Contemporary accounts of Elizabeth are usually hostile, mocking her for her simplicity and being out of place in her elevated role as the wife of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, rather than attacking her for corruption or exercising any political influence. She was not related to any nobility and appears to have relished her role as the mother of many children. There is evidence Elizabeth and Cromwell enjoyed a loving marriage.
Elizabeth was one of twelve children of Sir James Bourchier, a merchant and furrier, and his wife Frances Crane. Sir James owned substantial property in Essex and Wiltshire. She was born c. 1598, probably Sir James’ eldest child. Although we have no record of her education, she appears to have been literate. Most likely because of a family connection or through Essex society, a match was arranged between Elizabeth and Oliver Cromwell with the marriage taking place on August 22, 1620 at St. Giles, Cripplegate, London. Her family gave her a dowry valued at fifteen hundred pounds, along with a parsonage house with lands and tithes in Hartford, Huntingdon.
Between 1621 and 1638, Elizabeth gave birth to nine children, five boys and four girls, Robert, Oliver, Richard, Henry and James with the daughters being named Bridget, Elizabeth, Mary and Frances. Cromwell became a member of Parliament in 1628 as one of the two borough MPs for Huntingdon. During a crisis in 1631, Cromwell lost out in a power struggle and following the humiliation, he sold most of his land and property in the area and moved to St. Ives, where he rented land and became a tenant farmer. In January 1636, a maternal uncle died, leaving property and businesses around Ely to Oliver. The family lived in a comfortable house near Ely Cathedral and by the late 1630s, had become one of the wealthier families of the town. Cromwell also had a ‘spiritual awakening’ and became committed to the Puritan way of life.
Oliver appreciated his wife for her loving loyalty, her dedicated personal support and her ability to run a well-ordered household. The couple were uninterested in the details of their clothing and both dressed simply. This, along with other idiosyncratic behavior, would lead to the couple being mocked by the Royalists during the troubles of the reign of King Charles I. There is evidence Elizabeth was introduced to the King while he was imprisoned at Hampton Court but still on good terms with her husband. John Ashburnham, a faithful attendant to Charles I, presented Elizabeth to the King along with Lady Ireton and Lady Whalley. After the introduction, the King entertained the ladies.
The summer of 1642 saw civil war break out between the Royalists, those who supported King Charles I and monarchy, and Parliamentarians, who supported a constitutional monarchy and later, the abolition of the monarchy. Cromwell committed himself to the Parliamentary army from the very beginning. He quickly rose in rank to second in command of the New Model Army in 1645, and because of his great military successes, his political influence grew. Cromwell was one of fifty-nine MPs to sign the king’s death warrant.
They executed King Charles I by beheading in January 1649. The Commonwealth formed to replace the monarchy was governed by a Council of State. Elizabeth’s life changed dramatically. As commander of the army, Cromwell led a campaign in Ireland. In 1649, she made plans to go to Ireland with her husband but never made the crossing. Back in the capital at the end of May 1650, she took part in the crowd traveling from London to Windsor to greet the victorious Oliver Cromwell when he returned from Ireland. In 1650, Cromwell departed for action on a campaign in Scotland, which culminated with a victory over the royal forces at Worcester on September 3, 1651 and the end of the civil war. Although Elizabeth didn’t join him, they exchanged several loving letters.
By late 1650, Elizabeth and her remaining family lived in lodgings assigned to them by Parliament in The Cockpit, near Whitehall Palace. With the establishment of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, they appointed Cromwell commander of the Parliamentary Army. In 1653, Cromwell was elevated to the position of Lord Protector and the family took up residence in Whitehall Palace itself, moving into newly renovated and decorated apartments on April 14, 1654. Elizabeth and the family would also live at Hampton Court and she would appear occasionally at public or state events. Cromwell would turn down an offer by Parliament to become king, but his role as Protector was similar to that of a monarch.
From December 1653, as wife of the head of state, Elizabeth took on a larger public role, frequently having her own table at official receptions or dinners, entertaining wives of councilors, ambassadors and other dignitaries. But she didn’t appear at some of the more important ceremonies of the protectorate. How much influence she had on her husband is unknown. Opposition rumormongers claimed Elizabeth stole jewels and interfered in politics, although none of her family gained any positions in the government. They outrageously accused her of housing cows in St. James’ Park to make her own butter. Because her background was not nobility, she was probably humble and uncomfortable with the glamorous life of the court.
Oliver and Elizabeth’s daughter, Elizabeth Claypole, died of cancer on August 8, 1658 at Hampton Court. Most likely her father’s favorite, her death devastated Oliver and may have hastened his own decline and death. Her tomb still exists in Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey. Cromwell was prostrate and diligently watched over by his wife and daughter Mary, neither of whom attended the funeral of Elizabeth Claypole.
Oliver died in the month following the death of his daughter, and the new protectoral government of Elizabeth’s son Richard made generous provision for ‘her Highness dowager’. She received a payment of twenty thousand pounds and may have been assigned a twenty-thousand-pound annuity as well. St. James’ House was to be prepared as her residence. Richard lacked the forceful nature and political savvy of his father and when he fell from power in 1659, the army officers continued to treat Elizabeth with dignity and respect, proposing a salary of eight thousand pounds per annum to Parliament. If this sum was indeed paid, it ended with the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy.
King Charles II returned to London and assumed the throne on May 29, 1660. Elizabeth departed from London in April, vigorously denying she had with her or had hidden various jewels and other goods of the royal family. She petitioned Charles II, denying she possessed anything and claiming the baseless accusations were creating trouble.
In her petition, she stressed her obedience to the new monarchical government and referred to her many sorrows, hoping she might have a safe retirement. She claimed she never meddled in any public transactions prejudicial to Charles I or Charles II. The King appears to have believed her. In truth, she had taken a few items belonging to the royal family such as pictures, and when they found these hidden, she returned them. The restored monarch did not harass her, and she lived out her last years in retirement with her son-in-law, John Claypole (husband of her now deceased daughter Elizabeth) at Northborough, in Northamptonshire. Following a long illness, she died in November 1665 and was buried in the Northborough church on November 19, intestate.
Further reading: “Cromwell” by Antonia Fraser, “Memoirs of the Court of England During the Reign of the Stuarts, including the Protectorate, Volume III” by John Heneage Jesse, “Notable Women of the Puritan Times” by William Shapman, Elizabeth Cromwell [née Bourchier] entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Peter Gaunt, Cromwell’s Family entry of The Cromwell Association (www.olivercromwell.org)