Oliver Cromwell’s rule as Lord Protector from 1653-1658 is usually imagined as a joyless, military regime, presided over by a dour Puritan who killed the king, cancelled Christmas and got his kicks from pulling down maypoles. But this is a stereotype which has been peddled since the Restoration.
Cromwell ruled with a Council of State and Parliament under Britain’s first written constitution, the Instrument of Government. The country remained a republic but as the years passed Cromwell’s rule and court increasingly resembled that of a king. He and his large family were styled ‘Highnesses’ and lived in the lavish State apartments at Whitehall Palace, travelling out to Hampton Court most Fridays for a few days of relaxation (inadvertently inventing the weekend by doing so). Cromwell retained some choice items from the royal collection to decorate the palaces and enhance the regime’s prestige in the eyes of the ambassadors who flocked to his court: the magnificent Mantegna paintings The Triumph of Caesar, beautiful mythological tapestries which adorned his rooms and classical statues which he displayed in the privy gardens.
Formal ritual and informal pastimes played a crucial role in fashioning this new regime. For pleasure, the Cromwell family and their court enjoyed the customary pursuits of the gentry, hunting and hawking and relaxing with friends over wine, music and a pipe of tobacco. On State occasions Cromwell entertained visiting dignitaries in the magnificent Banqueting House, feasting under Rubens’ sumptuous painted ceiling which celebrated the Stuarts’ divine right to rule. The arts flourished with the likes of John Milton, Andrew Marvell and William Davenant composing poetry, music and the first operas. Indeed secular music was a great passion of Cromwell’s and he employed a music master and numerous court musicians, took piano lessons himself and had the organ from Magdalen College Oxford installed at Hampton Court. He even allowed the resumption of masques, that most decadent and Stuart of art forms, for his two youngest daughters’ extravagant weddings, once taking the part of the Roman God Jove himself.
In 1657 there was a strong movement by Parliament and a powerful faction at court to formally make Cromwell king. Monarchy was thought by many to be the most stable and popular form of government and the Cromwells were a more attractive ruling house than the defeated, absolutist Stuarts. Though he eventually refused the crown, Cromwell’s second investiture as Lord Protector under a new constitution was to all intents a coronation: a triumphal procession through London and lavish ceremony in Westminster Hall. Cromwell also assumed a number of additional kingly powers such as the ability to name his successor. At this point, few contemporaries doubted that the Cromwell family was transforming into Britain’s new ruling dynasty. The Cromwell coat of arms adorned buildings, flagpoles and liveries and pamphlets poured from the presses acclaiming Oliver a prophesised Prince. While his eldest son and presumed heir Richard launched battleships and went on regal progress to the West Country, Cromwell’s other son Henry governed Ireland. Cromwell’s four daughters were at the centre of court life while his sons-in-law held key positions in the army, Parliament and the Protectoral household. Cromwell would take his grandchildren into Council meetings and the births of his grandsons were celebrated nationally as royal births had been. By this stage, the Stuart cause in exile appeared hopeless; at one point the future Charles II even proposed he marry Cromwell’s daughter Frances – an offer Cromwell refused.
This close-knit, ordinary family looked set to be the dynasty which would finally heal the war-torn nations and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. Yet it was not to be. A series of tragedies struck, culminating in Oliver’s own premature death in September 1658, and though Richard succeeded him smoothly, within nine months the disaffected army leadership toppled the Protectorate, and the monarchy was restored in 1660. The Cromwell family disappeared back into their former obscurity as the new king back-dated his reign, expunging their rule from the record. The Cromwells and the Interregnum period (literally ‘between reigns’) have languished in this oblivion for too long, with little but myth and stereotype breaking through into popular imagination. It is time to rediscover the Protectorate and realise that most people living under it did not believe they were simply passing time between two Stuart kings. Perhaps then we can reinsert the Commonwealth years into British history and recast the early modern age as the time of the Tudors, the Stuarts and the Cromwells.
Dr Miranda Malins is a historian and trustee of the Cromwell Association. Her debut novel, The Puritan Princess, is about Oliver Cromwell’s youngest daughter and her life at his court, and is out now, published by Orion.