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Thursday, April 15, 2010
“I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height, nor yet in obscurity.” So wrote Oliver Cromwell of his origins – and you can see exactly how he lived at Ely.
When he lived at Ely during the 1630s he was just plain, russet-coated Mister Cromwell. But during his time in the city he made his mark, taking up the unfashionable cause of fenlanders rights. Later he was to clash with the ministers of the cathedral before leaving Ely for good as his career took him to the height of power. The house Cromwell and his family moved to in 1636 was already old, parts of it dating to the 13th century. Standing in sight of the mighty cathedral, Ship of the fens, and next door to tranquil St Marys Church, it was the ideal place for a growing family. Born in Huntingdon in 1599, Oliver had married Elizabeth Bourchier in 1620. After farming in St Ives, the Cromwells inherited the Ely house from his maternal uncle. With four sons and four daughters (the two youngest, Frances and Mary, were born there) Oliver was in need of a substantial income. As the role of Farmer or collector of the Tithes for two parish churches went with the leased property he got just that.
Substantial, rather than grand, best describes it. Today it houses Elys tourist information office, as well as being sympathetically converted for modern visitors. On two storeys, in Cromwells day the family would gather in the parlour, built in the 17th century. This has been re-created complete with contemporary props. Next door is the large kitchen, the oldest part of the property, dating back to 1216. This features a huge fireplace, where the fire would have to be kept going 24 hours a day. Ingredients of the day have been re-created on the large table in the centre of the room, while game and herbs are hanging from the walls. The atmosphere would have been one of warmth and bustle, and it was here that Cromwells wife, Elizabeth, would have been in charge. The pair had an affectionate marriage. Although quiet and self-effacing, Elizabeth was a strong sort of character, and the few letters surviving between her and her husband show how strong the family bond was. Cromwell was fond of his wifes simple home-cooking. Although it was later satirised by Royalist propagandists, it is doubtful if the Cromwells were bothered. Despite his stern reputation, he was extremely fond of his family, a man who enjoyed his beer and pipe, and something of a practical joker. As long as you didnt mess with his religion he was good company; he enjoyed music in the home, but not in church. Stand in the kitchen window and you can enjoy the same view of the neighbouring church and green the Cromwells would have in the 1630s.
Cromwell was a convinced Parliamentarian. Returned as MP for Cambridge in 1640, he took a prominent part in the drift to war, which broke out two years later. Climb the stairs in his house, and the story is told. The Portrait Room is dominated by a fine picture of the man himself, executed in the style of the celebrated painter Peter Lely. A video tells the tale of Cromwells war; how he developed from country gentleman to brave and disciplined cavalry commander, to phenomenally successful general and eventual head of state. In the room next door is an exhibition of arms and equipment, and visitors can try on a number of hats. Those of a martial persuasion may wish to don the lobster pot helmet favoured by well-dressed cavalrymen of the day. You can also try on costumes of the period (were they that slim?)
In 1643 Cromwell was appointed governor of Ely by Parliament. In earlier days he had been given the title, not entirely complimentary, of Lord of the Fens. He had backed commoners in their battle against the gentlemen adventurers draining the fens for farmland, thus taking on the establishment. Now he clashed with the cathedral ministers, on whom he had billeted troops. He advised the Rev Hitch to stop the unedifying and offensive choir services something that was anathema to Puritans and warned him he had only himself to blame if the troops acted in a tumultuous or disorderly way. Mr Hitch didnt take the hint; Cromwell entered the cathedral with his soldiers, told him to leave off his fooling, booted him and the congregation out and closed the cathedral for 11 years.
It could have been worse. The cathedral escaped much of the destruction visited elsewhere, probably due to Cromwells affection for the place. By the later 1640s he was increasingly away on military and political duty, leaving Elizabeth and the girls at home. Favourite daughter Elizabeth was married there. But by 1647 the family had left Ely, joining the soon-to-be Lord Protector in the capital. The story does not end here though. Although Cromwell died in London in 1658 he is reputed to haunt a bedroom in the house, a tale chillingly told via a recording as you gaze on the Protector on his death bed, and which has been investigated and verified by experts in the paranormal. If youre not too scared after that you can watch a video telling the story of Cromwells beloved fens, their past, present and possibly drowned future. All in all, a fine introduction to the domestic life of one of the most important and controversial men in our history.
In later years the house was a pub. Joseph Rushbrook brewed his own beer at the Cromwell Arms Inn from 1843 to 1871.
Oliver Cromwells House, 29 St Marys Street, Ely. Telephone 01353 662062.
Further reading: Cromwell, Our Chief of Men by Antonia Frasier, 1973.