Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, was born in Huntingdon on 25th April 1599. He was the second son of Robert Cromwell (d.1617) and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of William Steward of Ely. After attending Sidney Sussex College Cambridge he married in 1620 Elizabeth, daughter of Sir James Bourchier. Elizabeth was buried in Northborough church, Northamptonshire in 1665. They had nine children: James and Robert died young, Oliver died of fever in 1644, Richard (1626-1712) succeeded his father as Protector, Henry (1628-1674) was in the Parliamentary army, Bridget (1624-1662) married Henry Ireton and secondly Charles Fleetwood (d.1692 buried in Bunhill Fields), Elizabeth (1629-1658) married John Claypole, Mary (1637-1713) married Thomas Belasyse, Viscount Fauconberg and Frances (1638-1721) married Robert Rich and secondly John Russell.
Oliver was a country squire and Member of Parliament for Huntingdon and then for Cambridge. He became a Puritan and came to prominence while serving in the Parliamentary army fighting against the Royalists. Notable victories were won at Marston Moor, Naseby and Dunbar. In 1649 Charles I was beheaded and after the battle of Worcester Charles II fled to the continent. The Commonwealth was formed and on 16 December 1653 Cromwell became Lord Protector. For his second investiture as Protector in 1657 the 14th century Coronation Chair was taken from Westminster Abbey to Westminster Hall and he sat in this arrayed in royal robes.
After his death his son Richard, who had little interest in politics, gave up the government and lived abroad. This paved the way for the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660.
Burial and Disinterment
Cromwell died at Whitehall on 3rd September 1658. His body was embalmed and taken privately to Somerset House on 20 September. The public lying in state began on 18 October until 10 November. He was then buried privately without ceremony, according to contemporary sources, in a vault at the east end of Henry VII's chapel in the Abbey on the night of 10 November. According to the Directory of Publique Worship of God (which replaced the Book of Common Prayer at this period) a burial was to take place without ceremony, so this accorded with the religious feelings of Cromwell and his family. A lifelike effigy of him was placed on a magnificent hearse for the lying-in-state at Somerset House, as though he had been a king. Later this effigy was erected to a standing position. The hearse with the effigy was taken in an elaborate procession to the Abbey on 23rd November for the state funeral service. It remained until the fall of the Protectorate and abdication of Richard Cromwell in May 1659 when it was broken up.
However he was not destined to lie in the Abbey for very long. When Charles II was restored to the throne the House of Commons voted on 4th December 1660 that the coffins of regicides Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw should be dug up from the Abbey, drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn and the bodies hung up on the gallows there. So on 26th January 1661 Cromwell and Ireton were removed and taken to the Red Lion Inn at Holborn, where they were joined a few days later by Bradshaw's coffin (the delay was caused by the fact that Bradshaw's body had not been embalmed like the others and smelt badly). On 30th January, the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, the hangings took place and then the heads were cut off and stuck on spikes outside Westminster Hall. The bodies were buried under Tyburn gallows (near the modern Marble Arch). Cromwell's head is believed to be buried at Sidney Sussex College.
A small modern stone records his brief burial:
THE BURIAL PLACE OF OLIVER CROMWELL 1658-1661
By Royal Warrant of 9th September 1661 the bodies of Oliver's mother Elizabeth, who had died on 18th November 1654, and his sister Jane(wife of Major General John Desborough), who died in 1656, together with other regicides who had been interred in the Abbey since 1641, were also removed but this time the bodies were thrown in a pit in the churchyard of St Margaret's Westminster, adjoining the Abbey.
In what is now called the RAF chapel a 19th century stone was laid down, usually covered by a carpet, recording the names of those buried in the vault, the top part of which says:
In this vault was interred Oliver Cromwell 1658 and in or near it Henry Ireton, his son in law 1651, Elizabeth Cromwell, his mother 1654, Jane Desborough, his sister 1656... These were removed in 1661
followed by a list of officers of his army and council were also buried and then removed.
St Margaret's churchyard memorial
A modern incised inscription records all the names of those re-buried in the churchyard, including Henry, Elizabeth and Jane, on the base of the tower near the west entrance of St Margaret's. The others are: Robert Blake, Denis Bond, Nicholas Boscawen, Mary Bradshaw, Sir William Constable, Richard Deane, Isaac Dorislaus, Anne Fleetwood, Thomas Hesilrige, Humphrey Mackworth, Stephen Marshall, Thomas May, John Meldrum, Edward Popham, John Pym, Humphrey Salwey, William Strong, William Twisse and William Stroud (Strode).
Only Oliver's favourite daughter Elizabeth Claypole, who died on 6th August 1658, still lies in the Abbey, as her vault was in a different part of the chapel and was not found at the time the others were being dis-interred. A small modern stone marks her grave to the north of Henry VII's monument.
A photograph of the Cromwell stone and regicides tablet can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.
The Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon
"Oliver Cromwell. King in all but name" by Roy Sherwood (1997)
Journal of the Huntingdonshire Local History Society vol.3, no.7 (1999)
"Constructing Cromwell" by Laura Knoppers (2000)
"Cromwell's coffin plate" in Westminster Abbey Chorister Summer 2015
A statue of Cromwell stands outside the Palace of Westminster opposite St Margaret's church
Private Collection / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images
This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library
Image © 2023 Dean and Chapter of Westminster