Oliver Cromwell and the Monkey

Over at Investigations of a Dog, Gavin has a great post deconstructing the Ladybird biography of Oliver Cromwell. Aside from the excellent illustrations of sour-faced puritans, I was struck by the repetition of the story that Cromwell was snatched from his cot by a monkey and carried onto the roof of Hinchinbrooke House. The same story appears in H. E. Marshall’s children’s history of Cromwell, which I posted about some time ago.

I wondered how old that particular story was. Thomas Cromwell’s Oliver Cromwell and His Times (1822) lists the story as one of the many extravagant claims inserted into hostile biographies of his ancestor (referring here to Mark Noble’s Memoirs of the Protectoral House of Cromwell (1787)) Noble claimed that he received this story – and the other familiar one of the young Oliver coming to blows with a young Charles Stuart – from ‘the rev. dr. Lort’s M.S.S.’ (Perhaps Michael Lort, the Georgian antiquary?) who in turn received this from ‘Mr. Audley’ (the non-juror Edward Audley).

The story raises also sorts of questions. Was the ownership of monkeys as pets common in gentry households in late 16th/early 17th C England? (Or at least enough so that the story would appear credible). And what type of monkey was it? It would need to be a pretty big monkey to pick up a human child, so presumably some sort of barbary ape or baboon was the simian culprit here.

Head of Cromwell's statue outside Parliament

Most importantly, though, what does this monkey story mean? One of the earliest anti-Cromwell biographies, Thomas Heath’s Flagellum (1663 and sub edns) gives a clue. Heath doesn’t mention the monkey story, though he has plenty to say about the young Oliver’s trouble-making and lust for power. However, Heath is clear from the outset as to what the general narrative of Cromwell’s life reveals:

‘Everything hath its good and evil Angel to attend or haunt it, and that grand and happy revolution was to be afflicted and persecuted by this Fury to an almost dissolution of its well composed, united and established Frame.’ (1st edn. p. 3) (The ‘revolution’ Heath is talking about here is the Stuart succession and the union of crowns that it created.)

Heath’s Cromwell is, then, a Fury, an avenging spirit raised up to rain destruction upon the British Isles (note here that ‘fury’ also has connotations of the bestial and savage.)

The same picture emerges from Noble’s recounting of the monkey story. The important part of this anecdote is not the baby being snatched from the cot and carted off to the roof but the fact that the primate brings him down again:

‘the sagacious animal brought the “fortune of England” down in safety: so narrow an escape had he, who was doomed to be the conqueror, and sovereign magistrate of three mighty nations, from the paws of a monkey.’ (p. 90)

Note ‘fortune’ and ‘doomed’: Cromwell is here transformed from the human vehicle of divine providence to the plaything of capricious fate, symbolised by that animal embodiment of all things naughty, the monkey.

(Incidentally, we really need a PhD thesis on monkey symbolism in early modern English literature.)


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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. There’s a bit about monkeys in Bruce Boehrer’s Shakespeare Among The Animals, but I don’t remember him mentioning the Cromwell story. I can’t find any mention of it in Keith Thomas Man and the Natural World or Erica Fudge Perceiving Animals. Monkeys and parrots do seem to have been surprisingly common pets for elite people.

    There’s so much work to be done on animals that it’s a really good thing to get into right now, especially for people starting PhDs.

  2. I am reminded of the proverb (in Puttenham, I believe): “An ape will be an ape, by kinde as they say, Though that ye clad him all in purple array.” There may be something going on here that is apt for Cromwell ! There’s one old book on monkeys and apes by H.W. Janson (1952).

    I agree with Gavin about the popularity of monkeys as pets. All sorts found their way into the hands of the wealthy, and the Calendar of State Papers – Colonial is filled with allusions to the avid desire for monkeys, parrots, etc. Dorothy Legh of Lyme, for example, kept many monkeys and bred them as well, as did the Breretons. A good monkey could sell for as much as £60.

    I think Cromwell’s monkey, if the story is true (?!) would probably have been a Barbary ape (the terms weren’t well separated at the time). These were imported in part for the baiting arena and the popular game of “Jackanapes” where the ape was tied to the back of a horse being baited.

    There may have been more apes than were desired, too. In 1636 Edmund Verney, a royalist soldier, wrote to his son from London describing a merchant who asked his factor in the Mediterranean to send him “2 OR 3 Apes.” Unfortunately the merchant forgot the “R,” and the factor thought he meant “203.” “His factor has sent him fower scoare,” Verney writes, “and says hee shall have the rest by the next shipp… if yorself or frends will buy any to breede on, you could never have had such a chance as now” (Qtd in Altick 37).

    I like the image of Verney’s son hurrying to London for the big ape sale.

    Altick, Richard Daniel. The shows of London. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1978.

    Legh, Family. _Legh Family Letters_. Manchester.

  3. It’s funny, I read Gavin’s post and immediately thought “I must figure out where that monkey story came from” – then clicked to your blog in my RSS feed and found you had already done it. Curses!

  4. There are also two venerable but interesting articles on trained apes in early modern England (which I came across about 18 months while searching on Google Scholar for something entirely different, but which stuck in the memory):



  5. See, early modern apes, fascinating. Thesis almost writes itself, doesn’t it?

  6. Recalling literature on the import of exotic animals for the amusement of the royal court (James I had a private zoo), my first thought was that this must have an East India Company (or other joint stock co) origin. And why wouldn’t common sailors bring back a few whimsical creatures for their own enjoyment?

    A quick google book search for EIC monkeys led to the following:


  7. […] being carried onto a roof by a monkey. This prompted Ted Vallance to do some more digging into the provenance of the story, including this plea: Incidentally, we really need a PhD thesis on monkey symbolism in early modern […]

  8. Hi, Ted, I’ve done a bit of digging since we had a chat about this yesterday.

    Noble’s sources are actually rather interesting. The implication is that Lort was getting his information from ‘mr. Edw. Audley’. There is certainly another story told by Noble several pages later on which is explicitly said to derive from ‘The rev. dr. Lort’s M.S.S. from papers communicated by mr. Audley’ (1787 edn. i. p. 94n). (Do those Lort MSS survive?)

    Moreover, on the previous page (i. p. 91n), Noble mentions ‘Mr. Edw. Audley, a draper of Huntingdon, and brother of the chancellor of York’, who had owned the house in Huntingdon in which Cromwell had been born. This is clearly the same man.

    This provenance looks plausible. The brother was presumably John Audley, the chancellor of the archdiocese of York in the early Hanoverian period. My guess would be that John and Edward Audley were the two sons of Edward Audley who, according to the IGI (used with all the usual caveats etc. etc.), were baptised at Huntingdon in 1680 and 1682 respectively. Checking whether the former is indeed the future civil lawyer wouldn’t be too difficult.

    Running the name Edward Audley through the Cambridgeshire Archives online catalogue (http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/leisure/archives/catalogue/) throws up a number of documents, including a will of 1757 of an Edward Audley of Huntingdon, gent., in a collection of documents relating to Cromwell House, Huntingdon. An earlier Edward Audley (the father?) seems to have been one of the Huntingdon aldermen in 1686. Further research might establish whether there was an Audley grandfather who, as Noble claims, could have heard the story about the monkey.

    It seems to me that the story might well be a genuine example of Huntingdon oral tradition. But Michael Lort cannot have heard it much before the middle of the eighteenth century (he was only born in about 1725) and at best Audley was reporting hearsay at several removes. So we still can’t assume that the story was actually true.

    Another point to note is that the story about Cromwell and Prince Charles fighting, from ‘a tradition at Huntingdon’, appears in Noble’s first edition (i. pp. 110-11) and so presumably derives from a separate source.

    That James Heath doesn’t mention either story is interesting and does tend to suggest that neither story was in wide circulation in the early 1660s. But, whatever other enquiries he might have made, I get no sense at all that Heath bothered to seek out oral traditions in Huntingdon. That would have been too much like proper research.

    • Very interesting! Just had a quick look at A2A – looks like Lort’s letters at least are held by the Society of Antiquaries, London…

  9. […] early modern historians and primates meet; Edward Vallance and Mercurius Politicus on Darwin’s […]

  10. I just wanted to say that I found your site via Goolge and I am glad I did. Keep up the good work and I will make sure to bookmark you for when I have more free time away from the books. Thanks again!

  11. […] • In the Ladybird Oliver Cromwell lurks the monkey of propaganda. […]

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