8 fascinating women of the English Civil War: ‘Cromwell and his Women’ (book review)
Confession time: I don’t know much about the English Civil War. To me, it’s always sounded a bit dull, a bit too full of men to be honest. That’s why, when I spotted ‘Cromwell and His Women’ by Julian Whitehead, I was instantly intrigued – first to find out more about this actually-quite-important era of Early Modern history, and secondly to find out about women during that period.
I knew Oliver Cromwell had a son, but I didn’t realise he and his wife actually had nine children together. I’d also never considered his wife, or how his rise to power would have affected her life. I’d never thought about his mother, or if he’d had any daughters. Luckily for me, Julian Whitehead has, in this very interesting, readable history of Oliver Cromwell and his relationships with the women in his family.
Full disclaimer: This is an ad, gifted to me by Pen and Sword books in return for a review.
The Cromwell Women: Victors or Victims of the English Civil War?
At it’s core, this book is about Oliver Cromwell, and how the lives of the women in his family – specifically, his mother, wife, aunts, daughters and daughters-in-law – entwined with his. I really enjoyed it, but it feels very much a book of two halves, in which the first is much more focused on Cromwell, and the latter half more about the lives of his women.
The first half covers Cromwell’s youth, his marriage to Elizabeth, and the lead up to and fighting of the English Civil War. In this part, it feels as though there is a distinct lack of sources about each of the women, and so the focus is naturally on Oliver.
Although I appreciate Whitehead’s commitment to the facts in the sources, and not attempting to over-egg the contributions Cromwell’s mother and wife might have made to Cromwell’s strategies and actions during the English Civil War, it can sometimes mean that the characters of the women don’t feel very realised. Whitehead is forced to make assumptions on how they might have reacted or felt in response to certain events, and although I think he balances this very well, it does leave me wanting to know more about them, especially his mother.
The second half is much more satisfying, in regards to the stories of the women themselves. The second half follows what happened to the Cromwell women once the monarchy was abolished, and as Cromwell begins his last, steepest climb to power. Although they seem to have been relatively safe during the fighting, here is where we start to see if the Cromwell women were actually victims of the English Civil War.
Elizabeth Cromwell, the loyal wife of Oliver, went from being a soldiers wife to essentially running a ruling court: an arduous task that she faced and took on with remarkable dignity. Her daughters took to being the First Family of England with pleasure, marrying well; while her daughters-in-law rose with their husbands as they supported Oliver Cromwell in his work. And yet, looming over them is the fragility of this new government, and the knowledge that Cromwell was holding it together alone.
I very much enjoyed the post-English Civil War section the most. I was fascinated by how the women took to their new roles, and how they survived once Oliver Cromwell died, especially his wife, who is the most realised woman in the book. There is a section around the mockery of Elizabeth and her court which I found very interesting, and would have liked to see more discussion of.
Aside from the actual narrative of their lives, I also found the discussion of Oliver Cromwell’s mental health really refreshing and interesting. It was eye-opening, actually, to see the impact that his depression could have on him. As a whole, Whitehead makes Oliver Cromwell a much more sympathetic man in my eyes: not only through the clear emotional ups and downs he had (I’d kind of assumed Cromwell was a Puritan robot), but also through his clearly loving relationships with his family.
‘Cromwell and His Women’ is an interesting, logically structured and highly readable account of the Cromwell family. Whitehead sometimes makes snarky little asides that really added to the narrative for me – one or two made me laugh out loud. As someone with very little knowledge about the era except that the Puritans banned Christmas and cut Charles I’s head off, I learned a lot about both the English Civil War and the Interregnum. I liked that it wasn’t overly detailed in discussions of the battles and political fights but it might be repetitive if you are very familiar with the period.
If you’d like to check out the book, you can find it here, where (at time of writing) it is on sale: ‘Cromwell and His Women’ by Julian Whitehead (or lots of other books on the English Civil War!)