Court, Theatre and Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell on Horseback

Oliver Cromwell; known as the man who banned Christmas, dancing, and anything fun. He is associated with the most stringent Puritan ideals. However, perhaps he is not the dour man many of us perceive him to be. He made use of the same iconography as the Stuarts; for example, the strong and powerful image of a man on horseback, cultivated in Stuart courts and exemplified in paintings by Van Dyck, was used in Cromwell’s own iconography of himself as a powerful military man.

Charles I on Horseback

In fact, there is much evidence which suggests that the Court of Oliver Cromwell was a vibrant place; historians such as Patrick Little suggest that his court had a “distinctly regal” tone. His inauguration involved a procession from Whitehall Palace, a popular place for the entertainments of James I and Charles I, to Westminster Hall, a place also steeped in royal rituals. This courtly extravagance can most particularly be seen in the marriages of his daughters, Mary and Frances. Although Cromwell never accepted the title of King, he can be considered one in many ways. Both these girls were styled as Princesses, and to some extent treated like them. Their weddings, held in 1657, were magnificent events. Scandalising fervent Puritans, the festivities were held at Whitehall for Frances and Hampton Court for Mary; both sites steeped not only in the history of the royal family, but also the masque.

Lady Frances Russell née Cromwell

What were these weddings like? Frances Cromwell’s name had been associated with several suitors prior to her settling on Robert Rich, grandson of the Earl of Warwick. Theirs was not the smoothest of courtships, with Rich being in debt and his loyalty to the Protectorate in question, and Cromwell making high demands for the marriage settlement. However, the wedding went ahead, with extravagant music and mixed dancing until 5 o’clock in the morning. In fact, the festivities lasted for several days! The poet, Andrew Marvell was involved in the wedding of Mary Cromwell to Thomas Belasyse, Lord Fauconberg. He wrote a performance, which could be described as a masque, where the Lord Protector himself took the role of Jove, God of Jupiter in Greek mythology. The part was non-vocal and thus reflected the expectations on the nobility in the masques of the Stuart courts.

The inclusion of Marvell’s masque suggests a compromise between the theatres and Puritan politics. Theatres were first closed in 1642 by parliamentary order; the same year as the outbreak of the Civil War. Puritans perceived them to be wicked and ungodly, and the hope was that their suppression might encourage repentance. However, in 1656 William D’Avenant, playwright and the writer of the last Stuart masque (Salmacida Spolia), obtained permission to sell tickets for “declamations set to music” in a public location. Moreover, other theatres sought to illegally operate, however these performances were often done badly. Many actors who had fought for the royalist cause had fled to France and enjoyed patronage and influence there. Although there was a compromise of sorts between the puritans and theatre and dance, these entertainments did not prosper until the restoration of Charles II in 1660.

Sources

Firth, Charles. Oliver Cromwell: and the rule of the Puritans in England. Endeavour Compass, 2015.

Kuritz, Paul. The Making of Theatre History. New Jersey: Pearson College, 1988.

Little, Patrick. Oliver Cromwell: New Perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

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