In case you were wondering if Mama’s previously stated interest in history is what landed her in Moscow all those years ago, the answer is no.
Mama’s period was always very firmly the early modern one, not the dubious social experiments of the 20th Century. What she really knows a lot about is religious kerfuffles between the Protestants and the Catholics in continental Europe (remember the Jansenists, anyone?), and Venice.
This is what you happens when you offer people free higher education. I’m going to be an engineer, do something with Maths or learn to draw really really well, preferably in a digital medium. Says Mama.
Anyway, this does also mean that she has a passing interest in Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil Wars, which, for the calendar challenged, happened in the 17th Century and had a certain amount to do with arguments about how much incense was the right amount to pacify God (some and hell no none were, variously, the answers. It’s a tricky one, of course).
So it came as something of a surprise when she admitted that she had never visited the Oliver Cromwell House Museum in Ely, Cambridgeshire, in the building he moved to at around the time his political dabbling as a member of parliament got a lot more serious. It’s only one and a half hours up the road from Granny and Grandad’s! What can she have been thinking?
Mama has had a horrible suspicion ever since Donald Trump came to power in the USA that a lot of the leaders from history who used to amuse her were probably a lot less entertaining when you were forced to deal with them on an everyday basis.
Peter the Great springs immediately to mind.
Yes, he lived in a small modest shack of a house (still there) next to what would become the grandiose Winter Palace in St Petersburg (also still there), worked as a carpenter to learn shipbuilding and a foot soldier to learn warmongering (both of which he was quite successful at on a grander scale later), married a peasant, making her Empress in 1724, and had a collection of animals picked in jars.
But he also went round feeling up women all over the courts of Europe and being surprised that they had ribs that went up and down rather than side to side, exercised an extremely violent temper and a tendency to drink to excess on a regular basis, put to death with extreme prejudice a whole regiment of soldiers out of revenge (and because they were trying to overthrow him) had his son tortured with the result he also died (another rebellion), forced a number of inconvenient women into convents and forced his wife to keep the head of her lover in a jar in her bedroom until she died. After Peter had had it chopped off, you understand.
Mama also thinks that a lot of people at the time considered that building a city on a deserted piece of mosquito infested marshland where every piece of stone had to be carted in from far away with a not dissimilar sense of horror to the idea of building a wall across the bottom of America. Although to be fair, Peter did actually get the job done, while I do not see any fencing currently going up in the USA yet. And, unlike Trump’s, a lot of Peter’s more autocratic diktats were aimed at dragging his compatriots forward, kicking and screaming, into the more enlightened century of the Fruitbat. You might not think making everyone shave their beards off to be the equivalent of Obamacare, but…
He did have tiny hands though.
Oliver Cromwell is another such larger than life character Mama rather approved of back in the day. Well, you have to be impressed by the balls of someone who both goes to war with and then drives through the execution of a divinely anointed king based primarily on the power of his conviction in his own righteousness, don’t you? No? Well, perhaps you too are no longer eighteen and have paid attention to the extreme discomfort being stuck in a country whose system of government has just been overthrown with very little care as to what comes next.
The organisers of the Oliver Cromwell House Museum are not entirely blind to this issue, and present their exploration of his life in the guise of letting you decide for yourself if he was a hero or a villain. Although I am here to tell you that in my opinion the museum is just a teensy bit biased in favour of Cromwell, unless you happen to be so outraged at the mere idea of overthrowing the monarchy that you ignore the charms of a pleasant sort of kitchen containing recipes from Mrs Cromwell’s repertoire and a spirited defense of the lady in question’s cooking skills.
There is also a reasonably large selection of dressing up clothes and period appropriate toys in the room upstairs devoted to the bliss of domestic life in a 17th Century Puritan home. Mama was disappointed to discover the petticoats did not come in her size, and I flatly refused to even contemplate such a ridiculous outfit, but we made up for it by trying on all the helmets. Which are quite heavy!
Then it was onto the war room! Which brings us back to Donald Trump, mainly so that Mama can have a dig. This is because Oliver Cromwell shares with Trump the background of taking on a role he had no training for whatsoever, after he became one of the first members of parliament to sign up to fight the king. However, it turns out that Cromwell (unlike Trump) was very good at his new job.
Of course, until discovering his true talent he wasn’t all that. He started off as a very minor farming gentleman, having to leave Cambridge University before completing his studies because his father died and he needed to take care of the family. He and his wife moved to Ely when he was left some property there, and he became a tax collector. As an MP, he was active in opposing the king, but not influential. It was his success in leading his troops, and in winning their respect, that led to his eventually being promoted to second in command the of the whole boiling. And when King Charles was eventually defeated, the loyalty of the army meant that he could get away with doing things like dissolving parliament for fannying about too much. And that meant that he was eventually crowned in all but name as Lord Protector, and went swanning about Whitehall and Hampton Court being called Your Highness.
Popular support is very useful for a head of state.
Part of the way he won that though was in looking after his troops rather better than most in a conflict which was particularly badly provisioned. With, usually, a consequently particularly bad effect on the surrounding countryside. Not to mention the fact that this was a conflict renowned for bitterness, with families divided and willing to fight each other to the death for their side of the cause. Which also makes Cromwell quite considerate in the unusual discipline he imposed on his troops, who were infamous for the looting and other atrocities they had a tendency not to commit.
Although this didn’t always work as successfully as we might have wished, as a story on the audio guide which everybody gets free with their entrance tickets shows.
Which I listened to.
Mama, who was about ten seconds up the road in her guide did make the beginnings of a move to snatch the headphones off my ears, but too late.
Mama stopped encouraging me to activate the extra commentary attached to each of the display cases after that. Stick to the basic kid friendly one is her advice. Although the side discussion about how Cromwell didn’t personally ban Christmas interested my Stoic Big Brother. Mama thinks that’s reaching in terms of rehabilitation though. Trump is inevitably going to blame everything on Congress and the Senate too when history delivers its final verdict that he is a bit of a tit.
Of course, what makes particularly uncomfortable reading in this day and age is the insistence that it was Cromwell’s religious faith that drove him forward. He was certain, certain, that he was doing the work of God in pursuing whatever course of action he took, and that his successes were proof of approval.
Mama does not consider this a mindset to admire.
But in the end, the main entry into the Cromwell-might-not-have-been-a-laudable-man-after-all ledger that the Oliver Cromwell House Museum admits to is contained in a small plaque mentioning in passing the vigour with which he tackled the uprising in Ireland following the beheading of King Charles.
Not, perhaps, too surprising then that when visitors get to vote by putting their token on a board in the appropriate column towards the end of the visit, the balance of opinion is more in favour of the man than against.
I insisted on putting a tick in both columns (letting me listen to the guide was clearly a mistake there, the Oliver Cromwell House Museum) which Mama (who defiantly went for the hero side for old times’ sake) says is really the right answer, or rather that the question itself is wrong.
Partly, it depends on where you stand. If you are Irish, or pretty much anyone whose country was overrun by the British Empire then you have cause to see Cromwell as an unmitigated disaster. This is because the eventual restoration of the monarchy did not mean that monarchical or aristocratic power survived intact. Post interregnum, Great Britain was, for its time, a remarkably socially mobile society, and this almost certainly contributed to its success in technological and industrial advances. This, of course, contributed to its expansionist ambitions later.
And if you are a Brit and not from somewhere at the top of the social pile to start with, you can also be bitter that the class system has survived much longer and much more rigidly than you might expect for a 21st century country because of this early flexibility.
So where are we?
Oliver Cromwell was a man who rose to a position of power through a bit of good luck and a lot of being very competent when the situation demanded it. He had principles and tried to see them through, took them farther than many people would bother with, and was willing to compromise his own comfort to do so. But when given power he did not usually go blindly after the other side. For a man whose religious convictions had led him to war and eventually to killing a king, he was extraordinarily active in promoting the freedom to worship whatever way appealed to a person’s conscience, a tolerance he extended even to Jews, long expelled from Britain.
That’s not villainy. But is it heroism?
At the same time, his actions had consequences. The proportion of the population who died in the English Civil Wars is huge, even when you compare it to some of the other ugly wars the country has been involved in. Was it worth it?
And that’s before you consider the massacres in the towns of Drogheda and Wexford. Which is certainly not heroism. But is it villainy? Out and out evidence of his basically evil nature? We recognise the brutalising effect war has on modern-day soldiers, and how sometimes the systems armies use to try to keep it in check fail. Why not understand the same processes are at work on people from the past? On Cromwell as well as the men he commanded?
Not that this is much comfort to all the dead people or any survivors, of course.
But mostly Mama thinks that people shouldn’t be encouraged into the learned helplessness of thinking of their leaders as either saviours or the cause of all their ills.
Anyway. The Oliver Cromwell House Museum in Ely is worth a look round for anyone interested in the history of the UK, the nature of power and its relationship to responsibility, and ghosts, as Cromwell is said to appear in the bedroom at the end of the tour, and the museum does its best to allow you to imagine this experience.
Address: Oliver Cromwell’s House, 29 St Mary’s Street, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4HF
Opening: 10am to 5pm dailt in the summer with slightly shorter hours in the colder months.
Admission: Adults are 4.90 GBP and kids, 3.40. A family ticket is 14 GBP. There is also an Escape Room at the museum, which is what Mama understands is the British name for a Quest. Yes, she is sulking we aren’t old enough to appreciate this form of entertainment. Yet.
Getting there: Ely is a bit farther north of Cambridge up the A10 or the A14. There’s no parking at the Oliver Cromwell House Museum itself, but there are a number of free car parks in Ely and the one we were in was just a few minutes’ walk away.
Ely’s train station can take you to London King’s Cross or Cambridge, Norwich and the Midlands. It’s a fifteen minute walk to the House from there.
Pin for later?