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Cromwell's background

How much do we know about Cromwell’s background? Was he, for example, related to Thomas Cromwell? Did he have any brothers and sisters?

We know a fair bit about Oliver Cromwell’s immediate ancestors and close relatives, through the work of eighteenth and nineteenth century historians such as Mark Noble and James Waylen, as well as through more recent research.

Cromwell was not directly descended from Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell, who was elevated to the earldom of Essex but was condemned and executed in 1540 when he fell from favour, though he was connected to him via Thomas’s sister. Oliver’s great-great-grandfather, Morgan Williams, had married Thomas Cromwell’s sister Katherine in 1497. Their three sons, Richard, another Richard and Walter, began the practice of calling themselves Cromwell in place of their true surname of Williams, in honour of their famous maternal uncle. Most of their descendants, in turn, used the surname Cromwell, or occasionally Williams-alias-Cromwell. After the Restoration, when it may have been unwise to be seen to have close links with Oliver Cromwell, some members of the family reverted for a time to calling themselves Williams, though generally just as a temporary measure. 

The elder of the two Richards who were the sons of Morgan Williams and Katherine Cromwell was later knighted and had two sons, Henry and Francis, both of whom used the surname Cromwell. Henry, himself in due course knighted, had eleven children by his first wife (six sons and five daughters), most of whom survived into adulthood, married and had children of their own. Robert Cromwell (d 1617) was one of the younger sons of Sir Henry; he married Elizabeth, daughter of William Steward (d 1594). 

Robert Cromwell and Elizabeth had ten children (three sons and seven daughters). Their eldest son was called Henry, presumably in honour of Robert’s own father, but he died soon after birth in 1595. Thus when their second son was born in 1599 and was christened Oliver, presumably in honour of Robert’s eldest brother Sir Oliver, he became the eldest surviving son and heir of Robert. A younger brother, Robert junior, was born in 1609 but he, too, quickly died. Thus in practice Oliver was effectively an only son, as he was the one son of Robert and Elizabeth to survive infancy. Young Oliver grew to manhood in a female-dominated environment, for while he had no surviving brothers and his father died quite young in 1617, his widowed mother (who lived on until the mid 1650s, but never remarried) became for a time head of a household which included seven growing daughters, sisters to young Oliver. Three of his sisters were older than him, the remaining four younger. Most if not all survived well into adulthood, most in due course married and at least five of them had children of their own, who thus became Oliver’s nieces and nephews. 

Cromwell’s eldest sister was Joan, about whom little is known. Some sources, such as James Waylen, suggest that she died young, at around eight years old, though others claim that she survived into adulthood and married a William Baker in 1611.

Elizabeth Cromwell (born 1593) was the only one of Oliver’s sisters who certainly survived into adulthood but did not marry. He wrote to her in December 1651, thanking her for all her letters, apologising for replying so infrequently, sending her Ł20 ‘as a small token of my love’ and closing ‘I rest, dear Sister, your affectionate brother’. In her last years she seems to have lived with Oliver’s younger son, Henry, and his wife at their home in Wicken, Cambridgeshire. She died there in 1672 and was buried in Wicken church.

Catherine Cromwell (born 1597) was twice married, firstly to Roger Whitestone and then after his death to the regicide colonel John Jones. She reportedly spent much of her married life with Roger Whitestone in Holland, and there most or all of her children (two daughters and three or perhaps four sons) were born. 

Margaret Cromwell (born 1601) married in or around 1617 colonel Valentine Waulton (or Walton), another of the king’s judges in 1649, who outlived her. The couple had one daughter and four or perhaps five sons, one of whom died on the battlefield of Marston Moor in July 1644 as a result of an attempted amputation of his leg which had been smashed by enemy shot; Cromwell’s letter conveying the news to his father is one of the most moving and most frequently quoted of the entire civil war.

Anna Cromwell (born 1603) married John Sewster. Before her comparatively early death in 1646, the couple had six children (three sons and three daughters, one of whom married Sir William Lockhart).

Jane Cromwell (born 1606) married in 1636 John Disbrowe, who became a senior commander in the parliamentarian army, a close colleague of Oliver’s, a member of the Protectoral Council of State throughout the Protectorate and one of the Major Generals of 1655-6. The couple had at least six sons – and possibly other sons and daughters who died in infancy – before the marriage was ended by Jane’s death in 1656. 

Robina Cromwell was the youngest of Oliver’s sisters. She married two churchmen, firstly Peter French, canon of Christchurch, Oxford, and after his death Dr John Wilkins, later Bishop of Chester. Only one child, a daughter Elizabeth by her first marriage, appears to have survived into adulthood. In due course she married John Tillotson, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury.

Cromwell remained very close to his widowed mother until the end of her long life. In April 1649, as he was contemplating leading the military campaign in Ireland, he wrote that he was reluctant to leave her ‘in such a condition of illness’. She appears to have lived part- or full-time with Oliver and his wife and children for many years up until her death at Whitehall in 1654; she had lived long enough to see her son become head of state. She was buried in Westminster Abbey but hers was one of a number of Cromwellian corpses exhumed and removed at the Restoration.

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