Oliver Cromwell’s shadowy queen

Simon Guerrier investigates the mysterious life of Elizabeth Cromwell – the ordinary woman who became England’s first lady in the 17th century...

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Robert Walker’s c1653 portrait of Elizabeth Cromwell shows a self-assured, lavishly dressed woman, far removed from the dour puritanism associated with her husband. (© Topfoto)

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On 14 April 1654, the new lord protector, Oliver Cromwell, moved into apartments in Whitehall Palace. But his wife, Elizabeth, could never endure whispering or to be left alone in her new home. She was haunted by the ghosts of dead princes.

At least, that’s the story in The Court and Kitchen of Elizabeth Cromwell, a satirical cookbook – yes, really – first published in 1664. The pamphlet is, obviously, Restoration propaganda, accusing the former lady protectress of meanness and greed, and written from “contemptuous indignation that such a person durst presume to take upon herself such a sovereign estate when she was a hundred times fitter for a barn than a palace”. It recoils at the very idea that, in the 1650s, the most powerful woman in England was not an aristocrat but an ordinary housewife.

Elizabeth’s life and the times she lived through were extraordinary. Yet, unlike almost anyone else who ever married a British head of state, there is no major biography of her. Just a handful of academic papers mention her. That’s largely because so little evidence of her life survives.

We know she was born some time in 1598, perhaps the oldest of 12 children of the merchant James Bourchier. James was knighted in 1603 and he owned property in Essex and London. Yet the next we know of Elizabeth is her wedding day: 22 August 1620. The 14th-century church where she was married, St Giles Cripplegate, is still standing, dwarfed by the brutalist architecture of the Barbican Centre around it.

Between 1621 and 1638, Elizabeth and Oliver had nine children and lived in Huntingdon, St Ives and then Ely. Their home in Ely is now a museum, the satirical cookbook a key source in the re-creation of Elizabeth’s kitchen. We can follow Oliver’s path from relative obscurity as MP for Huntingdon to general of the New Model Army during the Civil War, but all we really know of Elizabeth’s life at the time is that he sent her some of his pay.

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The Cromwell family, including Elizabeth (seated far right), implores Oliver to spare King Charles I’s life in this 19th-century painting by William Fisk. (© Bridgeman)

Dead princes

What did she think of the war with King Charles and her husband’s part in defeating him? A 19th‑century painting by William Fisk shows Elizabeth and her children pleading with Oliver to spare Charles’s life – but there’s no contemporary evidence of such an intercession. Did she really believe that ghosts of dead princes haunted her? We simply don’t know.

We do have a sense of Elizabeth’s relationship with Oliver. Three letters from him to her survive from the year after the king’s execution. While at war in Scotland in 1650–51, Oliver wrote to Elizabeth: “Thou art dearer to me than any creature.” In another, he says: “Although I have not much to write, yet indeed I love to write to my dear, who is very much in my heart.”

A letter from Elizabeth to Oliver dated 27 December 1650 is a rare surviving record of her voice. She complains that she has written three letters for every one received from him. “Truly, my life is but half a life in your absence,” she says, “did not the Lord make it up in himself.”

The letter reveals more than her love for Oliver (and God, reminding us of the Cromwells’ puritanical faith). She also tells Oliver to write to the lord chief justice, the president of the Council of State and the speaker of the House of Commons. “You cannot think the wrong you do yourself,” she concludes, “in the want of a letter, though it were but seldom.” It’s tempting to read a lot into this one surviving letter. Is it evidence that Elizabeth guided, even masterminded, her husband’s political career? How much did she help him reach the highest office in the land? Again, we just don’t know.

But what we do know about Elizabeth can shed light on how the Puritan regime might have differed to that of the late king – or not. We tend to think of the Puritans as dour and earnest, opposing all comfort and pleasure. However, a portrait of Elizabeth from about 1653, painted by Robert Walker and now on display in the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, shows something very different. Elizabeth gazes confidently down at us, resplendent in a dress of black velvet and bright orange lining. She wears pearl earrings and necklace, her hair is in glossy ringlets and she seems to be wearing make-up.

In short, Elizabeth – this first housewife among equals – looks rather like a queen. In style and composition, the painting could almost be one of a pair with the portrait of Henrietta Maria, widow of King Charles, on display in the National Portrait Gallery.

But many portraits of Henrietta Maria exist, while there are very few of Elizabeth – which might be evidence of a major difference between the two women. We know the Cromwells adopted the royal palaces of Whitehall and Hampton Court as their homes. Elizabeth helped to entertain the wives of foreign dignitaries there. But, unlike her husband, her role was not defined in the written constitution. The part she played at state occasions seems to have been strictly limited. That could have been a conscious choice: to be different from the Stuart monarchy and not use Oliver’s family as a symbol of state power. If so, our lack of knowledge about Elizabeth is not down to sources having been lost – or erased. Instead, her life was not recorded, as a kind of political statement by her husband’s regime.

We don’t know how the death of Oliver in 1658 affected Elizabeth. We know the Protectorate offered her £20,000 and the use of St James’s House. We don’t know if she attended Oliver’s state funeral on 23 November, or how involved she was in her son Richard’s reign as lord protector. The army would not follow Richard, but it proposed to parliament that Elizabeth receive a generous pension.

We can only imagine Elizabeth’s feelings when, soon after this, parliament restored the monarchy. Her late husband’s corpse was exhumed from Westminster Abbey to be ‘executed’ for treason. By the time Oliver’s head was displayed on a pole at Westminster Hall, Elizabeth had been evicted.

Her son Richard fled the country in fear of his life but was Elizabeth ever in danger? The satirical cookbook shows how cruelly she was mocked by those keen to show loyalty to the new regime. A telling source is her petition to Charles II in 1660, denying the rumours that she’d stolen jewels and other items belonging to the royal family. She speaks of “many violences and losses under pretence of searching for such goods”, insists that she played no part in her late husband’s regime and assures the new king of her obedience.

Charles must have believed her – perhaps her low profile in the Protectorate even saved her life. She was allowed to retire to live with her son-in-law John Claypole in Northborough Manor, a few miles from Peterborough. But Elizabeth’s health was failing; her daughter Mary described her mother’s sickness as “so affecting a spectacle as I scarce know how to write”. She died in 1665 and is buried in the nearby St Andrew’s Church. Today, a plaque put up by the Cromwell Association marks the site but the stone is bare. We don’t know if the inscription was defaced or merely faded over time.

A commoner becoming queen is a fairy tale, yet Elizabeth’s life was anything but. It’s frustrating that we don’t know more about such a key figure in this extraordinary period. But perhaps that’s why the rare glimpses we do have of her remain so haunting.


Scented soaps and collops of veal

Elizabeth Cromwell left us just a few glimpses of her life, as Simon Guerrier found out when working on a new Radio 3 documentary

In producing a documentary about Elizabeth, the challenge has been to use what glimpses we do have of her to bring her to life. We know how many children she had and that she attended particular court events in the 1650s but we needed something more vivid.

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An illustration showing the different cuts of veal, a favourite dish of Elizabeth Cromwell’s. (© Mary Evans)

As well as retracing Elizabeth’s steps – the church where she was married, the house where she died – we looked for anything that would give us a feel for Elizabeth the person. That’s why the satirical cookbook produced by her post-Restoration tormenters is so important: for all it mocks Elizabeth, it also lists what she ate, including her “almost constant dish” of Scotch collops of veal. Suddenly, there’s a tantalising sense of a real person.

At the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, curator John Goldsmith showed us a lavish box of soaps owned by the Cromwells but never used – suggesting, we believed, that the puritan Elizabeth had never dared to indulge herself (our experts thought that this assumption was too fanciful).

Most powerful was historian Patrick Little pointing us to sources describing the music that might have played in Cromwell’s court. He helped us track down modern recordings of works by John Hingeston and Giacomo Carissimi, which we’ve included in the documentary. That’s the benefit of radio: what you hear conjures pictures in your head. And when that music plays, Elizabeth and her world feel suddenly within reach.

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Simon Guerrier is a freelance writer and producer, who has been working on a new BBC documentary on Elizabeth Cromwell.