Oliver Cromwell - Estelle Ross

The Period

Before we follow the fortunes of the young bride and bridegroom, let us take a brief survey of a few of the important events that were making English history during Oliver Cromwell's childhood and youth. He was born when Queen Elizabeth, that last and most typical representative of the Tudor monarchs, was on the throne. He must have heard many a description of her in his nursery days, of the splendor of her garments sewn with jewels, of her haughty bearing, of her vanity—in short, all the tittle-tattle about Royalty that is ever welcome gossip. He would have been told how jealous she had been of Mary Queen of Scots, and how, after keeping her for many years in captivity, she had condemned her to death. This had happened a dozen years before his birth, but it was still fresh in people's minds, especially as Elizabeth was now growing old and the heir to the throne was Mary's son, James VI of Scotland. When little Oliver was just beginning to prattle and to try the strength of his sturdy limbs the country was shocked by the news that the Queen, unforgiving to the last, had allowed her favourite Essex to be beheaded. But though the Cromwell household, together with many another, would discuss the Earl's fate, the knowledge of it would not cause such a shock of horror as it would to-day. Indeed, such a punishment would be impossible in the twentieth century, but in those days the axe was a swift way of solving difficulties and paying off old scores.

Probably the first public event which really gripped the child's mind was the passing of the great Queen when he was four years old. Her death ended an epoch, and in the new one which dawned when. James I succeeded her on the throne the little boy plucking the early primroses in the fields around his home was destined to play a leading part.

He was not only to hear of the customary rejoicings at the coronation, but he was actually to see the new monarch on his journey from Scotland to England. Sir Oliver, true to the splendid traditions of his house, received his royal guest at Hinchinbrook, and entertained him with such lavish hospitality that it exceeded that of any other of the King's hosts. Sir Oliver was made a Knight of the Bath, and dames honored his house by three subsequent visits.

What did little Oliver think of the King? Children are not over-critical as to the personal appearance of grown-up people, but no doubt he had his dreams of what a sovereign should be and thought his childish thoughts when his blue eyes rested on James, "clad in green as the grass he trod on, with a feather in his cap, and a horn in4tead of a sword by his side." The King was not an imposing figure, of middle height, and rather stout, with "a rolling eye, a thin beard, tongue too large for his mouth, and weak, tottering legs."

Grave political and religious difficulties—too grave for the child to understand—were to mark the new reign. We shall deal with them in another chapter. But one result of these troubles thrilled the boy of six, when the news spread like wildfire through England that the Roman Catholics had plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605, when the King was to be present to open the session. At the eleventh hour a Catholic noble had been warned by one of the accomplices, and the game was up! Guy Fawkes was caught in the cellar, waiting to fire the powder; the other conspiratory fled, and one by one they were tracked to their hiding-places, to forfeit their lives on the scaffold.

Other public events seemed tame after this crisis, especially the tittle-tattle of Court gossip. James I was infatuated by George Villiers, the handsome Duke of Buckingham. He called him 'Steenie' and entirely forgot his dignity as a king in the familiarity of their intercourse. Various scandals of Court life were the gossip of the ale-house and the servants. The court ladies got drunk, the unseemly behavior of the courtiers made men of the older generation shake their heads and hark back to "the stately times of great Elizabeth." With all her faults, James's predecessor never forgot that she was a queen; he, however, considered that the 'divine right' covered a multitude of indiscretions.

School and college days were over and Oliver was beginning to take a personal interest in the affairs of the big world, reading law in London, when Sir Walter Raleigh, having failed to find the rives of gold or to keep the peace with the Spaniards, perished on the scaffold. In all probability the young man was among the immense crowd of sightseers who on that chill October morning watched the passing of the great Elizabethan to his doom.