Cromwell was born in Huntingdon on 25 April 1599 to Robert Cromwell and Elizabeth Steward. The family's estate derived from Oliver's great-grandfather Morgan ap William, a brewer from Glamorgan who settled at Putney in London, and married Katherine Cromwell (born 1482), the sister of Thomas Cromwell, the famous chief minister to Henry VIII. The Cromwell family acquired great wealth as occasional beneficiaries of Thomas's administration of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Morgan ap William was a son of William ap Yevan of Wales. The family line continued through Richard Williams (alias Cromwell), (c. 1500–1544), Henry Williams (alias Cromwell), (c. 1524 – 6 January 1604),[note 2] then to Oliver's father Robert Williams, alias Cromwell (c. 1560–1617), who married Elizabeth Steward (c. 1564 – 1654), probably in 1591. They had ten children, but Oliver, the fifth child, was the only boy to survive infancy.
Cromwell's paternal grandfather Sir Henry Williams was one of the two wealthiest landowners in Huntingdonshire. Cromwell's father Robert was of modest means but still a member of the landed gentry. As a younger son with many siblings, Robert inherited only a house at Huntingdon and a small amount of land. This land would have generated an income of up to £300 a year, near the bottom of the range of gentry incomes. Cromwell himself in 1654 said, "I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in considerable height, nor yet in obscurity".
Cromwell was baptised on 29 April 1599 at St John's Church, and attended Huntingdon Grammar School. He went on to study at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, then a recently founded college with a strong Puritan ethos. He left in June 1617 without taking a degree, immediately after his father's death. Early biographers claim that he then attended Lincoln's Inn, but the Inn's archives retain no record of him. Antonia Fraser concludes that it was likely that he did train at one of the London Inns of Court during this time. His grandfather, his father, and two of his uncles had attended Lincoln's Inn, and Cromwell sent his son Richard there in 1647.
Cromwell probably returned home to Huntingdon after his father's death. As his mother was widowed, and his seven sisters unmarried, he would have been needed at home to help his family.
Marriage and family
Portrait of Cromwell's wife Elizabeth Bourchier, painted by Robert Walker
On 22 August 1620 at St Giles-without-Cripplegate, Fore Street, London, Cromwell married Elizabeth Bourchier (1598–1665). Elizabeth's father, Sir James Bourchier, was a London leather merchant who owned extensive lands in Essex and had strong connections with Puritan gentry families there. The marriage brought Cromwell into contact with Oliver St John and with leading members of the London merchant community, and behind them the influence of the Earls of Warwick and Holland. A place in this influential network would prove crucial to Cromwell's military and political career. The couple had nine children:
- Robert (1621–1639), died while away at school.
- Oliver (1622–1644), died of typhoid fever while serving as a Parliamentarian officer.
- Bridget (1624–1662), married (1) Henry Ireton, (2) Charles Fleetwood.
- Richard (1626–1712), his father's successor as Lord Protector, married Dorothy Maijor.
- Henry (1628–1674), later Lord Deputy of Ireland, married Elizabeth Russell (daughter of Sir Francis Russell).
- Elizabeth (1629–1658), married John Claypole.
- James (b. & d. 1632), died in infancy.
- Mary (1637–1713), married Thomas Belasyse, 1st Earl Fauconberg
- Frances (1638–1720), married (1) Robert Rich (1634–1658), son of Robert Rich, 3rd Earl of Warwick, (2) Sir John Russell, 3rd Baronet
Crisis and recovery
Little evidence exists of Cromwell's religion at this stage. His letter in 1626 to Henry Downhall, an Arminian minister, suggests that Cromwell had yet to be influenced by radical Puritanism. However, there is evidence that Cromwell went through a period of personal crisis during the late 1620s and early 1630s. In 1628 he was elected to Parliament from the Huntingdonshire county town of Huntingdon. Later that year, he sought treatment for a variety of physical and emotional ailments, including valde melancholicus (depression), from the Swiss-born London doctor Théodore de Mayerne. In 1629 he was caught up in a dispute among the gentry of Huntingdon over a new charter for the town, as a result of which he was called before the Privy Council in 1630.
In 1631 Cromwell sold most of his properties in Huntingdon—probably as a result of the dispute—and moved to a farmstead in nearby St Ives (then in Huntingdonshire, now in Cambridgeshire). This signified a major step down in society compared with his previous position, and seems to have had a significant emotional and spiritual impact. A 1638 letter survives from Cromwell to his cousin, the wife of Oliver St John, and gives an account of his spiritual awakening. The letter outlines how, having been "the chief of sinners", Cromwell had been called to be among "the congregation of the firstborn". The language of this letter, which is saturated with biblical quotations and which represents Cromwell as having been saved from sin by God's mercy, places his faith firmly within the Independent beliefs that the Reformation had not gone far enough, that much of England was still living in sin, and that Catholic beliefs and practices needed to be fully removed from the church. It would appear that in 1634 Cromwell attempted to emigrate to Connecticut in America, but was prevented by the government from leaving.
Along with his brother Henry, Cromwell had kept a smallholding of chickens and sheep, selling eggs and wool to support himself, his lifestyle resembling that of a yeoman farmer. In 1636 Cromwell inherited control of various properties in Ely from his uncle on his mother's side, and his uncle's job as tithe collector for Ely Cathedral. As a result, his income is likely to have risen to around £300–400 per year; by the end of the 1630s Cromwell had returned to the ranks of acknowledged gentry. He had become a committed Puritan and had established important family links to leading families in London and Essex.