The Love Life of Oliver Cromwell

In the second of his posts exploring the popular reputation of the lord protector, Dr Patrick Little, senior research fellow on our Commons 1640-1660 project, takes a look at his private life…

Stories of Oliver Cromwell’s sexual adventures became commonplace after the Restoration. Two rumours circulated. In the first, he was linked with Elizabeth Murray, countess of Dysart in her own right, wife of the royalist Sir Lionel Tollemache and later duchess of Lauderdale, a woman some thirty years Oliver’s junior. She was certainly part of London society in the early 1650s and perhaps was acquainted with Cromwell; but stories that her second child, Thomas Tollemache (born in 1651), was in fact Oliver’s son seem most unlikely, not least because the general was in Scotland at the time when the boy was conceived. The second story is slightly more plausible, but not much. This featured Frances, wife of General John Lambert. Frances Lambert was closer to Oliver than Elizabeth Murray ever had been, and they shared a puritan faith, but again the only evidence dates from after the Restoration, with a lascivious tale propagated by Cromwell’s first biographer, the disreputable James Heath. ‘They say’, reported Heath, ‘that the lord protector’s Instrument [of Government] is found under my Lady Lambert’s petticoat’ (quoted in Fraser, 481). By contrast, evidence from Cromwell’s lifetime is very thin. There were very occasional jokes about Cromwell’s virility in the late 1640s, but they were generalised in nature, part of the medley of allegations of drunkenness and misbehaviour and deformity – not least his big red nose (as explored in last month’s blog). For evidence of Cromwell’s love-life, we must look closer to home.

Cromwell window, St Giles’, Cripplegate, copyright The Cromwell Association

On 22 August 1620, at St Giles’, Cripplegate, Oliver Cromwell married Elizabeth Bourchier. She was the daughter of a successful London fur dealer and leather-seller who had acquired a knighthood and an estate in Essex. This was no doubt an arranged marriage, perhaps brokered by the Barringtons who were related by marriage to both families [see Sir Francis Barrington], but it was also seems to have been a love-match. While the evidence does not allow us to follow the Cromwells into the bedroom (even if we wanted to), there is no doubt of what they did there. Between 1621 and 1638 they had nine children. The first three arrived in rapid succession. Robert was born on October 1621, Oliver sixteen months later, in February 1623, and Bridget seventeen months after that, in July 1624. There was then a gap of two years and three months before the arrival of Richard in October 1626, followed fifteen months later by Henry (Jan. 1628) and seventeen months subsequently by Elizabeth (June 1629). James was born two and half years later, in January 1632. A considerable gap ensued, until the birth of the youngest girls, Mary in February 1637 and Frances in December 1638. Not all these children survived. Robert died as a schoolboy in 1639, Oliver as a young officer in 1644 and poor little James lived less than a month. Losing a third of one’s children was about average in early modern England.

In later years, the relationship between Oliver and Elizabeth remained very close. Elizabeth probably stayed in Ely during the first civil war, but she moved to London to be with her husband in 1646. They were to be together for the next twelve years, except when he was away on military campaigns, notably in Ireland in 1649-50 and Scotland 1651-2. Only a handful of letters between them survive, but they speak of a high degree of intimacy and love. Oliver was not the most faithful correspondent, but he assured his wife in May 1651, ‘indeed I love to write to my dear, who is very much in my heart’, while elsewhere he was gruffly affectionate: ‘thou art dearer to me than any creature; let that suffice’ (W. C. Abbott, Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (1989), ii. 329, 412). Elizabeth missed her husband deeply, telling him in December 1650, ‘truly my life is but half a life in your absence’ (J. Nickolls, Original Letters and Papers of State (1743), 40). Only Oliver’s death in September 1658 would break the marriage bond.


Further Reading:

The allegations have been considered in most detail in Antonia Fraser, Cromwell: Our Chief of Men (1973), 478-81.

See also The Letters, Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, ed. John Morrill (3 vols. Oxford, forthcoming).

Biographies of Oliver Cromwell, Richard Cromwell, Henry Cromwell and John Lambert are being prepared for publication by the Commons 1640-1660 project.

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