Seen through the pages of John Buchan’s biography of The Lord Protector.
London, Marriage, Charles I, and Parliament. John Buchan goes to School…
On a misty morning in October 1618, Oliver Cromwell was present in Palace Yard (the famous open space in the city of Westminster) where he witnessed the beheading of Sir Walter Raleigh, the last of the Tudors and the author of Oliver’s favourite book, The History of the World, and, like Samuel Pepys, who witnessed the beheading of Charles I, it was an action of the state that, for Oliver, illustrated not only the power of the monarch — and therefore the state — but also the misuse of that power, and the dilemmas therein.
For John Buchan Hutcheson’s Grammar School was something of dilemma too, and not what he’d been used before moving to Glasgow, with his new, much bigger school, offering a “ superior education was to be had at a moderate fee, where children of country gentlemen, professional men, tradesmen and artisans, were educated side by side, and prepared either for University or commercial life.”
The very ideals of Oliver Cromwell.
As Lady Antonia Fraser writes in her1973 biography of Cromwell the London of Oliver Cromwell did not appear so different from the Glasgow of John Buchan:
“ London in 1618 or so was a pleasant place [unless you were losing your head]to exercise the burgeoning curiosity of youth, and the Inns of Court themselves were then situated in a positively sylvan area between the City of London and the rising city of Westminster, surrounded by green fields as yet untouched by building speculators. It was the great Thames, a more effective highway than any rutted thoroughfare, which linked the two centres, ‘ those twin-sister cities as joined by one street so watered by one stream’ as Thomas Heywood romantically called them, ‘the first, a breeder of grave magistrates, the second, the burial place of great monarchs.’ And it was among ‘the grave magistrates’ of the City of London as well as among his own cousinage, that Cromwell found his associates. For on 22 August 1620, a few months after he came of age, Oliver Cromwell married Elizabeth Bourchier, daughter of a city magnate, Sir James Bourchier…” at St Giles’s church in Cripplegate, London.
To quote from The Cromwell Association:
“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.”
Elizabeth was an educated and widely read woman.
The marriage to Elizabeth brought Cromwell not only money, but a supportive and loving wife. For Elizabeth the marriage gave her stability and a certain independence away from her father’s house. She could now be the mistress of her own home in Huntingdon, with a caring and deeply loving husband, who, it seemed, had little more to do than take care of his widowed mother, prosper in love with his bride, and build upon his father’s success as a landowner and caring landlord.
Oliver Cromwell was not unlike many young men of his generation and class, and lived the first twenty years of his marriage quietly and carefully, siring eight children with Elizabeth, and managing his estate and workers with fairness and kindness. There was little time for much else, least of all politics.
The above is how some would have it, and yes, Oliver Cromwell did look after his estate and workers well, ruling (as was the norm) both workers and their families — and his own family — with a deep rooted love (which was not the norm with many landowners)and an understanding that came from God through Jesus Christ. And as John Buchan writes:
“ …for, in the language of his faith, he ‘found Christ’ — not by any process of reasoning, but by an intense personal experience in which his own being was caught up into an ecstasy of adoration and love. We shall not understand Oliver unless we realize that he was in essence a mystic, and that the core of his religion was a mystical experience continually renewed. Much of his life was spent in a communion outside the world of sense and time. ‘ You cannot find nor behold the face of God but in Christ.’ ”
That was Cromwell’s belief system: a system that didn’t leave much room for anger, except for those in power, especially those who abused their power. It soon became Cromwell’s aim in life to seek out and change the abusers by showing them love: God’s love in the image of Christ and Oliver Cromwell.
This desire to make the abusers of power see the light was not to be done through fear, but through compassion, for Oliver had a ‘profound emotional nature’ with little room in his heart for the use of fear to change another’s mind. If driven to anger it was for a moment, no more, followed quickly by an apology that turned to an overwhelming compassion for the one upon which his anger had been released; there were often tears. There is a similarity here between Cromwell and Churchill, who was prone to “blub”.
Although Oliver Cromwell knew himself, and had proven himself to be a man of honour and peace and love, he also doubted himself, quickly falling into dark pits of despair and depression. Oliver would then rail at God, asking why, then, just a moment later, thanking God for the suffering placed upon his shoulders. Those moments of despair and depression passed, with his love ever strengthened.
Oliver Cromwell was a man who always tried love first (whether confronting a dishonest seed merchant, or a King), a love coupled with a driving passion to make changes for the better, to take power from those who abused it, and then channel it for the betterment of the many.
But his first real political challenge would be against the new mayor.
In 1638 Oliver Cromwell moved from Huntington to Ely, taking up residence at the Glebe House, just steps away from the Cathedral. The move came about due to the death of Oliver’s uncle, Sir Thomas Steward, who had made Oliver his heir, with the Ely house part of the inheritance. There can be no doubt that the future Lord Protector was not sorry to leave Huntingdon, having experienced a bitter confrontation some years earlier with the town’s new mayor who, as Hilda Johnstone describes was:
“ …the head of the town government as reorganised by a Royal Charter of 1630. It is only fair to say that both parties had shown readiness to forgive and forget. This was not the only occasion on which Cromwell interested himself, in a rather conservative way, on behalf of his fellow citizens of the eastern counties. Thus he opposed a scheme to drain the fens round Ely, because rights of pasturage and fishing would be encroached upon. Later, when the commoners of St Ives [not the Cornish one] made a complaint to the Long Parliament about certain enclosures, Cromwell took up their cause, ‘with great passion.’ ”
In 1625, five years after Oliver and Elizabeth married, the ‘old Scottish King’, James I, son of Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley, died, with his surviving twenty-four year old son, Charles, inheriting the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Charles was a slight young man, who, as a child, may have played alongside the fractionally older Oliver Cromwell in the Royal gardens. Charles was just as passionate about the monarchy as his father had been, but had not been brought up, as Antonia Fraser reminds us “…amidst the power struggles of the 16th century Scottish nobility which had educated James.” In other words he had his position handed to him on a plate, unlike his father, the master politician, who had fought his way to the top job.
James I had also been something of a theologian who not only instigated the writing and publication, in English, of the Bible, but in his book The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598), expounds on the Divine Right of Kings, an idea to which his son clung with a doggedness that led to his eventual downfall.
Charles I had no interest in Parliament, and between 1625 and 1629 met it only three times, each time dissolving it with anger and disdain.
Oliver Cromwell was not impressed, and was no longer, after his set to with the new mayor, prepared to sit back and leave it to others as the news grew darker and darker, and as John Buchan writes :
“ The news from London itself was growing graver…To Huntingdon [before Cromwell’s move to Ely] came only stray gossip but it was disquieting, and Oliver’s distaste was increased, as a serious countryman, for courts and kings. What were these gaudy folk to whom power had been given, and but little wisdom in the use of it? Elizabeth to be sure was ‘of famous memory,’ …stood for the freedom of religion [from Cromwell’s point of view at least]and of England. But his [Cromwell’s]recollection of James of Hinchingbrook [ James I] was only of a man with thin shanks and padded clothes, a tongue too large for his mouth and a scraggy beard, who gobbled in his talk and had less dignity than his meanest lackey. Clearly there was no inherent virtue in the regal office.”
And for Cromwell, the new King, the thin little boy with a Scots accent he used to play with, who showed little promise then, was now something of a menace to the life of the land.
To Be Continued…
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)