Mae Leonard takes a look at the life of Elizabeth Bourchier, aka ‘Mrs Oliver
I found Mrs. Cromwell at Hampton Court one Saturday morning when an icy wind blew up from the Thames beside it.
Hampton Court is not exactly the most comfortable of palaces. It is a warren of haunted corridors and royal apartments and the air is thick with spirits and ghosts of royal intrigue. And as my footsteps echoed on the tiles of Henry the Eighth’s Apartments I could almost hear the tortured souls who once lived here whispering through keyholes.
Jane Seymour is said to wail from within the walls as she lies dying after giving birth, and the spirit of Catherine Howard scampers towards the chapel to beg for mercy from a king who grants none.
Henry the Eighth was only one of Hampton Court’s notorious occupants and to understand his lavish lifestyle you need go no further than the kitchens.
There are eighteen of them. A thousand meals were prepared in those kitchens every day in his time. The décor of the whole place is sumptuous in the extreme and therefore it came as a great surprise to me to learn that the Cromwells, yes, Oliver and his Missus, lived here when he came to power as Lord Protector of England.
It never struck me that there could be such a person as Mrs. Oliver Cromwell. But there really was.
Her name was Elizabeth Bourchier and they were married in 1620, when he was twenty-one and she twenty-three.
She was the eldest of six children. Her father, a rich titled merchant, traded in leather and furs.
According to her portrait she had a plump face with a dimpled smile and nice wide-open eyes. She looks pleasant enough but she wasn’t at all popular with the ‘in-crowd’.
Behind her back they called her ‘Old Joan’ which was a most derogatory term in that era.
They said also that she had no taste in dress gossiping about how “she wore her hood clapped on haphazardly and was totally lacking in dignity”.
While he himself was off about his dastardly business, she looked after his palace and household with a tight fist. She considered it her Christian duty to ensure that there were no extravagances.
It seems to have been a happy marriage. There were seven children consisting of four boys, and three girls. And if you need further proof of her love for him (warts ‘n all) once upon a time Elizabeth wrote to him thus – “Truly my life is but half a life in your absence”.
As for Oliver, did he love her? Well, after 31 years of marriage her husband replied – “Thou art dearer to me than any creature”.
Elizabeth Bourchier Cromwell may not have made it ‘big’ into history books but she loved Hampton Court. Her hobby was collecting portraits of foreign Royals and she displayed them at the Palace. In fact, she was so taken with the portrait of the Queen of Sweden, she suggested to Oliver that should anything untoward happen to herself, he should marry the Queen Christina.
When the art treasures of Hampton Court Palace were auctioned-off to raise money for the Commonwealth, with her own private fortune, Mrs. Cromwell bought several pieces and even bought the palace itself.
Alas, when her beloved Oliver died in 1658, everything had to be sold again. However, Mrs. Cromwell removed her favourite pieces of art and even bought a warehouse to store them properly. It is thanks to her that those treasures are preserved intact and on display in Hampton Court Palace today. That is where I discovered her.