On the trail of Oliver Cromwell’s Fundamentalist Queen

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All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use.

I was fortunate to work with two terrific producers,  Simon and Thomas Guerrier on this documentary for Radio 3. I first worked with them on DVD extras for Doctor Who. Simon had penned a Doctor Who audio adventure in which the Doctor meets Oliver Cromwell and as a rather thoughtful historian, with an impressive knowledge of Parliamentary history, came up with the idea of exploring the life of his wife, Elizabeth, about whom so little is known. You can hear me talk about it on the Robert Elms show on BBC London (from 1 hr 9 min in).

Our programmes focusses on the few surviving documents and possessions which offer such tantalising glimpses of her remarkable life.

We spent a day in London at St Giles Cripplegate, a medieval survivor of the Blitz, surrounded by the brutalist towers of the Barbican Centre. A plaque and a bust inside mark Oliver’s connection, but make no mention of his wife. It seems emblematic of her invisible status. In her 40s when she found herself Lady Protectress, how far might it have been a statement to the nation, that she was a Consort Housewife, not a “whorish” Queen like the Stuart court’s Henrietta Maria?

In Ely we stood in Elizabeth’s kitchen, now the Oliver Cromwell House museum; its view of the church graveyard unchanged in 450 years, and it was easy to feel a connection to her simple life as a devout Protestant housewife and mother before the Civil War. The satirical cookbook written as a pamphlet to mock her has ironically become a useful source for the actors who play her for visiting school groups. Her “cheap” local ingredients – asparagus, eels and oysters – are on display. And the gift shop has a good selling line in Mrs Cromwell’s chutneys and jams. One wonders what she’d make of it all.

At Huntingdon’s Cromwell Museum, (where impressive campaigners are fighting closure because of a 100% local authority budget cut) curator John Goldsmith and I analyse the fascinating the collection of family possessions and speculate about what is revealed in  the only official court portrait of her that survives and the beautiful pomadery and a box of surgical instruments that were given as ambassadorial gifts to the Lord Protector’s court and passed down, unused through the Cromwell family to the present day. There is a well organised campaign to save the museum you can support.

The owners of Northborough Manor, once the historical home of her son in law’s family, the Claypoles, kindly invited us in and let us linger in the room where she died. It is strange to think of her seven years of widowhood, with the Protectorate ended and the monarchy restored. Suddenly a humble provincial housewife again. There are all kinds of stories of ghosts and that the walls of the casement will drip blood if England is in danger.  At nearby St Andrew’s Church Elizabeth’s grave is plain and only recently acquired a plaque on the wall. It may have been desecrated during the Restoration. The church warden wonders if Oliver’s decapitated body, which disappeared soon after it was dug up and hung on a gibbet, was secretly brought and buried with her in there. Of course we’d have to open it to find out…

Three letters survive between her and Oliver, written in 1650-1 when he was on military campaigns. Only one is by her and it talks of love and offers very smart political advice for a woman who supposedly kept out politics. Louise Jameson (who incidentally played Leela in Doctor Who) reads it so beautifully.

Elizabeth Bourchier Cromwell’s life can be seen only in glimpses. But what glimpses of a world turned upside.

The Fundamentalist Queen is on Radio 3 on Sunday December 7th at 645pm and iplayer after. It’s a Whistledown production and produced by Simon and Thomas Guerrier

Thanks to Simon and Thomas Guerrier, to all at the museum staff in Ely and Huntingdon, to  Jane and John Trevor at Northborough Manor, St Andrew’s Church and St Giles Cripplegate, and to curators and historians John Goldsmith, Laura Gowing, Peter Gaunt, Patrick Little for being so generous with time and professional insight.

Further reading/listening

The Settling – a Doctor Who audio adventure featuring Oliver Cromwell by Simon Guerrier

 Save the Cromwell Museum organisation

Guerrier Brothers films, including Cleaning Up starring Mark Gatiss

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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