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The King and the Gentleman
Charles Stuart and Oliver Cromwell 1599-1649
By Derek Wilson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Derek Wilson
All rights reserved.
Since ye are come of as honourable predecessors as any prince living, repress the insolence of such as, under pretence to tax a vice in the person, seek craftily to stain the race and to steal the affection of the people from their posterity. For how can they love you that hated them of whom ye are come?
James I, Basilicon Doron
King James VI of Scotland knew the importance of ancestry. He stressed it in the kingship manual he wrote for his elder son in 1599 and it was something he became even more sensitive about when he crossed the border four years later to assume sovereignty over a foreign people. Compared with the Stuarts, who could trace their royal line back into the fourteenth century, the Tudors, who had ruled England for a mere three generations, were upstarts. Yet Henry VIII and his accomplished younger daughter had radiated around their house an impressive aura of glamour and power. Their propaganda machines had successfully created an image which ensured them that affectionate awe of their own subjects and respect of other princes which made their dynasty secure. Genealogists had played no small part in the elaboration of the Tudor myth and few educated Englishmen doubted that Queen Elizabeth had the blood of King Arthur and other legendary heroes coursing through her veins. It was vital for James and his successor to replace this myth with something equally compelling. Therefore to understand the little boy who would become Charles I we need to know about the genetic sap within his family tree and also about the ivy-like mysterium which clung to it and grew with it.
What was true for princes was also true for the sons of noblemen and gentlemen. Indeed, it is arguable that heritage mattered more to members of the county squirearchy than to those of the Scottish royal house. Established but ambitious landowning families were, like today's multinational magnates, always in the takeovers and mergers business and habitually behaved with a similar ruthlessness to their modern counterparts. Through purchase, advantageous marriages and royal bounty they sought to add to their estates and fend off the aggression of equally rapacious neighbours. Impressive lineage was important in establishing their standing in local society and in attracting court patronage. It was no mere eccentricity that prompted Oliver Cromwell's grandfather to pay royal heralds to create for him an impressive pedigree and to have his celebrated ancestors displayed in the stained-glass windows of his hall.
Such visual images stimulated the imagination of children and reinforced the stories they were told by teachers, parents and relatives. They influenced profoundly two boys whose birth dates were separated by nineteen months and who grew up in the first decade of the seventeenth century. One was the object of doting parental – especially maternal – love and carried in his person all the hopes of his house. His name was Oliver. The other was brought up at a distance from his mother and father and no one expected much of him. He was called Charles.
Among the stories with which the prince grew up was that of his proud and beautiful grandmother, betrayed by the Calvinist leaders of her own people. He would have conjured up in his mind the melancholy scene on 8 February 1587 when the Queen of Scots mounted a scaffold in the courtyard of Fotheringhay Castle and waved aside the Dean of Peterborough's efforts at consolation with the words, 'Mr Dean, trouble not yourself nor me; for know that I am settled in the ancient Catholic and Roman religion, and in defence thereof, by God's grace, I mind to spend my blood.'
Oliver was no less affected by stories of his grandfather, a Protestant champion who, eighteen months after Mary's execution, had mustered men, horses and arms to see off the threatened invasion of Philip II. In the George Inn at Huntingdon he had stirred his captains with a list of reasons why they should risk their lives in this cause, concluding with the words:
... the least of all these considerations is sufficient to draw the most obdurate man of this land to prepare himself in his best strength and to lay aside all malice and privy grudges either between unkind brethren or adverse neighbours and to join hands and hearts together in the united bands of amity and unity, thereby the better to defy those enemies of ours that have sworn our destruction and the utter ruin and subversion of this realm and the sincere religion of Christ ... instead whereof they purpose to supplant [sic] the devilish superstition of the pope.
Young Charles and Oliver were the inheritors, perhaps the victims, of different mythologies. Anecdotes passed down the generations contributed vitally to the sense of identity of young Stuarts and Cromwells. More important than, though complementary to, the conscious inheritance were the 'treasonous genes' which, like Shakespeare's fox,
Who ne'er so tame, so cherished, and locked up,
Will have a wild trick of his ancestors.
The Cromwells, like the Tudors, were Welsh. In point of fact, they were not Cromwells at all; their family name was Williams and they came from very modest mercantile stock. It was a piece of monumental good fortune which had placed them at the centre of the English Reformation and vastly accelerated their upward mobility. In the early years of the first Tudor king, one Morgan Williams of Glamorgan, like many of his compatriots, followed the victor of Bosworth across the border to 'try that power which erring men call Chance' in the capital and its environs. He set himself up as an innkeeper and brewer at Putney and, subsequently, at Greenwich, where Henry VII had recently turned the riverside house of Placentia into a royal residence. It was during his days in Putney that Morgan Williams married Katherine, elder daughter of tradesman neighbour, Walter Cromwell.
At what stage, one wonders, did Morgan realise that there was something remarkable about his brother-in-law, Thomas Cromwell? Walter's only son was a restless young man of prodigious intellect who early in life dabbled in several careers – soldier, entrepreneur, lawyer, diplomat – and could only adequately be described by the exciting but vague term 'adventurer'. The Cromwell and the Williams families both belonged to a clamouring band of court hangers-on ever anxious to commend themselves to the great men who surrounded the King, but it was the astute and talented Thomas who unexpectedly reached the very summit of power and royal favour. He married the daughter of a courtier, attracted the attention of Thomas Wolsey and, via the cardinal, came to the attention of the King. By the time he reached his mid-thirties Thomas Cromwell was sufficiently wealthy and important to be reckoned a gentleman and, within the family, a role model for his young nephew, Richard, Morgan Williams's elder son.
Richard had already shown himself to be ambitious and capable. Two and a half centuries later a family chronicler wishing to account for the Williams family's rapid rise told the story of Richard's stunning performance at a court tourney. He appeared richly caparisoned in white velvet and so excelled in the sport that the King threw him a jewelled ring with the words 'Formerly thou wast my Dick, but hereafter thou shalt be my Diamond'. Whether or not this actually took place, Richard's progress to the status of wealthy landed gentleman was more prosaic. Even before his uncle entered the cardinal's service he had established impressive City and court connections and these helped him to make a very advantageous marriage in 1518. His bride, Frances, was none other than the daughter of the reigning Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Murfyn. The union brought him impressive property in Cambridgeshire and Richard became a man of consequence there, being appointed sheriff for the first time in 1536. As soon as his uncle achieved the position of principal adviser to the King and manager of government business, vacated by the fallen Cardinal Wolsey, Richard signalled his membership of the great man's clientage by taking the surname Cromwell. As a loyal supporter and a man of consequence in eastern England, Richard was an obvious choice for regional commissioner when Thomas Cromwell embarked upon his wholesale dismantling of the monastic establishment. The dissolution of the lesser and greater religious houses, together with all their conventual buildings, farms, tenements, pastures, barns, churches and parsonage houses, offered a never to be repeated opportunity to property speculators and aspiring landowners. Most of the plums went to major speculators and to the great magnates who were prominent in local society and at court. But the fenland area between Cambridge and the Wash boasted no noble houses. The social and political leaders of the region were the Benedictine abbots of Ramsey, one of the richest monasteries in the country. In the absence of wealthy bidders the imminent confiscation of this house thus offered possibilities of immense wealth and influence to humbler suitors.
Richard Cromwell firmly set his sights upon becoming the most important man in Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. He was knighted in 1537 and, in the autumn of that year, he was despatched to report on some of the larger religious houses in his area. Faithfully he did what was expected of him; and assiduously he drew his painstaking efforts to the minister's attention:
Your lordship, I think, shall surely apperceive the Prior of Ely to be of a forward sort by evident tokens, as at our coming home shall be at large related unto you. At the making hereof we had done nothing at Ramsey, save that overnight I communed with the abbot, whom I found conformable to everything as shall at this time be put in use according to your lordship's will ... As soon as we have done at Ramsey we go to Peterborough and from thence to my house ... The blessed Trinity preserve your lordship's health ...
His rewards were not long in coming. The following year he received grant of the small Benedictine nunnery of Hinchingbrooke, just to the west of Huntingdon, with its 'church, steeple, churchyard and house and all lands'. But the Ramsey territorial empire was the prize he most coveted and this he began to acquire in 1540. In consideration of his 'good services' and payment of £4663 4s 2d he received the abbey itself and several of its manors. It was an excellent deal, for the properties in question yielded an annual return of £1987 15s. 3d but the capital and credit involved in this purchase was enormous for a mere knight in the mid-sixteenth century.
As Sir Richard entered his new domain his uncle fell from power, lingered in the Tower for seven weeks, hoping against hope, then went to the block. So far from sharing in the minister's downfall, Richard prospered and became, in effect, the head of the family. Thomas's only son, Gregory – though he married Jane Seymour's sister (thus becoming an uncle of the future King) and inherited his father's barony (but not the Earldom of Essex conferred on Thomas Cromwell in 1539) – was a nonentity. Richard, by contrast had lost nothing of his energy and ambition. He was sheriff again in 1541, sat in Parliament in 1542, was a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber by 1543, and went with the King on the French campaign of 1544. He died in October of that year, perhaps from fever contracted in camp. Throughout his latter years he was avidly consolidating and adding to his fenland estates. By negotiating fresh grants through the Court of Augmentations, by making deals with London speculators and by exchanging lands with his neighbours, Richard created a Cromwell enclave in the country between Peterborough and Cambridge.
The heir to all these estates, Henry Williams alias Cromwell, was only seven at the time of his father's relatively early death. He was, moreover, an orphan, his mother having died two years earlier. The welfare of the vulnerable members of such an important family was of considerable interest to the government. In 1551 the Council instructed Thomas Cromwell's widow to take Sir Richard's unmarried sisters into her Leicestershire establishment, an arrangement which was not an unalloyed success. Lady Elizabeth complained: 'I have in some cases thought they should not wholly be their own guides, willing them to follow my advice – which they have not taken in good part, nor according to my expectation in them.'
As for young Henry, his lucrative wardship was claimed as a perquisite by none other than the Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, Sir Edward North. Sir Edward's country estate was at Kirtling, near Newmarket and he was Lord-Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire in the early years of Elizabeth's reign. It was he who charted the course of Henry's early life, modelling it closely on his own. The boy was sent to Queens' College, Cambridge (North had been at Peterhouse) and then to Lincoln's Inn, to acquire that working knowledge of the common law considered essential for those who would control large estates and be prominent in the government of rural England. North arranged an extremely lucrative marriage for his charge and this was duly solemnised soon after Henry came of age in 1558. Like his father, Henry took to wife the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London. Sir Ralph Warren (who died in 1553) had been one of the most successful and wealthy members of the mercantile community, was related by marriage to Sir Edward North and held estates bordering the North lands east of Cambridge. Joan, his only daughter, came to her husband with a considerable jointure, and the prosperous young man lost no time in accumulating the trappings of a man of taste and fashion.
Henry was an ebullient, larger-than-life character. He had no father to impress upon him the need for prudence and could scarcely wait for his majority before starting to spend his fortune. Ramsey, where his father had made his principal dwelling, was deep in the fen and notorious for its dampness and impassable roads during the winter. Henry, therefore, decided to transform the nunnery at Hinchingbrooke (previously let to tenants) into a magnificent principal residence. The new house was a commodious, rambling mansion, noteworthy more for its incorporation of everything that passed for 'mod cons' in the Elizabethan age than for its overall architectural style but, as well as providing comfort and luxury for the family and their guests, it also powerfully asserted its owner's importance. Not the least aspect of this was its proclamation of Henry's lineage. The heraldic stained glass of his splendid hall windows told a story that was as splendid as it was spurious. It proclaimed Henry's descent from one of William the Conqueror's barons, the lord of Cardigan and Powys. Henry continued to use the name Williams as well as Cromwell, and his coat of arms, a silver lion on a black ground, was that of his supposed Welsh ancestors and not that of the newly armigerous Cromwells and, in 1602, towards the end of his life, Henry paid York Herald to furnish proof of his noble progenitorship. Like a royal couple on progress, Henry and his wife (when she was not experiencing one of her almost annual confinements) passed back and forth between their two homes and when the Lord of Ramsey and Hinchingbrooke was feeling in a more than usually expansive mood, he scattered silver pennies to the tenants and estate workers who lined the road to pay their respects.
By 1564 Hinchingbrooke was ready to receive its most important guest. Elizabeth I and her court stayed there during their summer progress in that year and so delighted was the Queen with Henry's lavish hospitality that, before she left she dubbed him knight. Henry's rule in Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire was almost precisely coterminous with the reign of his sovereign and he took it on himself to replicate in the shire the glittering household of the Queen. Men called him the Golden Knight because of his cultured extravagance. More importantly, he represented royal government to the local farmers, labourers and burgesses. He was sheriff of Huntingdonshire four times and sat for the county in all the early parliaments of the reign. With other leaders of East Midlands society he presided as a magistrate and was the first point of reference in disputes and matters of regional concern.
One of the other prominent families with whom he was closely connected was the St Johns, whose seat at Bletsoe was some twenty miles cross-country from Hinchingbrooke. Oliver St John was a close contemporary, came of a family distantly related to the Tudors and was raised to the peerage as first Baron St John at Elizabeth's coronation. His lordship became an intimate friend of Sir Henry and a valuable supporter at court. It is very likely that he stood godfather to Henry and Joan's first-born son who was christened Oliver. Relations remained close when John St John succeeded his father in 1582. Six years later, in the Armada year, when St John was Lord-Lieutenant of Huntingdonshire he warmly commended his Muster Master to the Council:
Excerpted from The King and the Gentleman by Derek Wilson. Copyright © 1999 Derek Wilson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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