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Wednesday, April 14, 2010
“Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint your picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughness, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me; otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.”. So said Oliver Cromwell when, at the height of his fame and power, his portrait was made by painter Sir Peter Lely...
You can see a copy of this celebrated picture at the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon. This Cambridgeshire town has many sites associated with its most famous son, for Cromwell was born there in April, 1599. Young Oliver was born into the lesser gentry, although his family father Robert and mother Elizabeth Steward had important local connections. His grandfather Henry Cromwell, for example, had built nearby Hinchingbrooke House and, as a boy, Oliver and his family were frequent visitors when his uncle, also Oliver, owned this great house. The museum in the towns High Street has special significance for it was here that the young Cromwell first went to school .
Those higher up the social ladder usually were, but Cromwells family was a notch below its distinguished relatives Not that there was any disgrace in going to a free grammar school like this just a few hundred yards up the road from the Cromwell family home. At this time there were about 1,300 such schools in England, and they provided education along with private schools to which Cromwell later sent his own children and endowed grammar schools. The one at Huntingdon, built on the site of a former religious house consisted of just one schoolroom. Children of all ages would learn elementary reading and writing, then Latin to prepare those whose parents possessed the means to send them on to university. They would have all been boys; girls, if they got any schooling at all, got it at home .
Opinions vary, according to the prejudices of the commentator Puritan poet John Milton later eulogised the Lord Protector and spoke of his school as the place where the native vastness of intellect was nurtured. School master Dr Thomas Beard, a Cambridge graduate, clergyman, and friend of the family, was a strong influence. Beard was a committed Puritan, and his influence may have been important in forging Cromwells strong religious and political sentiments. But Royalist propagandists latched on to other stories. Young Oliver, they alleged, was far from a model pupil. Contemporary author James Heath, who had an axe to grind, wrote of Cromwells unruliness, including apple scrumping and other youthful misdemeanours which went on to his teenage years. Its most likely an exaggeration, but certainly Oliver had a rough and intractable temper and later wrote that as a young man he was a chief of sinners. The lad may have been a bit of a handful for his teachers; he preferred action and the outdoor country life to too much study.
Oliver was his parents only surviving son. Of 10 children born to the couple, seven survived. An elder brother Henry, born in 1595, soon died. Oliver had six.sisters, and would soon become head of the family. Although he went to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1616, he.was called home a year later. The death of his father meant, at the age of 18, his education was over and practical adult life began in earnest. After marrying and starting a family, he later.lived in Ely (where you can visit the.house he lived in). At some point he.underwent a spiritual conversion, becoming a Puritan was this the legacy of his first schoolteacher Dr Beard? After his Civil War exploits in.battle he became effective ruler of England until his death in 1658.
There is little evidence relating to Cromwells schooldays but a model of young Oliver at his desk shows us that school life has not changed that much. In the museums words, it sets out neither to celebrate or denigrate his achievements but to interpret where possible the significance of Gods Englishman. This betrays the fact that Cromwell is still a controversial figure. As well as portraits of the man, you can see some very personal items including the hat he is supposed to have worn at the dissolution of the Long Parliament in 1653 and his personal flask for carrying gunpowder to charge his pistol. The museum also has a collection of Civil War documents and weaponry. During the controversies of the 1640s there was an explosion of printed material produced by both sides, much of it blatant propaganda and a display of such newsbooks is on show. You can also see coins struck during the Protectorate which show Cromwell as a regal figure. Lack of space means much of the collection is held in reserve.
Huntingdon is the home of the Cromwell Collection, a recent partnership between the Cambridgeshire Library Service, Archives Service, Cromwell Museum and.Cromwell Association, which collates information about this much-studied figure. Hinchingbrooke House, which also has links to Samuel Pepys, is open on summer Sunday afternoons, while the Falcon pub in Huntingdon is where Cromwell recruited his first cavalry soldiers plain, russet-coated East Anglian yeomen who were to become the backbone of his Ironside horsemen. Two years after Cromwells death, his body was dug up at the Restoration and symbolically hung, drawn and quartered. His head, after many mysterious posthumous adventures, was finally returned to his old Cambridge college in 1960. It was reburied in the college chapel at a secret site to make sure it remains undisturbed.
The Cromwell Museum, telephone.01480 375830 or log on to www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/leisure/museums/cromwell/
Visit the Cromwell Associations website at www.olivercromwell.org.
FURTHER READING.Cromwell, Our Chief of Men, by Antonia.Fraser, 1973.