How much do we know about Cromwell’s own family?
Although we have only occasional glimpses of Cromwell’s personal and family life and know very little about his and his wife’s childhood or about the childhood of their own children, their adult lives are fairly well recorded and documented.
In August 1620, just a few months after his twenty-first birthday, Oliver Cromwell married Elizabeth Bourchier at St Giles’s church in Cripplegate, London. Elizabeth had been born in 1598, the eldest of twelve children (nine sons and three daughters) of Sir James Bourchier and his wife Frances, who was a daughter of Thomas Crane of Newton Tony, Wiltshire. Sir James, an only son, had inherited land and property from his father, and seems himself to have been a successful and prosperous businessman in London, reportedly involved in the fur and leather trades. He owned property both in the City of London, especially around Tower Hill, and in Essex, especially Little Stambridge Hall. He had been knighted by James I in July 1603. The Bourchier family from which Elizabeth sprang does not seem to have been connected with the noble families of that name, including the late medieval Bourchier Earls of Essex; nor, as far as we can tell, was Elizabeth related to the Sir William Bourchier who married Cromwell’s relative Katherine/Catherine Barrington and who fathered the regicide Sir John Bourchier. We know virtually nothing about Elizabeth’s childhood and upbringing, though she must have received some sort of education as she evidently was literate.
We do not know how Oliver and Elizabeth met or were introduced. The families may have come across each other in Essex social circles, for the Bourchiers held property there and Oliver may have mixed in Essex society, perhaps via his kin, the Barringtons of Barrington Hall near Hatfield Broad Oak. Alternatively, the match may have come about through existing family links, for in 1614 Elizabeth’s maternal aunt, Eluzai Crane, had married Oliver’s uncle, Henry Cromwell of Upwood. However it came about, the marriage appears to have been a happy one, producing nine children and surviving the strain of Cromwell’s frequent absences on military campaign over the period 1642-51. The few surviving letters between the couple, dating from the early 1650s, reveal a deep and enduring affection. Writing from Scotland, where he was on campaign, Oliver told his wife that ‘Thou art dearer to me than any creature; let that suffice’ and wrote that ‘My Dearest, I could not satisfy myself to omit this post, although I have not much to write; yet indeed I love to write to my dear, who is very much in my heart. It joys me to hear thy soul prospereth; the Lord increase His favours to thee more and more...The Lord bless all thy good counsel and example to all those about thee, and hear all thy prayers, and accept thee always’. In her one surviving letter to him, of December 1650, Elizabeth expresses a desire to see her husband again, if that be the Lord's will – ‘Truly my lif is but half a lif in your abseinse, deid not the Lord make it up in heimself, which I must ackoleg to the prase of heis grace’.
We know very little about the couple’s early married life beyond where they were living – in Huntingdon until 1631, in St Ives from 1631 to 1636, in Ely from 1636 until late 1646 and thereafter in London – and the dates of their children’s births. By the early 1650s Elizabeth and her family were living in lodgings adjoining Whitehall Palace and in spring 1654, soon after her husband became Lord Protector, they moved into newly redecorated apartments in Whitehall Palace itself and at Hampton Court. As the wife of a rising and senior army officer, and from December 1653 as the wife of the head of state – ‘Her Highness the Lady Protectress’, as she was sometimes called – Elizabeth played a minor and supporting role in some public occasions, especially entertaining the wives and daughters of ambassadors and other dignitaries. However, unlike the wives of some more recent heads of state, she seems to have stayed in the background, and she was neither assigned nor seems to have sought real power or a political role. Hostile accounts published during her lifetime generally mocked her for her simple ways, for being and feeling out of place in her elevated role as Protectress, rather than attacked her for corruption or for exercising political influence.
Elizabeth was well-provided for at her husband’s death, allocated an annuity and lodgings in St James’s. Even when the Protectorate fell in spring 1659, the generals urged the recalled Rump to treat her generously. In spring 1660, on the eve of the Restoration, she left London, strongly denying that she had in her possession or had hidden jewels and other goods belonging to the royal family. She petitioned Charles II, stressing that she had played no role in the public affairs of the previous years, professing obedience to the new regime and requesting that, ‘after the many sorrows wherewith it hath pleased the all wise God to exercise’ her, she might be allowed ‘a safe retirement’ ‘now in her old age’. In fact, she was not seriously troubled by the new regime and spent her last years in quiet retirement, living with her son-in-law, John Claypole, at Northborough in Northamptonshire, where she was occasionally visited by some of her surviving children. After a period of declining and poor health, she died at Northborough in November 1665 and was buried in Northborough church.
We know of nine children of the marriage of Oliver and Elizabeth. The pattern of their conception is interesting. During the opening decade of their marriage, Elizabeth conceived quite regularly – in or around January 1621, May 1622, October 1623, January 1626, April 1627, September 1628 and April 1631. There then followed a long gap until two further children were conceived in fairly quick succession later in the marriage – in or around May 1636 and March 1638. The apparent gap between spring 1631 and spring 1636 is interesting, for it coincides very neatly with a downturn and then revival in Cromwell’s life and fortunes. John Morrill has argued persuasively that 1631 saw a crisis in Cromwell’s life, during which he lost out in a power-struggle in Huntingdon and was both humiliated and excluded from power, an experience which may have coincided with an economic and material decline in his fortunes. By the end of the year he had sold most of his land and property in and around Huntingdon and moved to St Ives, becoming a tenant farmer and renting land from Henry Lawrence, a development which may have seen him slip from the lower ranks of the gentry down to yeoman status. As a further blow, the child conceived around April 1631 and born in January 1632, their son James, was the only one of their nine known children to die very young – he was baptised on 7 January but must have died almost immediately, for he was buried on the 8th. Conversely, things suddenly looked up in January 1636 when a maternal uncle died leaving Cromwell property and businesses in and around Ely; he quickly moved into a comfortable house not far from the cathedral and by the late 1630s was one of the wealthiest inhabitants of Ely. Within weeks of Oliver inheriting his uncle’s property and businesses, and apparently after a gap of five years, Elizabeth had conceived the couple’s eighth child. It is tempting to see links between this pattern of conceptions and Oliver Cromwell’s fortunes and status, to speculate about deliberate contraception or suppressed libido during a period of social, economic and material downturn as well as in the wake of bereavement, but this may be an entirely false trail. After all, it may be that Elizabeth did have one or more pregnancies over this period but that they resulted in miscarriages or still births.
Of the couple’s nine children, three sons died young. As well as James (born and died 1632) who died in infancy, Robert (born 1621, died 1639) died in his late teens and Oliver (born 1623, died 1644), who fought for parliament as a junior officer in the opening stages of the civil war, died young and unmarried of natural causes, perhaps smallpox, while serving in the garrison at Newport Pagnell.
Bridget Cromwell (born 1624) was the Cromwells’ eldest daughter and the eldest of their children to survive into full adulthood. Almost nothing is known of her life until 1646, when she married Henry Ireton, senior parliamentarian officer and close confidant of Oliver. In 1651 she crossed over to Ireland to join her husband, who was leading the English campaign there, though she returned to England later that year and was in London when she learned of Ireton’s death at Limerick on 26 November. Her widowhood was brief, for in summer 1652 she married Charles Fleetwood, another senior officer and close colleague of Cromwell, who was about to be appointed commander of the army in Ireland. She was with her husband in Ireland from September 1652 until their return to London in September 1655, whereupon they were assigned lodgings in Derby House. According to some reports she tried to defend and encourage her husband during the dark days of winter 1659-60, to speak up for him and to give him some backbone. After the Restoration, she lived quietly in London with her husband, who had been debarred from public office at the Restoration but otherwise left unmolested. Bridget died in June 1662 and was buried in St Anne’s church, Blackfriars. She had had four children by her first marriage to Ireton, all of whom survived into adulthood, and at least three by her second marriage to Fleetwood, one of whom had died in infancy and been buried within Westminster Abbey only to be exhumed at the Restoration.
With the early deaths of his two elder brothers, Richard (born 1626) became the eldest surviving son and therefore heir of Oliver. He was probably educated at Felsted School in Essex. He does not appear to have entered or attended university. Although some near contemporaries suggest that he briefly served in the army in the late 1640s, other sources indicate that he played no military role. After long negotiations, in May 1649 he married Dorothy, daughter of Richard Maijor, a Hampshire gentleman who had supported the parliamentary cause financially and administratively. Richard and his new wife lived with his in-laws at their seat at Hursley, not far from Winchester, and Richard became a Hampshire country gentleman, serving with his father-in-law as a JP for the county. Over the next ten years he and Dorothy had nine children, only four of whom survived into adulthood. In the early 1650s Oliver Cromwell was concerned about his son’s lifestyle, fearing that he was ‘idle’, given to leisure, good-living and over-spending; although this may well be as much a sign of Oliver’s over-zealousness as evidence of his son’s lifestyle, we know that Richard was soon in debt and he seems to have had money worries for much of his adult life. He served in his father’s two Protectorate Parliaments, sitting as MP for Hampshire and Cambridge University respectively; the records of these parliaments suggest that Richard played a reasonably active role in both. While he had not been seen as a likely successor to his father under the elective Protectorship established by the Instrument of Government of December 1653, the revised constitution of summer 1657 empowered and required Oliver Cromwell to nominate his successor and eyes began to turn to Richard. During the last year of his life, Oliver did deliberately promote his eldest son, appointing Richard colonel of a Horse regiment, a member of the Council of State and a member of the newly-created second parliamentary House; he also resigned his position as Chancellor of Oxford in favour of Richard. Although doubts have been cast on the precise circumstances and sequence of events, it seems likely that during the last days of his life, Oliver did nominate Richard as his successor, orally if not in writing. In practice, Richard succeeded his father as Lord Protector in September 1658 smoothly and without serious opposition. As Protector, Richard proved himself to be diligent and hard-working, capable of clear and effective speeches, and he was able for a time to charm and to defuse potential opponents. But his Protectorate was beset by very serious problems – he inherited a very weak financial position, because he had no military pedigree or background of fighting for the Godly cause he was distrusted by many, especially in the army, and he seemed inclined to support and favour civilian politicians and their cost-cutting measures which might further undermine the army’s position, thus further enflaming the military. He waged a running battle to retain the command and loyalty of the army and in spring 1659 he went too far in allowing or supporting the anti-army elements within his single Protectorate Parliament to seek to reduce the size and independence of the army. He was unable to survive the military backlash and in what was in effect a military coup, the army leaders first forced him to dissolve his Protectorate parliament on 22 April and then in early May recalled the Rump parliament in place of the Protectorate. Richard remained in powerless limbo at Whitehall for a few weeks, until, bowing to reality, he wrote or at least signed a letter dated 25 May, resigning his Protectorship. Most critical accounts of Richard and his regime published at the time saw him not as dishonest or corrupt, vicious or power-hungry, but as someone who was rather too gentle and naive for his own good, ‘a meek knight’ or ‘Queen Dick’. Even after he had resigned in May 1659, he lingered at Whitehall and Hampton Court for a further month or so, before quitting London and returning to Hursley with his wife and children. Fearing harassment from creditors – he was heavily in debt – as much as from the returning Stuart regime, in July 1660 he took boat from the south coast and crossed to the Continent. For twenty years he lived a solitary and quiet life on the Continent, mainly in and around Paris, but also perhaps including spells in Spain, Italy or Switzerland. Although by the 1670s he was in regular correspondence with members of his family in England, he did not come back, even when he heard news of his wife’s serious illness; she died at Hursley in 1676. In 1680 or 1681 he did at last quietly return to England, living inconspicuously and under a variety of assumed names not at Hursley (though he visited his old home from time to time) but as a lodger in various other houses, particularly with the Pengelly family. He lived with the Pengellies at Finchley until 1696 and then moved with them to Cheshunt in Hertfordshire. In 1706, following the death without children the previous year of his only son, he was involved in a legal struggle with his surviving daughters for control of the Hursley estate. He emerged victorious, but continued to reside not at Hursley itself but as a lodger at Cheshunt and there, in July 1712, he died. His body was returned to Hursley church for burial beside his wife.
Henry, the younger of Oliver’s two sons who survived well into adulthood (born 1628), was probably educated at Felsted School. Like Richard, he does not appear to have entered or attended university and, although he was registered at Gray’s Inn in 1654, this was merely an honorific registration. By 1647 he was serving as a captain in Thomas Harrison’s Horse regiment, which campaigned in the north during summer 1648. Henry played a prominent and recorded role in a skirmish at Appleby in July and probably fought at Preston the following month. In late 1649 he was promoted to colonel and given command of his own Horse regiment, which campaigned extensively in southern and western Ireland from February 1650. Henry returned to England late in 1652 or early in 1653. In May 1653 he married at Kensington church Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Sir Francis Russell, a friend and comrade in arms of Oliver Cromwell and his successor as governor of Ely. Between 1654 and 1667 the couple had seven children, all but one of whom survived into adulthood. In 1653 Henry was one of the representatives of Ireland in the Nominated Assembly and he played an active role in that body. In March 1654, soon after his father became Lord Protector, Henry was dispatched on a brief mission back to Ireland, to gauge and report on the loyalty of the English army stationed there. He represented Cambridge University in the first Protectorate Parliament of 1654-55 and again appears to have been quite active in the House. Early in 1655, on the advice of the Protectoral Council, the Protector appointed Henry a member of the Irish Council of State and commander in chief of the English army in Ireland. He and his family landed in Dublin in July 1655 and in September he effectively became chief administrator of Ireland in succession to Lord Deputy Charles Fleetwood, who returned to London. From then until spring 1659 he was permanently based in Ireland, living in or on the outskirts of Dublin, though undertaking a tour of inspection around the provinces each year in late summer. Both on paper and to some extent in practice, Henry exercised only limited power in Ireland until 1657, for he had to consult and defer to Fleetwood, who although now absent in London remained Lord Deputy of Ireland. Soon after Fleetwood’s commission expired, Henry was appointed Lord Deputy in his stead in November 1657 and in November 1658 his brother Richard, the new Protector, appointed him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Henry’s record in Ireland was mixed. He provided a period of stability, during which there were signs of economic and commercial recovery, and he strove to win support for the Protectoral regime amongst the entire Protestant community in Ireland, even those who had supported the king. After a long and difficult struggle, he broke the hold which the Baptists had gained amongst the English army and garrisons in Ireland, for he rightly suspected that Baptism encouraged, and served as a cover for, republicanism and disaffection towards the Protectoral regime and was thus a political threat. He re-established the traditional central and regional judicial systems in Ireland, restored civilian urban administrations under new town charters, sought to establish a new church organisation in Ireland based upon broadly Presbyterian lines – though this plan had not got very far by spring 1659 – and tried to improve the financial and material standing of the Protestant church in Ireland. On the other hand, he did not really engage with the majority Catholic population, making no real attempt either to extirpate Catholicism by force or to win over Catholics by persuasion, ambitious plans to improve educational provision in Ireland came to naught and he was repeatedly stymied by the financial weakness of the English regime in Ireland; his arguments in favour of a thorough review of the financing of Ireland fell on deaf ears in London and the debt which he inherited in 1655 steadily grew, leading to further problems, including serious arrears of military pay. In 1657 Henry had been named by his father a member of the new second parliamentary House, but his work in Ireland meant that he never took his seat, either during the second session of the second Protectorate Parliament or during his brother’s one Protectorate Parliament. He warmly supported his brother's appointment as Protector in September 1658, though he soon began requesting permission to leave Ireland and to return to England, both on account of his poor health and, it was suspected, in order to be on hand to advise and support his brother. Nothing came of these requests and Henry was still running Ireland when he heard news of the coup against his brother in May 1659. When it became clear that neither Richard nor any other force would actively oppose the change of regime, Henry, too, bowed to events and, unable or unwilling to call upon his allies in Ireland to fight for the Protectorate, he offered his resignation to the restored Rump. He left Ireland in late June and, having reported on Irish affairs to the Rump’s Council of State, he retired with his family to his father-in-law’s seat at Chippenham in Cambridgeshire. At the Restoration, he actively petitioned the king, stressing his kind treatment of former royalists during the 1650s and his loyalty to Charles II, and he lobbied his royalist friends to put in a good word for him. In fact, he was not seriously troubled by the new regime and, although he lost some of his lands, he retained considerable property both in England and Ireland. In 1662-3 he acquired Spinney Abbey at Wicken in Cambridgeshire and there he spent his final years with his family. Tales of Charles II visiting him at Wicken en route to or from the races at Newmarket are unlikely and probably apocryphal. Henry died in March 1674 and was buried in Wicken church. His widow, who survived him by thirteen years, lies by his side.
Like her elder sister Bridget, we know almost nothing about the life of Elizabeth Cromwell (born 1629), the second of the Cromwells’ four daughters, until her marriage at Ely in 1646 to John Claypole. During the Protectorate, Claypole became Master of the Horse and he and his wife held apartments at Whitehall and Hampton Court. She seems to have remained particularly close to her father and to have been his favourite daughter. Several early biographers and historians suggested that during the Protectorate she sought to use her influence with Oliver to seek mercy for various royalist plotters and prisoners and to urge him to abandon the use of special high courts of justice. She suffered a severe illness in 1655 but recovered and in 1657 gave birth to the last of her four children. But in summer 1658 she again fell seriously ill and, despite the close attention of her parents, she died at Hampton Court, perhaps from cancer, on 6 August. Her father was devastated by her death and many biographers suggest it hastened his own decline and demise. In an elaborate ceremony, her body was brought down the Thames by barge on 10 August, landed at Westminster steps, rested briefly in the Painted Chamber and then, about midnight, was buried in a newly-made vault in Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey. Possibly because the stories of her intercessions on behalf of royalists were given credence at the time, unlike most Cromwellians buried in the Abbey, her body was not exhumed and removed at the Restoration and lies there still.
Mary (born 1637), the Cromwell’s penultimate daughter, was still living in the parental home when her father became Protector. During the 1650s there were rumours of various matches but eventually, with suitable encouragement from Secretary of State John Thurloe, her hand was won by Thomas Belasyse, Viscount and later Earl Fauconberg. The couple were married at Hampton Court in November 1657. Having toured her husband’s family estates in Yorkshire in summer 1658, Mary was back in London in time to be on hand for and to mourn her sister’s and her father’s deaths. After the fall of the Protectorate, Fauconberg was out of favour and retired to the countryside. He returned to favour at the Restoration and embarked upon an illustrious career as diplomat, politician, administrator and courtier which added to his already considerable wealth and property. He and Mary divided their time between their estates in Yorkshire, especially Newburgh Park near Coxwold, and their London properties, especially Sutton Court in Chiswick and a new house they built in Soho. The surviving correspondence of Thomas and Mary reveals that the marriage, though childless, was close, warm and loving. Wealthy and contented, they entertained lavishly and had a wide circle of friends. Thomas died after a long illness in 1700. Mary, now the Dowager Countess, was left a very wealthy widow and passed her final years principally at Sutton Court in London. She died in March 1713 and was buried in Chiswick church.
Like her slightly older sister Mary, Frances (born 1638), the Cromwells’ last and youngest child, was still living with her parents during the Protectorate. Her name, too, was associated with an array of suitors, but her eye fell upon Robert Rich, grandson of Robert Earl of Warwick and son of Robert Lord Rich. The courtship did not run smoothly, for there were doubts and objections on both sides – Robert Lord Rich was heavily in debt and his loyalty to the Protectoral regime was questioned and there were rumours, eventually discounted, that the proposed bridegroom was ‘vicious’, while on their side the Riches were dismayed by Cromwell’s ‘high’ demands for the marriage settlement. Eventually all these difficulties were overcome and the couple married at Whitehall in November 1657, the wedding followed by conspicuously exuberant celebrations which continued over several days. Robert Rich was already ailing by the time of the wedding and he died, possibly from tuberculosis, in February 1658; the marriage produced no children. After the fall of the Protectorate, Frances, ‘Lady Rich’ as she was styled, lived for her time at the house of her brother Richard in Hursley, Hampshire, and it was at Hursley in May 1663 that she married again. Her second husband was John Russell of Chippenham, Cambridgeshire, who succeeded to his father’s baronetcy the following year and whose sister Elizabeth was the wife of Henry Cromwell, Frances’s brother. The couple lived at Chippenham and during the 1660s had five children before the marriage was ended by Sir John’s death in 1670. Frances, now styled ‘Lady Russell’, never remarried and remained a widow for fifty years. During her widowhood, she became very close to her sister Mary and her husband, and frequently stayed with them in Yorkshire and London. When her own and her eldest son’s financial position became precarious in the 1680s – Chippenham had to be sold off – Frances received help from Mary and she also benefited from a very substantial bequest in her sister’s will, which in turn meant that she died a very wealthy woman. With the death in fairly quick succession of Richard and Mary, Frances had outlived all her siblings and became the last surviving child of Oliver Cromwell. She died in 1720, leaving instructions to be buried in Chiswick church, to lie close by her beloved sister.
(It was through the descendants of Frances Cromwell and her second husband Sir John Russell that there was in the eighteenth century a Cromwellian connection with Chequers Court near Ellesborough in Buckinghamshire, now the country retreat of serving Prime Ministers; that, in turn, explains why such a good collection of Cromwellian portraiture and personal items have ended up at Chequers. The couple’s youngest son, John Russell, married in 1715 late in life and as his second wife Joanna, sole daughter and heiress of John Thurlbone or Thurbane of Chequers. The estate would not automatically thus pass to the Russell family via Joanna, for she had had a number of children by her first marriage, to Colonel Edmund Rivett (who had died in 1709), and these children by her earlier marriage were therefore heirs to the estate. But the Russell connections, and so their claim to the estate, were cemented when two of Joanna’s children by her first (Rivett) marriage wedded two of John Russell’s children by his first marriage. Thus John Rivett married John Russell’s daughter Frances, though the marriage proved childless, and Mary Rivett married John Russell’s only son Charles; in due course this marriage resulted in children. Upon the death in 1764 of Joanna, widow of John Russell, the Chequers estate passed to Mary Russell nee Rivett, widow of Charles Russell (who had himself died in 1754). The Chequers estate remained in the hands of the Russell family for several generations, until the nineteenth century.)