Few personal letters written by Oliver Cromwell before 1640 have survived, so this letter1 is of particular value for the insight it provides into his character at a critical stage of his life. It is also of the utmost importance that the context of the letter is understood, as the unfolding of details shows.
The letter was written by Cromwell to Sir Richard Newdigate of Arbury Hall in April 1631 – long before he became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland (1653-1658). A note on the back of the letter indicated that it was kept to show the manner of Cromwell’s handwriting. At first sight the effusive and deeply apologetic tone at the start and end of the letter seems at variance with the image of the ruthless military commander and the stern Puritan enthusiast of later years.
This is likely to be more indicative of the style of letter writing of the day than a reflection of personality. However, a closer examination seems to indicate a different aspect of the man’s character: the calm expectation that Sir Richard will pass over Cromwell’s lack of courtesy in not replying to not one, but two letters, and accept his very reasonable explanation. In view of the fact that he was addressing a person of far superior rank and he was at fault, his attitude is all the more striking.
A life in crisis
Some of his contemporaries may not have been surprised by this attitude. During the months preceding the writing of this letter he had been involved in a series of political conflicts centred on Huntingdon; one of which had resulted in his appearance before the Privy Council in December 1630, following a public accusation of malpractice against an eminent local family and where he was compelled to admit his error.
The circumstances of Cromwell’s life during the years 1628-1631 were difficult for other reasons, as well. His religious conversion (1628-1629) succeeded a period of ill health, while the year 1631 was riven by more misfortune. All of his properties in and around Huntingdon were sold and Cromwell and his wife moved to a nearby farmstead at St Ives.
Any interpretation of this letter must take due consideration of this background.
Sir Richard Newdigate
A further interesting dimension is added to the context of the letter, when its recipient, Sir Richard Newdigate, is drawn from the shadows. A lawyer of high repute, he was also a Parliamentarian who held a number of commissions during the Commonwealth and whose career was advanced by Cromwell. In 1654 he conferred upon Newdigate the degree of Sergeant-at Law, thereby paving the way to him becoming a Justice of the Upper Bench later that year.
Although Cromwell heavily censured him in 1655 for the way he conducted the trial of those concerned in the Penruddock Rising and dismissed him from the Bench, he was recalled in 1657. These events were far into the future in relation to the letter he received from Cromwell in 1631, and any bearing they have on the interpretation of the letter and the relationship between the two men is entirely speculative.
1 Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR136/B/3
Letters reproduced by kind permission of Lord Daventry.
This article was Document of the Month for the Warwickshire County Record Office in March 2009. Further articles can be found on their website.