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Cromwell [née Bourchier], Elizabethlocked

  • Peter Gaunt

Cromwell [née Bourchier], Elizabeth (1598–1665), lady protectress of England, Scotland, and Ireland, consort of Oliver Cromwell, was one of twelve children of Sir James Bourchier (c.1574–1635), merchant and furrier, and his wife, Frances, daughter of Thomas Crane of Newton Tony, Wiltshire. James, an only son, was knighted at Whitehall on 23 July 1603. He inherited from his father substantial property in Essex, especially the recently acquired manor of Little Stambridge, but also had property at Felsted in Essex and Tower Hill, London, as well as connections with Newton Tony in Wiltshire, for it was there on 19 June 1596 that he married Frances Crane. Elizabeth Bourchier, born in 1598, was probably the eldest of Sir James's twelve children (nine sons and three daughters), though neither the exact date nor the place of her birth is recorded. In his will, dated 5 March 1635, Sir James divided his properties in and around Stambridge between several younger sons; the will contains no mention of his eldest son, Thomas, by that time married to the widow of Richard Cromwell (son of Oliver Cromwell's uncle Henry), who was presumably provided for elsewhere, of Sir James's wife, who had presumably predeceased him, or of his daughter Elizabeth.

On 22 August 1620 Elizabeth Bourchier married Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), the future lord protector, at St Giles Cripplegate, London. The match may have sprung from mutual connections with the Cranes of Newton Tony, for in 1614 Elizabeth's maternal aunt, Eluzai or Eluiza Crane, had married as her second husband Henry Cromwell of Upwood, uncle of Oliver Cromwell. Alternatively the Bourchiers and the Cromwells may have come into contact through Essex society, for Sir James Bourchier held land in the county and the Cromwells had connections with several Essex families. For example Oliver's aunt Joan had married Sir Francis Barrington of Barrington Hall in Essex, though the suggestion that there was thus a direct family link via the Barringtons between Cromwell and his wife-to-be is erroneous; although Sir Francis's sister married Sir William Bourchier, this family was not related to that of Cromwell's bride. Nor, it seems, was Elizabeth descended from the Bourchier family who were earls of Essex during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, for her own ancestry has been traced back to the fifteenth century, when the family lived in Worcestershire, and no link has been found with the Bourchier earls of Essex. Upon his marriage Cromwell received a dowry of £1500; for his part, in August he contracted to convey to his wife as her jointure the parsonage house, with its glebe lands and tithes, in Hartford, Huntingdon.

Surviving sources reveal little beyond a sparse factual outline of Elizabeth Cromwell's married life. Between 1621 and 1638 she had nine children, five boys and four girls: Robert (1621–1639), Oliver (1623–1644), Richard Cromwell (1626–1712), Henry Cromwell (1628–1674), James (born and died 1632), Bridget Fleetwood (bap. 1624, d. 1662), Elizabeth Claypole (bap. 1629, d. 1658), Mary Belasyse (bap. 1637, d. 1713), and Frances Russell (bap. 1638, d. 1720). With her growing family she lived in Huntingdon until 1631, St Ives from 1631 until 1636, and Ely from 1636 until the mid-1640s. During the civil war Cromwell ensured that part of his pay was directed to Ely to support Elizabeth and his family, which included his children and his widowed mother. In late 1646 he moved his now somewhat smaller family (by this time three of the sons had died and two of the daughters had married) to London.

In 1649 Elizabeth Cromwell planned to cross to Ireland, to be with or near her husband while he was on campaign there. Although she travelled west, visiting her elder surviving son, Richard, and his new bride at Hursley in Hampshire, and saw her husband embark from Milford Haven in August, she probably did not, in fact, cross. She was certainly back in London before he returned, for on 31 May 1650 she was one of a throng who travelled out from London to Windsor to meet and greet the victorious general on his journey back from Ireland. There seem to have been no plans for Elizabeth to join her husband for any part of his Scottish campaign of 1650–51, and it is from this period that we have the only correspondence between husband and wife to have survived—three letters from Oliver to his wife, and one from her to him. In his letters Oliver expresses a love and tenderness which sound a little gruff to a modern ear—'Thou art dearer to me than any creature; let that suffice' (Writings and Speeches, 2.329)—but which appear deep:

My Dearest, I could not satisfy myself to omit this post, although I have not much to write; yet indeed I love to write to my dear, who is very much in my heart. It joys me to hear thy soul prospereth; the Lord increase His favours to thee more and more … The Lord bless all thy good counsel and example to all those about thee, and hear all thy prayers, and accept thee always.

Writings and Speeches, 2.412

In her one surviving letter, written in December 1650, she gently chides him for not writing more often both to herself and to others in London, claiming that she had written three to him for every one she received, as well as expressing a longing to see him again, if it be the Lord's will:

I should rejoys to hear your desire in seing me, but I desire to submit to the provedns of God, howping the Lord, houe hath separated us, and heth oftune brought us together agane, wil in heis good time breng us agane, to the prase of heis name. Truly my lif is but half a lif in your abseinse, deid not the Lord make it up in heimself, which I must ackoleg to the prase of heis grace.

J. Nickolls, Original Letters and Papers of State Addressed to Oliver Cromwell, 1743, 40

By late 1650 Elizabeth Cromwell and her remaining family were living in lodgings assigned to them by parliament in The Cockpit, adjoining Whitehall Palace. Soon after her husband's elevation as lord protector she and her family took up residence in Whitehall Palace itself, on 14 April 1654 moving into apartments redecorated for them. She and her remaining children also gained apartments at Hampton Court. From time to time before the protectorate Elizabeth had been present at some public or state events. For example, she and Sir Thomas Fairfax's wife rode together in a coach when the army marched into London in August 1647. But from December 1653, as the wife of the head of state and often herself styled her highness the lady protectress, she played a slightly larger public role. Thus she frequently had her own table at official receptions or dinners, entertaining the wives of councillors, ambassadors, and other dignitaries. But even as protectress, her public role was limited and she did not, for example, play a significant part at the two installations of her husband as protector or at the opening and closing of the protectorate parliaments; indeed, she may not have been present at many of the state ceremonies of the protectorate.

After her husband's death on 3 September 1658, the new protectoral government made generous provision for 'her Highness dowager'. Elizabeth was to receive payment of £20,000 and perhaps also an annuity of £20,000, and St James's House was to be prepared for her. Even after Richard Cromwell's fall in spring 1659 the army officers treated her respectfully and agreed to propose to the recalled Rump that she be allocated £8000 per annum. Such a generous settlement, if ever paid, ended at the Restoration. She left London in April 1660, vehemently denying rumours that she either had with her or had hidden various jewels and other goods belonging to the royal family. Within a few months of the Restoration she petitioned Charles II, denying possession of any royal goods, claiming that the baseless accusations were rendering her liable to 'disrepute' and to 'many violences and losses under pretence of searching for such goods', so making 'her abode in any place unsafe', and stressing her obedience to the new monarchical government. She also refers to 'the many sorrows wherewith it hath pleased the all wise God to exercise' her and to her hope that 'now in her old age' she might have 'a safe retirement' (CSP dom., 1660, 392; the petition is reproduced in Waylen, 2–3). In fact, the restored monarchy did not molest her and she lived out her final years in quiet retirement with her son-in-law John Claypole at Northborough in Northamptonshire. Following a long illness—after one visit, her daughter Mary wrote that 'my poor mother is so affecting a spectacle as I scarce know how to write … The Lord knows best what is best for us to suffer, and therefore I desire we may willingly submit to His will, but the condition she is in is very sad; the Lord help her and us to bear it' (ibid., 102)—she died there in November 1665 and was buried in Northborough church on 19 November. No will is extant, though a report of 1666 suggests that Jeremiah White, formerly one of the protector's chaplains, was acting as executor for such property as she retained at her death.

As a public figure, from the late 1640s until the Restoration and beyond, Elizabeth Cromwell was from time to time attacked in print. Newes from the New Exchange of January 1650 alleges sexual immorality, claiming that she 'hath run through most of the Regiment, both Officers and Souldiers', while A Tragi-Comedy called New Market Fayre has her trading base insults with Fairfax's wife. More often, she was mocked for her simple ways. Mercurius Elencticus of July 1649 makes her a preposterous figure when attending a dinner given by the City of London for Cromwell: 'Pusse Rampant of Ely, cloathed all over in Innocent white (her Beloved's owne colours) with the Clerke of the Kitchen both in a Coach' (Mercurius Elencticus, 9–16 July 1649, 93). A woodcut in The Case is Altered of August 1660 shows her with a round face in a simple black hood and necklace, while in the accompanying text Oliver's ghost refers to her as 'Queen Joan' or 'Jugg'. But most famously and quotably, The Court and Kitchen of Elizabeth, Commonly called Joan Cromwell, the Wife of the Late Usurper of 1664 alleges that her 'indigent' background so coloured her character that, when opportunity arose during the 1640s, she used her husband's position to amass ill-gotten plunder, actively encouraging and then reselling gifts, accepting bribes, and through Oliver distributing and selling offices. As protectress she found it hard 'to lay aside those impertinent meannesses of her private fortune' and for a time 'like some kitchen maid preferred by the lust of some rich and noble dotard, was ashamed of her sudden and gaudy bravery', keeping cows in St James's Park to make her own butter, and generally running the protectoral court in a mean and parsimonious way (The Court and Kitchen of Elizabeth, reprinted as Mrs Cromwell's Cookery Book, 1983, 34).

The accusations of corruption and influence in The Court and Kitchen of Elizabeth stand out because they were exceptional. Most contemporary commentators said remarkably little about Elizabeth Cromwell and did not claim that she played a significant role in the protectoral regime or in shaping Cromwell's military and political career. Thus, despite his strong anti-protectoral bias, Ludlow says very little about her beyond the assertion that during the protectorate she was at first 'unwilling to remove' to Whitehall Palace, 'tho afterwards she became better satisfied with her grandeur' (The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow, ed. C. H. Firth, 2 vols., 1894, 1.379); Lucy Hutchinson goes no further than a single sneer that she was ill suited to the socially elevated position she held (Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, ed. C. H. Firth, 1906, 298); while, from a royalist perspective, the earl of Clarendon largely ignores her. In short, the accusations of humility and of feeling out of place in her elevated position as protectress ring truer than those of personal ambition and corruption. No member of her own family, the Bourchiers, appears to have won senior office, fortune, or clear advancement through her, either before or during the protectorate, and the principal historian of the protectoral court and household not only highlights a relatively low level of corruption there but also specifically dismisses The Court and Kitchen of Elizabeth as hopelessly biased (Sherwood, Court of Cromwell, 147). It is harder to reach firm conclusions about Elizabeth's wider influence and the degree to which, within a long, close, and loving marriage, she helped to shape the ideas and aspirations of her husband. It would be surprising if she had had no influence, directly or indirectly, in these matters. However, our knowledge of Cromwell points to other individuals, experiences, and sources which played a much larger role in shaping his career; the surviving correspondence between Oliver and Elizabeth does not suggest that he was seeking or she was offering advice on public affairs—though he certainly did seek her advice on the marriage settlement of their eldest surviving son—and protectoral central government, and its written constitutions did not, of course, ascribe her any political role. In her petition to Charles II, Elizabeth claimed that she 'never intermeddled in any of those public transactions which have been prejudicial to your Majesty's royal father or yourself', and Charles seems, probably correctly, to have accepted her plea, acceding to her request that he 'be pleased to distinguish betwixt the concernment of your petitioner and those of her relations who have been obnoxious' (CSP dom., 1660, 392).


  • The writings and speeches of Oliver Cromwell, ed. W. C. Abbott and C. D. Crane, 4 vols. (1937–47)
  • J. Waylen, The house of Cromwell and the story of Dunkirk (1897)
  • M. Noble, Memoirs of the protectoral-house of Cromwell, 2 vols. (1787)
  • R. Boucher, ‘Notes on the family of Elizabeth (Bourchier), wife of the protector, Oliver Cromwell’, The Genealogist, new ser., 28 (1911–12), 65–75
  • R. Sherwood, The court of Oliver Cromwell (1977)
  • R. Sherwood, Oliver Cromwell: king in all but name, 1653–58 (1997)
  • L. Knoppers, Constructing Cromwell: ceremony, portrait and print, 1645–1661 (2000)
  • CSP dom., 1658–60; 1665–6
  • will of Sir James Bourchier, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/167/32


  • S. Cooper, watercolour on vellum miniature, repro. in D. Foskett, Samuel Cooper and his contemporaries (1974) [exhibition catalogue, NPG, 1974]; priv. coll.
  • attrib. P. Lely, oils, Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon
  • woodcut, BL; repro. in The case is altered, or, Dreadful news from hell (1660) [Thomason Tract]
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London