Elizabeth Cromwell

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Her Highness
Elizabeth Cromwell
Elizabeth Cromwell.jpg
Portrait of Elizabeth Cromwell painted by Robert Walker
Born Elizabeth Bourchier
Felsted, England
Died November 1665 (aged 66–67)
Norborough, Northamptonshire
Oliver Cromwell
(m. 1620; d. 1658)
Children Robert Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell
Bridget Cromwell
Richard Cromwell
Henry Cromwell
Elizabeth Cromwell
James Cromwell
Mary Cromwell
Frances Cromwell
Parent(s) Sir James Bourchier
Frances Crane

Elizabeth Cromwell (née Bourchier; 1598–1665) was the wife of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Family and marriage[edit]

Elizabeth was the daughter of Sir James Bourchier, Knt. of Felsted in Essex, who was a wealthy London leather merchant and his wife Frances Crane, daughter of Thomas Crane of Newton Tony, Wiltshire.[1] She was born on an unknown date in 1598. Elizabeth was the oldest of twelve children.[2]

Harris speaks of the Bourchiers as "an ancient family;" but Noble, who was better informed, is of a different opinion. It was only in 1610, he tells us, that Sir James obtained a grant of arms (Sable, three ounces in passant in pale or spotted)[3] and he adds that the only occasion when the arms of the Bourchiers were quartered with those of the Protector was at his funeral, when they appeared on the escutcheons.[4]

On 22 August 1620 at St Giles, Cripplegate, London, she married Oliver Cromwell.[5] The marriage produced nine children, eight of whom reached adulthood. The marriage to Elizabeth was very advantageous for Cromwell, as her father brought him into contact with the wealthy merchant community of London, and due to the extensive lands Sir James owned in Essex, this family association would later guarantee him much support from the influential families of the local puritan gentry. At the time of his marriage, however, Cromwell had not yet become an ardent puritan. Their marriage was happy, and they were devoted to one another. This can be attested by the solicitous love letters Cromwell wrote to Elizabeth while away on his military campaigns. Some of these were published in an anthology of love letters edited by Antonia Fraser in 1976.[6]

The abuse that was heaped on her husband has naturally been shared by Elizabeth. The Cavaliers styled her contemptuously Joan, and accused her of every manner of vice, among which drunkenness and adultery were the most prominent. As the charges, however, appear to have been without foundation, the libels fell probably harmless.[7]

She is known to have been introduced to Charles I, at the time that the unfortunate monarch was a prisoner at Hampton Court, and on good terms with her husband: Ashburnham took her by the hand and presented her to the King, by whom, together with the ladies of Ireton and Whalley, she was afterwards entertained.[1]


A miniature of Elizabeth Cromwell was painted by miniature painter Samuel Cooper who describes her as "neither uncomely or undignified in person."[citation needed]. However John Heneage Jesse writing in 1846 concludes that "in person, the Protectress was exceedingly plain", in allusion to which Abraham Cowley, in his play "Cutter of Colman Street", puts the following passage into the mouth of Cutter :—" He [Worm] would have been my lady Protectress's poet: he writ once a copy in praise of her beauty ; but her Highness gave for it but an old half-crown piece in gold, which she had hoarded up before these troubles, and that discouraged him from any further applications to court." She is said to have had a defect in one of her eyes; and as even Waller neglected to celebrate her beauty, there can be little question as to her want of comeliness.[8]

The passage which has been just quoted from Cowley, contains a double satire. The hoarding of the half-crown piece has evidently reference to her supposed thriftiness. "She very frugally housewifed it," says James Heath," and would nicely and finically tax the expensive unthriftiness (as she said) of the other woman [Henrietta Maria] who lived there before her".[9]

A very curious pamphlet, entitled the Court and Kitchen of Mrs. Joan Cromwell, would appear to have been the production of some disappointed denizen of the royal kitchen, who mingles the decline of cookery with the decline of the empire, and sighs over the economy of the protectoral entertainments, compared with former banquets and former magnificence. Altogether, the work comprises little more than an insignificant and scurrilous attack on the private character and household dispensation of the Protectress, against whom the author apparently bears a strong personal pique.[9]

The abuse is shortly afterwards repeated. "Much ado had she at first to raise her mind and deportment to this sovereign grandeur; and very difficult it was for her to lay aside those impertinent meannesses of her private fortune: like the bride-cat, by Venus's favour metamorphosed into a comely virgin, that could not forbear catching at mice, she could not comport with her present condition, nor forget the common converse and affairs of life. But like some kitchen-maid, preferred by the lust of some rich and noble dotard, was ashamed of her sudden and gaudy bravery, and for a while skulked up and down the house, till the fawning observance and reverences of her slaves had raised her to a confidence, not long after sublimed into an impudence." Her behaviour, however, on her elevation is somewhat differently represented by Edmund Ludlow. The republican, who knew her personally and well, informs us that when her husband changed his residence from the cockpit at Whitehall to the royal palace, she was at first anything but gratified with the splendid change in her domestic arrangements. Heath, on the contrary asserts, that "she was trained up and made the waiting woman of Cromwell's providence, and lady rampant of his successful greatness, which she personated afterwards as imperiously as himself".[10]

In a curious pasquinade of the period, entitled "The Cuckoo's Nest at Westminster," there is introduced the following ludicrous dialogue between the Protectress and Lady Fairfax.[11] This broadside was printed in 1648, some years previous to Cromwell's inauguration in the Protectorship. Its value consists in exhibiting how early and how generally the Lord Protectors views of personal aggrandizement were seen through by his contemporaries.[12]

The two charges, of intemperance and a love of intrigue, which have been brought against the Protectress, rest almost entirely on the authority of an indecent and scurrilous pamphlet, entitled "News from the New Exchange". John Heneage Jesse opinion "its venomous absurdities are unworthy of notice".[13]

Setting aside mere assertion and party invective, it is not difficult to ascertain the real character of the Protectress. She may have had petty meannesses as well as private virtues, but there seem to have been no marked features in her character, nothing in fact which raised her above any ordinary woman. Lilburne evidently implies that she possessed a certain influence over her husband, since he accuses her of having disposed of military appointments during the generalship of Cromwell. Granger also appears to be of the same opinion. – " It has been asserted," he says, " that she was as deeply interested herself in steering the helm, as she had often done in turning the spit; and that she was as constant a spur to her husband in the career of his ambition, as she had been to her servants in their culinary employments." All that we know, however, of the life and character of the Protectress would tend to liberate her from these charges. She seems to have laudably confined herself to the details of domestic life, nor is there any authenticated instance of her having exercised the slightest political influence over her husband. Cromwell was himself too stern in his nature to be much influenced by women, and too cautious to entrust them with his intrigues. He appears, therefore, to have been by no means forward in making her a sharer in that power, a portion of which a strong-minded woman might nevertheless have contrived to obtain. Besides, not one of her relations were partakers of her greatness, and Cromwell's behaviour to her appears throughout to have been rather that of a man who respects his wife as the mother of his children, than for any mental or personal qualifications of her own.[14]

The great argument against her having been a participator in his ambitious views, is the singular and undoubted fact that she endeavoured to persuade her husband to recall the young King. As most of her offspring were royalists, and as children are more frequently biassed by the example and opinions of the mother, probably she was little gratified with the usurpation of her husband. Thus, what we really know of the Protectress inclines us to take part with her panegyrists. She has, at least, the negative praise of not having outstepped the modesty of her sex, by obtruding her name unnecessarily on the public.[15]

Only one of her letters is said to be extant. It was found among Milton's State Papers, and is addressed to the Protector. It is merely the affectionate epistle of a homely wife to her absent husband, and is scarcely worth transcribing. The orthography is wretched, even for the period in which it was written. We must not omit to mention, as a favourable trait in her character, that the Protectress maintained six daughters of clergymen, whom she constantly employed at needlework in her own apartments.[16]

After the death of her husband, and the abdication of her son Richard, at a time when the Cromwells had ceased to retain the least influence in affairs of state, the army paid her the compliment of considering her wants, and compelled the Parliament to settle on her a suitable maintenance. The Restoration, however, following shortly afterwards, she thought it necessary to seek safety in flight, and, with this view, had collected together a large quantity of valuables, with the intention of getting them conveyed out of the kingdom. But her design becoming known to the council of state, a survey was ordered to be held on them, and several articles belonging to the royal family being discovered, she was obliged to depart without even such insignificant remains of her former greatness.[17]

The seizure of these articles is announced in the journals of the period. "Whitehall, May 12, 1660. Information being given that there were several of his Majesty's goods at a fruiterer's warehouse near the Three Cranes, in Thames Street, London, which were there kept as the goods of Mrs. Eliz. Cromwell, wife to Oliver Cromwell, deceased, sometimes called Protector, and it being not very improbable that the said Mrs. Cromwell might convey away some such goods, the Council ordered persons to view the same".[18][19]

"May 16, 1660. Amongst the goods that were pretended to be Mrs. Cromwell's, at the fruiterer's warehouse, are discovered some pictures, and other things belonging to his Majesty: the remainder lay attached in the custody of Lieut. Col. Cox."[20]

Granger was assured that, after the downfall of her family, the Protectress resided for some time in Switzerland, but the fact is unsupported by other evidence. She certainly retired for a short period into Wales, where she remained till the excitement incident on the Restoration had in some degree subsided.[21] She then moved to the house of her son-in-law, John Claypole, at Norborough in Northamptonshire, where she remained until she died in November 1665 and was buried in Northborough church on 19 November.[22][a]


Elizabeth Cromwell died in 1665 and five of her nine children survived her as well as numerous grandchildren.

  • Robert(baptised 13 October 1621– May 1639),[23] died while away at school.
  • Oliver (baptised 6 February 1623[b]–1644), who became a cornet in Lord St. John's troop in the army of the Earl of Essex, and died of small-pox.[24]
  • Bridget Cromwell (baptised 4 August 1624 – 1681), married firstly on 15 June 1646 Henry Ireton, and secondly Charles Fleetwood.[25] She had one son and three daughters by her first husband.
  • Richard Cromwell (4 October 1626 – 12 July 1712).[25] In 1658 he succeeded his father as Lord Protector but the Protectorate collapsed one year later. In May 1649 he married Dorothy Mayor, daughter of Richard Mayor. Richard and Dorothy had nine children, but only four reached adulthood.
  • Henry Cromwell (20 January 1628 – 23 March 1674) Served as Lord Deputy of Ireland.[25] He married Elizabeth Russell by whom he had seven children.
  • Elizabeth Cromwell (baptised 2 July 1629 – August 1658), married John Claypole[25]with whom she had four children. Elizabeth was known as "Bettie" and was said to have been her father's favourite child.[26]
  • James Cromwell (born and died in 1632)[citation needed]
  • Mary Cromwell (baptised 9 February 1637 – 19 November 1713), married Thomas Belasyse, 1st Earl Fauconberg.[25]
  • Frances Cromwell (6 December 1638 – 27 January 1721), married firstly Robert Rich, and secondly Sir John Russell, 4th Baronet.[27]

Portrait gallery[edit]

Depictions in film[edit]

In the 1970 film Cromwell, the part of Elizabeth, Oliver Cromwell's wife, was played by Zena Walker. The part of Oliver Cromwell was played by Irish actor Richard Harris.


  1. ^ John Jesse states that she died on 8 October 1672 (Jesse 1846, p. 151). Mark Nobel speculates that although the register says that Elizabeth Cromwell, the widow of Oliver, was buried in Northbrough, on 19 November 1665 that this was only a political death, because she feared persecution and thought it prudent to be supposed dead. Nobel based this speculation on information provided by the Reverend James Clearke of Peterbrought. (Noble 1784b, p. vii)
  2. ^ Julian calendar with the start of year adjusted to 1 January (Old Style and New Style dates)
  1. ^ a b Jesse 1846, pp. 142–143.
  2. ^ The Cromwell Association.
  3. ^ Anderson 2003, p. 282.
  4. ^ Noble 1784a, p. 152.
  5. ^ Rogers 1980, p. 32.
  6. ^ Fraser 1989, pp. 120, 124.
  7. ^ Jesse 1846, p. 143.
  8. ^ Jesse 1846, p. 143.
  9. ^ a b Jesse 1846, p. 144.
  10. ^ Jesse 1846, p. 145.
  11. ^ Jesse 1846, pp. 145–146.
  12. ^ Jesse 1846, p. 147.
  13. ^ Jesse 1846, pp. 147–148.
  14. ^ Jesse 1846, pp. 148–149.
  15. ^ Jesse 1846, p. 149.
  16. ^ Jesse 1846, pp. 149–150.
  17. ^ Jesse 1846, p. 150.
  18. ^ Jesse 1846, pp. 150–151.
  19. ^ Jesse 1846, p. 150 citing Parliamentary Intelligencer, 7 to 14 May
  20. ^ Jesse 1846, p. 151 citing Mercurius Publicus, 10 to 17 May. 1660
  21. ^ Jesse 1846, p. 151.
  22. ^ Gaunt 2008.
  23. ^ Firth 1888, p. 182 cite Noble, i. 132; Forster, Edinburgh Review, January' 1856
  24. ^ Firth 1888, p. 182 cites Noble, i. 132; Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War, i. 369
  25. ^ a b c d e Firth 1888, p. 182.
  26. ^ Plant 2012.[better source needed]
  27. ^ Firth 1888, p. 182 cites Noble, i. 148; Waylen, p. 102


Attribution: This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: "Memoirs of the court of England, from the revolution in 1688 to the death of George the Second" by John Heneage Jesse (1846)

External links[edit]