The real Oliver Cromwell – MP for Cambridge 1640-49

Stuart Orme of the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon presented to a packed out St John’s Church Hall on Hills Road for the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History.

Even though the Lord Protector was our MP for nine years, much of his history is told not by museums in Cambridge, but in Huntingdon (where he grew up) at the Cromwell Museum, and at his surviving house in Ely.

I had put up a few online notices on some local social media pages and groups which seemed to bring along an extra 15-20 people to the recently re-oriented room.

Above – it’s mainly older generations who come along to these talks. If anyone has any ideas on encouraging younger generations (basically anyone under 50!) to get involved, please drop the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History a message.

The Cromwell Museum has its own Y-Tube page with more than enough content for me not to have to film the presentation by Stuart Orme, who was previously at the Museum of Peterborough.

Turns out half the stuff we were taught about Oliver Cromwell in the 20th Century – i.e. in the Richard Harris film and in the Ladybird Book, turned out to be nonsense.

Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence and all that?
“How did Oliver Cromwell become MP for Cambridge?”

The Mayor of Cambridge asked the splendid chaps of the town council to make him a freeman of the town.

Above – Charles Henry Cooper in his famous Annals. (Vol III p297)

Thomas Dineham Atkinson in his follow-up tells of a more curious tale of how Cromwell became a freeman of the town, basically stating that a couple of chaps called Tyms and Kitchinman and associates convinced the Mayor of Cambridge that Oliver Cromwell would be a splendid choice.

Above – Thomas Dineham Atkinson in his 1897 publication Cambridge Described and Illustrated (p102)

Which was all well and good. Until the Mayor said he had promised the honour to the King’s Fisherman.

Somehow Kitchinman managed to persuade the Mayor that this was no obstacle and that the King’s Fisherman would get his freedom of the borough as well. When Cromwell was summoned to receive the honours, he made sure the chaps were liberally entertained.

“In the meantime while Cromwel [sic] had caused a good quantity of Wine to be brought into the Town-house (with some Confectionery stuffe) which was liberally filled out, and as liberally tken off, to the warming of most of their Noddles; when Tyms and the other three spread themselves amongst the Company, and whispered into their Ears, Would not this man make a brave Burgesse for the ensuing Parliament?”

Thomas Dineham Atkinson in his 1897 publication Cambridge Described and Illustrated (p103)

And that, according to Atkinson, is how Oliver Cromwell became MP for Cambridge: he got the electorate (that small group of men with the franchise – a few dozen at most, absolutely sozzled).

You couldn’t do that today though.

“Why not?”

Apart from the expense, it is considered “Treating” – a form of corruption, and an action that remains illegal to this day. That is why at election time, candidates for local and national elections in the UK refrain from offering anything that could be considered an inducement to vote for them – even a pint in a pub. Because when it comes to violent and corrupt elections, Cambridge has got form. And lots of it.

Inevitably things got complicated in the civil war, and Cromwell had Cambridge’s Castle Hill re-fortified. (The remaining earthworks are listed historical monuments along with Castle Mound.) Both drought and flooding have also revealed more civil war earth works in recent times such as the Earith Bulwark in 2021, which like Castle Hill in Cambridge was re-fortified again in World War II, with the placement of an anti-aircraft artillery unit stationed there. (For more on Cambridge Castle, see this summary)

Oliver Cromwell – hero or villain?

Mr Orme said neither – his life in an era of huge social and political change was far more complex than that. There are many other political figures that similar could be said about who were almost as polarising (though none of them were responsible for chopping off the King’s head)

Oliver Cromwell in Ireland – something less well known in England

For those unfamiliar, Dr Eamon Darcy at Maynooth University in the Republic of Ireland summarises Oliver Cromwell’s military actions in this piece. As Mr Orme of the Cromwell Museum said in his presentation in Cambridge, the actions of Oliver Cromwell would be considered war crimes today. When you consider the historical and political consequences of further wars, violence, and major government policy failings – from the Battle of the Boyne 1690 (which still has consequences today), the Great Famine in Ireland 1845-52, through to the bitter debates over Irish Home Rule in the 1880s to Ireland’s War of Independence, our national history – and the part that Cambridge’s former MP played in it, starts to look different from perhaps what we learnt in childhood. To borrow that well worn Q&A:

Q: “What are the historical and political consequences of Oliver Cromwell?”

A: “It’s too early to tell”

As Mr Orme made clear in his presentation, Oliver Cromwell was a ‘nobody’ when he turned up to Parliament as MP for Cambridge Borough. What would have happened in history if the Mayor of Cambridge stood his ground and awarded the Freedom of the Borough to the King’s Fisherman as he originally planned?

We’ll never know.

Cambridgeshire Association for Local History – Annual Conference: Saturday 01 April 2023.

Cambridge Central Library’s Conference Room (3rd floor next to the Cambridgeshire Collection). The theme is ‘Charities that began at home’ (and not necessarily ending there either, as the Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust demonstrates to this day).

I’ve published the extended details of the scheduled presentations here, but to summarise, the timetable is as below.

  • 10.00  – Registration and coffee
  • 10.45 – Susan Woodall: ‘A chaste and pleasing elevation’: making and inhabiting the Cambridge Female Refuge’
  • 11.45 – David Jones: The Charities of Stephen Perse
  • 12.45  – Lunch break (not provided, but this is Lion Yard which is full of places to buy something)
  • 14.00  – Hilary Seaward: John Huntingdon’s Charity: an account from the accounts
  • 15.00  – Patricia McBride: Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust

The cost is £15 for the room hire and refreshments. The easiest thing to do is to email the society (see the last page of the booking form here) to confirm your place and pay in cash or cheque on arrival (no card facilities sadly).

To find out more about the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History, see – annual membership starts from £8 per year.

Supporting my future research on the story of Cambridge the town

If you enjoyed this article and are interested in the history of Cambridge the town and the people who made our modern city, please support my research in bringing their records of achievement to wider audiences. Click here if you would like to make a donation to support my ongoing work.

2 thoughts on “The real Oliver Cromwell – MP for Cambridge 1640-49

  1. Antony Carpen,

    Could I ask you a question about a later MP for Cambridge, please? We previously corresponded about my father, A.L. Symonds, who became the MP in 1945.

    I once came across Symonds Lane in Grantchester, and assumed it was named after him (who else?); I subsequently told my daughters.

    One of them has just been interviewed ( and stated it as a fact: my view is that now it must be true because it’s on the internet. My sister is seeking confirmation.

    As our local guru on Cambridge history, are you able to confirm or correct that, please?

    Thanks in anticipation and regards, Mick Symonds


    1. Hello Mick,
      The naming of the road pre-dates your father according to the Cambridgeshire Roll of Honour for the First World War ( – the record of James Henry Plant, who died from wounds after his trench was hit by shellfire in Sept 1917. His widow’s parents are recorded as living in Symonds Lane. More likely a candidate is Richard Symonds ( 1795-1883) of whom the Census records as being born in Grantchester and having lived there all his life. Hope this helps


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