22 January 2021
Welcome to a new series of ‘ACE stories for the culturally curious’. Following our E-Newsletters earlier this winter exploring some lesser-known historic house museums, we return across four instalments to pay visits to a selection of houses and museums associated with notable individuals from the past 400 years. We begin in the 17th century in Cambridgeshire, at the home of Oliver Cromwell in Ely and his dedicated museum in Huntingdon.
At the heart of the charming cathedral city of Ely, surrounded by the Fens, stands a timber-framed and plastered house that was once home to Oliver Cromwell: general, statesman and, from 1653 until his death in 1658, Lord Protector of the British Isles. The house can claim to be the only one of Cromwell’s residences to survive to this day, aside from Hampton Court Palace, where he lived as Lord Protector after the Parliamentarian victory.
Oliver Cromwell by Jan van de Velde IV after Robert Walker
Much of Cromwell’s early life was spent in East Anglia. Born into the middle gentry, he grew up in Cambridgeshire, and attended Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, until his father’s death in 1617, when he was obliged to leave to look after his estate and family. In 1628, Cromwell was elected to Parliament for Huntingdon, and he also spent time living in nearby St Ives.
Cromwell was left the lease of various properties in Ely by his uncle in 1636. These included the 13th century house that had once served as a vicarage for nearby St Mary’s Church, and which is now preserved as a museum. During his time in Ely, Cromwell worked collecting tithes for the cathedral, a role he inherited from his uncle along with the properties. From 1640, he became Member of Parliament for Cambridge, and thereafter spent more time living in London. He was to return to East Anglia however during the First English Civil War, recruiting troops.
Today, the house in Ely features exhibits exploring Cromwell’s life and career, and telling the story of the Civil War, when he led Parliament’s armies against King Charles I. It is furnished to show how it might have looked during Cromwell’s time, with interactive displays bringing his story to life.
The Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon
Travelling west along the River Great Ouse leads to the market town of Huntingdon, where Cromwell was born. The former grammar school building in which he (and the noted diarist Samuel Pepys) received their early educations is now the venue for the Cromwell Museum. It sits opposite All Saints’ Church, where Cromwell was baptised.
The museum reopened in 2020 following a major refurbishment, and now presents its fascinating holdings – from portraits to letters, and clothing to coins – in a series of engaging displays. The collection of items relating to Cromwell is thought to be the best in existence, and highlights include such diverse objects as his travelling apothecary’s cabinet, a ceremonial sword believed to have been worn by him at his second investiture as Lord Protector, and an almost life-sized portrait of Cromwell dressed as a senior cavalry officer by the Parliamentarians’ favoured painter Robert Walker.
“Our aim with our new displays is to present the different faces of Cromwell, a man who is both celebrated and reviled in equal measure. We aim to enable our visitors to better understand him as a man and not just his reputation.”
-Stuart Orme, Curator of the Cromwell Museum
Although the museums are closed at present due to COVID-19, the Cromwell Museum is currently running an online Winter Lecture Programme. Upcoming events include ‘Imagining the Cromwells: Conjuring Oliver Cromwell and his Family in Fiction’ with writer and historian Miranda Malins, and a lecture with archaeologists Mark Beattie-Edwards (Nautical Archaeology Society) and Steve Ellis (London Shipwreck Trust), who will discuss the wreck of the London, built for Cromwell. Find out more here:
Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1930
Oliver Cromwell’s House by Oxyman CC BY-SA 3.0
The Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon © Richard Humphrey CC BY-SA 2.0