Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon on 25 April 1599 to a well-connected family. The Cromwells were distantly related to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Chief Minister, through his nephew, Richard Williams. Richard later took the last name Cromwell, and his descendants continued to use it. Richard acquired lands in Huntingdonshire and his son, Sir Henry Cromwell, built Hinchingbrooke House as the family estate just outside of the town of Huntingdon. Sir Henry’s eldest son, Sir Oliver, inherited the property. He later became close with King James I, who enjoyed visiting Hinchingbrooke.
Sir Oliver ended up having to sell the estate in 1627 after accumulating debts hosting the King and his court regularly.
He supported the Royalists during the Civil War and lived in Ramsey until his death. Sir Oliver’s younger brother Robert was Oliver Cromwell’s father. Robert had more modest fortunes and status than his brother. He owned various properties in Huntingdon and made his living from their rents. He married Elizabeth Steward around 1590 and they had ten children: three boys and seven girls. Only one of the boys survived infancy: Oliver.
There are many myths told about Oliver’s childhood. According to one story, he was once kidnapped by his uncle Sir Oliver’s pet monkey and taken to the roof of Hinchingbrooke House. Another story tells us that Prince Charles visited Hinchingbrooke as a boy with his father, James I, where he met Oliver. They were reportedly involved in a fist-fight, that prophetically Oliver won. However there is no real evidence that either of these events actually happened.
In reality, we know very little about Oliver Cromwell’s childhood. He was born and raised in a house on the High Street in Huntingdon, the location of which is still known today, although the building on that site is no longer the original building. He was baptised in St. John’s Church in Huntingdon on 29th April 1599. The record of this still exists in the church’s register. There are annotations above the record that were added at a later date: the words ‘England’s plague for five years’ were written and later scored out.
Cromwell attended Huntingdon Grammar School from 1610 – 1616, where he studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, and history in preparation for further education at Cambridge. He was taught by Dr. Thomas Beard, who was schoolmaster of the Huntingdon Grammar School between 1605 – 1625. Beard was known for his anti-Catholic preaching, which is reflected in his book The Theatre of God’s Judgment. It is thought that he influenced Cromwell’s own religious beliefs, but there is no evidence that Beard was a Puritan.
Starting in April 1616, Cromwell attended Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. He does not seem to have been a dedicated student as he was described as “more famous for exercises in the Fields than in the Schools”.
He left after just over a year when his father died in June 1617 and returned home to Huntingdon to take his place as head of the family.
Cromwell may have gone to London to study law after this, which was a common practice for young men of his background. He likely met Elizabeth Bourchier there, who was the daughter of a wealthy fur dealer. The two were married on 22 August 1620 at St. Giles’ Church in Cripplegate. The relationship was a very strong one and the couple were devoted to each other. They went on to have nine children, one of whom died in infancy.
Oliver and his growing family lived in Huntingdon with his mother until 1631, during which time he got his political start. He served as a Member of Parliament in 1628, having been elected as one of the two MPs for Huntingdon. He was not an important figure, being in modern terms a backbench MP with no real political experience. He made only one speech during this first term, defending the free preaching of Puritan doctrine, which was not well received.
Two years later, there was a dispute in Huntingdon over how to spend a large sum of money left to the town. Oliver found himself on the losing side, and this, along with financial problems, forced him to sell his properties in Huntingdon in 1631 and move to St. Ives.
Puritan: a group of English Protestants who wanted to ‘purify’ the Church of England’, including remove all Roman Catholic practices from the church, favoured personal interpretation of the Bible, and stricter observance of the Sabbath and a disregard of festivals and Saint’s days.
Member of Parliament: a member of parliament is the elected representative in parliament of the people who live in a particular area.
Doctrine: a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a Church, political party, or other group.