Mary Cromwell and her husband Thomas Belasyse were a power couple, whose marriage and influence lasted from the reign of King Charles I to Queen Anne. The union, brokered by Mary’s father, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, was meant to be a coalition between the Royalists and the Cromwells and as a prestigious couple, they excelled. Although childless, it would be a happy marriage.
Mary Cromwell, born in Ely, Cambridgeshire, was baptized at St. John’s Church, Huntingdon on February 9, 1637. She was the eighth child and third of four daughters of Oliver Cromwell and his wife Elizabeth Bourchier. Mary, nicknamed Mall, and her brothers and sisters grew up in obscurity in East Anglia. She was given an education worthy of her rank and grew up to have a masculine nature. She resembled her father having dark ringlets and dark eyes, arched eyebrows and a full mouth.
Mary and her younger sister Frances remained in their parent’s home long after the other brothers and sisters left to marry and move away. Her father was absent much of the time fighting for Parliament and against the monarch. When Mary was fourteen, her father wrote to her and her sister, thanking them for their letters and encouraging them to write more often. Mary would develop the unique skills of understanding and warm affection. Her family looked up to her with great respect and confidence. She acted as a counsellor and referee during domestic misunderstandings.
Mary tried her matchmaking skills by suggesting a marriage between her brother Henry and a daughter of her father’s friend Lord Wharton. But Cromwell nixed the match as it was not based on love. When Mary’s father became Protector of England and her mother became protectress, the family was allocated apartments at Whitehall and Hampton Court. Mary was often referred to as ‘Lady Mary’ or even ‘Princess Mary’. During these years, several different matches were discussed.
She was mentioned as a bride for the Duke of Buckingham, an alliance which would have allowed the Duke to regain his estates lost during the civil war. Another match was considered with the Prince de Condé. Mary’s sister Frances was even spoken of as a match for the exiled King Charles II. Another of Mary’s suitors was Sir Edward Mansfield of Wales. He may have spoken to the Protector about it but the match must have been dropped as no more was heard of the matter.
Finally, in 1655, a compatible man was found. Thomas Belasyse, second Viscount Fauconberg had recently lost his wife Mildred, the daughter of Nicholas Sanderson, Viscount Castleton after a short, childless marriage. Thomas was descended from an ancient family of Norman origin and had a large estate in Yorkshire that he inherited in 1652 at the age of twenty-four, upon the death of his grandfather. He wasn’t a Catholic or a diehard Royalist but he had connections to both factions. He had the appearance of being politically and religiously neutral, a perspective that greatly appealed to Cromwell.
Thomas possessed amiable manners, a great deal of charm and was an accomplished man of many talents with an enterprising and ambitious nature. He had been a significant supporter of King Charles I during the civil war but because the monarchy had been abolished, he probably saw an opportunity to increase his fortunes by marrying the Protector’s daughter.
Thomas was in France when negotiations began for the marriage. Cromwell sent an ambassador to question him. Thomas assured the Protector he was a convinced Anglican and he possessed plenty of estates and income. He was said to have £5000 per annum which was more than sufficient. His answers were satisfactory and the ambassador urged Fauconberg to court Mary. Cromwell and his wife cordially welcomed the match and agreed to pay £15,000 for a dowry.
The civil wedding was celebrated at Hampton Court on November 18, 1657, officiated by the Anglican John Hewitt, with the Book of Common Prayer, according to Thomas’ wishes. Afterwards, there were celebrations at Whitehall, including two masques. Mary and Thomas would occupy apartments at Whitehall and Hampton Court.
The Protector favored his new son-in-law with a position as colonel of Lambert’s regiment of horse in July of 1657 and Thomas was frequently present whenever Cromwell received foreign ambassadors. He was given a seat in Parliament in January 1658 as Thomas, Lord Fauconberg. Some of Thomas’ relatives and friends, including Slingsby and Hewitt (who had married them), were accused of conspiring and were tried by the new High Court of Justice for anti-Government plotting. Both Mary and her husband tried to intervene on behalf of the men but both were executed.
Thomas was sent to France as ambassador-extraordinaire in May. In the summer of 1658, Mary and Thomas toured his estates in the North. Upon their return to London in August, Mary’s sister Bettie died and Cromwell collapsed. He was watched over by his wife and Mary, who couldn’t attend her sister’s funeral although Thomas did. Cromwell never recovered from Bettie’s death and he died on September 1. Thomas wrote in a letter that Mary was prostrate with grief and her tears would not stop flowing.
The death of the Protector left Mary and Thomas politically vulnerable. Even though Mary’s brother Richard took over the position, it was an unsettling time. Mary probably knew her brother was not up to the task. In 1659, Thomas sent £1000 to King Charles II in exile and the couple retired to the countryside to evade any trouble. Richard was Protector until May of 1659 when he was allowed to fade out of office and made his way to France. Mary began to actively work for the restoration of the monarchy. To keep the Protectorate in power would create more civil disturbances and possibly cause Charles II to take revenge on her family.
The council of state did order Thomas’ arrest in September 1659 but he obtained his freedom in time to greet George Monck as he marched his army through Yorkshire. The general gave Thomas a regiment to command once Parliament decided to restore the monarchy. After Charles II returned to England and the throne in May 1660, Thomas was held in favor by the king despite his Cromwellian connections.
The Fauconbergs were respected and honored during the reign of King Charles II. Thomas had an illustrious career as a diplomat, politician, administrator and courtier, allowing him to increase his property and wealth. They divided their time between their estates in Lancashire and Yorkshire, especially Newburgh Priory and their homes in and around London such as Sutton House and a new residence they built in Soho Square.
Mary would frequently visit her ailing mother in Norborough. In 1663, the Stuart diarist Samuel Pepys attended a play called “The Committee” at the Royal Theater. He spotted Lord and Lady Fauconberg in the audience. He noted that Mary looked well and was dressed well. Pepys says ‘…when the house began to fill she put on her vizard, and so kept it on all the play, which of late is become a great fashion among the ladies, which hides their whole face.’
Mary became a sort of grand dame of the court and her husband’s estates. They had a wide circle of friends and entertained lavishly. She would wine and dine the Duke and Duchess of York at Newburgh in 1665 when they left London to escape the plague. Her husband became ambassador-extraordinaire to Venice in 1669, and a Privy Councilor to Charles II in 1679.
After King Charles II’s death in 1685, Thomas couldn’t bring himself to comply with the policies of King James II. Because of their opposition to the arbitrary measures of the new king, the Fauconbergs lost favor in the new government. Thomas met with the agent of William of Orange in 1687 and Mary and Thomas welcomed the Glorious Revolution that brought William and Mary to the throne in 1688. Mary and Thomas were strong supporters of the new monarchs and received honors and preferment. Thomas was appointed as a member of the Privy Council and given the post of lord-lieutenant of the North Riding of Yorkshire. In April of 1689, he was created Earl of Fauconberg.
Thomas remained politically active until 1692 and then withdrew from politics. After a long illness, he died on December 31, 1700 at Sutton House at the age of seventy-two. Mary, now the Dowager Countess, spent her widowhood at Sutton House. She would use her intercessionary skills on behalf of the Cromwell nieces and nephews at Court. Into the reign of Queen Anne, she was described as a great and curious piece of antiquity…fresh and gay through a great age.
On November 27, 1711, even though she was in good health, Mary drew up her will. The document is a testament of her great wealth as she left over £10,000 in bequests, including £4,000 and some of her plate to her sister Frances and £100 to her brother Richard. She was executor of her brother’s will upon his death in August of 1712. She died on March 14, 1713, most likely in London and was buried in St. Nicholas’ Church, Chiswick.
Further reading: “Women of the Puritan Times” by James Anderson, “Cromwell: The Lord Protector” by Antonia Fraser, entry on Mary Belasyse, Countess Fauconberg in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Peter Gaunt, entry on Thomas Belasyse, first Earl of Fauconberg in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Victor Stater