The Cromwell Museum
Oliver Cromwell is one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in British history. An MP for Huntington, Cromwell became a soldier in 1642 when the Civil War broke out. His military success led to his growing importance, which ultimately resulted in him becoming Lord Protector in 1653.
Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon in 1599. He was from a moderately wealthy family and went to school in the building which is today the Museum, then to University in Cambridge. He left University early when his father died, then spent time in London where he met his wife Elizabeth. They married in 1620 and went on to have 9 children, although they moved from Huntingdon to St Ives in 1631 as they were having money worries. Cromwell worked as a tenant farmer there, until he inherited property from his uncle in Ely in 1636 which restored his fortunes.
Cromwell was elected as MP for Cambridge in 1640. He supported Parliament in its disagreements with King Charles I. When Civil War broke out between the King and Parliament in 1642, Cromwell became a soldier, despite being aged 43 and having no experience. He found that he had a natural talent and was very successful, becoming a leading soldier in Parliament’s armies. He helped win the Battle of Naseby in 1645 which was the turning point in the war.
Once the King was defeated, Cromwell was involved with negotiations with the King for a political settlement, and with soldiers in the army who wanted a greater say in government. The King escaped and, although he was recaptured, war restarted. Cromwell helped defeat the King’s forces then, like many in Parliament and the army, pushed for King Charles to be put on trial for treason against his people. The King was found guilty and executed on 30 January 1649. England was now a republic.
Cromwell was sent out to Ireland in 1649 to put down a rebellion there, which he did in brutal fighting; this period of his life is very controversial and he is hated by many people in Ireland even today.
On his return 9 months later, Cromwell fought against Royalists in Scotland and England bringing the Civil Wars to an end. In 1653 he closed down Parliament; like many people he felt that MPs were not doing their job properly. Over the next few months a written constitution – the world’s first – was drawn up, setting down the rules by which Britain was to be governed. A new Parliament was to be called, and a new head of state called a ‘Lord Protector’ put in charge. Cromwell was the first Lord Protector.
Under Cromwell there were some changes in government, the navy and army strengthened and stability restored after years of war. Religious toleration was allowed for many groups for the first time, including the Jewish community who had been banned from England for over 350 years. There were some disastrous foreign wars though, and a failed attempt at military government.
Oliver Cromwell died of ill health on 3 September 1653. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. Less than 2 years after his death the monarchy was restored. Vengeful Royalists ordered Cromwell’s body dug up, hung and beheaded. His head was stuck on a spike outside Westminster Hall, but was later stolen and passed through various owners. Eventually it was buried in Cambridge in 1960.
The Cromwell Museum holds the best collection of objects relating to the life and times of the 17the century soldier and statesman Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658) on public display in the world. The collection comprises nearly 1000 items, including portraits, clothing, miniatures, arms and armour, and historical documents written by or about Cromwell. The Museum is located in the former Huntingdon Grammar School building, which was where both Oliver Cromwell and Samuel Pepys went to school.
Did you know?
- Oliver Cromwell was born only a few hundred metres from our museum in 1599, and went to school on the building which is now the museum.
- Oliver Cromwell is famous to many people as the man who banned Christmas. In reality he didn’t – Parliament did during the Civil War, but as Cromwell is most famous he ends up getting the blame!
- Films and television programmes always portray Oliver Cromwell as a bit of a killjoy, always dressed in black. In fact there are no portraits from Cromwell’s time of him wearing black (which was an expensive dye) and people who met him said he was a very emotional man who liked music, dancing, horse racing and practical jokes!
- We tend to think of mental health issues as a modern phenomenon, but Oliver Cromwell suffered from depression. He was diagnosed with melancholia (as it was called then) in 1628 and had occasional bouts throughout his life. We have a letter on display written by him in 1652 when he write to a friend to describe his feelings whilst in one of these periods.
- Oliver Cromwell was the first person in England to try eating a pineapple. The diarist John Evelyn records that Cromwell was presented with one as a gift in 1657… although it’s not recorded what he thought of it!