Oliver Cromwell’s grandmother

DURING RECENT MONTHS, we have visited several places in East Anglia associated with Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and his family. These include Huntingdon, where he was born; Ramsey in Cambridgeshire, where his Royalist relative Oliver Cromwell lived; and Cambridge, where some say his head is hidden within one of the city’s colleges. Most recently, we visited Swaffham in Norfolk, where we entered the town’s magnificent parish church.

While looking around Swaffham’s Church of St Peter and St Paul, which was built in 1454 in the Early English gothic style, we came across an interesting funerary monument in a chapel on the south side of the building. The monument contains a sculpture of a woman on her knees with the left side of her face in profile and looking to the left. This monument, covered with heraldic crests, is a memorial to Catherine Stewart, only child and sole heir of Thomas Payne, formerly of Castleacre (Norfolk). Catherine Stewart, who died in 1590, was the second wife of the tithe farmer (a kind of tax collector) William Stewart of Ely, who was buried in Ely Cathedral in 1593.

William and Catherine’s daughter Elizabeth married twice. Her second husband was Thomas Cromwell. Oliver Cromwell, Britain’s ruler, The Lord Protector, between 1653 and 1658, was the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Cromwell. Thus, Catherine Stewart, whose monument we admired in Swaffham’s church, was Oliver Cromwell’s maternal grandmother.

Someone working at the museum in Swaffham told us that because his grandmother lived in Swaffham, Oliver Cromwell and his troops avoided damaging it during the Civil War, even though it was a town that supported the Royalists. After the Civil War was over, Cromwell mentioned Swaffham once in his recorded correspondence. When the fighting ended, the draining of the Fens resumed under the supervision of a new organisation of which Oliver Cromwell was a member, The Company of Adventurers for Draining the Great Level of the Fens. In 1653, 150 petitioners from Swaffham, who had asked about certain rights for them and had received notice that their grievances would be redressed, forced the Company’s workmen to cease working on the dykes and began to vandalise the work that had been done already. On the 23rd of April 1653, Cromwell wrote to Mr Parker, an agent of the Company:

“… I hear some unruly persons have committed great outrages in Cambridgeshire, about Swaffham and Botsham … Wherefore, I desire you to send one of my Troops, with a Captain, who may by all means, persuade the people to quiet, by letting them know, They must not riotously do anything, for that must not be suffered: but ‘that’ if there be any wrong done by the Adventurers, – upon complaint, such course shall be taken as appertains to justice, and right will be done.

I rest, your loving friend, OLIVER CROMWELL”  

(Quoted from: “Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches: with Elucidations”, by Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Carlyle, published 1845)

I was puzzled to see that Cromwell associated the Norfolk town of Swaffham with the county of Cambridgeshire. With help of Google, I discovered that there is a Swaffham in Cambridgeshire: its full name is Swaffham Bulbeck. The latter is near Cambridge and includes the parish of Botsham (Bottisham).

While researching this piece, I came across a paper by Walter Rye with the title “The Stewart Genealogy and Cromwell’s Royal Descent” (http://fmg.ac/phocadownload/userupload/scanned-sources/tgb/Vol02-PDFs/S-3895.pdf), which examined the idea that The Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, had royal relatives. Rye concluded:

“I think therefore, that I have succeeded that Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Royal Descent’ which passed muster with Carlyle and other historians, who have made it a peg on which to hang reflections more or less ridiculous, is a fabrication; and that he really sprang, ex parte materna, from a Norfolk family, probably of illegitimate descent, and certainly of no credit or renown, which had settled in Swaffham long before the alleged Scottish ancestor is supposed to have landed in England with his Royal master and kinsman.”

The Royal relative referred to above was King James VI of Scotland and Stewart is quite a common surname. Others might dispute Rye’s conclusion, but this is not the place to explore this further. Once again, a chance visit to a small town in the English countryside has opened a window to reveal one of the many fascinating aspects of the history of England.

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