Saturday, June 18, 2011

"A lady of an excellent spirit and judgment ..."

Elizabeth Claypole, The Royal Collection
With my fascination for the by-ways of history, I'm used to digging for facts on little-known individuals, but am always surprised when I stumble across others who led prominent lives that one might have expected to be well-documented, only to discover it isn't the case.

Elizabeth Claypole is one such example. The short entry on the Westminster Abbey website where she is buried intrigued me and I tried to find out more about her but with little success.

It seems that no-one has attempted a biography - there isn't even an historical novel - about Elizabeth's interesting, if short, life. She has walk-on roles in a few books about her father Oliver Cromwell, but the only detailed articles I could find on her were written by men in the 19th Century and it is odd that she does not seem worthy of more recent scholarship.

Too often, the truth of history is altered or re-written to suit changing times, and when King Charles II was restored to the English throne he was determined to blacken the reputations of everyone who had been responsible for the execution of his father, King Charles I, or had been supporters of Oliver Cromwell. Many individuals (including Cromwell himself) who had originally been buried at Westminster Abbey were exhumed, hung at Tyburn and the bodies eventually ended up in a communal pit in the churchyard of St Margaret's next door and only Elizabeth Claypole remained where she was. Perhaps she was simply overlooked or, more likely, she was still remembered as someone who tried to intercede with her father on behalf of royalist offenders and others; that she was the only person who had the power to move him. It was said that she even berated him on her deathbed for the blood he had caused to be shed.

John Claypole, National Portrait Gallery
Elizabeth married John Claypole at the age of 16 and had at least four children who either died young or left no issue of their own. Her husband seems to have been more dissipated cavalier than puritanical roundhead, with a fondness for the good life. He disinherited his second wife and child, had an affair with his laundress, and sold off the family estate at Northborough.

In the two most reproduced portraits of Elizabeth - one of which is this rather haughty one at Chequers  - and another in the National Portrait Gallery she is shown dressed in silken and expensive finery that would have been anathema to her Puritan father. As both portraits were completed after her death one can't help but wonder if there was deliberate embellishment and/or manipulation of her image for political purposes, as she seems quite different from the fresher faced and simpler miniatures in the Royal Collection and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Elizabeth Claypole, Victoria and Albert Museum

It was well-known that Oliver Cromwell was often at loggerheads with his strong-willed daughter and despaired of her fondness of what he perceived to be "worldly vanities and worldy company". But in spite of his frustrations with her, it seems that Elizabeth was always his favourite child and he was utterly devastated when she died at Hampton Court at the age of just 29. Perhaps her loss was too much to bear and he himself died just one month later.

‘a lady of an excellent spirit and judgment, and of a most noble disposition, eminent in all princely qualities conjoined with sincere resentments of true religion and piety’
(Mercurius Politicus, 5–12 Aug 1658).

Among the portraits in the National Portrait Gallery collection is this mid-19th Century engraving of Cromwell's family pleading with him to spare the life of King Charles I. Presumably the woman leaning on his arm is Elizabeth.

For more details on the life of Elizabeth Claypole, see English Historical Review R. W. Ramsay 1892 and Memorable Women of Puritan Times Vol 1 James Anderson 1862, also the Oxford Dictionary of Biography.