Oliver the red-nosed protector: Cromwell’s physiognomy revisited

In today’s blog we hear from Patrick Little, senior research fellow in our Commons 1640-1660 project, who is looking into one of Oliver Cromwell’s more famous assets…

Oliver Cromwell is famous for his warts. In the Horrible Histories series, the volume devoted to the lord protector is called Oliver Cromwell and his Warts; a Google search of ‘Cromwell warts’ yields 1.4 million results; ‘warts and all’ has become a household saying. Historians have traced all this back to George Vertue, writing in the eighteenth century, who recounted Cromwell’s advice to a portrait painter (Sir Peter Lely or perhaps Samuel Cooper) that he was to include his ‘pimples, warts and everything as you see me’ [quoted in L. L. Knoppers, Constructing Cromwell (Cambridge, 2000), 80]. There is no doubt that Cromwell had warts – they feature in almost all his portraits and images, and are certainly present on his death-mask. But it is curious to note that there is no mention of them in the writings of his contemporaries, whose eyes were instead drawn to his large, red nose.

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper

References to Cromwell’s nose grew with his notoriety. In 1645, when he was already a successful cavalry general, the royalist pamphlet, The Character of a London Diurnall, poked fun at his ‘bloody beak’, appropriate for a rapacious ‘bird of prey’ [quoted in Knoppers, 12]. The satirical pamphlet series, Mercurius Pragmaticus, had great fun at Cromwell’s expense, in January 1648 describing an intervention in the House of Commons: ‘then Mr Cromwell … stood up, and the glow-worm glistening in his beak, he began to spit fire’ [quoted in Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, ed. W. C. Abbott (4 vols. New Haven, 1937-47), i. 576]. Pragmaticus could not leave Oliver’s nose alone, christening him ‘Snout’ or ‘Snout Almighty’ in the early months of 1649 [Mercurius Pragmaticus, 10-17 Apr. 1649, 29 May-5 June 1649, 5-12 June 1649]. A pamphlet from January 1650 launched into verse:

            Of Nolls nose my muse now sings,

            His power, force and might:

            subduing kingdoms, murdering kings

            And winning all by fight

            [The Right Picture of King Oliver (1650), quoted in Knoppers, 48].

The Man in the Moon greeted Cromwell’s return from Ireland in 1650 in a similar vein: ‘God bless us: my Lord Cromwell is come safe home: pray ring the bells backward, and bring all the town-buckets to quench his nose, lest it set fire on the Parliament-House’ [The Man in the Moon, 29 May-5 June 1650].

Even when he was lord protector, Cromwell and his nose were not safe from ridicule. A song written during the first Dutch War (1652-4) began ‘Cromwell, Cromwell, lend us thy nose, to fire the navy that doth us oppose’ [James Fraser, Triennial Travels, quoted in Knoppers, 2]. A warship nearing completion at Woolwich in 1655, its ornate carving, including a statue of the protector, already in place, ‘was in the night-time exceedingly defaced, by having the nose of the rich and glorious picture cut off’ [The Faithful Scout, 12-19 Jan. 1655]. Cromwell died in 1658, and after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 there was an outpouring of jokes and rhymes poking fun at the late protector. Typical in quality and subtlety, was The Blazing Star, or Nolls Nose Newly Revived, of August 1660:

            Thy copper nose and brazen face

            Were fit conjoined with Joan’s fat A[rse]

            … Joan hath a hole and they call it hell

            More fit for thy nose then Whitehall to dwell…

[The Blazing Star, or Nolls Nose Newly Revived, and taken out of his Tomb (Aug. 1660), p. 1].

Cromwell’s nose was not just a physical feature. It was also understood to give the public an insight into the private flaws of this very public man. Inevitably, having a red nose led to accusations of drunkenness, although there is no reason to think Cromwell was guilty of that particular vice. For his critics, this was invariably linked with (almost certainly unfounded) allegations that Cromwell’s family had been brewers, in Huntingdon or Ely, and were thus of lowly social status. An early example, from 1647, brought the two together:

            He’s the realm’s ensign, and who goes to wring

His nose, is forced to cry God Save the King…

His soldiers may want bread, but n’ere shall fear

(While he’s their general) the want of beer.

[Cromwell’s Pengyrick (1647)].

The revolutionary years produced such doggerel as this from The Man in the Moon:

            Of all the brewers, Cromwell bears the grace,

He carries his copper in his brazen face

[The Man in the Moon, 16 Apr. 1649]

In March 1650 the same newsbook posed a question for its readers: ‘What if Cromwell were stewed a little in his own copper to see if his nose would melt at his treasons?’ [The Man in the Moon, 13-20 Mar. 1650]. This was a favourite theme among later royalists, too. One post-Restoration burlesque on scaffold confessions, had Cromwell tell the crowd:’ I was the son of a brewer in the Isle of Ely, which I need not have told you, for it is visibly to be seen in my nose, being the colour of his copper’ [The Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw (1661), quoted in Knoppers, 187].

For some, drunkenness was also linked with sexual immorality, a deformed nose being an obvious outward symptom of syphilis. Cromwell, it was said, ‘got the sulphur into his nose by the inordinate devouring of his father’s new wort, coming to London got the Naples scab and the looseness of his joints … he brewed small beer in the Isle of Ely till he had six wenches with child at one time’ [A New Bull-Bayting: or, a Match Play’d at the Town-Bull of Ely (1649), p. 4]. But rumours of Cromwell’s insatiable sexual appetite are a subject for another day…


Further Reading:

Laura Lunger Knoppers, Constructing Cromwell: ceremony, portrait and print (Cambridge, 2000).

Antonia Fraser, Cromwell, Our Chief of Men (1973)

Patrick Little is one of the editors of The Letters, Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, ed. John Morrill et al (Oxford, forthcoming 2022)

A biography of Oliver Cromwell is being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 project.

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