Oliver Cromwell - Estelle Ross

The Boy

In the closing year of the sixteenth century, in the quiet little town of Huntingdon, Oliver Cromwell first saw the light. He was born on April 25, 1599, and baptized at St John's Church on the 9th of the same month and entered in the parish register as "son of Robert Cromwell, gentleman, and of Elizabeth Cromwell, his wife.'"

Who were Robert and Elizabeth Cromwell? Many years afterward this son, speaking to one of his Parliaments, described his social position in the words,. "I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height nor yet in obscurity."

Oliver had no reason to be ashamed of his ancestry on either side. His great-grandfather—Richard Williams by name—was a Welshman, and here we have the Celtic strain that fired Cromwell's more sluggish English blood. Richard Williams was nephew of Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey's friend and Henry VIII's minister, known as 'the Hammer of the Monks.' Uncle Thomas liked and advanced his kinsman, and Richard Williams partly—in gratitude, no doubt, partly to insist on the relationship—changed his surname to Cromwell. Thomas Cromwell was, as we know, like Wolsey to sound "all the depths and shoals of honour," like Wolsey to learn the wretchedness of the man who hangs on princes' favors. He it was who, for political purposes, negotiated Henry VIII's marriage with Anne of Cleves. But the lady had been flattered in her picture, and the King, who had expected a Venus, ungallantly dubbed her a "Flemish mare." He had a short way with wives and a short way with ministers: Anne, his fourth wife, was divorced and Thomas Cromwell paid "a long farewell to all his greatness" on the scaffold.

Richard Cromwell, who was knighted at the tournament held in honour of the ill-starred wedding, where his prowess attracted the attention of the royal bridegroom, did not share in his kinsman's disgrace. He appeared at Court clad in black, though the monarch's dislike of mourning was notorious. His boldness was forgiven and he enjoyed the sunshine of princely favor to the end of his days. He had had his share of the spoil of the monasteries, for the Benedictine convent of Hinchinbrook and the rich Benedictine abbey of Ramsey, with their revenues and manors, had fallen to his lot.

Cromwell Christening


It was a goodly heritage for his eldest son, Henry, who carried the fortunes of the Cromwell family a step farther, building himself a fine house at Hinchinbrook, where he might entertain with lavish splendor. Great were the preparations for Queen Elizabeth's visit when she was his guest on one of her royal progresses. The Queen dubbed him her knight, and such was his generosity and public spirit that he was known as 'the Golden Knight' to his friends and neighbors. When the Spanish Armada threatened England he trained twenty-six horsemen at his own expense for the defense of the land against "the devilish superstition of the Pope," as he put it.

In the course of time, when Henry was gathered to his fathers, his eldest son, Oliver, inherited Hinchinbrook, and his second son, Robert, an estate in Huntingdon. His daughters married well—one by her union with William Hampden became the mother of the patriot, John Hampden. Robert found his mate in Elizabeth Lynn, a young widow, the daughter of William Steward of Ely. The Stewards were people of good social standing, though there is no foundation for the legend that they could trace their descent from the Stuart kings of Scotland. They belonged to the landed gentry and farmed the cathedral tithes of Ely. Their ancestor, the last Prior of Ely, changed his views in the nick of time when the dissolution of the monasteries was making Roman Catholic prelates quake in their shoes, and he remained in office as the first Protestant dean of Ely.

Robert and Elizabeth Cromwell lived in Huntingdon. They were comfortably off, for their joint income of 360 a year would be worth something like 1200 nowadays. Four children had been born to them before their second son, Oliver, came on the scene.

In later years many legends clustered round the childhood and boyhood of Oliver. They must not be taken too seriously, since the earliest biographers saw his character through the veil of their own prejudices. Until our own century justice has not been done to him. A Royalist writer records that "he was of a cross and peevish disposition," but this opinion was balanced by a more favorable observer, who declared that he had "a quick and lively apprehension, a piercing and sagacious wit, and a solid judgment." The truth lies between the two extremes. Throughout his life he was quick-tempered; as a boy he was certainty high-spirited, and probably he was occasionally troublesome also. His parents had their hands too full with the cares of their nine children to pay undue attention to this son, who was followed by three sisters and a brother. Gaps soon came in the family. Oliver was but a baby when his eldest sister, a little girl of eight, died; he was old enough to realize the shadow of death when his eldest brother died, and when his youngest brother survived his birth by only a few months.

It is related of Oliver that, in his infancy, he was taken to his uncle's house and laid in a cradle, whereupon a monkey seized him and carried him up to the roof. The agonized household held mattresses below him lest he should be dropped by his captor. Fortunately when the monkey had had enough of his infant charge he brought him down in safety.

Another legend records that at the same house of Hinchinbrook he first encountered the prince with whom he was to come to a death-grapple in later years. Prince Charles, journeying from Scotland to England, was the guest of Sir Oliver Cromwell, and little Oliver, who was invited to meet him, so forgot what was due to Royalty that he fell to fighting him. Prince Charles, who was a fragile child, had much the worst of it, and retired from the struggle with a bleeding nose.

Other stories of Oliver's boyhood are not so hard to believe. He was, no doubt, like many another lad, an 'apple dragon,' and may have been given to pigeon-stealing. The discipline of schooldays would have quelled his childish spirits. He was sent to the free school at Huntingdon, where Dr Thomas Beard, a stern Puritan, believed that sinners are not only punished in the world to come, but that retribution dogs their footsteps in this world also. He had written a book entitled The Theatre of God's Judgments Displayed, to convince humanity at large of this fact, and he proved it to his scholars by a liberal use of the rod.

It was said that once the schoolboys acted a play called The Five Senses. Oliver, wreathed with laurel, was making for the stage when he stumbled against a property crown. He straightway discarded his own headgear, crowned himself, and made a fine speech to his schoolfellows.

At seventeen he left school, and was entered at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, on April 23, 1616. On the same day a great career was closed at Stratford-on-Avon, for Shakespeare's worldly course was run.

Oliver once more came under a strongly Puritan influence, for the head of the college was Dr Samuel Ward, a fine type of man, who had been one of the translators of the authorized version of the Bible. He was a convinced Puritan, and his college was called by Archbishop Laud a 'nursery' of Puritanism.

Oliver was essentially a man of action. In his college days he loved an outdoor life, horse and field exercise, football, cudgels, and boisterous games, rather than severe study. Nevertheless he profited by his academic course, becoming well read in 'Greek and Latin story,' and proficient in mathematics and cosmography—studies he greatly valued. Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World was ever a favourite work with him, but he was never bookish.

His college career was brought to an abrupt close when, in June 1617, his father died, and as he was the only surviving son and his father's heir, he returned home. Ultimately, no doubt, he was to take his sire's place as head of the family, but in the meantime his mother did not consider him fully equipped for his part in life. Little could she foresee what that part was to be! Her highest ambitions for her boy were that he should be an upright country gentleman carrying on the good old traditions of the Cromwell family, becoming eventually a Justice of the Peace and possibly a member of Parliament. With these ideals in view she sent him to London to study law. Whether or not he entered one of the Inns of Court is not definitely known, and though tradition says that he was a student of Lincoln's Inn, there is no record of his name on the books.

He was now free from parents and school-masters, and it was said that he made use of his liberty to sow his wild oats. A letter written many years afterward, when he was thirty-nine, to his cousin, Mrs. St John, is quoted as evidence: "You know what my manner of life hath been. Oh, I have lived in and loved darkness, and hated light; I was a chief, the chief of sinners. This is true: I hated godliness, yet God had mercy on me." There is this to be said on the other side. Cromwell became such a deeply religious man that he judged his easy-going youth very harshly, and in all probability his tares grew but a scanty crop.

In London Oliver made .the acquaintance of the Bourchiers: Sir James, .a wealthy merchant, his wife, and their daughter Elizabeth, a comely girl but a year older than he was. They had a fine town house on Tower Hill and a country home at Felstead in Essex. Oliver fell in love with Elizabeth, and her parents did not look unfavorably on his suit. He was betrothed to her, and when he was twenty-one they were married in the beautiful old church of St Giles, Cripplegate, where we can still read in the parish register the entry which records their union.