The Death and Funeral of Oliver Cromwell by Patrick Little
“I saw and felt a waft of death go forth against him.” (George Fox, 17th August 1658)Oliver Cromwell died at Whitehall during the mid-afternoon of Friday, 3rd September 1658, probably from complications following an attack of the ‘tertian ague’, a form of malaria common in Western Europe at that time. His decline had been rapid. Cromwell was probably already ill when his favourite daughter, Elizabeth Claypole, died of cancer on 6 August, although he had recovered sufficiently to go riding on 17th August, when he was seen by the Quaker, George Fox. A relapse followed, but he was able to continue to conduct official business until 28th August. A week later he was dead.
Cromwell’s death came as a tremendous shock to supporters of the regime. As the secretary of state, John Thurloe, wrote to Oliver’s younger son, Henry:
He died yesterday about four of the clocke in the afternoone. I am not able to speake or write; this stroake is soe soare, soe unexpected, the providence of God in it soe stupendous, considering the person that is fallen … I can doe nothinge but put my mouthe in the dust, and say, It is the Lord; and though his wayes be not always knowne, yet they are always righteous, and wee must submit to his will.
3rd September was also the anniversary of Cromwell’s great victories against the Scots at Dunbar in 1650, and against Charles Stuart at Worcester the following year. For Cromwell this date had immense symbolic importance. It has even been suggested that he delayed the final assault on the royalist positions at Worcester to give Providence a helping hand. The anniversary of the victories was celebrated every year during the Protectorate, and contemporaries soon picked up on the fact that he had died on this, his ‘lucky day’. As the newsbook, Mecurius Politicus, put it:
Thus it hath proved to him to be a day of Triumph indeed, there being much of Providence in it, that after so glorious Crowns of Victory placed on his head by God on this day, having neglected an Earthly Crown, he should noe go to receive the Crown of Everlasting Life.
Cromwell’s friends and allies might well look for signs that God was still on their side. It had long been feared that the protectoral regime depended on the survival of one man. As Protector, Cromwell wielded great power, arguably greater than that enjoyed by any English king. His authority, both as a military leader and as a sincere, godly ruler, gave him tremendous personal political influence, not least over the army. Indeed, he was able to keep the army in check while making efforts to broaden support for the protectorate by introducing civilian elements into the government – a step that was unwelcome to many officers and other ranks. There were some around the Protector who wanted to push such reforms far further, by making him King Oliver, but in May 1657 he had publicly rejected this offer. He did, however, accept a new, civilian constitution, known as The Humble Petition and Advice, in the following June. One crucial change brought about by the Humble Petition was allowing the Protector (rather than his council) to name his successor. On his death-bed, Oliver chose his eldest son, Richard, as the new Protector. Richard was proclaimed on 4 September.
Richard Cromwell was left an awkward legacy by his father. The constitutional reforms had not been fully implemented; the cost of the army and navy and the war with Spain had brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy. Richard was not well prepared for his new role. He had only recently been brought out of the shadows and given a public role, and as a result he was relatively unknown outside the protectoral court. Most importantly, he did have the close relationship with the army that his father had enjoyed. The supporters of civilian rule saw Richard as their champion, but this risked further alienating the officers, who were already suspicious of the way things were going. The army was, however, willing to give Richard a chance. At first, the new Protector tried to calm the soldiers’ fears, and, according to his brother-in-law, Lieutenant-General Charles Fleetwood, this was greeted favourably:
His highness hath given very great satisfaction to the officers in the late address. It is our duty to be earnest for him, that he may be kept up to walke in his father’s paths with that integrity, as may manifest by what spirit he is ledde forth by …he hath hitherto much exceeded expectation, and did speak heartily to old freinds.
“At Whitehall they are now preparing for the funeral of the late Protector, which will take place with extraordinary pomp and magnificence.” (Venetian envoy’s report.)
After the succession of Richard, there was one further duty that both soldiers and civilians owed to Oliver Cromwell: to provide him with a fitting state funeral. It was paradoxical (but, in another way, perhaps entirely appropriate) that the model for the funeral of a man who had rejected the crown should be so obviously regal. The model chosen was the state funeral of King James I over 30 years earlier, and the imagery was consciously royal throughout. After the body had been embalmed, it was taken to Somerset House – a royal palace where James I had lain in state, and the private residence of Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria – and an elaborate catafalque constructed, topped by an effigy of Cromwell. A contemporary newsbook, The Publick Intelligencer, described the scene:
All things being prepared, the Effigies of his Highness standing under a rich Cloth of state, having been beheld by those persons of honor and quality which came to attend it, was afterwards removed, and placed on a Herse, richly adorned and set forth with Escutcheons and other Ornaments, the Effigies it self being vested with royal Robes, a Scepter in one hand, a Globe in the other, and a Crown on the head.
The burial of Cromwell’s body took place privately in Westminster Abbey on 10th November, nearly two weeks before the formal funeral ceremony. On the same day the effigy, which hitherto had been displayed lying down, was raised into an upright position.
“I beheld a great multitude of people gathering together and thronging and pressing exceedingly.” (Edward Burroughs)
The high point of Cromwell’s funerary ceremonial was a great procession, on Tuesday 23rd November, which led the hearse with the effigy through the streets of London and Westminster, from Somerset House to the Abbey. The date had in fact been put back twice, so that the most elaborate preparations could be completed. The whole event was carefully stage-managed: tickets were printed and issued to mourners; soldiers, dressed in new red coats with black buttons and ensigns wrapped in cypress, lined the whole route. The numbers involved were astonishing, including the poor men of Westminster, members of the domestic household (including waiters, ale-brewers and fire-makers), officials of the court, civil servants, politicians, officers of the army and the fleet, preachers, chaplains and physicians, friends and family of the Protector. It was as if the whole protectoral regime, from top to bottom, was on parade. The full procession took seven hours to travel little more than a mile. And its centrepiece was the effigy itself, on a carriage, accompanied by the chief mourner, Oliver’s son-in-law, Charles Fleetwood. (Richard, as the new Protector, could not mourn in public for his father.) According to The Publick Intelligencer, which picks up the story:
The Carriage it self was adorned with Plumes and Escutcheons, and was drawn by six horses, covered in black Velvet, each of them likewise adorned with Plumes of Feathers … At the Westgate of the Abby Church, the Herse with the Effigies thereon, was taken off the Carriage … and in this magnificent manner they carried it up to the East End of the Abbey; and placed it in that Noble Structure which was raised there on purpose to receive it; where it is to remain for some time, exposed to publick view.
The official account underlines that this was very much a ‘publick’ ceremony, in contrast to the private burial that had preceded it. The state funeral was not so much an opportunity to celebrate a life or to pay respects; it was a reaffirmation of the protectoral regime. The succession had proved smooth, but there were many problems facing Richard Cromwell. Despite efforts to reduce military influence within the government, the regime had still not secured public support. According to the republican, Edmund Ludlow, the ‘folly and profusion’ of the lying in state ‘so far provoked the people, that they threw dirt in the night on his escucheon [sic] that was placed over the great gate of Somerset House’. The royalist, John Evelyn, reported of events on 23 November that ‘it was the joyfullest funeral that ever I saw, for there was none that Cried, but dogs, which the soldiers hooted away with a barbarous noise, drinking & taking tabacco in the streets as they went’. As Evelyn hinted, ambivalence among the soldiery had increased by November, despite the officers’ protestations of loyalty two months before. Earlier, Fleetwood had made it clear that the army’s attitude depended on Richard emulating Oliver. It was now all too obvious that the new Protector had other priorities, and that the civilian politicians intended to rule the roost. In political terms, the funeral, with its public show of unity among all sections of the state, was little more than a hollow sham. Tensions between the army and the Protector’s allies would increase further during the new year of 1659, and in May Richard was deposed by the very officers who had marched in his father’s funeral procession six months before. The leader of the coup was the chief mourner, Charles Fleetwood.