Sunday 26 January 2014

Bettie, Cromwell's Favourite Daughter

NPG 514, © The National Portrait Gallery, London
Oliver Cromwell is a name that can conjure up strong emotions - even now, some 356 years after his death! To some, he is a glorious hero of republicanism - of freedom from monarchical tyranny. To others, he is the epitome of tyranny and hypocrisy. Utter the name of Cromwell, and images immediately come into view - of soldiers - Roundheads against Cavaliers - and battles such as Naseby, Marston Moor, Dunbar, and many others, flood into our thoughts. When we think of Oliver Cromwell, we think of the hard Parliamentarian - the man who became Lord Protector over the Commonwealth of England. We think of a man who ruthlessly crushed Royalists and Catholics in Ireland. We think of the man whose signature was elegantly penned onto the third spot on the death warrant of King Charles I. We think of a man who became a king in all but name - a man who eventually lived in the same palaces as the king whom he had sentenced to death. 
NPG D28739, © The National Portrait Gallery, London
But Cromwell had another side to his character - that of a loving husband and father. Cromwell's wife, Elizabeth, was a dutiful Puritan wife. Oliver's letters to his wife were full of love - so much so that I found myself completely taken aback by it. 
Oliver and Elizabeth had many children together - Their second daughter, Elizabeth, is perhaps the least well known of the daughters, and so I find her all the more interesting. To be perfectly frank, the only offspring of the Cromwells I had heard of was Richard Cromwell and Bridget Cromwell (since she married Henry Ireton). Therefore, I was pretty surprised to learn about Elizabeth Cromwell, who was affectionately nicknamed Bettie. She was painted by John Michael Wright in 1658 (the year of her death). 
NPG 952, © The National Portrait Gallery, London
Several sources claim that Elizabeth was Cromwell's favourite child, and she possessed a sweet disposition, although she seems to have suffered from what Cromwell referred to as 'vanity and a carnal mind'. Born in July of 1629, Elizabeth was the youngest of Cromwell's children, having followed several siblings, but she was then herself followed by three more. She was truly the apple of her father's eye. When I first saw the portrait featured above, I could see some facial characteristics that she had in common with her father, but I was also surprised by the rather sumptuous dress she is dressed in. Further research revealed that this portrait was most likely painted posthumously. It truly is a stunning work, as you can see - and the vibrant colours are typical of a Wright.
NPG 5497 © The National Portrait Gallery, London

It may amuse the reader to note that John Michael Wright was also a popular portrait painter during the subsequent Restoration. Wright's arguably most famous portrait is that of Charles II's volatile mistress, Barbara Palmer (nee Villiers), Lady Castlemaine, which appears on the right. One can imagine that the Lord Protector would have been quite displeased with the goings-on at the court of the Merry Monarch, but then again, when it came to the Commonwealth and the court of Charles II, it truly was a case of one extreme to the other!
The following is a rather romantic illustration of Cromwell, surrounded by his children (including Bettie), begging him not to proceed with the execution of King Charles. Apparently, Bettie was quite good at stopping prisoners from being executed, but this, sadly did not work out for the king, who was beheaded outside Whitehall Palace on the 30th of January, 1649.
NPG D32080, © The National Portrait Gallery, London
By the time she was sixteen years old, Bettie had fallen in love with the mild-mannered twenty-two-year-old Parliamentarian soldier (who was also her father's Master of the Horse) John Claypole, and she was lucky to have been able to marry for love. She and John were happy in each other's embrace and in the showers of gifts they received from her father (Cromwell made Claypole a peer, thus making his daughter Lady Claypole). The couple had several children.
In 1655, however, the then twenty-six-year-old Bettie began to have noticeable health problems. Lady Antonia Fraser states, 'Bettie Claypole was seriously ill (probably with the first manifestation of the cruel cancer that was ultimately to kill her)'. 
In August of 1658, and after a horrendously painful time, Bettie died. She was only twenty-nine! 
Cromwell was inconsolable. For such a would-be hard man, the death of his favourite little girl was almost too much for him to bear. His health went into rapid decline, and he died only a few months after Bettie. His son, Richard, became the next Lord Protector.
The poet Andrew Marvell wrote a beautiful long poem about the Lord Protector. In this, he alluded to Cromwell's devotion to his daughter when she was on her deathbed. The following is a brief excerpt from 'A Poem on the Death of Oliver Cromwell' :
'If he Eliza lov'd to that degree  
(Though who more worstly to be lov'd then she) 
If so indulgent in his own how deare 
To him  the children of the Highest were? For her he once did natures tribute pay 
For these his life adventur'd every day  
And it would be found could we his thoughts have  
Their griefs struck deepest if Eliza's last.' [2]
And so, Bettie was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, where other members of her family (including her paternal grandmother Elizabeth) were buried. Cromwell would later be buried in the Abbey as well, but his body was later disinterred and put through posthumous execution during the Restoration. All other Cromwell family bodies were also disinterred and thrown into a pit outside the Abbey. As luck would have it, however, Bettie's tomb remained unnoticed (for it was in another part of the building), and was therefore spared the Stuart revenge. As a result, she is still interred in Westminster Abbey! You can read more about that on the Abbey's website
[1] Fraser, Lady Antonia. 'Cromwell, Our Chief of Men'. Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 1973.
[2] Marvell, Andrew. You can read the complete poem here.
Andrea Zuvich is a 17th-century historian and historical fiction writer. Her biographical fiction debut, His Last Mistress is about the Duke of Monmouth and his doomed relationship with Henrietta Wentworth. She also wrote the historical horror The Stuart Vampire and is currently working on William & Mary: A Novel.