Oliver Cromwell: A Profile of the Lord Protector — Origins and Early Days

Seen through the pages of John Buchan’s biography

Oliver Cromwell — Lord of the Manor. Image: The Union Journal

The Origins and Early Life of The Lord Protector and his Biographer John Buchan

Every student of the seventeenth century in England must desire sooner or later to have his say about its greatest figure. I have yielded to the temptation, partly because I wished to add to my portrait of Montrose [Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose] a companion piece; partly because Oliver Cromwell has lately been made the subject of various disquisitions, especially on the Continent, which seem to me to be remote from the truth.

I can claim no novelty for my reading of him, which in substance is that of Mr Gardner[probably S.R. Gardiner]and Sir Charles Firth; but I have examined certain aspects of his life in greater detail than these historians. My aim has been in the words of Edmund Gosse, to give “ a faithful portrait of a soul in its adventures through life.” I hope I may claim that at any rate I have not attempted to constrain a great man in a formula…

The above is taken from Buchan’s preface to his 1934 biography of Cromwell, in which he certainly doesn’t constrain Cromwell in any sort of formula, quite the opposite, with his wide ranging, almost day-by-day, life of the man who became England’s Lord Protector, which unfolds in a very cinematic and non hesitant way with every turn of the page.

John Buchan. Image: Lusha Nelson/Getty Image & The Times

Oliver Cromwell has always been a part of my life due to my history teacher at secondary school who was passionate about the man (as he was Buchan), a passion he passed on to me through Cromwell’s own passion for liberty, which was at the heart of all that he did and attempted to do.

John Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland, on the 26th of August 1875. John’s mother, Helen Masterton, was only eighteen when she gave birth to John, confessing in later life that she felt like running away soon after the birth. Not an unusual emotion I’m sure. John’s father was the Reverend John Buchan, whose father, also called John, was a solicitor in Peebles who, in his youth was a classical scholar, and as Ursula Buchan tells us, “… was always a voracious reader, in particular loving Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.” The newly born John would inherit his grandfather’s love of reading. The solicitor John Buchan’s wife was a beautiful young woman called Violet Henderson, the daughter of a local farming dynasty. Both of John Buchan’s grandparents knew miles of poetry off by heart, and could name every wild flower, every bird and animal, they ever came across. In many ways John Buchan’s heritage was not dissimilar to that of Oliver Cromwell: a man that John Buchan admired from his first written encounter with him. It must be said that Oliver Cromwell’s background story is just a bit more complicated than Buchan’s.

I was born less than six miles away from the site of the Battle of Edgehill — the first real battle of the Civil War — a battle from which the many wounded were transported back to the village, where several large houses were being used as hospitals. As a result the English Civil War is still part of the folk lore in this part of South Warwickshire, not least in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Holy Trinity Church was used to house Parliamentarian troops on their way to the 2nd Battle of Worcester in 1651. The outside walls of the church are still pitted by musket shot.

And as John Buchan writes, Oliver Cromwell…

“…stands in the first rank of greatness, as the apostle of liberty, the patron of all free communions, forgetting his attempts to found an established church and his staunch belief in a national discipline. Constitutionalists claim him as one of the pioneers of the parliamentary system, though he had little patience with government by debate, and played havoc with many parliaments. He has been hailed as a soldier-saint, in spite of notable blots on his scutcheon. He has been called a religious genius, but on his religion it is not easy to be dogmatic; like Bunyan’s Much-afraid, when he went through the River none could understand what he said.”

I could go on but what Buchan is really saying is that Oliver Cromwell was whatever people wanted him to be, which is a skill that only people with a true sense of themselves — whether hesitant or not, as Buchan goes on to describe Cromwell — can muster for the furtherance of their own aims and beliefs — if those aims and beliefs are honest and true — and by so doing enrich the nation. Lincoln, Churchill, and both Roosevelts, had that ability, and in Cromwell they’d had a perfect teacher.

It is always cited that Oliver Cromwell came from good Puritan stock, stock that relished a life of austerity, hated ceremony (although Cromwell’s own state funeral was one of the grandest ever seen in England) and a still fiercer hatred of the Pope. But his origins were less than austere, and not really puritan.

Half of the Cromwell line goes back to Glamorganshire, Wales, and the family of William ap Ievan (William the son of Ievan), who had been of great help to Henry VII in his family’s (the Tudors) bid for the throne. Following the triumphant Tudors to London the William ap Ievans’ were rewarded with property and the right to a coat of arms. Such were the rewards for successful royal service they were able to retain their Welsh properties as well as settle comfortably in London, where one of William’s two sons, Richard, traded as a land agent and accountant, with the other, Morgan, becoming a brewer, and an important and upright member of the church. As was the Welsh custom both sons took their father’s Christian name — adding an s — and called themselves Williams.

In 1495 — or thereabouts — Morgan Williams (Oliver Cromwell’s great-great-grandfather) married Katherine Cromwell, the daughter of Walter Cromwell, who was a wealthy landowner, brewer and blacksmith.

The other half of the Cromwells had moved from Nottinghamshire to London at about the same time as the William ap Ievans’, with Walter Cromwell becoming something of a drunk and bar-room brawler who, on one occasion was convicted of ‘wounding to the danger of life’. As can be imagined this did not go down well with his upright and religious son-in-law. But the lectures given him by Morgan went for nothing. Walter eventually — after being convicted of forgery — lost all his lands. It was no doubt after this that the Cromwell family became more Puritan in their outlook.

Walter Cromwell had one son, Thomas Cromwell — born in 1485 — who had a pretty uneventful childhood, but as a young man argued many times with his drunken father, arguments that resulted in Thomas taking himself off to Flanders and Italy for a number of years where he learned much about the wool trade and the new, treacherous, and highly lucrative territory of international banking, another new industry in which he prospered.

Upon his return to London he set up in business as a wool merchant and money lender and was soon noticed by Cardinal Wolsey, who made use of his skills and introduced him into the court of Henry VIII. By 1523 Thomas Cromwell was a member of parliament and Wolsey’s confidential agent in the demolition of the monasteries.

Although the cardinal lost his head Thomas Cromwell held onto his for a bit longer, prospering under the king’s patronage, quickly taking over as the chief demolition agent. As a result of carrying out Henry’s dirty work he was awarded the posts of Master of the Rolls, Chancellor of Cambridge University, Lord Privy Seal, Vicar-General, Lord Chamberlain, a knight, a baron, and finally Earl of Essex. But the marriage he arranged for Henry to Anne of Cleves was his eventual undoing, and on July 28th, 1540, was executed by the sword on Tower Hill much to the ‘delight of the nation’ and as John Buchan puts it:

“ It is a story which makes fairy-tales seem prosaic. No stranger figure ever laid its spell on England than this short square man, with the porcine face and the litter of shaven chins, the small wicked mouth, the long upper lip and the close-set eyes. Yet we know that the leaden countenance could kindle to humour and supreme intelligence, and that when he chose he could be a delectable companion. He had no principles in the moral sense, but he had one or two vigorous intellectual convictions, which were not without wisdom. He would have had the king forego foreign adventures, and bend himself to the single task of unifying Britain. He was determined to make the monarchy supreme, and to ensure that Henry had all the powers which had been wrested from the Pope. He was zealous for the publication of the Bible in English, seeing in that the best way of making final the breach with Rome. He cared nothing for religion… yet he must rank as one of the chief instruments of the English Reformation, for his administrative gifts were of the highest…”

He didn’t forget his family either, and helped amass the fortune of his nephew Richard Williams, who, in 1529, started working for his uncle’s ecclesiastical demolition company, and as a homage to the Earl of Essex took the name of Cromwell, although, in serious legal matters, he signed himself “Williams (alias Cromwell)”, as was to be the case with his great-grandson Oliver on his marriage settlement documents.

By 1540 Richard Cromwell had become Sir Richard — he fought bravely in the French War of 1541 — and was already establishing the Cromwell dynasty in the east Midlands.

Henry built on his wealth and by extension his power at court at every opportunity, and when the Spanish Armada sailed into view in 1588 he kitted-out a troop of horse at his own expense, and put the whole of Huntingdonshire (which is not that far from the sea) on a total war-footing that showed, “…in his preparations the same mixture of military shrewdness and religious enthusiasm which his grandson afterwards brought to perfection.”

Like his father he married the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London who bore him six sons and five daughters. Through his connections all of his daughters married well, with him settling a generous dowry on each of them. He set-up his four younger sons with estates worth £1500 each (something like £15m in today’s values), but his heir, Oliver (Oliver Cromwell’s uncle), did not have his father’s ability of “getting and holding”, and as John Buchan explains:

“He began magnificently by entertaining King James on his first journey from the north and opening that monarch’s eyes to the riches of England. Since he left Edinburgh, said the king, he had not received such hospitality.”

Sir Oliver spared no cost and even built a new window in the banqueting-hall for the occasion. King James departed Hinchingbrooke with a “…deluge of gifts — a massive gold cup, horses and hounds and hawks, and a shower of gold…” Sir Oliver, for his largesse, was duly made a knight of the Bath at the Scottish King’s coronation.

And although Sir Oliver married money the family’s wealth (due to Sir Oliver’s generosity toward a relatively poor king) gradually diminished, until Hinchingbrooke eventually had to be sold, but not before Sir Oliver’s nephew, Oliver Cromwell (upon whom Sir Oliver had bestowed his own Christian name) had visited and enjoyed its opulence as he listened to the many stories his uncle — the Golden Knight — had told him about royal visits. In fact there is some conjecture that the boy Oliver may even have met King James’s son Charles at Hinchingbrooke.

Oliver Cromwell, born in Huntingdon, in Eastern England at the end of the 16th century, received the ‘ordinary’ education of a country gentleman’s son, and in the words of Hilda Johnstone, an educationalist, writer, and contemporary of Buchan:

Cromwell first went… “ to the free school in his native town, under Dr. Thomas Beard, where, if he met some harshness, he had at least a sound education, and had his first lessons in Puritan zeal from a headmaster who was confident he could prove that the Pope was Antichrist. The same sort of atmosphere surrounded him when, at seventeen, he went on to Cambridge.”

Thomas Beard had written the then much respected, The Theatre of God’s Judgements, the argument of which was that even in this life the wicked were punished and that every event was a direct manifestation of the divine justice, which influenced the young Cromwell, instilling into him, in Buchan’s words:

“…the sense of God’s intimate governance of the world and the instinct always to look for judgments and providences and signs from on high.”

Puritanism, and God’s guiding hand, had entered Oliver’s life.

Two days before his seventeenth birthday on the 23rd April, 1616, the young Cromwell made the fifteen mile journey from Huntingdon to Cambridge, installing himself in Sidney Sussex College. When he arrived news had just reached Cambridge of Shakespeare’s death, and there was much rejoicing in the university which was something of a hot bed of Puritanism with a snobbish dislike of the bawdy and very low-brow (as they saw it)work of the non university educated, upstart crow called William Shakespeare.

But Oliver Cromwell disliked poetry (but loved history), loving field sports, especially hunting, having been raised as a young squire by his father Robert Cromwell (the wealthy son of Sir Henry Cromwell of Hinchingbrooke, and mother, Elizabeth Lyon, the daughter of William Stewart of Ely) in a modest house just off Huntington’s High Street. Buchan writes:

“ This son, baptized Oliver after his uncle, entered the world at three o’clock in the morning on the 25th day of April in the year 1599. ‘ I was by birth a gentleman’ he [Cromwell] was to tell one of his parliaments, ‘living neither in any considerable height nor yet in obscurity.’ He might have put the claim higher, for his ancestry was at least as distinguished as that of many of the new peerage, the wool-staplers [wool dealers]and courtiers and merchant adventurers who had risen on the ruins of the ancient nobility. He had the potent Cromwell stock with its hard instinct for success, the blood of prosperous London merchants, and the Styward [Stewart] inheritance of the stubborn Saxondom of the Fens. And to leaven it he had the rarer strain of the Welsh gentlefolk from Glamorgan, which could flower into the fantastic gentility of the… quixotic Sir Oliver. His ancestry was a medley, like that of the English people, and most of the creative forces in England had gone to the making of him.”

As mentioned, what the seventeen year old Cromwell did enjoy was history, reading and re-reading Raleigh’s History of the World, a book that would become a constant companion.

When not reading that book, and despising poetry — interestingly one of England’s finest poets, John Milton, effectively became Cromwell’s Press Officer in later years — Oliver played an early form of football, and cudgels, which sounds a bit dangerous to me, but then Cromwell never feared danger. In later life he did develop an eye for art, especially portraits. But history was his thing, and he knew how a single action could change everything, forever.

Oliver was happy at Cambridge, but just over a year after starting his father died suddenly necessitating Oliver’s return to Huntington to sort out his father’s affairs. Cromwell never returned to Cambridge, instead travelling to London to study law.

There has been much discussion over the years as to whether Oliver Cromwell attended The Inns of Court in London, and especially Lincoln’s Inn, with more recent commentators suggesting strongly that he did, on the basis that his father had attended Lincoln’s Inn, and that Oliver sent his own son, Richard, there in 1647.

The young Oliver Cromwell had no intention of studying to become a lawyer, but in the early 17th century it was still thought an appropriate step for a young man of good background to study the basics of law, most especially pertaining to Land and Property, and the laws relating to the unwritten constitution of England. It is interesting to note that, in the early 1640s, over three hundred members of Parliament had studied law at the Inns of Court.

But there would be one incident that changed the young Oliver Cromwell’s life soon after arriving in London.

In 1888, John Buchan’s father, was “ called” to the John Knox Free Church in the Gorbals, Glasgow, and as Ursula Buchan writes in her biography of her grandfather:

“ The John Knox Kirk in Glasgow presented an altogether different challenge. It was a cavernous city church, dating from the Disruption [the Great Disruption when many clergy broke away from the Church of Scotland], set in an urban slum , where recent waves of immigration, especially of Jews and Irish Catholics, had depleted the potential congregation, many of whom were now living in other parts of the city.”

It was to be a huge challenge that the Rev. Buchan relished. Not so much his wife, who nevertheless quickly made their new home, Florence Villa, as comfortable as she could for growing family. The house had a large garden with high brick walls and mature trees, where the eight year old John Buchan could read to his heart’s content with the constant sound of birdsong.

John Buchan re-started his education at the Hutchesons’ Grammar School, a school founded in 1641, a year before the commencement of the English Civil War.


John Buchan — Oliver Cromwell (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1934, republished in 2009 by House of Stratus); Ursula Buchan — A Life of John Buchan: Beyond The Thirty-Nine Steps (Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2019); Hilda Johnstone — Oliver Cromwell and His Times (The Peoples Books, London, 1912); Antonia Fraser — Cromwell: Our Chief of Men (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1973)

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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