Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: oliver cromwell


Sotheby’s has got various royal proclamations and Parliamentary acts and ordinances from the mid-seventeenth century up for auction this Tuesday. The lots include:

The Daily Mail picked up the story on Saturday. While it’s nice to see early modern book history in the news, it’s a bit depressing to pick out the cliches in the way the article is framed.

First there is the portrayal of Oliver Cromwell as a killjoy sourpuss:

One thing is certain – Oliver Cromwell was hardly known for his sense of humour.

Anti-puritan stereotypes of the early seventeenth century seem to be so well-built as to be indestructible, to judge by how frequently they still appear today. Ben Jonson would be proud that Zeal-of-the-land Busy has cheated death for nearly four hundred years. In fact while many aspects of Cromwell’s life and career defy settled interpretation, one thing about which we can be certain is that he did have a sense of humour. This was a man who had snowball fights with his servants; who, growing bored of a meeting, hurled a cushion at Edmund Ludlow then fled the room; who was supposed to have flicked ink at Henry Marten after signing the king’s death warrant. Patrick Little’s excellent article in Cromwelliana (sadly not online) on this topic deserves a wider audience.

Then there is the reference to:

Tempestuous times facing ordinary Englishmen as their leaders tussled for power.

The phrasing here is I’m sure simply unthinking, but the political and religious battles of the 1640s and 1650s penetrated far deeper into society than just the ruling classes. Power struggles at Whitehall and set piece battles at Marston Moor and Naseby were reflected in parishes across England: and they involved Englishwomen as well as Englishmen.

Finally there is the slightly anachronistic reference to the various texts as posters nailed to trees. This conjures up pictures of Billy the Kid-style wanted posters, and perhaps some did end up on trees, but I suspect most proclamations, acts and ordinances reached their widest audience by being read aloud: in churches and at sermons, at assizes and market days, within communities and army regiments. Those that were pasted up must have been fixed in prominent places – maybe a tree if it was a prominent landmark in a parish, but more likely at the front of a church, town gates, or near taverns or market crosses. Kevin Sharpe’s Image Wars is particularly good on the use both Charles and Parliament made of published proclamations and ordinances.

I should suppress my curmudgeonly tendencies at this point and give the Daily Mail credit for running a story where no other newspaper has – and which, to judge by their website’s comments, does seem to have attracted lots of interest. But I would love to see some coverage of early modern books from mainstream news organisations which foregrounds the texts and their readers, rather than simply their authors. Their absence from stories like this does seem surprising, given that the news industry is so bound up with both.

(No 3 in an occasional series. Previously: 1, 2)

It was necessary to deface the book to save it

It is a truism that every generation refights the English Civil Wars. However, politicians and intellectuals are not the only combatants who take part in these battles. Private individuals must also have taken positions on the conflict, and argued about it in conversation and correspondence. Much of this is inevitably lost to us, but there are some types of source in which everyday roundheads and royalists can still make themselves heard, and one is the marginalia in books. Below are a couple of examples of attempts to rehabilitate Cromwell by defacing the cover of Flagellum, a critical biography published three years after the Restoration by James Heath.

On the first, a copy of the first 1663 edition has had the words “The late usurper” obliterated:

On the second, a 1671 edition, a reader has made more extensive alterations to the title page:

Hand-written notes are of course not the only way to alter a book. A more ambiguous alteration to the title page can be found in The Court & kitchin of Elizabeth, commonly called Joan Cromwel (1664). This was a genuine recipe book, but one with a satirical edge. In 1846 an owner of the book, the Welsh historian William Davies Leathart, made this note about a missing print from the front of the book:

The eighteenth-century antiquarian Richard Gough notes this book in his A Short Genealogical View of the Family of Cromwell (1785):

This is the print in question, which I found in the British Museum’s collection:

The monkey here is probably an unkind allusion to the proverb that “the higher a monkey climbs, the more you can see its arse”. The print could of course have been removed to be sold, but the unflattering print, combined with the fact that the page was torn out rather than removed more carefully, makes me wonder whether an owner disapproved of the insult to Cromwell’s wife.

Surviving copies of The Court and kitchin are rare, but if this is the case it would not be the only reader who owned a copy and subverted it for their own purposes. In a recent article in Renaissance Quarterly, Laura Lunger Knoppers has drawn attention to another surviving copy in the Houghton Library, Harvard.This was owned by Esther Hooke Lilly, married first to Sir Hele Hooke then to Richard Lilly, a doctor from Kensington, and contains her marginalia. Amongst handwritten Latin recipes for medicines, there are a series of drawings, including an inked picture of Elizabeth on the verso of the printed image of her. Underneath are a series of pencil sketches of men and women in fashionable early eighteenth-century dress. Elsewhere in the book are pictures of flamingoes and of men wearing turbans.

Sadly the article doesn’t reproduce any of these marginalia, but it does suggest that this title, like any book, could fulfil multiple purposes: in this case, as cookbook and sketch book. In the case of Leathart’s copy, one wonders whether perhaps the recipes meant it was still a useful addition to the owner’s kitchen, but one which needed to be amended in order for it to be put to use acceptably.

Brother Fountain and Brother Heron

Here is an extract from a letter from Oliver Cromwell to Robert Hammond on 6 November 1648, in which he calls Sir Henry Vane the younger by a nickname:

Tell my brother Heron I smiled at his expression concerning wise friend’s opinion, who thinks that the enthroning the King with Presbytery brings spiritual slavery, but with a moderate Episcopacy works a good peace.

And here is an extract from a letter from Sir Henry Vane the Younger to Oliver Cromwell a few years later on 2 August 1651:

Brother Fountain can guess at his brother’s meaning … many other things are reserved for your knowledge, whenever it please God we meet, and till then let me desire you upon the score of ancient friendship that hath been between us not to give ear to the mistakes, surmises, or jealousies of others, from what hand soever, concerning your brother Heron, but to be assured he answers your heart’s desire in all things, except he be esteemed by you in principles too high to fathom, which one day I am persuaded will not be so thought by you’.

Cromwell is Brother Fountain; Vane is Brother Heron. Cromwell and Vane were certainly close but quite what this set of nicknames means is intriguing.

Early in the twentieth century, J. B. Williams (a historian of seventeenth century journalism) guessed that it might be from when Cromwell lived in King Street (now Whitehall), where there was a tavern called the Fountain. Perhaps this is right, but given that every point of interpretation of Williams that I have ever explored has turned out to be wrong, I am inclined not to believe it. And it is stretching it a bit to assume that Heron must also relate to another tavern or meeting place given the lack of evidence.

Vane’s most recent biographers, Violet A. Rowe and Ruth E. Mayers, don’t shed any light on it and I don’t recall any recent biography of Cromwell mentioning it either. Part of me wonders, perhaps, whether like many nicknames they came out of nowhere and were just silly, affectionate names that stuck.

In his own words

There is an interesting article by John Morrill in the February issue of BBC History, announcing that he is part of a team of eight editors picked by Oxford University Press to compile a new, scholarly edition of Oliver Cromwell’s collected writings and speeches.

As Morrill says in the article, this is long overdue. The first collected edition of Cromwell’s words was Thomas Carlyle’s Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, published in 1845 and updated by S. C. Lomas in 1904. If you skip Carlyle’s commentary, it is a reasonable reference edition, but the provenance of the texts – especially where variant versions exist – is not really covered. Then there is W. C. Abbott’s Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, published between 1937 and 1947. I have all three volumes of this and the only good thing about them is that one copy used to be owned by Brian Wormald and still has lot of notes he made tucked into the dustjacket. That, and that in an emergency it can double as an effective doorstop. Otherwise, it is a pig of an edition to use. Abbott’s accompanying history of the period takes up most of the space, it’s really difficult to find what you’re looking for, and like Carlyle/Stainer it doesn’t deal with variant versions.

Morrill’s argument in the article – which he has made before in the Historical Journal, and to a generation of undergraduates like me who took his Cromwell special subject in the late 1990s – is that being clear about variant versions matters. One of the examples he gives in the article is the famous one, pointed out by Austin Woolrych in his study of the Barebones Parliament, of Cromwell’s speech at the opening of that body. One version, recorded in 1654,  is as follows:

I confess I never looked to see such a day as this – it may not be nor you neither – when Jesus Christ should be so owned as He is, at this day, and in this work. Jesus Christ is owned this day by your call, and you own Him by your willingness to appear for Him; and you manifest this, as far as poor creatures can, to the day of the power of Christ.

Another, recorded a century later, runs like this:

I confess I never looked to see such a day as this – it may not be nor you neither – when Jesus Christ should be so owned as He is, at this day, and in this work. Jesus Christ is owned this day by you all, and you own Him by your willingness to appear here; and you manifest this, as far as poor creatures can, to a day of the power of Christ.

The differences are small but important. In the first version, Cromwell is far more radical. Members of the Parliament have called forth the spirit of Christ through their presence, and the day itself is “the day of the power of Christ”, an apocalyptic climax to the struggles of the past eleven years. In the second version, Cromwell calls it “a day of the power of Christ”, which softens its millenarianism. Representatives have been summoned by Christ, not the other way around.

Establishing the provenance of these variant versions more precisely, and weighing up their likely accuracy, could make a fundamental difference to how historians interpret this and many other of Cromwell’s actions. If Morrill and his co-editors can pull this off, it will be a fantastic achievement. They ought to produce a definitive edition of Cromwell’s recorded words. As Morrill puts it:

Cromwell will come alive in much the same way as a Great Master painting takes on a new and different life when it is cleaned and restored.

I agree with the sentiment of this statement, but part of me wonders about the extent to which his work will “restore” Cromwell’s original words. A new version of Cromwell will be born, it’s true: but whether it will be the original Cromwell resurrected is a different matter. Like any historian of Cromwell, the editors will still have to wrestle with numerous ambiguities in what survives of his words. One example that springs to mind is Bulstrode Whitelocke’s famous description – or more accurately, descriptions – of a night-time encounter with Cromwell in Hyde Park in November 1652. Here is the version in a manuscript ‘diary’ written up by Whitelocke years after the event:

But suddeinly and unexpectedly Crom brake forth in this expression, What if a man should take uppon him to be King? Wh answerd that it would be more to his prejudice than advantage to doe so.

And here is the version in Whitelocke’s Annals:

Cromwell.—” What if a man should take upon him to be King?”

Whitelock.—” I think that remedy would be worse than the disease.”

Cromwell.—” Why do you think so?”

Whitelock.—” As to your own person, the title of King would be of no advantage, because you have the full kingly power in you already, concerning the militia, as you are General. So that I apprehend less envy, and danger, and pomp, but not less power and opportunities of doing good, in your being General, than would be if you had assumed the title of King.”

Here we have two versions of an encounter written retrospectively – both in the third person, but one in direct speech and one in reported speech. Which is more accurate? Has Whitelocke remembered events correctly, and dated them properly? Has he embellished, or even made things up? Given what we know of Cromwell’s frustrations with the Rump Parliament at this time, it is not implausible that this conversation took place. (One might add that given what we know about Whitelocke, it’s not implausible that it’s exaggerated, either). But it would be more plausible if it had taken place in 1657, when the offer of kingship was for a time seriously on the table. From what we know of both Cromwell and Whitelocke, we can contextualise this source to some extent. But ultimately, we can never know whether it reflects Cromwell’s actual words.

A similar problem might be raised with those of Cromwell’s words intended for publication. Cromwell wrote detailed accounts to William Lenthall, Speaker of the Commons, of battles in which he had commanded Parliamentary forces. Many of these were ordered to be published by Parliament, and formed part of an increasingly sophisticated propaganda war as the 1640s went on. We rely on these letters for much of our insight into Cromwell’s military and political career during the 1640s. One example amongst many is Cromwell’s famous – or infamous – account of the sack of Drogheda in September 1649. This is a critical source for trying to understand what happened during the siege, and for unpicking Cromwell’s attitude towards the Irish. It includes this grim account of the assault:

And indeed, being in the heat of action, I forbade them to spare any that were in arms in the town, and, I think, that night they put to the sword about 2,000 men, diverse of the officers and soldiers being fled over the bridge into the other part of the town, where about one hundred of them possessed St. Peter’s church-steeple, some the west gate and others a strong round tower next the gate called St. Sunday’s. These being summoned to yield to mercy, refused, whereupon I ordered the steeple of St. Peter’s Church to be fired, where one of them was heard to say in the midst of the flames: “God damn me, God confound me; I burn, I burn.”

It also has this oft-quoted phrase:

I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood; and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are the satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret.

This letter survives in a number of printed sources: in the “official” pamphlet ordered to be published by Parliament, and reprinted in various newsbooks. But do we know that its contents are actually Cromwell’s words? As far as I know, Cromwell’s original letter does not survive. We don’t know whether the Council of State, or the clerk to Parliament, or the printers, may have made alterations or amendments. And even this aside, we also know very little about how Cromwell composed these letters. John Rushworth is known to have ghost-written equivalent letters sent back to Parliament by Thomas Fairfax. Did Cromwell write these letters on his own, or with the help of others under his command? Were they “tidied up” before publication?

My own answer is that I don’t really know. If anyone does, it’s John Morrill, which is why the work he and his co-editors are taking forward is so important. The Cromwell that emerges from their work will no doubt be much more sophisticated portrait than anything produced so far. But to extend Morrill’s metaphor, bits of it will be still be smudged or frayed at the edges. They will probably always remain that way. That is part of the challenge for anyone studying Cromwell, but it’s also what makes him such a fascinating and controversial figure.

As a footnote, a podcast by Professor Morrill about the work on a new edition of Cromwell’s words will go up on the BBC History site on 12 February.

Oliver Cromwell’s boots

A pair of boots alleged to have belonged to Oliver Cromwell went up for auction earlier this week. They belonged to John Fane, a descendant of the  8th Earl of Westmorland. It’s a story that seems to have been around for a while. However, the connection is rather tenuous. The Earl of Westmorland who was Cromwell’s contemporary was Mildmay Fane, the 2nd Earl. He was a royalist, so it seems unlikely they came into his possession.

Reporting in the press has instead drawn attention to the fact that Wormsley Hall, now the home of the Fanes, used to belong to Colonel Adrian Scrope. Scrope was an army officer and a regicide, one of those who was imprisoned and put to death after the Restoration. But he wasn’t exactly close to Cromwell. There was a very slight kinship connection via the Hampden family, but he never served with Cromwell. After the execution of Charles I, Scrope was appointed governor of Bristol and stayed there until 1655, at which point he was made part of the council for the government of Scotland. He stayed in Scotland ntil the summer of 1658, shortly before Cromwell’s death. He didn’t get involved in any of the politicking during Richard Cromwell’s short period of rule. So it seems hard to know where he might have got hold of the boots. At the Restoration he surrendered himself to the authorities, so you might have thought a pair of Cromwell’s boots would be one of the first things he’d get rid of.

Even if they’re not Cromwell’s, it got me thinking about the various pieces of surviving Cromwell memorabilia. There is just about enough out there to reconstruct, Frankenstein’s monster-style, an entire Cromwell:

One of Cromwell’s hats survives at the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon. This is supposed to be the hat he wore to Parliament on 20 April 1653 which he took off while dissolving the Rump.





Various death masks taken on or after 3 September 1658 survive. This one is from the British Museum.











Of course there is also Cromwell’s actual head, now interred at Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, but the chances of digging that up seem unlikely.









The Royal Armouries Museum at Leeds has a sword alleged to have belonged to Cromwell, and a buff coat that, while not his, is very like the ones he must have worn.














And now there are the boots to round off the entire ensemble.