Academic journal article History Review

`A Great and Deserved Name': Commemorating Cromwell

Academic journal article History Review

`A Great and Deserved Name': Commemorating Cromwell

Article excerpt

In this edited version of a lecture given on 25 March 1999, to commemorate the anniversary of Cromwell's birth, John Morrill provides us with a series of snapshots, at different ages, of the troubled visionary who aspired to lead a new chosen people out of the bondage of Stuart tyranny.

Oliver Cromwell was born just over 400 years ago, on 25 April 1599. He was, he famously said, `by birth a gentleman, living in neither any considerable height nor yet in obscurity'. He was in fact the eldest son of the younger son of a knight, and the ambiguities of that were to resonate throughout his life. That is to say: he was born in a solid town house with gothic windows just off the market square, the son of a man who had received crumbs of family inheritance, enough to allow him to serve as the bailiff of Huntingdon in Oliver's first year and to serve just once as second (or lesser) member of Parliament for the borough of Huntingdon. Oliver was in due course to inherit those crumbs of patrimony, while being intensely conscious of the wealth and status of his uncle and namesake, whose crust was worth ten times the inheritance of his father, who lived in a house with ten times as many rooms, and who sat in eight successive Parliaments not as a mere burgess but as a knight of the shire. It was, in other words, a tantalising inheritance, one likely to breed what a sociologist might wish to call `a low level of status crystallisation'. Throughout his life Oliver Cromwell was both to hanker after and be uncomfortable with social power.

Troublous Times

If we leap forward 30 years to his 30th birthday, on 25 April 1629, we find acute instability in his life. He had just returned from Parliament -- sitting, as his father had done in 1593, as junior member for the borough of Huntingdon -- a Parliament in which he had made only one recorded speech, and that a gauche and inappropriate intervention about religious innovation; but this, far from marking a consolidation of his position, represented a moment of crisis. His uncle, wracked by debt, had sold up the ostentatious mansion on the Great North Road near Huntingdon (built from the stone of a dissolved convent) and had moved to the lesser family home deep in the Fenland. The incoming, upcoming Montagus installed their own man as Recorder of Huntingdon and asked the corporation to return one of their family to the new Parliament, allowing a member of the outgoing Cromwell family to take the second seat as a gesture of goodwill. But the Montagus wanted to make Huntingdon a more progressive town, less of a sleepy backwater. And that meant getting rid of the quaintly old-fashioned charter that allowed the council to be elected and changed each year by popular mandate, and to become instead a closed oligarchy appointed in the first instance by the Crown on the advice of the Montagus and then by self-perpetuation. Cromwell was to lose his place on the town council under this re-organisation. The protection of the senior branch of the family once removed, Oliver was to discover that a job-lot of urban properties and a handful of advowsons did not make him a big man even in this little town. And the snub delivered by the new town charter coincided with an increase in his own financial problems (perhaps the need to make provision for six sisters) which was very shortly to cause him to sell up all his freehold and to rent a small-holding out at St Ives, with a consequent downgrading to the status of a yeoman. All this seems to have brought on acute mental stress and some form of nervous breakdown: while Parliament was still in session he was being treated by the great exiled Huguenot physician Theodore Turquet de Mayerne for valde melancolicus. And the stress and resentments of a life spiralling downwards led him at the end of his 31st year publicly to rebuke the Mayor and the Recorder of Huntingdon for corruptly procuring a new Charter, which brought him to a humbling interrogation by the Privy Council and a humiliating apology before the commonalty on market day in Huntingdon. …

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