My second historic visit during the winter closed season was to The Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon
This is a wonderful spot, just 14 minutes away by train.
The building itself is of great interest, being a Norman stone construction, all that remains of the old Hospital of St John, built to provide hospitality for travellers and pilgrims in the 11th century.
It became Huntingdon Grammar School after the dissolution of religious buildings by the Tudors. Oliver Cromwell himself went to school there, and it was still in use as a school into the 20th century.
It is not to be confused with the house in Ely, where Cromwell moved in 1636, from Huntingdon, where he was born.
Inside, the Cromwell Museum is crammed with original exhibits, all beautifully labelled, and there is a small shop with a selection of interesting books and pamphlets. The Museum is free and a very friendly and well-informed volunteer answered all my questions.
There are many superb portraits. As you come in through the door, this wonderful, sad-eyed Charles I (copy of a Van Dyke), greets you.
Cromwell’s wife, Elizabeth is interesting in her own right, as mother of nine children, all but one of whom survived to adulthood. She is particularly interesting to residents of Peterborough as after the Restoration she lived out the rest of her days at a rather splendid manor in Northborough.
Cromwell’s son, Richard, briefly inherited the Protectorate, before it became evident that he was totally unsuitable for the job.
His favourite daughter, another Elizabeth.
Besides Northborough, we at Longthorpe Tower have some other links with the Cromwells.
Oliver’s great-grandfather was Richard Cromwell, (born Richard Williams, the nephew of Thomas Cromwell, who took his uncle’s surname). Richard was intensely active on behalf of Thomas Cromwell in the dissolution of the monasteries. He received property at Brampton and a large share of the estates of Ramsey Abbey as a reward for his services. On 15th October 1538, Richard, travelling from Cambridge to Ely, Somerhsam and Ramsey, wrote to his uncle: “As sone as we have done at Ramsey, we go to Peterbor and from thence to my house, and so home”. He signed the letter as “the most bounden nephew of Th Cromwell.”
Peterborough Abbey was surrendered on 29th November, 1539. The nearby houses of Thorney, Croyland (Crowland) and Spalding followed, on 1st December, 4th December and 8th December respectively.
The commissioners’ instructions were to “take inventories of plate, jewels and goods, and leave the same in custody of the governors, except such principal jewels, plate, ornaments or other things as shall be thought mete for the king’s majesty. They shall with all speed survey all possessions. They shall cause the governors and religious to change their habits immediately. They shall certify … what lands be most convenient for the king, and … they shall certify if there be any stately manors or other possessions lying commodiously for the king.” ***
There were two manors at “Longethorp” both listed in the Abbey inventory made, extremely promptly, and in great detail, on 30th November. The old manor, where Thorpe Hall is situated now, was managed by Johannis Villers, and the “new” manor, whose bailiff was Thomas Phillip, was at the site of the Tower.
This seems odd to us now, because, the Tower is much older than the present Thorpe Hall.
Both manors were owned by the Abbey, and later passed into private hands. Thorpe Hall, a mere half mile from Longthorpe Tower, was built for Oliver St John, Lord Chief Justice to Oliver Cromwell during the Protectorate. Oliver St John’s second wife was Oliver Cromwell’s favourite niece, Elizabeth Cromwell.
We often suggest to visitors who do not know the area that Thorpe Hall is an excellent place to visit after they have finished at the Tower. It is a beautiful 17th century mansion, with lovely gardens which can be accessed, a cafe and a gift shop.
The Lord Protector allowed St John to loot what was left of Peterborough Abbey outbuildings, the monastic remains, to build the Hall.
This piece of sculptured stone is being used as a path marker.
A fish, looks like a carp from the huge teeth. Thorpe Hall is situated between the Abbey and the monastic fishponds at Longthorpe, which still exist. This pile of stone is being used as a stand for assorted plant containers from the gift shop.
The stable yard , with carriage doors ahead. The stables, now used as the gift shop, are on the extreme right of the picture.
You can walk over this field to access the medieval fishponds from the Hall. The land still belongs to the Hall (which is currently owned by the Sue Ryder Foundation).
The land was sheep pasture when it was owned by the Abbey, and has been used as grazing or meadow ever since. I like to think, as I walk, that I am stepping in the footprints of the medieval monks.
Two miles further on, is Peterborough Cathedral, all that is left of the once-great Abbey. It was ransacked by Puritan troops during the Civil War, and any tombs and stained glass which had survived the dissolution were not so fortunate this time. The Cromwell family, Thomas, Richard (of the sixteenth century) and Oliver, between them, did enormous and irreparable damage to the fabric of religious buildings nationwide.
It is therefore particularly surprising that All Saints’ Church, in the centre of Huntingdon, directly opposite the Cromwell Museum, has kept its patronal saints in the niches on the external walls.
One of the major desecrations of the churches all over England resulting from what we call “The Reformation” was the removal of all images, whether in stone or stained glass.
These two empty niches are both from St Mary’s Church, Stamford, nine miles away.
It is very surprising that the church in Huntingdon centre, directly opposite the Grammar School and not far from the house where Oliver Cromwell was born, (now a care home), escaped this desecration.
Medieval musicians, on the exterior, are of interest to Tower volunteers, as we have a theme of musicians in the roof of the painted chamber. Such stone images are rarely seen, not simply because of man-made destruction, but also because of weather-erosion.
Peterborough, as I recorded in my first post here, is far more interesting than it first appears, and has links to most of the major events in English history.
*** Quotations taken from “The Last Days of Peterborough Monastery”, by W.T. Mellows, printed by the Northamptonshire Records Society, 1947.