The Puritan Princess by Miranda Malins


This was a fascinating idea, to write a book with Frances Cromwell, Oliver Cromwell’s youngest daughter, as the protagonist, and show how she went from being the child of a country gentleman, leading a quiet life and expecting to marry a man of, within reason, her own choice, to living at what was a court in all but name, surrounded by political intrigue and facing a marriage arranged for reasons of state.

The title of “Puritan Princess” was a bit of a misnomer and presumably chosen largely because of the alliteration: Puritanism didn’t really come into it, strangely enough.  And I’m with the Victorians, OK.  I do not like Cromwell.  I see him as the man who killed the king.  And banned mince pies.  However, I do accept that that view may be a teensy bit biased, as the book showed.  And it was a very interesting book.  I initially thought it was going to be a disaster, when Fanny/Frances started going on about “empowering” women and “owning” her own story as someone who wasn’t of aristocratic origins – seriously, “empowering” and “owning”, in the 1650s?! – but it did get better!

It was a fascinating story.  As the book said, these were times when no-one knew what the rules were, because there were no precedents.  Cromwell might easily have become king – as, over a century later, George Washington might easily have become king of the new United States.  Was that the best option?   What exactly had the Roundheads been after?   And had that changed, and when, and how?  How would people react?  What was meant to happen?  The book did go into the debates quite deeply, but it was a lot easier to read them all as discussions in amongst the family life of the Cromwells than to wade through Hobbes or Locke.

I’m not sure that I quite got the idea of everyone addressing the Cromwells as “Your Highness”, but the Cromwells are the author’s specialist subject so I assume she must have got that from somewhere.  But they did become a demi royal family of sorts, and, as the book said, there was even talk of marrying Fanny to the future Charles II.  In the end, Fanny was able to marry Robert Rich, the man of her choice, but, sadly, he died only a few months after the wedding.  So, in amongst all the complex politics of the time, we saw Fanny’s happiness and then her grief, and also the ups and downs of her siblings and their spouses, including her brother Richard who took over as Lord Protector after their father’s death, but was soon deposed.

And, at the end, Miranda Malins included the story that, after the Restoration, Cromwell’s daughters took their father’s body away and substituted it for someone else’s, when they heard of the plans to hang, draw and quarter it.  Was that true?  We still don’t know.

We live now in an era in which the lives and loves of Royals are treated as a soap opera, but people, in the social media age, seem to forget that politicians are actually human, and vilify and dehumanise them.  I suppose history has done that with Cromwell – as much as he’d probably prefer to be seen as a soldier rather than as a politician.  Having said that, he always seems to end up near the top of those “100 Greatest English people”/”100 Greatest Britons” lists we get from time to time, which I don’t get at all … but the point is that we don’t really think about what it must have been like for him, and even more so for his family, to go from being fairly obscure country gentlefolk to being at the centre of power.  And then back again!   This book made me think about that for the first time.  After a disappointing start, it really was a good read.