Oliver Cromwell - Estelle Ross

Quiet Years

Amid such stirring scenes Cromwell's apprenticeship to politics was served. The eleven years to follow, during which Charles ruled without a Parliament, were years of preparation for that future in which he was to be the man of destiny.

He returned to Huntingdon, where there was now a little brood of children to welcome him, for Robert and Oliver had been followed as the years went on by Bridget, Richard, Henry, and Elizabeth, the baby at the time. His wife had her hands full with her domestic ties, and, so far as we know, they were her sole preoccupation. Unlike many of the seventeenth-century dames, she does not appear to have taken much heed of the big issues that were agitating the country. Her husband, meanwhile, though absorbed in his business, kept a watchful eye on focal affairs. A new charter was granted to Huntingdon in July 1680, and he was named a Justice of the Peace. Henceforth the town was to be governed by a mayor and twelve aldermen appointed for life. Cromwell saw in this a danger to the rights of the poorer inhabitants, and he spoke with such vehemence and controlled anger on this point that the mayor and aldermen complained to the Privy Council and he was sent in custody to London. The charges against him were heard by the Duke of Manchester, and the matter was peaceably settled by Cromwell's frank acknowledgment that he had spoken in the heat of passion and by his expressed desire that what he had said might be forgotten.

Cromwell returned home to resume his ordinary life, but the dispute had left a sting behind it and the townsfolk were now less cordial toward their one-time member. It was no doubt partly on this account and partly because of his increasing family that he meditated a momentous step. What long talks there must have been in the family circle before he finally decided to sell his property at Huntingdon for 1800 and move to St Ives, five miles farther down the Ouse, where he rented good grazing land!



St Ives was little more than a village, with a row of houses fronting the river and the dignity of a cattle-market for local trade. Here Cromwell used to come on market-days to sell his stock and to discuss with neighboring farmers the state of the crops and the state of the kingdom. He attended the parish church regularly with his wife and elder children, and as in that marshy country he was subject to colds and sore throats, and he was also indifferent to his personal appearance, he might be seen at times with his neck swathed in red flannel. Religion was not only a matter of Sundays with him; on weekdays he would gather his laborers and children round him, read the Bible to them and pray with them.

At all times, and especially in the long winter evenings, he read and re-read the Bible, until its phraseology became his familiar speech; so much did this become a habit that at times to modem ears, accustomed to greater reticence in matters of faith, it seems tinged with hypocrisy. But it was not so. It is difficult for us to-day with our easy access to public libraries and cheap editions of the classics to understand how in many a Puritan household the Bible was the one and only book of literature and religion. The Cromwell family Bible, which can be seen in the London Museum, is not the glorious authorized version, but the Geneva Bible, a translation made by English exiles in Geneva, and used in English households in Elizabeth's day. But Cromwell must have gone too for inspiration to the authorized version, one of the great monuments of our literature, which was completed in the reign of James I, since, as we have already said, his master at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, was one of the translators. The Bible was in truth a lantern to Cromwell's feet and a light to his path, and his mind was saturated with its message.

In spite of the hostility of the bishops, the Puritans still contrived to retain the services of lecturers. The first letter of Cromwell's which has been preserved deals with this matter. It is dated from St Ives and was written to a certain Mr. Stork, at the Sign of the Dog, in the Royal Exchange, London. He begs his correspondent not to withdraw a lecturer's pay, for "it were a piteous thing to see a lecture fall, in the hands of so many able and godly men as I am persuaded the founders of this are; in these times wherein we see they are suppressed with too much haste and violence by the enemies of God his Truth."

At the time this letter was written, Cromwell's uncle, Sir Thomas Steward, lay dying at Ely, and on January 30, 1636, he was buried in the cathedral. Cromwell was his heir and inherited the glebe house "and the goodwill to the farming of the tithes under the chapter."

To that house hard by St Mary's Church (it was still standing in 1845) the family moved in the middle of the year. It was a low, two-storied building, with irregular gables, and was unpretentious without and within. Cromwell's mother and unmarried sisters, who had remained at Huntingdon during his residence at St Ives, now rejoined him. The house can have been none too big for them all. His seventh child had been born at St Ives, but had died the day after his baptism, and two daughters, Mary and Frances, who were born at Ely, now completed the family.

The first break of parting came when the two elder boys were sent off to school at Felstead, a place which was doubtless chosen because it was near their grandfather's home. There they could forget their home-sickness on hall-holiday visits. When Robert was of an age to leave he caught the smallpox and died at school. He was a lad of promise very near to his father's heart. "Now Robert was a youth of singular piety, fearing God more than ordinary"—so runs in Latin the record of his death in the parish register. Years afterward, when the father himself lay dying, his mind reverted to the agony of that bereavement.

The sorrowing man returned to his work. If at times a great weariness of the soul came upon him he did not allow it to sap his industry. At Ely no less than at St Ives and Huntingdon, as occasion served, he championed the rights of the poor. Thus, when a useful scheme for the drainage of the fens was proposed he did his best to put a stop to it, as he feared it would encroach on the grazing rights of the people. The country folk looked to him for assistance in these troubles, and he came to be nicknamed the "Lord of the Fens." The time was now at hand when he was to have an ampler field for the exercise of his gifts, and to show what manner of man the stern farmer of Ely had grown to be in the eleven years since he had sat in Parliament.