As is the case with earlier great men not born on the steps of the throne, little is known about Oliver Cromwell’s youth. more is known about his ancestry. The family’s fortune was built upon the dissolution of the monasteries.
Oliver’s great-great-grandfather, Morgan Williams, came down from Wales with King Henry VIII. His son, Richard William’s, was knighted by King Henry VIII, and changed his name to Cromwell in deference to his uncle by marriage. Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s notorious minister who carried through the dissolution of the monasteries. Thus there was a Welsh strain in Cromwell’s character on the paternal side. his mother was a Norfolk girl, and the Cromwell’s, who were a prolific race, settled mainly in Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, though branches of the family were scattered in other counties. As John Buchan wrote, “most of the creative forces of England had gone to the making of him”.
The Cromwells were indeed typical of the classes that under the monarchy helped to rule England. In the county where Oliver was born there were only two influential families – the Cromwells of Huntingdon and the Montagus of Kimbolton. They acted as Lords-Lieutenant, or their deputies, sheriffs, Justices of the Peace, commissioners of sewers, and members of parliament. When Oliver’s wealthy uncle, the head of the family, was involved in financial difficulties, it was a Montagu who bought up his Tudor mansion at Hinchingbrooke, where Oliver played as a child and may even have met the future King Charles I. When Oliver was first elected a member of parliament for Huntingdon, it was a Montagu who was his fellow-member for the borough. When Oliver went to Cambridge, he was at a college, Sidney Sussex, of which a Montagu was the first master. Finally, when Cromwell, years later, was appointed a lieutenant-general in the parliamentary army, he acted as second in command to a Montagu whose fortunes had improved as those of the Montagu – Henry, first Earl of Manchester – that Cromwell was hailed when he was concerned in a quarrel over the new charter which had been granted to the borough of Huntingdon in 1631.
Oliver Cromwell himself said once that he was “by birth a gentlemen living neither in any considerable height nor yet in obscurity”. Some biographers have, none the less, asserted that he was no more than an insignificant squire. But the Cromwells were unquestionably a family that counted in the east of England, and had been important there ever since the time of King Henry VIII. Their fortunes were on the decline when Oliver himself reached manhood – or, at any rate, upon a temporary decline, but they still carried sufficient weight to sustain his election to the House of Commons.
Oliver’s father was a younger son and inherited only a small estate; but he, too, had been the county sheriff and an M.P. He was the close friend of Dr. Thomas Beard, the matter of the local grammer school where Oliver received his early education, and afterwards his father sent him on the Sidney Sussex was a hot-bed of Puritanism; the college was, indeed, founded to train Puritan preachers. Thus Robert Cromwell must have sympathized with the rising Puritan movement (as some of the Montagus did also), and from his family, his teachers, and his friends Oliver imbibed the Puritan approach to life. He read the Authorized Version of the Bible and learned the Psalms by heart; he lived in an age when many religious men, including Dr. Beard himself, were convinced that those were the “latter days” spoken of in the Bible and that the Apocalypse was not far distant. The Lord God, Cromwell was taught, was interested in the most intimate details of men’s lives, and punished them if they failed to serve His purposes. What is history, Cromwell once asked, but God revealing Himself? He was to tell one of his sons to read Sir Walter Ralegh;s History of the World, which would add much more to his understanding than any “fragment of a story”. Ralegh interpreted history as the unfolding of the providential purposes and as exemplifying the punishment of the wicked who failed to fulfill them. Dr. Beard taught the same thing. To do God’s will was man’s destiny. Either he was chosen to be the servant of the Lord or he was a “reprobate” born to sin. Dr. Samuel Ward, the master of Sidney Sussex, during the year which Oliver spent there when he was aged seventeen, adhered to this uncompromising predestinarian view. Anyone who believed in “free will” or “justification by faith”, that good doctor of divinity thought, was preaching “the vilest and most feculent points of all popery”.
In the summer of 1617 Oliver’s father died, and Oliver he seems to have left Cambridge, with his instruction in Calvinist theology cut short. In the course of his education he acquired considerable Latin, and perhaps a little Greek and enough arithmetic to do his accounts; but most of it consisted of Puritan theology and ethics and Puritan history; he never seems to have read much besides the Bible. His other interests were horses and music, in which he indulged when he became Lord Protector. After a short spell at home in Huntingdon he went to London where, like many other country gentlemen of his day, he appears to have acquired a smattering of the Common Law in the Inns of Court. On 22nd August 1620 he was married to the daughter of a fur dealer, and again returned to Huntingdon to become an arable farmer. The marriage was no doubt arranged for him by relatives, as was the usual custom of the time. But throughout his career Oliver was blessed with a happy family life. He once wrote to his wife: “Truly if I love thee not too well, I think I err not on the other hand too much. Thou are dearer to me than any creature.” He was devoted to his widowed mother, and to his sons and daughters. Two of his sons died in early manhood and another as a baby. Otherwise his was a united family, and his sharp Puritan creed was softened by tolerance and humane understanding. Though he was pierced by the conviction that it was his duty to serve God’s purpose in life and to interpret His will, his was a religion based upon love and not upon fear.
Cromwell’s “conversion”, the usual emotional stage through which the Puritans of his generation passed, does not seem to have taken place until he was twenty-nine, after several of his children had been born, and just before he was first elected to parliament. It was only then, in spite of his Puritan upbringing, that the full impact of his religion struck him. Andrew Marvell wrote in a poem upon the “First Anniversary of the Government under Oliver Cromwell”:
“For neither didst thous from the first apply
Thy sober spirit unto things too high
But in thine own fields exercisedst long
An healthful mind within a body strong.”
His body may have been strong – in a young farmer who loved riding that was to be expected – but there are sufficient scattered pieces of evidence to suggest that in his early married life he was the victim of searing emotions and anxious thoughts, was the subject of alternating periods of de[ression and exaltation. Like most powerful characters, he had a temper that was easily provoked when he believed that injustices had been done or the will of God defied. When he was a member of the Long Parliament, he attacked the Privy Council for the whipping and imprisoning of an apprentice named John Lilburne in such a violent speech that it impressed itself many years afterwards upon the memories of those who heard it. Towards the end of Cromwell’s life his steward remarked on his “fiery temper”, though he thought that by then he had learned to “keep it down”.
In a man so turbulently built, conversion was an exhausting experience. Cromwell pictured himself as “the chief of sinners” who had “lived in and loved darkness and hated the light”. Like John Bunyan and many another seventeenth-century Puritan, he exaggerated the contrast between the iniquities of his past life and the riches of God’s mercy. But from then on he believed that he was one of the “elect”, a Christian who hared St. Paul’s experience upon the road to Damascus; he acknowledged his call from God to the service of the Christian community.
Cromwell’s early married life, punctuated by the frequent birth of children and therefore bringing additional responsibilities, no doubt demanded a re-examination of himself which contributed to his conversion. At first he had a struggle to earn a satisfactory livelehood. Two-thirds of his father’s small estate had been assigned to the support of his mother and sisters; although his wife brought him a dowry, it may not have been much. In the early sixteen-twenties the harvests were poor, and later, when they improved, prices were not as good as they had previously been. An arable farmer working upon the medieval strip system could not expect to do much more than make ends meet. In 1627 Oliver’s rich uncle abandoned Hinchingbrooke, and it was not until 1638, when Cromwell was nearly forty, that he inherited property from a maternal uncle who lived in Ely. Before then he had tried his luck as a grazier at St. Ives. But now, in 1638, he moved again to Ely, where he became a man of substance. After the civil war began, he wrote to a friend that his “estate was little”. He wrote this when he was trying to raise money for his soldiers; pay, however, and it would be a mistake to make too much of Cromwell’s relative poverty or declining fortunes when he was a younger man. At a pinch he could raise a thousand pounds for a public purpose, which would certainly be worth at least ten times that amount in modern terms. Even when he was twenty-nine his social position was sufficiently assured for his fellow townsmen at Huntingdon to choose him as one of their members of parliament.
Cromwell’s concern in politics was motivated, then by a sense of duty and by religious enthusiasm rather than social resentment. Above all, he was critical of the leadership of the Church. William Laud, the inspiration of the High Church party in the reign of King Charles I and from 1633 Archbishop of Canterbury, had at one time been Archdeacon of Huntingdon. One of Laud’s closest friends Matthew Wren, was Bishop of Norwich and afterwards of Ely. In the only speech that Cromwell is known to have delivered in the first parliament of which he was a member, he expressed his indignation about this so-called “Arminian” group in the Church of England who, he thought, were preaching and practicing “flat popery” He quoted the evidence of his old schoolmaster, Dr. Beard, in support of allegations against Richard Neile, the Bishop of Winchester, who later became Archbishop of York. Neile, Laud, and Wren were frequently condemned by the Puritans in the House of Commons as being not only ritualists but of unsound opinions, believers not in “election of grace” but in the arch heresy of free will. Thus Cromwell developed into an active and aggressive Puritan. It is true that, apart from his unique speech in 1629 and a letter in which he described his conversion, written in 1638, we have no reliable evidence earlier than 1640 to sustain this view. But from then on the evidence accumulates, showing religion to be his chief concern and that he had become recognized as the spokesman of radical Puritanism in the eastern counties. On that subject he proved himself to be an eloquent and fervent speaker whose warmth and keenness forcibly struck all who met him.
During the twelve years between the date of Cromwell’s conversion and the meeting of the Long Parliament in which he first became absorbed into national affairs, the House of Commons met only twice for brief sessions. Cromwell’s life until he was over forty was occupied as a farmer and small landlord whose only interests outside his home and family were comparatively small local matters. When he returned home to Huntingdon after attending the exciting session of 1629, for example, he concerned himself with the question of the new borough charter. This charter, granted by King Charles I, substituted a mayor and twelve aldermen appointed for life for two bailiffs and twelve councillors annually elected. Cromwell objected to the manner in which the new town government was using its powers, and delivered what were described as “disgraceful and unseemly speeches” He was asked to appear before the Privy Council and explain himself. He maintained that the burgesses were being abused in their rights in the common land. The Lord Privy Seal thought that Cromwell’s complaints were not unjustified and recommended changes in the charter. Cromwell admitted that he had spoken “in heat and passion”, and offered his apologies. Another and not dissimilar incident, dating from the time when he moved to Ely, related to a proposal to drain the Fens. He thought that members of the draining company had been given unfair advantages in the distribution of the reclaimed land at the expense of the Ely burgesses. Again the central government was obliged to intervene, and it was laid down that until the drainage was fully completed there should be no infringement of customary rights. Later still, Cromwell acted on behalf of his former neighbours at St. Ives, and argued so vehemently in the commoners’ cause in a parliamentary committee that the chairman threatened to report him to the House.
Such was Oliver Cromwell’s fiery character before the civil wars. He was a natural leader of men, readily roused to anger by what he thought to be justifiable grievances; he had a vigorous personality and a sharp temper that was quickly roused; and he was rough-and-ready speaker. Above all, he was a man of generous instincts and social conscience. A curious little note has come down to us from his days in Ely. It was written on behalf of an olf invalid named Benson to a collector of revenues for a local charity,
“I desire you to deliver forty shillings of the town money to this bearer, to pay for physic for Benson’s cure. If the gentleman will not allow it at the time of the account, keep this note, and I will pay for it out of my own purse.”
So life went on in the land during King Charles I’s eleven years of personal administration, while Cromwell moved from Huntingdon to St. Ives, and St. Ives to Ely, and acted as a Justice of the Peace and a self-appointed champion of burgesses with a grievance. The principal cause of discontent in the counties was the King’s raising of revenue by extraordinary prerogative means instead of by parliamentary grants. But the early sixteen-thirties were a period of peace and relative prosperity in the country. The burdens upon small property owners were not excessive. Though the King’s efforts at administration reform were unsuccessful, at least there was obvious goodwill behind them. Regular parliamentary sessions had not yet become a recognized feature of English political life, and when the House of Commons was not in session at Westminster there was no accepted centre where grievances against the Crown could be focused. newspapers did not exist and news travelled slowly, coffee-houses were in their infancy, and taverns absorbed in local gossip; while busy farmers rarely had occasion to go to London. It was not until after the King was launched upon two wars against his Scottish subjects, which required the improvised raising of money and soldiers in a cause with which the English puritans could not sympathize, that deep feelings were stirred and that parliament had to be recalled. The abject failure of the King in these two wars, which undermined his authority and damaged his prestige, was among the proximate causes of the civil wars in England.