A historical misunderstanding: Oliver Cromwell and Northampton

Tim Hasker recently completed his masters in history at the University of Northampton, he specialises in the history of Northamptonshire during the Seventeenth Century.

I was asked to do this blog a few weeks ago and until recently I’ve been unsure what to write about, especially when reading the other blogs that have uploaded by the history community at Northampton University which have been fascinating and poignant.  Luckily inspiration struck from an unexpected source, a short video from a local theatre company. Looking Glass Theatre currently occupies Hazelrigg House on Mare Fair and they posted a mystery tour of the building’s long and interesting history. Hazelrigg House is one of the oldest buildings in Northampton and one of the few survivors of the Great Fire of Northampton in 1675. While there have been many notable occupants, Hazelrigg House is undoubtedly most famous for the local myth that Oliver Cromwell stayed here the night before his decisive victory at Naseby in 1645 which in effect won the First English Civil War for the Parliamentarians.

Oliver Cromwell

Although the video made the accurate statement that there is no evidence to support this myth it nonetheless mentioned it and ended the video with a Cromwellian ghost story from the house’s past. This got me thinking about Northampton’s strange relationship with its past and how little is actually understood about it. Nowhere is this more apparent than when you look at the public narrative concerning Northampton’s role in the civil wars, its support of the parliamentarians and by extension Oliver Cromwell. Growing up in Northampton I was brought up with a myriad of stories about the town and the civil wars. Some were true, for example, Northampton did indeed support the parliamentary cause and was a centre of religious radicalism. However, the town’s parliamentarianism should not be confused for an automatic approval of the regime Oliver Cromwell enacted when he seized control in 1653.

Unfortunately, for many in Northampton this assumption has shaped their understanding of the town’s history. From the Roundhead Helmet on the logo of the Grosvenor Centre to the incorrect belief that Northampton was once a city only to be demoted to town upon the Restoration of Charles II. Part of the problem is the lack of comprehensive research which has been done on Northampton during the turbulent decades of the mid-Seventeenth Century. Northampton during this period was at the centre of the political and religious turmoil which brought about the civil wars but its position has been misunderstood with a misplaced preoccupation with Cromwell.

Northampton and the civil wars has been a personal hobby (obsession) of mine since I took part in a Stuart day at Holdenby House when at primary school. After spending the day dressed as Seventeenth Century stable boy I went home fascinated with the stories I’d be told about the king who had declared war on his own people, been defeated a few miles from my home and held by parliament in this house.  Until I was in my late 20s I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore my interest academically, this changed when I started a masters in history at the University of Northampton.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Northampton and was impressed at the breadth of expertise and quality of the teaching. Moreover, I was given the freedom to explore my passion for this period and this resulted in a study on Northamptonshire during the civil wars.

‘In no other county in England was there probably the same extreme defiance of rubrics, order and doctrine, as was the case of some of the parishes in Northants’

This is how Archbishop Laud described Northamptonshire during the 1630s and it has become the accepted narrative that the county with its puritan beliefs was steadfast in its support of Parliament. My dissertation looked to contest this view through a micro-historical case study of Peter Whalley MP, two-time mayor and a member of the Northamptonshire godly community who was heavily involved in local and national politics between 1634 and 1656. My research exposed a network of political actors who were connected to Whalley through their mutual Presbyterian faith and their desire to shape the political and religious environment in Northamptonshire. Dissatisfaction with the religious policies of Charles I, which Whalley and the godly community viewed as a betrayal of the Reformation evolved from disquiet, to civil disobedience and eventually support for the parliamentarian rebels.  In the early years of the civil war Whalley was engaged in economic mobilisation, while other members were utilising print culture to invoke support within the county for the parliamentary cause.

Holdenby House: the arrest of Charles I.

However, as the war progressed the relationship between Northampton and London began to strain as parliament and the army started to disagree on how to progress following the royalist defeat. With the common enemy of the king removed old arguments flared up – the army distrusted the Northamptonshire Presbyterians to the extent that the army felt it necessary to forcibly remove the king from Holdenby house to Newmarket strengthening the army’s position. This infamous affair set off a series of events which led to the army purging Presbyterian MPs, including those from Northampton, from parliament. This paved the way for the trial and execution of Charles I which many in Northampton were opposed.

Throughout the interregnum and Cromwell’s regime, Northampton’s relationship with the government did not improve. The records reveal that there were a number of instances of Northamptonshire showing its dissatisfaction and open resistance to the new regime. For example, as early as May 1649 there were warrants issued for individuals in Northamptonshire, such as John Knight, for spreading seditious and scandalous pamphlets condemning the execution of the King and the Rump Parliament’s administration.  There is also evidence that officials in Northamptonshire were deploying legal methods to frustrate the Commonwealth in its attempts to enforce the oath of the Engagement. The situation escalated in 1651 when there was a plot between key Royalists and Presbyterians to seize the town. This conspiracy was most likely encouraged by events in Scotland in January where Charles II was crowned King of Scots and publicly swore the Solemn League and Covenant.

Subsequently, Northampton was disarmed and in 1655 Cromwell extended his military control over the British Isles with the introduction of the major-generals. Northampton continued to resist and Whalley himself had numerous disagreements with William Boteler, Northamptonshire’s major-general. Peter Whalley would die in 1656, shortly after being elected mayor for a second time and at the height of his discontent with the Cromwellian regime. However, Northampton’s anti-Cromwellian stance continued and following his death in 1658, it was Northamptonshire MP John Crew who was one the leading voices in parliament arguing for the restoration of the monarchy.

The research I started at Northampton University has formed the foundation of a PhD I hope to start at UCL in October.  This study will examine Northamptonshire during the Seventeenth Century in a broader context and build on the themes I have discussed here. I hope this blog has highlighted the complicated history of Northampton during the civil wars and next time you see the Roundhead helmet outside the Grosvenor centre you’ll know that Northampton’s past wasn’t quite what you thought it was.

Entrance to the Grosvenor Centre, Northampton Town Centre.


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