Oliver Cromwell was the second son, and fifth child of Robert Cromwell and Elizabeth Steward. They had ten children in all, Oliver and seven of his sisters survived infancy. Born in Huntingdonshire to a younger son of a wealthy landowner, descended from an older sister of Thomas Cromwell, the Tudor Chief Minister of Henry VIII, Oliver’s great grandfather Richard Williams changed his family name to show respect to his uncle, who had helped out his sister’s family by enabling them to acquire reclaimed land from the dissolution of the monasteries. Oliver once described his family as being on the edge of the gentry with his father’s modest inheritance as the younger son of a knight, which consisted of a house in Huntingdon, with a small amount of land, giving them an income of £300 a year, “I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in considerable height, nor yet in obscurity”.
Oliver attended Huntingdon Grammar School, and later Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. One source claims he spent a year before university at St John’s free school, Huntingdon. However he did not graduate University as his father died, and as the only son Oliver was needed at home to take care of his mother and seven unmarried sisters. It has been claimed that Cromwell later spent a period of time working in Lincoln’s Inn, although records do not show any note of his attendance, it was common for members of the gentry to acquire a certain knowledge of Law, and his grandfather, father and two uncles also spent time there, so it is conceivable that Oliver did in fact attend, as did his son.
In August 1620, Cromwell married Elizabeth Bouchier, the daughter of London leather merchant, Sir James Bouchier, who owned a large amount of land in Essex. Through Bouchier’s connections to Essex gentry, particularly Puritans, and in turn their backing by Earls Holland and Warwick, and importantly Oliver St John, this would later provide the stepping stone to Cromwell’s military and political careers. Cromwell and Elizabeth would go on to have nine children, five sons, and four daughters, some of whom would go on to make prestigious marriages. Youngest son James died as a baby, and their two eldest sons died as youths, Robert whilst away at school, aged 18, and Oliver from Typhoid fever aged 22 whilst enlisted as a Parliamentarian soldier.
Cromwell’s early religious beliefs are unknown; although his education and family connections would indicate a strong Protestant leaning, however it appears he was treated for a bout of depression in 1628. Around this period, Cromwell was elected as MP for Huntingdon and due to his connections, became associated with the opposition to Charles I. It is claimed that in 1630, Cromwell got caught up in a dispute with Huntingdon gentry over a new town charter. He later sold most of his land and property and moved to St Ives, where he took up tenancy of a farm. The Oliver Cromwell biography of the British Civil War Project states that this was due to a downturn in fortunes, which saw him as a tenant farmer for five years until his mother’s bachelor uncle died and left him a bequest of a house and tithes in Ely. Another source claims that the landowner, from whom the farm was rented, Henry Laurence, was planning a move to New England, to the colonies, and there is a theory that Cromwell planned to accompany him, but the plan fell through. It was around this time that Cromwell is said to have had his religious epiphany and woke up to the sin around him, for which he grew to blame on continued reforms under Charles I.
By 1640, Cromwell was increasingly popular with the influential Puritans in the area, and this led to his election as MP for Cambridge that year. He called attention to the plight of John Lilburne in his first week in Parliament. At the outbreak of the first civil war in 1642, Cromwell raised a small army of volunteers for the Parliamentary cause and prevented a large amount of silver plate from being taken by royalists acting for the King, and defended Cambridge with a small brigade of 60 cavalry horsemen. In October 1642, Cromwell’s brigade joined the Earl of Essex, and engaged in the Battle of Edgehill, but was rather too late to make much of a difference. The skill of the royalists inspired Cromwell to the need for a better equipped and trained army for the Parliament cause. Cromwell went on to see action in the Battle of Gainsborough and the Battle of Marston Moor, in 1644 by which time he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant-General. His action in breaking the ranks of the Royalist cavalry and attacking their infantry from the rear helped win the victory for the Parliamentarians.
In 1649, following the escape of King Charles from Hampton Court, and his subsequent imprisonment in Carisbrooke Castle, Cromwell was one of the signatories on the execution warrant following the trial of the King for Treason. There then followed a period of further rebellious outbreaks in England, Ireland and Scotland, most of which Cromwell with his New Model Army put down successfully with a series of battles and sieges. After each successful siege, Cromwell’s commanders would act on his orders and sack any strongholds that had resisted. A number of key historical castles, houses and forts, were irreparably damaged as part of this sacking. Cromwell took the cause to Ireland, where it has been claimed his commanders committed atrocities, including the murders of women and children in his name, as well as several thousand men. It is claimed that these were mainly Catholics who resisted Puritanism, and supported the Catholic sympathising King. Cromwellian supporters state that Cromwell himself knew nothing of these outrages having already allowed the Catholic population to leave provided they did not raise arms. Nevertheless thousands of Irish peasants were taken captive and shipped to the colonies as slaves.
Cromwell was eventually proclaimed Lord Protector in 1653, and appeared to rule as a monarch for five years, until 1658 when he succumbed to a reoccurring malarial fever and septicaemia brought on by a kidney complaint, and died aged 59. His son Richard took his father’s position as Lord Protector but resigned after just a year, lacking the support enjoyed by his father. Cromwell was given an elaborate funeral in Westminster Abbey, where he was laid to rest alongside his daughter Elizabeth who preceded him by a few months. It is rumoured that his body was interred a few weeks before his funeral as a result of his embalmers messing up the embalming process causing his body to decompose badly.
A little over two years later, on the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I, and following the restoration of the monarchy with his son Charles II, the corpses of Cromwell and the other warrant signatories, Robert Blake, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton were exhumed and placed on trial for regicide. The remains were found guilty, hung at Tyburn, beheaded and thrown in a pit beneath the gallows. Their heads were placed on spikes at Westminster. Cromwell’s head was subsequently removed and allegedly passed around for the next two hundred or so years as a curio, in exhibitions and so on, before finally being acquired by Sidney Sussex College, who interred it in 1960 in an unmarked location in their chapel with a local plaque. There is some dispute as to whether the skull is genuine, or whether the exhumed corpse was indeed that of Cromwell however a scientific analysis was carried out in 1960 of the skull which declared its authenticity. Stories still circulate that Cromwell’s body was removed several times after his funeral and replaced, in order to prevent its falling into royalist hands. Other sources claim that following their posthumous trial, the corpses were re-interred in a mass unmarked grave in the grounds of the church of St Margaret’s which stands next to Westminster. Like his namesake Thomas, Oliver Cromwell remains a very controversial figure in history.