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.)