Oliver Cromwell is one of the most controversial figures in British history, reviled by some, admired by others. For a short time, he was the most powerful man in the land. He ruled Britain as Lord Protector for almost five years from 1653–1658, during the interregnum (1649-1660) when the English Parliament had disposed of its king and the country was a republic. More or less propelled into public life by the bitter civil war that started in 1642, Cromwell was instrumental in the execution of a reigning monarch, abolishing the monarchy, establishing a republic, closing theatres, taverns, brothels and generally cancelling all fun, as well as being responsible for ruthless, brutal, military campaigns in Ireland and Scotland. Supporters argue that Cromwell was a visionary who set about unifying the country, showed considerable religious tolerance, helped Britain’s transition from a medieval to a modern state, restored British prestige and, most importantly, laid down ground rules that have, so far, helped avoid tyrannical dictatorship.
Hero or villain, Oliver Cromwell was one of those people who make a brief appearance on history’s stage and leave their mark. So his house, in the charming Cambridgeshire City of Ely, has got to be worth a visit.
It stands opposite a small green, next to St Mary’s Church, a timber-framed building dating from the 13th century and much altered since. At one time in the 19th century it was (ironically) a pub, ‘The Cromwell Arms’. More recently, it served as the vicarage and, since 1990, it has housed Ely’s Tourist Information Centre. The good ladies that run this will help you find local accommodation, flog you a plastic model of a telephone box (probably made in China), answer your questions with infinite patience and charm – and sell you a ticket to tour the house.
Cromwell inherited the lease for the house from a rich uncle and moved his family there in 1636. Along with the house came the office of ‘Farmer of the Tithes’ – basically a local tax collector on behalf of St Mary’s and Holy Trinity (now the Cathedral). Born in Huntingdon in 1599, where the school he went to is now a museum, Cromwell’s family had a modest estate and he was able to briefly attend Cambridge University. He married Elizabeth Bourchier in London in 1620 and it seems to have been a very close marriage; they had 9 children – the youngest two, Mary and Frances, were born in Ely. In 1628, Cromwell became Member of Parliament for Huntingdon (a town later represented by a chap called John Major) and then MP for Cambridge in 1640. It seems he underwent some kind of religious epiphany in the 1630s, from which he emerged as a man waiting for God to give him a job. Cromwell was something of a firebrand in parliament – an outspoken critic of the bishops and the established church. At one time, he considered emigrating with his family to Connecticut, but something prevented him – we can idly speculate whether our loss would have been the USA’s gain.
When King Charles I, believing that he was sovereign over parliament, hoisted his banner in Nottingham it signalled the start of what is often called the English Civil War – though through its various phases it involved all parts of what became the United Kingdom. Cromwell raised a troop of cavalry for parliament in Cambridgeshire and proved himself a more than capable soldier, rising rapidly from captain to lieutenant general. He played a critical part in the Royalist defeats at Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645) and was then largely responsible for developing Britain’s first professional fighting force, the New Model Army.
Cromwell was an adept politician, certainly a reformer, but he was a reluctant convert to the idea of executing the king; he was not averse to a monarchy and would have preferred a negotiated settlement or, failing that, the King’s abdication. However, Charles, though defeated and by this time a prisoner, agitated further outbreaks of Royalist support throughout the country, including an invasion by a Scots army – what is known as the 2nd Civil War. All of this resistance was put down by Cromwell’s New Model army and, eventually, Charles was brought to trial for treason. Cromwell was the third of 59 men who signed the King’s death warrant.
I have often wondered what Her Majesty thinks about Oliver – perhaps, when I’m finally introduced, I will ask: “Ma’am, Oliver Cromwell helped do away with your 8th great-granduncle. What do you think of him?”
After the King’s execution in 1649, Governor General Cromwell went first to Ireland, then Scotland, to snuff out further Royalist support. This included gruesome massacres of Royalists, and others, at Drogheda and Wexford – which were intended as awful examples and, in that regard, were successful. They have also contributed to the cycle of tribal conflict between Catholic and Protestant that persists to this day. Cromwell then defeated a largely Scottish army commanded by the future Charles II at Worcester in 1651 – which led to young Charles hiding in a tree at Boscobel House.
There was no model for future government, but there were deep religious and political differences amongst members of parliament and the army. Cromwell dominated affairs, grew impatient, disbanded parliament, tried to persuade 140 “God-fearing men” representing “the various forms of Godliness in this nation” to devise a constitution and, when that failed, was persuaded to take on the mantle of monarch – but not king – in the form of Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. His over-arching objective in this period seems to have been to achieve stability after the war, “healing and settling”, which included religious tolerance for all but those Cromwell considered most extreme. Like Charles I, Cromwell might have seen himself as being on a divine mission. He encouraged Jews, banished from England almost 400 years earlier by Edward I, to return. Contrary to rumour, he did not ban Christmas; parliament had been clamping down on what were seen as Catholic excesses in the celebration of Christmas and other holy days since the 1640s and Cromwell undoubtedly supported that. Abroad, Cromwell made peace with the Dutch, allied the Commonwealth with France against Spain, and captured Jamaica. However, Cromwell’s rule was largely possible only with the support of the army – which has given the British a deep-seated suspicion of militarism. It was all a long way from the family house in Ely, which Cromwell’s family had vacated in 1647. In September 1659, shortly after the death of his daughter Elizabeth, Oliver Cromwell died in the Palace of Whitehall, London, probably from malaria. 20 months later, the monarchy was restored. In 1661, Cromwell’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey, hanged at Tyburn and decapitated. His trunk was thrown into a pit beneath the gallows and his head displayed on a spike outside Westminster Hall. Later, his head became a collector’s curiosity; it was finally buried in a secret location at his old college, Sidney Sussex, Cambridge in 1960.
So what does the house tell us about the man? The tour starts in the 17th century oak-panelled parlour where a short film tries to set the scene. I liked the kitchen, where food is laid out ready to be eaten, including one of Mrs Cromwell’s famous eel dishes.
To boil eels – cut the eels and stew them. When they are half done, beat a little ale with vinegar and put into the liquor with some parsley and sweet herbs. Serve them in their broth with a little salt.
There’s more where that came from. The tour continues upstairs to Mrs Cromwell’s room, where you are invited to try on various hats (no, I really couldn’t resist) and then to a room that gives a story of the Civil War. Next door is Cromwell’s study, where he can be seen working at his desk, then to the ‘haunted bedroom’, which depicts his deathbed – albeit Cromwell died 80 miles away in Westminster. The entire house is, allegedly, haunted. Ghosts of one sort or another – little girls, priests, strange men – drift in and out of various rooms – particularly the parlour, kitchen, study and haunted bedroom. There has been, they say, paranormal activity – strange lights, presences, smells… Alas, the electrical sensor that was probably meant to trigger the haunted bit in the bedroom did not work when we entered – I tried opening and closing the door a few times, just to be sure. But I will confess to being enthralled by the study and the kitchen, both of which I wanted to linger in. Whether from atmosphere or reading information as I went, I did get a sense that this remarkable Englishman was a family man who loved peace and tranquillity, but also had a strong sense of duty to do what he felt was right, driven by his particular faith in God and the Bible. God, of course, is often claimed by all sides in a conflict and people who declare a direct line usually verge on the fanatical – as Cromwell probably was. Nor can anyone defend his excesses in Ireland; but the house told me this was a reluctant warrior.
I have learned that Cromwell could have a way with words. So I leave you with one of his greatest quotes, which I often find appropriate when dealing with customer service departments in large corporations, politicians (and, occasionally, some clients) – “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”.
Find visitor information about Oliver Cromwell’s House, and more, on the attraction directory.