Oliver Cromwell: The Laughing Roundhead

Behind the serious face of the Lord Protector lay a man with a taste for terrible puns and unseemly practical jokes. Patrick Little explores the inside jokes and pillow fights of Oliver Cromwell and his inner circle.

Although Oliver Cromwell is one of the best known figures in British history, his character is full of contradictions and ambiguities and, at times, he seems to have revelled in keeping his contemporaries – and future generations – guessing. To take but one example: although it seems odd for the quintessential puritan to be indulging in such activities, many stories survive of Cromwell’s involvement in jests and practical jokes. The New Model Army colonel, Edmund Ludlow, remembered a meeting between army officers and republicans in the summer of 1648, when Cromwell suddenly ‘took up a cushion and flung it at my head, and then ran down the stairs’. According to Colonel Isaac Ewer, at the all-important moment when Charles I’s death warrant was signed in January 1649: ‘I did see a pen in Mr Cromwell’s hand, and he marked Mr [Henry] Marten in the face with it, and Mr Marten did the like to him.’ Another story, relating to the hours before the Battle of Dunbar in September 1650, describes Cromwell stopping his horse to laugh at some soldiers playing with a cream tub – a game that ended with the tub up-ended on the head of one of the soldiers. Similar stories crop up elsewhere.

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Oliver Cromwell: The Laughing Roundhead