'A Great and Deserved Name' - Commemorating Cromwell
In this edited version of a lecture given on 25 March 1999, to commemorate the anniversary of Cromwell's birth, John Morrill provides us with a series of snapshots, at different ages, of the troubled visionary who aspired to lead a new chosen people out of the bondage of Stuart tyranny.
Oliver Cromwell was born just over 400 years ago, on 25 April 1599. He was, he famously said, 'by birth a gentleman, living in neither any considerable height nor yet in obscurity'. He was in fact the eldest son of the younger son of a knight, and the ambiguities of that were to resonate throughout his life. That is to say: he was born in a solid town house with gothic windows just off the market square, the son of a man who had received crumbs of family inheritance, enough to allow him to serve as the bailiff of Huntingdon in Oliver's first year and to serve just once as second (or lesser) member of Parliament for the borough of Huntingdon. Oliver was in due course to inherit those crumbs of patrimony, while being intensely conscious of the wealth and status of his uncle and namesake, whose crust was worth ten times the inheritance of his father, who lived in a house with ten times as many rooms, and who sat in eight successive Parliaments not as a mere burgess but as a knight of the shire. It was, in other words, a tantalising inheritance, one likely to breed what a sociologist might wish to call ‘a low level of status crystallisation’. Throughout his life Oliver Cromwell was both to hanker after and be uncomfortable with social power.