It is I
In mid-May 1653, a man pulled up at the Royal Exchange in a carriage, got out, and fixed a portrait of Oliver Cromwell onto the wall. The picture was titled ‘It is I’, and along with Cromwell’s coat of arms had this poetic inscription:
Ascend three thrones great Captain and Divine
By the will of Go (o Lion) for they are thine.
Come priest of God, bring oyle, bring robes, & gold
Bring crownes and sceptres, itts now high time, unfold
Your cloistered baggs, your state chests, lest the rod
Of steele & iron of the King of God
Chastise you all its wrath, then kneel and pray
To Oliver the torch of Zion starre of day.
Then shout O merchants, Citty and Gentry sing.
Let all men bare-head cry, God save the King.
Eighteenth-century sources say that the portrait was quickly taken down and taken to the Lord Mayor, who in turn took it to Cromwell. They claim that the Lord Mayor was apparently worried about Cromwell’s reaction, but that Cromwell laughed it off and told him not to worry about such trifles.
Whether or not Cromwell’s reaction is a true story, the portrait itself was undoubtedly real. Despite the relatively small number of people who would have seen the portrait before it was taken down, it managed to reach a much wider audience. The verses were copied down and circulated in manuscript: variations of the poem survive in the Clarendon, Folger, Rawlinson, Tanner and Harleian manuscript collections, and in George Thomason’s collection of manuscript ephemera (which is where the version above is taken from). It also prompted a satirical response in the form of another manuscript poem, including these verses:
Antichrists three Crownes, for they are thyne
To which we wish thee three Headds like Cerberus grim
For thou art fiend enough to be like him.
Ansd to each Head a face took, wish we thee,
For thou hast Nose enough for them all three.
My image is an engraving of Oliver Cromwell by Richard Gaywood after Pierre Lombart and Robert Walker, published by Peter Stent in the late 1650s: AN403221001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.