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Elizabeth: Oliver Cromwell's 'queen'

Elizabeth Cromwell (1598-1665), Her Highness the Protectoress by Robert Walker Image copyright Cromwell Museum

Oliver Cromwell remains an intensely controversial figure - the subject of ongoing debate. But what was it like to be a woman at that time, and especially to be the Lady Protectress - wife of the Lord Protector himself, asks Samira Ahmed.

There's a special mystery around the life of Elizabeth Cromwell.

She was a genuine commoner and very few documents survive other than records of her marriage and death. Born in 1598 to an Essex merchant family, Elizabeth might well have been named after Elizabeth I. But she would live to become a consort like no other in British history - a queen who was not a queen.

The England of the mid-17th Century was "a country in which patriarchy was absolute in the original sense", says Laura Gowing, professor of early modern history at King's College, London. "The father is comparable to the king of the country. An orderly household should be a replica of an orderly nation. And a nation is made up of such households."

Historians think it likely that Elizabeth would have modelled her home on that ideal. She and Oliver married in St Giles Cripplegate in London in 1620 and had nine children together. Details of her £1,500 dowry survive, but we don't know if it was a love match or arranged. Still the three letters that survive between them, written 30 years later, speak of their love. "Truly my life is but half a life in your absence," she wrote to him while he was on military campaign.

Love letters

From Oliver Cromwell to Elizabeth, September 1650: "Thou art dearer to me than any creature; let that suffice."

From Elizabeth to Oliver, December 1650: "Truly my life is but half a life in your absence, did not the Lord make up in Himself, which I must acknowledge to the praise of His grace."

From Oliver to Elizabeth, May 1651: "My Dearest, I could not satisfy myself to omit this post, although I have not much to write; yet indeed I love to write to my dear, who is very much in my heart.

Sources: The Cromwell Association, Cromwell Museum Huntingdon

From a young MP's wife in Huntingdon and Ely to the wife of a general in the New Model Army, it wasn't until their 40s that she was to find herself elevated to the wife of the most powerful man in the country and soon housed in apartments at both Whitehall and Hampton Court.

It was a time when "whore" was an easy and dangerous label hurled at women who were deemed to be acting above their place. Avoiding comparison with her predecessor Henrietta Maria, Charles I's queen, might have been an important thing for Cromwell's Lady Protectress.

Elizabeth Cromwell 1598-1665

Image copyright Cromwell Museum
  • Eldest child of Sir James Bourchier and his wife Frances
  • Very little is known of Elizabeth's childhood, but her father was a prosperous businessman and landowner
  • After her marriage to Oliver Cromwell, the couple lived in Huntingdon, St Ives and Ely, by the early 1650s they had moved to lodgings adjoining Whitehall Palace and in 1654 they moved into apartments in Whitehall Palace
  • Hostile accounts published during her lifetime criticised her for her simple ways, and for being and feeling out of place in her elevated role

Sources: The Cromwell Association, Cromwell Museum Huntingdon

Elizabeth seems to have stayed out of state affairs. There's no evidence her relatives benefited in privileges from her connections, though, interestingly, her sole surviving letter to Oliver from December 1650, diplomatically reminds him to write to key political figures, the lord chief justice and Speaker of the House of Commons. "You cannot think the wrong you do yourself in the want of a letter, though it were but seldom."

The Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon holds a court portrait of Elizabeth from about 1653 by Robert Walker. It's not very flattering. She looks uncomfortable in a formal pose and plain dark dress, large pearl earrings and a necklace, and it's hard to read it as an anti-Royalist statement.

Image copyright Cromwell Museum

As Curator John Goldsmith observes: "Jewellery was terribly fashionable. The bling in the middle of the 17th Century was just incredible. The thing about Puritans having a plain style is hard to sustain. Black was actually a fashionable colour."

An exquisite box of Italian marquetry (inlaid work) is almost the only verifiable court possession of Elizabeth's that survives, passed down unused through her family until today. The collection of rich, perfumed soaps was a gift from the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand II, who wanted to align himself with the Protectorate. It's tempting to imagine Elizabeth being too devout to indulge in such vanity, but unable to resist keeping it.

Our image of the Protectorate - enshrined in popular culture - is of religious fundamentalism and witch-hunting. It was arguably the last period in which religion was manifestly the centre of public life.

Adultery - defined as illicit sex with a married woman - became a capital offence, although there were very few prosecutions. But because there was no censorship during the Civil War and Protectorate, Gowing says, women's voices were more prominent than ever in pamphlets and petitions on Parliament.

"They were involved in starting religious movements such as the Quakers and later the Levellers. They were often quite poor women which actually gives their religious voice more authority." It was only in the Restoration, when rights were being formalised by the centralised state, that women were formally excluded from the public arena.

Image copyright Getty Images

Elizabeth's status was to change dramatically too, after the death of Oliver in 1658 and the end of the Protectorate under her son, Richard, months later.

In the Restoration, with the aristocracy firmly back in power, Elizabeth was crudely mocked in a satirical pamphlet cookbook The Court and Kitchen of Elizabeth, Commonly called Joan Cromwell, the Wife of the Late Usurper. She was drawn with a monkey on her shoulder to show her a crude upstart, "a hundred times fitter for a barn than a palace".

"The whole point of the curious pamphlet," says John Goldsmith, "is that she's this ordinary Fen housewife and how ridiculous [it is] that she's elevated to this position."

Elizabeth lost her home and her pension. Her husband's body was dug up and mutilated. Other men who had signed Charles I's death warrant were hanged, drawn and quartered. It must have been a terrifying time. Elizabeth had to petition Charles II to be allowed to leave London, denying rumours that she had stolen any royal jewels. Her low profile in the Protectorate court may have saved her life.

She was to live out her widowhood with her married daughter's family at Northborough Manor in Northamptonshire, dying in painful illness in 1665, seven years after Oliver.

Oliver Cromwell 1599-1658

Image copyright ALAMY
  • Married Elizabeth Bourchier in 1620, with whom he had nine children
  • Raised an army in 1642 in support of parliament against Charles I during English Civil War and was instrumental in trial and execution of Charles I
  • Became Lord Protector of England in 1653, later refused to be king
  • Died at home in Whitehall in 1658 and was exhumed and posthumously "executed" in 1661

Find out more

Over the centuries books, paintings and later films have either ignored Elizabeth (she barely appears in the 1970 Richard Harris film Cromwell) or imposed their own contemporary fantasies - notably the sentimental 19th Century painting by William Fisk which portrays her kneeling with her children begging Oliver to spare the life of Charles I.

What would Elizabeth tell us? Her kitchen in Ely where she lived her early married life is now a museum.

Her modest grave in Northborough's village church has no inscription, possibly because it was desecrated. The church warden wonders if Oliver's decapitated body might have been quietly brought and buried with her.

We may never know. But it adds to the haunting mystery about a loyal wife and a witness to extraordinary times.

Samira Ahmed presents The Fundamentalist Queen on Radio 3 Sunday 7 December 18:45 GMT

On the trail of the Elizabeth Cromwell - on location making of the Fundamentalist Queen

Find out more about The Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon

Find out more about Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely

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