Miranda Malins, author of The Puritan Princess, writes for Historia about the extraordinary life of Oliver Cromwell’s youngest daughter, Frances, and how we need to forget everything we thought we knew about the Lord Protector’s rule.
The caricature of Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate is that it was a joyless, masculine, military dictatorship presided over by a man who killed the King and cancelled Christmas. But the reality was rather different.
Cromwell was at heart a family man and the family that surrounded him was overwhelmingly female. His four popular and impressive daughters took centre stage in a colourful and increasingly civilian court where Puritan rules relaxed and music and the arts flourished.
My novel The Puritan Princess seeks to recreate this vibrant Cromwellian court through the eyes of Oliver Cromwell’s youngest daughter, Frances, whose extraordinary life, together with those of her sisters, has been entirely overlooked.
Frances, like her siblings, was born and raised in relative obscurity in the fens, the daughter of a minor gentleman only recently recovered from hard times. The Civil Wars changed the Cromwells’ lives forever, propelling them into the centre of events as Oliver’s star rose. They moved to London lodgings when Frances was seven and over the next few years witnessed Cromwell’s ascendancy as war gave way to politics.
Then, at 15, Frances found herself moving into the sumptuous palaces of Whitehall and Hampton Court with her parents, the new Lord Protector and Lady Protectoress. From that moment on, Frances lived the life of a princess, plunged into the glamour and intrigue of court life as her ordinary family transformed into a ruling dynasty.
But, as often in the lives of high status young women in the early modern period, luxury and position came with heightened risks and fewer choices. The family faced assassination attempts as their enemies circled, and as Cromwell’s power grew, so Frances became a prize in the international marriage market, courted even by the exiled future king Charles II himself.
Yet Frances was not content to be a mere spectator in her own life; she had ideas of her own having fallen in love with a young courtier, Robert Rich, grandson of the Earl of Warwick (and descendant of the Richard Rich who turned on Frances’s own forbear Thomas Cromwell).
Cromwell thought Robert a lazy, inconstant young man too fond of his drink, cards and women and denied the match. But Frances had inherited all of her father’s staunchness of character and refused to give up her love, even, the sources suggest, going so far as to sleep with Robert, possibly to force her father’s hand.
All this was going on as Cromwell was struggling with the weighty question of whether to accept Parliament’s offer to become king. A relation, writing to Cromwell’s son Henry at the height of the kingship crisis, observed that the young couple “seem to me yet to continue and to trouble the minds both of your father and mother more than anything else.”
Frances’s marriage prospects were not only a worry for the family at a highly pressurised time but were themselves inextricably linked to the question of Cromwell taking the crown as, if he assumed royal status, she would need to make a diplomatic match. It was in discovering this while researching my PhD that I knew I had found my novel: a story of kingship and courtship with a fascinating, bold young woman at its heart.
Expanding from studying the Cromwell family as a historian to writing about them as a novelist has been a steep learning curve. I have had to retrain myself from my dependence on the source and footnote; soften myself from the rigour of pin-pointing academic ‘truth’ into the creativity of moulding the past to reveal its best stories. I had to find voices that were neither my own nor the objective, omniscient historian who is taught never to write ‘I’ or ‘me’.
The historical facts are both an inspiration and a challenge – gifting me with compelling events while restricting my narrative options as I try to stay as close as possible to what really happened.
But mostly the transition has been a joy: liberating me to search behind the high politics for the feelings and relationships that motivated the key characters to make the choices they did; forcing me to go beyond the ‘what’ and ‘when’ and deeper into the ‘why’ and ‘how’.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of all is that viewing the Cromwell family as a novelist has enabled me to focus on its strong, active women and to reconstruct the close and complicated relationships between siblings and parents, in-laws and grandchildren, building up a clearer, more vivid picture of the large, thriving family that dominated this most extraordinary period.
And dominate it they did: not only did Cromwell’s oldest surviving son Richard follow him as Lord Protector but his other son Henry ruled Ireland as Lord Deputy. Both amassed a powerful network of supporters and friends among a younger generation of politicians as loyal to them as to their famous father.
Cromwell’s brother-in-law and son-in-law sat on his Council (and were instrumental in the Protectorate’s ultimate downfall) while his nephews-in-law presided over his Life Guard and his army on the continent respectively.
Meanwhile Cromwell’s much-admired daughters were important influencers in their own right and led the social life of the court where their husbands held powerful positions and their children attended Council meetings sitting on their grandfather’s knee.
Emphasising the family atmosphere of Cromwell’s cultured court creates an even starker contrast with the louche court of Charles II which followed and is just one of the ways in which viewing the Protectorate through Frances’s eyes reveals new aspects of this misunderstood regime.
And what of Frances in the end? Eager not to give away any spoilers for The Puritan Princess, I will only say that Frances proved her determined, passionate character through a long life in which Providence forced upon her great loves and losses and challenged her to survive the dangerous and tragic fall of her family.
In only a couple of years she went from the darling ‘princess’ of the court of her powerful father to a homeless outcast enduring the grisly spectacle of her father’s dead body being hanged and beheaded at Tyburn. At every turn, Frances’s relationships with her siblings, in particular her sister Mary, sustained her and the Cromwells remained staunchly loyal to Oliver’s memory and proud of their unique and notorious heritage.
Frances and her sisters continued to fascinate and inspire. As one contemporary writer speculated in his assessment of Cromwell’s children: “those who wore the breeches deserved the petticoats better; but if those in petticoats had been in breeches, they would have held faster.”
Dr Miranda Malins is a historian and Trustee of the Cromwell Association. Her first novel, The Puritan Princess, is published on 2 April, 2020. A prequel about Oliver Cromwell’s oldest daughter, Bridget, will follow in 2021.
Frances Cromwell by John Michael Wright: Glasgow Museums via Wikimedia
Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, by Harry Mitchell: via Wikimedia
Hampton Court Palace: via Wikimedia
Oliver Cromwell by Peter Lely: Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery