Saturday, June 27, 2015

Lady Protectress: Elizabeth Bourchier Cromwell

by Lauren Gilbert

Elizabeth Bourchier
by Samuel Cooper

Even her date of birth is unclear.  Very little is actually known about the wife of Oliver Cromwell.  Her name was Elizabeth, and she was the daughter of Sir James Bourchier and Frances Crane.  Sir James was a successful London merchant in the fur and leather trades.  He was knighted in July of 1603 by James I and given a grant of arms in 1610.  Elizabeth was born in Felsted, Essex, apparently sometime in 1598, and was one of eleven children, possibly the oldest.  She is believed to have some education.  However, nothing is known of her childhood or girlhood.  For all intents and purposes, she came to life on August 22, 1620 when she married Oliver Cromwell.

There is no indication of when or how they met.  The Bourchiers and the Cromwells were both established in Essex.  There was also a family connection in that Elizabeth’s Aunt Eluzai Crane married Oliver’s Uncle Henry Cromwell.  While it seems likely that they may have met as children (being close to the same age, Oliver born April 25, 1599), it is equally possible that they met in London.  At any rate, they were married in London at St. Giles Cripplegate.  It is known that she had a dowry of 1500 pounds, but not whether their marriage was arranged or an affair of the heart.  The marriage was definitely an advantage for Cromwell, as his father-in-law’s connections in the London merchant community were politically valuable.  

Elizabeth and Oliver began their married life in Huntingdon and began having children.  However their marriage began, it appears that they developed a sincere affection for each other.  At some point later in the 1620’s, Oliver went through a period of depression and illness from which he emerged a devout  and radical Puritan. By 1628, he was Member of Parliament for Huntingdon, a position he held 1628-1629.  King Charles dissolved this Parliament and Parliament did not meet again for 11 years.

Unfortunately, the Cromwells were not successful in Huntingdon.  In 1631, Oliver ended up selling what property he had left in Huntingdon, and he and Elizabeth relocated to St. Ives. There, he rented a farm and supported his wife and children by farming, a significant reduction in status.  The farm produced chickens and sheep, generating eggs and wool which Oliver and his brother sold.  Being a small farmer’s wife cannot have been easy for Elizabeth, especially as the mother of six children (the oldest about ten). 

 This state of affairs lasted for five years, when in 1636 he inherited a house and other significant advantages (including a job as a tithe collector) in Ely from his mother’s brother. At this point, Oliver and Elizabeth had had seven children, five boys and two girls.  The youngest son, Robert, had been born and died in 1632.  Apparently, during this difficult period prior to the inheritance, no more children were born.  It is not known if there were unsuccessful pregnancies, or if there were other causes for the break in the births of children.  At any rate, Oliver and Elizabeth had two more children, both daughters in 1637 and 1638 respectively and, by the end of the 1630’s, the Cromwells had regained their position as gentry.

In 1640, the family was living in Ely.  King Charles called another Parliament and Oliver was returned to Parliament as the member for Cambridge, and the family moved to London.   This particular Parliament became known as the Short Parliament as it lasted only three weeks before the King dissolved it.  However, Parliament was called again later in the year, and Oliver was returned as member for Cambridge.  During this period, Oliver became linked to a group of members of the Houses of Lords and of Commons with a strong reform agenda.  There is no indication that Elizabeth took any sort of active role outside of the positions of wife and mother.  She was very concerned about domestic affairs, and was apparently known throughout her life for her frugality, which I would think had been hard-learned during her family’s years on the farm.

In 1642, the English Civil Wars began.  Oliver raised a troop, had success at Marston Moor, and the rest is history.  He rose to general of Parliament’s army, and seemed to have had an instinct for command despite his lack of military background.  During the war years, He wrote to Elizabeth and she to him.  Two of his letters and one of hers survive, and show their loving relationship and mutual affection.  

King Charles was captured, but would not compromise with the Parliamentarians.  King Charles escape led to the second Civil War, which resulted in his being recaptured, tried and convicted of treason.  King Charles was ultimately executed in 1649 by the Rump Parliament, an act for which Oliver bears significant responsibility (he was a dominant member of the Rump Parliament and signed the warrant).   After the execution, he led the Rump Parliament and exercised power over the short-lived Commonwealth.  Disillusioned with Parliament, he dismissed it April 20, 1653 and ultimately became Lord Protector December 16, 1653.

  As Cromwell rose in power, the family moved to different quarters, reflecting their changing status.  From lodgings adjoining Whitehall Palace, they moved into apartments in the Palace itself in the spring of 1654.  Elizabeth seems to have exercised great discretion, and stayed out of the limelight as much as possible.  There is no record that any member of her family received preferment, and comments about her simplicity and frugality as Lady Protectress would appear to indicate that she did not attempt to appear to shine in a court-like setting.   Personal taste for a simpler life and long habit could have been factors; she may also have wished to avoid any comparison to Charles I’s queen Henrietta Maria.  She did help entertain at state dinners and with the wives and daughters of various dignitaries, but apparently had no formalized role in the Protectorate.

Elizabeth Bourchier Cromwell, 
Lady Protectress of England, Scotland and Ireland 
by Robert Walker, c. 1653

The portrait of Elizabeth as Lady Protectress shows her in a formal black velvet gown with orange lining, and pearls, looking very elegant.  Her important status is clearly shown.  (It must be remembered that black was a stylish colour at the time.)   However, to my mind, it also shows a certain discretion.  There is no diadem, crown or other elaborate ornament on her head, and her hands and wrists are not overloaded with jewels.  Although no longer a simple housewife, this portrait shows Elizabeth as a woman of wealth and rank but not necessarily royalty.  I believe it is an accurate reflection of her position in England at the time: the wife of a powerful, important man who was not a king, in its way a statement as much about her husband’s position as her own.

There was great sadness following the death of daughter Elizabeth Claypole in August of 1658, which exacerbated things.  Oliver died September 3, 1658 at the age of 59 in Whitehall. He apparently suffered from malaria and urinary tract problems. He was buried with great ceremony (based on the burial of James I) at Westminster Abbey.  His daughter had been buried in Westminster Abbey already.  There is no record of how this double blow affected Elizabeth or if she attended his funeral.  She was offered an annuity and lodging in St. James’ House, and son Richard took on the Protectorate.  However, the army refused to follow Richard and his protectorate fell in the spring of 1659.  The army did propose a generous pension for Elizabeth.
Charles II was invited to return as King.  In April of 1660, just before the Restoration, Elizabeth left London.  She was accused of stealing jewels and other possessions belonging to the crown, charges she vigorously denied.  Her whereabouts during this time are not known; however, it appears that her letter to Charles II denying the thefts was written from Wales.  She denied having taken part in Oliver’s regime and promised her obedience as Charles’ subject.   Elizabeth was allowed to take up residence with her widowed son-in-law John Claypole at Northborough Manor in Northamptonshire.

Being out of London meant Elizabeth missed the posthumous trial of her husband, the exhumation of his body (and those of others although daughter Elizabeth’s still remains in Westminster Abbey) and the “execution” which resulted in Oliver’s mummified remains being dragged to Typburn when they hung for the day of Charles I’s death.   Elizabeth lived with her son-in-law until her death.  Like so much else about Elizabeth Bourchier Cromell, the date of her death is not clear.  She supposedly died in November of 1665, and was buried in Northborough Church November 19, 1665.  However, there is an indication that this death date is a blind, put about protect Elizabeth, and an alternative date in October of 1672 is suggested.  There is a memorial tablet at St. Andrew’s Parish Church at Northborough that shows she died in 1665.  As with so many other details of her life, the correct date of her death may never be known.

Sources include:
Find A Grave.  “Elizabeth Bourchier Cromwell.”

Good Gentlewoman blog.  “Elizabeth Bourchier-Mrs. Oliver Cromwell” posted 6/9/2012.

The Cromwell Association website.  “Cromwell’s Family.”  (c) 2001-2005.  (No author or post date.) .  The letters of Oliver and Elizabeth Cromwell mentioned in this post can also be found on the Cromwell Association site.

Westminster Abbey.  “Oliver Cromwell and Family.”  No author or post date.

Wikipedia.  “Elizabeth Cromwell.”  Last modified 6/23/2015.

THE SECRET LIVES OF ROYAL WOMEN True Stories of Queens and Princesses, from the Tudors to the Windsors.  Editors of BBC HISTORY Magazine.  “Elizabeth Cromwell’s Shadowy Queen” by Simon Guerrier.  PP. 82-85.   (c) Immediate Media Company Bristol Limited, 2015.

Elizabeth Bourchier image from Wikimedia Commons:

Elizabeth Bourchier Cromwell image from Wikimedia Commons:


Lauren Gilbert has always been an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction with a particular interest in English literature and history.  She earned a BA in English Literature and is a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America.  Her first book, HEYERWOOD: A Novel was published in 2011.  Her second, A Rational Attachment, is expected to be released later in 2015.  She lives in Florida with her husband.  Visit her website at


  1. I didn't even realize he had a wife,and what a wife he had!

    1. I know-it seems so unfair that there is so little known about her.

  2. Some years ago, I was having lunch on the rooftop at the Barbican Theatre in London. A Londoner sharing my table pointed out that church where Cromwell married Elizabeth. And history came rushing at me!

  3. Fascinating post, Lauren. Thanks so much!


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