Historical Notes: Oliver Cromwell, king without a crown

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The Independent Culture
SUNDAY 25 April 1999 marked the 400th anniversary of the birth of arguably one of the most misunderstood figures in British history, Oliver Cromwell.

Reinforced no doubt by Victorian dramatic representations of events from his life, the popular stereotypical image of Cromwell as Lord Protector from 1653 to 1658 is that of the po-faced military dictator clattering austerely about the ex-royal palaces in dull apparel, riding boots, replete with spurs, and even the odd piece of armour. This in spite of the fact that as Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell not only functioned as a king but also dressed, acted and lived very much in the style of a king, even though he was head of state of what was nominally a republic.

Cromwell and the Cromwellian regime knew that the power, wealth and influence of a nation were, at that time, projected by the clothes a ruler wore, the magnificence of his court, and the symbolism of ceremonial.

Shortly after his investiture as Lord Protector in December 1653 Cromwell was entertained by the City of London, as had been the custom following a monarch's coronation. For this public symbolic acceptance of his regime the Protector rode through the streets of the capital resplendently attired in a rich riding coat embroidered with gold lace on a horse equally as resplendently adorned with rich trappings.

Likewise, Cromwell opened Parliament with all the ritual and pageantry of a king, travelling to the ceremony in a magnificent state coach accompanied by liveried footmen and yeomen of the guard. This regal splendour was mirrored in his court. It was, according to the Venetian ambassador, the most awe-inspiring and prestigious court in the world, where pomp had reached such a pitch that the ambassador expressed anxiety at the cost of maintaining a presence there.

Court life very much resembled life at previous royal courts. This is no more exemplified than by the marriages of Cromwell's two youngest daughters, Mary and Frances. Both married into the nobility and the celebrations lasted several days. There was even a revival, in shadowy form, of the royal court masque in the entertainment written for Mary Cromwell's wedding by the poet Andrew Marvell. At Frances's wedding the father of the bride wore a shirt of fine linen trimmed with a laced neckband and cuffs, a costly doublet and breeches "of the Spanish fashion" made of uncut grey velvet, a pair of silk stockings with shoestrings and gold-laced garters to match.

The settings for Cromwell's jewel of a court were the ex-royal palaces of Whitehall and Hampton Court. Both were re-equipped and refurnished to provide an environment which corresponded to the Protector's exalted status.

Royal ritual, pomp and ceremony reached a high point at Cromwell's second investiture in June 1657. Having refused Parliament's offer of the crown he nevertheless agreed to occupy the office of king but with his existing title of Lord Protector. His second investiture was therefore a king-making ceremony - a coronation without the crown. Vested with royal robes and girded with a kingly sword, he was enthroned in the Coronation Chair, holding a solid gold sceptre as a symbol of his sovereign power. Little wonder some of his contemporaries now referred to Cromwell as "protector royal". Cromwell's protectorship royal did not, however, constitute a return to traditional monarchical rule for his was a new model monarchy with the Protector owing his title to Parliament.

There have been many misconceptions of Cromwell as Lord Protector. His contemporaries, however, would have well understood the regal Oliver, the protector royal, so far removed from the later dour stereotypical image of popular myth.

Roy Sherwood is the author of `Oliver Cromwell: king in all but name 1653-1658' (Sutton, pounds 18.99)