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The Lord Protector’s London: New look at Cromwell's rule reveals unique and fascinating period

by Dr Miranda Malins

Peter Lely, Oliver Cromwell (1654), Credit: Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

A hundred years after the ever-popular Tudors, and in the middle of the Stuart century, another dynasty briefly ruled Britain: the Cromwells. Between 1653 and 1659, following the Civil Wars and experimental Commonwealth, Oliver Cromwell governed as Lord Protector followed by his son Richard. Cromwell, by this time, was in his fifties and had spent a decade in the saddle traversing Britain and Ireland serving Parliament’s cause.

After he became Lord Protector, this proud Fenlander never left London. Yet in London today the Lord Protector is largely overlooked; the Protectorate ignored or dismissed as an aberration from our neat national story of kings and queens. But to do so is to miss a unique and fascinating period, the most revolutionary in British history. And so it is to the Lord Protector’s London of the 1650s to which we will travel back in time now.

Oliver Cromwell moved his family from Ely down to London permanently in 1646 when the first Civil War ended and the battleground shifted to politics. They lived first in Drury Lane then, after Cromwell returned from his campaigns in Ireland and Scotland, moved to lodgings within the estate of Whitehall palace in the converted Cockpit (on the site, incidentally, of 10 Downing Street today). London life was already a big adjustment for a rural family, yet their lives were about to be transformed completely when Cromwell was made Lord Protector in December 1653.

Hampton Court palace, Image: James Park-Watt , CC BY-SA 3.0

Within a few months, they moved into the royal palaces of Whitehall and Hampton Court which had been hastily renovated after falling into dilapidation in the kingless years since Charles I’s execution. Into the royal apartments went not only Cromwell and his wife, but most of his six surviving adult children and their families as well as his aged mother. Cromwell conducted State business up at Whitehall during the week and on Fridays the family usually travelled out to Hampton Court which afforded them greater privacy and relaxation: in so doing, they are credited with inventing the concept of the ‘weekend’.

Cromwell’s Protectorate is usually imagined as a grey, joyless, military regime which excelled at pulling down maypoles. But the reality was rather different. Cromwell presided over a colourful and fashionable court where music and the arts flourished, masques were revived and the first English operas performed. In my new novel The Puritan Princess recreates this court of Milton, Marvell and Dryden to which ambassadors flocked from around the world to pay homage to the Cromwells. Too often the London of the 1650s is painted as puritanical and repressive in contrast to the vivid, fun-loving capital of the Restoration.

Cromwell’s family interceding for the life of King Charles the First, by James Scott, published by Thomas Boys, after William Fisk (1839), Image: National Portrait Gallery, London

Yet, under Cromwell, this was the city where the first coffee houses were opening (the first in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill in 1652), where a young Samuel Pepys was embarking on his career as a civil servant with the patronage of one of Cromwell’s councillors and where Christopher Wren was enjoying his new Chair of astronomy at Gresham College, appointed after the personal intervention of Cromwell. When Cromwell was invested as Lord Protector for the second time in 1657, the lavish ceremony in Westminster Hall and procession through London matched any previous coronation for pageantry with thousands lining the streets, bells ringing, bonfires blazing and free French wine flowing through the city.

The celebrations were not to last. Over the next year the Cromwell family suffered tragedy after tragedy, culminating in the death of Cromwell’s beloved daughter Elizabeth – in effect the leading ‘princess’ at the heart of his court. She died at Hampton Court and her body was floated down the Thames to Westminster in an Arthurian torch-lit flotilla for a midnight burial among the Tudor kings and queens in the Abbey.

The real ‘Puritan Princess’, Oliver Cromwell’s youngest daughter Frances. Portrait by John Michael Wright, Frances Cromwell (1638–1720), Daughter of Oliver Cromwell (c. 1658), Image: Glasgow Museums

Within weeks Oliver himself followed to be buried alongside her after lying in State at Somerset House and an extravagant funeral procession that took seven hours to cover the short distance to the Abbey. His eldest son Richard ruled for the next nine months before a coup by the army forced him from power, unwittingly opening the door for the return of King Charles II the following year. The same crowds watched the new king enter London in May 1660 with Cromwell’s funeral effigy hanging from a Whitehall window.

But Oliver Cromwell, lying in splendour beneath the floor of the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, had not quite finished his earthly journey. In January 1661, his body was unceremoniously exhumed from its grave to suffer a ghoulish and sacrilegious fate. It was taken, alongside those of two fellow regicides, to be publicly hanged, dismembered and beheaded on the great gallows at Tyburn (near today’s Marble Arch), the body buried beneath the gallows and the head displayed on a pike outside Westminster Hall.

This horrific act is surrounded in myth and legend, particularly because Cromwell’s disinterred corpse was inexplicably taken to lie at the Red Lion pub in Holborn for one or two nights before its execution. A longstanding rumour holds that his body may have been swapped for another. Was the Lord Protector whisked out of London and quietly buried somewhere else to lie in peace? Pick up a copy of The Puritan Princess to find out more.

Old Red Lion pub, Holborn. Image: Ewan Monro, CC BY-SA 2.0

And so, after the lockdown is over, if, as I hope you will, you embark on a pilgrimage to discover Oliver Cromwell’s London, what will you find? Unfortunately you’ll have to look hard. You can admire his statue outside Parliament, have a drink in the Red Lion pub and visit Hampton Court and all that remains of Whitehall palace – the Banqueting House, outside which Charles I was executed in 1649. But everywhere you will find the Lord Protector strangely absent from the information boards, timelines and guidebooks.

When Charles II became king, he post-dated his reign eleven years to the moment his father was killed, whitewashing over the Commonwealth and Cromwell years. The astonishing success of his campaign of oblivion can still be felt today.


About the Author

Miranda Malins is a writer and historian specialising in the history of Oliver Cromwell, his family and the politics of the Interregnum period following the Civil Wars. She is also a Trustee of the Cromwell Association. Miranda recreates the Cromwell family’s life in power in her new book The Puritan Princess (Orion Fiction), out now in hardback, ebook and audiobook. The paperback will be released in February 2021 and a prequel will follow soon after.


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