Oliver Cromwell - Estelle Ross


To the old house at Huntingdon where he had been born and bred, Oliver now returned with his bride. His mother and his unmarried sisters still remained in residence, for two generations of an English family in the seventeenth century (like the wench families in the nineteenth) often lived under one roof. If the young wife sighed at times for a home of her very own, she doubtless sighed in secret. Her husband and his mother were devoted to one another and it would have ill become her to have sown discord between them. And, besides, old Mistress Cromwell would not have been easy to tackle. To judge her character from her portrait, she was a woman of marked individuality, keen and firm, with a touch of shrewdness and humor. Her penetrating eyes probably noticed shortcomings in the town-bred daughter-in-law. Elizabeth at times yearned, no doubt, for her father's fine house on Tower Hill and the gay doings and the gossip of the great city. But since she was of an amiable and pleasant disposition she must soon have learned to adapt herself to her new position, to stifle an occasional yawn, to cease to compare Huntingdon unfavorably with the Metropolis, and to settle down.

Fortunately women had little time for moping in those days, for, though the households were less self-sufficing than in the Middle Ages, still much was done at home that is now consigned to factory and workshop. A notable housewife would superintend baking, brewing, and dairy-work; her store-room and still-room would be objects of pride; her linen-cupboard would become a legend to future generations; her stitchery and her embroidery would be handed down as heirlooms. Cromwell's mother, however, was of a practical bent, and the story that he was the son of a brewer came from the fact that she not only brewed excellent ale for household consumption, but when her store was overfull she allowed her neighbors to be her customers.

The men-folk, too, were fully occupied, and Cromwell busied himself about his farm, ploughing and sowing, reaping, rearing cattle and sheep, and going to the neighboring towns on market-days to sell his stock. But he had leisure to attend to local affairs and we get glimpses of him later as a champion of the rights of the poorer folk. To all outward appearance he too was settling down to lead the life of an active country gentleman, following in his father's footsteps, as a respected member of an old family.

There was good reason. that he should be active and industrious, for a little more than a year after his marriage his eldest child was born. He was christened Robert in St John's Church, Huntingdon, and some eighteen months later he had .a baby brother, Oliver.

The experience of fatherhood deepened Cromwell's character. In his solitary walks by the banks of the sluggish river Ouse, when the day's work was done, he would brood over the problem of man's relation to his Maker. At times he fell into states of deep melancholy—such experiences are common with those who strive to solve for themselves the mysteries of life and death and often at such times his anxious wife would send in haste for the doctor' to prescribe for him. But there was little to be done for him, as his sickness was of the soul rather than of the body. Dr Simcox related that he was often sent for at midnight since Mr. Cromwell was very 'splenetic' and thought that he was about to die. Cromwell also had fancies about the Town Cross. The Puritan influence of boyhood and manhood had sunk deep and he had little reverence and much distrust for such symbols of the faith.

The time of inward storm came to an end, and Cromwell found an anchorage for his troubled soul in an inalienable belief and trust in God, and in His message to man as unfolded in the Bible.

The sober life of the little Puritan household in Huntingdon was in strong contrast to the gay life of town. With them the Bible was the Book—the only one that mattered and their language and forms of expression were founded on this magnificent model. In town 40,000 play-books were printed in a couple of years and were "more vendible than the choicest sermons." The Puritans looked askance not only at plays, playwrights, and playgoers, but at the homely village fairs and dances, and the more fanatical of them forbade even the most harmless pleasures to the younger generation.

Five years after Cromwell's marriage the bells of Huntingdon, in common with the bells of all the parish churches of England, tolled the death of James I. His eldest surviving son, Charles, ascended the throne. The new reign held great promise, for the young prince, who was Cromwell's junior by but a year, had much in his favor. He was a marked contrast to his .father, of dignified bearing, handsome and courteous, and to outward appearance 'every inch a king.' Mrs. Hutchinson, whose memoirs of her husband throw light on the life of the time, tells us: "The face of the Court was much changed in the change of the King; for King Charles . was temperate, chaste, and serious; so that the fools and bawds, mimics and catamites of the former Court grew out of fashion; and the nobility and courtiers, who did not quite abandon their debaucheries, had yet that reverence to the Kg to retire into corners to practice them: men of learning and ingenuity in all arts were in esteem, and received encouragement from the King, who was a most excellent judge and a great lover of paintings, carvings, engravings, and many other ingenuities."

But the joy-bells had hardly ceased ringing for the coronation before troubles began. Charles, much to the satisfaction of the country, had failed to secure the Infanta of Spain as his bride. He had married instead Henrietta Maria, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Henry IV of France—a Roman Catholic Co the core. The little Puritan household would have had special opportunities for hearing all the latest news, for Cromwell's uncle, Sir Oliver, represented the county of Huntingdon in Parliament, and the fact that he had more than once entertained Royalty would have given him access to the Court circle. No doubt they were greatly perturbed at the thought of the Roman Catholic princess as Queen Consort of England—especially as the King had promised as part of the marriage agreement that the penal laws against the Catholics should not be enforced. Added to this, the young Queen not only brought over her own priests, but insisted that a chapel should be set apart for her worship. Charles, who always played a double game, was at a loss what to do: he did not want to irritate his Protestant subjects by unduly favoring the Roman Catholics, and yet he did not wish to break his promise to the King of France. Court gossip told of so much friction between the royal pair that they had decided to live apart. The Queen, no doubt, had in addition to other grievances, to complain of Charles's devotion to the Duke of Buckingham, who advised him in all matters. She was not alone in hating the Duke, for the country at large shared her distrust and made him the scapegoat of his master's earliest mistakes. The nation was only too willing to give the young King a chance if he would but get rid of his all-powerful favourite.

Sir Oliver Cromwell sat in the first two Parliaments of the reign—neither of them was a good augury of what was to come. The King wanted money not only for his personal expenses, but also to prosecute a war with Spain; Parliament wanted an assurance that the Protestant faith should be tampered with in no wise. The first Parliament was dismissed by the King in three months; the second, summoned six months later, was in an even less conciliatory mood. Charles wanted money to pay for the fleet at Plymouth, and to keep up the army and navy; Parliament wanted redress of grievances. Sir John Eliot, who was to play a notable part in the coming struggle, voiced the discontent of the country: "Our honour is ruined, our ships are sunk, our men perished, not by the enemy, not by chance but . . . by those we trust."

Who was to blame? The Duke of Buckingham.

"He has broken those nerves and sinews of our land, the stores and treasures of the King. There needs no search for it. It is too visible. His profuse expenses, his superfluous feasts, his magnificent buildings, his riots, his excesses, what are they but the visible evidences of an express exhausting of the State, a chronicle of the immensity of his waste of the revenues of the Crown?"

As a result of his outspokenness Eliot found himself in the Tower, but the attitude of Parliament was so menacing that he was soon set at liberty. The impeachment of Buckingham passed the House of Commons and the case was duly taken to the Lords. The Duke, richly clad and adorned with jewels, appeared in person and the insolence of his bearing was noted by all. He put his trust in princes and his royal master stood by him. The King refused to dismiss him and hastily dissolved Parliament.

This, satisfactory as it was to Buckingham, left Charles in greater financial difficulties than ever. His first experiment of requesting free gifts from his subjects was a disastrous failure, his second of demanding a forced loan had little better fortune. Among those who refused to pay we note the name of Oliver's cousin, the dauntless John Hampden, a young Buckingham-shire squire. "I could be content to lend but fear to draw upon myself the curse in Magna Charta, which should be read twice a year against those who infringe it." He was duly imprisoned for his fearlessness and such was the rigor of the treatment that though he lived to strike again he was never the same man.

Buckingham, whose position was far from secure, hoped to dazzle the country by success in arms, and with this in view he bethought himself of the besieged Protestants in Rochelle, and persuaded his master to place him at the head of an expedition of 10,000 men . to go to their relief. The total and hopeless failure of this undertaking only complicated the King's difficulties, and he was forced once more to summon a Parliament.

While all these momentous happenings were going on in the country at large the Cromwells had their share of the ups and downs of life in quiet Huntingdonshire. Sir Oliver was in great difficulties: he had lived far beyond his income and was obliged to sell the old family mansion at Ilinchinbrook. He removed to Ramsey Mere, where he lived in diminished state on the remnants of his substance, retired from public life.

To outward eyes the fortunes of the family were at the ebb when Oliver Cromwell sought the suffrages of the townsfolk of Huntingdon and was duly elected to represent them in the third parliament of the reign of Charles I.