cromwells and their children. Such benevolent entertainments were only to be expected from a man in his position; more ambitious and fundamentally more disastrous for the fortunes of the family were Sir Oliver’s royal carousals. He had been knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1598. In 1603 King James I stayed at Hinchingbrooke on his triumphant progress south from Edinburgh to ascend the English throne. Fatally – for the future – it was generally agreed that the King had there received ‘such entertainment, as the like had not been seen in any place before, since his first setting forth out of Scotland”. As Sir Oliver not only provided generous hospitality, but also pressed upon his distinguished guest such varied but welcome gifts as “a standing cup of gold”, “goodly horses”, “fleet and deep-mouthed hounds’ and “divers hawks of excellent wing” it is easy to understand the royal enthusiasm, and King James returned to Hinchingbrooke on all too many more occasions. Even though Sir Oliver was to receive his symbolic reward at the great funeral of King James in 1625, bearing one of the heraldic banners, it is not difficult to appreciate how the Cromwell resources rapidly diminished under this standard of expenditure (for the first visit Sir Oliver built on a special bow window to his dining-room).17 Within his own lifetime glorious Hinchingbrooke had to be sold to the Montagu family, leaving Sir Oliver merely with the alternative Ramsey property. The case which has been made for seeing the Parliamentary party in the years leading up to the Civil War as scions of a fading class of gentry whose fortunes were declining, certainly finds a prop in the position of the Cromwells as Oliver grew to manhood. Oliver can hardly have failed to observe with sadness the passing of the great Cromwell era at Hinchingbrooke in 1627, the year before he entered Parliament for the first time.
Oliver’s own father, Robert Cromwell, led a more obscure life. Like his eldest brother, he was elected a member of Parliament, but unlike Sir Oliver who made some mark in the House of Commons, Robert made little impression during his solitary spell of duty in 1593. He bore his share, it is true, of local activities, taking an interest in the draining of the Fens, signing a certificate together with his brother and some others to the effect that it would be possible to drain the area known as the Great Level. Did he also conduct the brewery, with whose existence royalist scandalmongers were afterwards to make so merry at his son’s expense?* Certainly Robert Cromwell enjoyed the use of a brew-house, enhanced by the fact that the Brook at Hinchin ran conveniently through his lands, and could be used in the brewing process. As we have seen, some establishment of the sort may have come to him as part of Elizabeth’s jointure, and incidentally the earlier Putney Cromwells, from whom he was descended, had quite certainly been brewers. It is of course possible to draw a distinction between brewing ale for home consumption (a sensible course in an age when ale, rather than water or wine, was a staple of the diet) or for neighbours, and indulging in “trade” as later generations would term it. On the other hand, “trade”, just because it is a later concept, is a dangerous one to foist onto the early seventeenth century.
It is noteworthy that the first derogatory mention of Oliver’s supposed brewing activities, which it was believed he carried on with his mother after his father’s death, appears in February 1649, the month after the King’s execution, the time of maximum execration towards Cromwell. It occurred in Mercurius Elenticus, the news-sheet which did much to spread that venom and made a reference to “the malice of that bloody brewer Cromwell”, suggesting that he might be about to ‘set up his trade of brewing again”.19 Cromwell was also scurrilously supposed to have suggested that the dead King’s youngest son, the Duke of Gloucester, might be trained as a brewer now that he no longer had any royal function to perform. Brewing, then, may well have been carried on locally by this minor branch of the Cromwell family, more or less professionally, to supplement a modest income; but it caused no particular remark until the dark days after the King’s death, when any and every weapon was used to vilify the leading figure of the party responsible. Then brewing was transformed by the cutting pens of the satirists into an activity of hideous vulgarity, only too symbolic of the coarse upstarts who now ruled England.