You may not have heard of Huntingdon but this small unassuming Cambridgeshire town has a rather unique claim to fame, it has produced two leaders of Great Britain. Most recently was Sir John Major who was MP for Huntingdon and Prime Minister between 1990 and 1997. However, the most famous is arguably Oliver Cromwell who was born and educated in the town as well as serving as its MP before Charles I dissolved Parliament in 1629. No other figure in British history is as contentious as Oliver Cromwell; the puritan general led the Parliamentarian New Model Army to victory over the Royalists in the civil wars and in 1653 he seized power and was declared Lord Protector. Depending on your viewpoint he is either the founding father of parliamentary democracy or Britain’s only military dictator.
Regardless of your view it is undeniable that Cromwell is a significant figure in British history, but despite his importance there was not a museum dedicated to his life until the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon opened in 1962, over 400 years after his death. Located in the former hall of the grammar school which Oliver Cromwell attended (Samuel Pepys was also a student there) the Cromwell Museum boasts the largest collection of ‘Cromwelliana’ in the UK. The hall of the grammar school is all that remains of the medieval Hospital of St John the Baptist which was built in the 12th century by the Earl of Huntingdon. The hall was chosen to host a permanent museum following a temporary exhibition in 1958 to mark the anniversary of Cromwell’s death.
It’s quite remarkable how much the museum has managed to fit into the hall given its relatively small space. On busy days this can result in a bit of a wait outside due to restrictions on the number of visitors allowed inside due to the demands of social distancing. One advantage of the one way system which has been introduced to make the museum COVID secure is that it guides you through the museum in the chronological order of Cromwell’s life.
The museum does a great job of presenting an accurate and objective portrait of Cromwell’s life, and tackles head on some of the myths which have been perpetuated. As you enter the museum you are presented with an interactive list of ‘assumptions’ about Cromwell and asked to select three which you believe to be true. As you traverse the museum the myths are debunked and the truth revealed. For example, Cromwell did not ban Christmas in fact parliament did almost a decade before he became Lord Protector. Also rather than the dreary, humourless puritan dressed in black the collection paints a picture of a Cromwell who enjoyed fine clothes, music, dancing and was renowned for his sense of humour.
Another fascinating aspect of the museum is the attention given to his early life, which is often ignored in favour for his later exploits. Of particular interest is a copy of a satirical play which depicts his school master Dr Thomas Beard (c. 1566-1632). Dr Beard was a notorious anti-Catholic priest and while there is no evidence that he was a puritan it provides an insight to the key players in Cromwell’s formative years.
The Cromwell Museum is rooted in material history; objects are a key part of the whole experience and they have some real gems. For example, there are numerous letters signed by Cromwell including personal correspondence and instructions to his troops. Every available wall space is covered with portraits of Cromwell, his family and other key figures from the time – they also have a copy of the famous “warts, and everything’ portrait by Sir Peter Lely. However, their most significant item is Cromwell’s black hat which is reputed to be the one which he wore when he dismissed the Rump Parliament in 1653, an act which propelled him to power.
A trip to the Cromwell Museum is a must for anyone interested in this turbulent period in British history. Entry is free and it is open 11am – 4pm Tuesday to Saturday and Bank Holiday Mondays. At the end of your visit there is a little shop which has a great selection including a wide range of books on Cromwell and the civil wars.
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Tim Hasker is a history PhD student at University College London where he is researching puritan networks in early modern Europe and America. For more information please visit https://www.timhasker.com/