Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page

Hinchinbrook House

HIS ancient and highly interesting mansion belongs now to the Earls of Sandwich; but it was, for several generations, the home of the Cromwell family.

It is situated on the northwest slope of a gentle eminence, and "commands a pleasing view, including the fine tower of St. Neot's Church, about nine miles distant.

On the south of the pleasure grounds is a high terrace, overlooking the road from Brampton to Huntingdon." The buildings are on each side of an open court. The principal fronts are to the north and east. The entrance is on the north side, and the great courtyard leading to it is crossed diagonally by a wall ornamented with clipt yews.

At the lodge or entrance are figures of savages with clubs, life size. On this front are two very large bay windows, profusely ornamented with shields of the Cromwells; the arms of Queen Elizabeth; and heraldic cognisances of the Tudors, the falcon, the portcullis of Tudor, a ton with a branch; with roses of different forms on the upper cornice of each window. The bay window of the dining-room has the arms of Elizabeth on a panel two feet nine inches wide, upheld by angels, with the royal badges of the portcullis and the harp crowned. Beneath the latter are the initials E. R. Over this window, in a decorated compartment, is a large radiated rose.

Upon the west side of the entrance court is still remaining a portion of the old priory, which was given by Henry VIII. to Richard Williams (or Cromwell), the nephew of his favourite minister Cromwell, Earl of Essex. They are now used as the dairy, scullery, and for other offices. The ancient kitchen is still used. The east front has two bay windows with the arms of the Montagu family on them, with this motto, "Post tot aufragia portum."

The most remarkable part of the mansion is the very large circular bay window, built in 1602. It is exquisitely ornamented, its basement forms a porch; seven arches spring from columns at the piers, the spandrils and key-stones of which are decked with shields and crests of the Cromwell alliances. The gilded roof of the dining-room which had this window was said to have been part of the ancient priory of Barnwell. In this room King James was entertained by Sir Oliver Cromwell.

Both these fronts are of stone; the rest of the house is of brick, coloured to correspond with the old portion, and erected by the first Earl of Sandwich.

The principal rooms on the ground floor are the dining and drawing rooms, the billiard-room, library and offices. The windows of the drawing-room are of painted glass, and record the marriages and children from Edward, first Earl of Sandwich, to John, fourth Earl. The great staircase has carved panels, containing the arms of the Montagues.

The great dining room of Elizabeth's days on the first floor is now divided into five bedrooms; of these are the green room, the velvet room, the state bedroom of James 1., etc., etc.

One or two of the fishponds belonging to the old nunnery are remaining, and Nuns' Bridge and Nuns' Meadows on the west side of the park still remind us that once the place was dedicated to God.

The name of the house comes from the Hinchin, a brook which skirts the estate, and joins the Ouse at Huntingdon, about one or two miles below the house.

The family who received this part of the Church property was Welsh. They were near connections of the Putney blacksmith, father of the Thomas Cromwell who, by his fidelity to his first master, Wolsey, gained the good opinion of Henry VIII., and rose to the highest power in England. He used it (and the needs and avarice of the king) to abolish the religious houses and secularise their revenues. One of the chief privileges conferred on him was the power of doing as he pleased with the ecclesiastical houses in Huntingdonshire. He kept them for himself and his kinsmen.

Amongst these was his nephew, Richard Williams, of an ancient Welsh family, claiming descent from the former lords of Powis and Cardigan. His mother was a sister of Cromwell's, who introduced his young kinsman to the sovereign.

Henry advised the youth to change his name from Williams - emphatically Welsh - to Cromwell, an English name. The young man obeyed and was made Gentleman of the Privy Chamber to the King, and afterwards Constable of Berkeley Castle. His uncle gave him the greater part of the monastic houses in Huntingdonshire.

This nephew of Cromwell, Earl of Essex, was one of the challengers at a tournament held by Henry VIII. in 1540, the combatants in which were rewarded with an annual income of 1,000 marks and a house to live in, granted from the dissolved monastery of Stamford. Young Cromwell distinguished himself by such remarkable skill and gallantry in this mock fight that the king was delighted with him, and knighted him the second day of the tournament. When the jousts were over he gave him a diamond ring, saying at the same time, "Formerly thou wert my Dick, but henceforth thou shalt be my Diamond," and ordered him to wear the ring in his arms on the fore-gamb of the lion in his crest, instead of the javelin, heretofore borne there.

This alteration of the arms was always borne afterwards by the elder branch of the family; and when Oliver became Protector, he adopted it instead of the javelin he had used previously. After the execution of Cromwell, Earl of Essex, the king still continued to favour Sir Richard, and greatly added to his already large possessions.

Sir Richard Cromwell was succeeded by his son Henry. His second daughter married William Hampden, Esq., and became the mother of the great John Hampden, the patriot.

Sir Richard's eldest son, Oliver, succeeded him at Hinchinbrook; his second son, Robert of Huntingdon, married Elizabeth, daughter of William Stewart, Esq., and became the father of Oliver Cromwell, the Protector.

Sir Henry Cromwell was so hospitable and liberal, that he was called the Golden Knight. He built great part of the early house at Hinchinbrook, and lived there every winter; dwelling in the summer at an Abbey at Ramsey, which he had also made into a dwelling-place. His eldest son, Oliver, uncle to the Protector, succeeded him, and entertained James I. at Hinchinbrook, when the king was on his progress from Scotland to receive the English crown.

We have some account of this visit in Stowe's "Annales":-

"There attended at Master Oliver Cromwell's house," he says, "the Head of the University of Cambridge, all clad in scarlet gowns and corner caps, who having presence of his Majestie, there was made a learned and eloquent oration in Latine, welcomming his Majestie, as also entreating the confirmation of their privileges, which his highness most willingly granted. Master Cromwell presented his Majestie with many rich and valuable presents, as a very great and faire-wrought standing cup of gold, goodlie horses, deepemouthed hounds, divers hawks of excellent wing, and at the remove gave fifty pounds amongst his Majestie's officers. The 29th of April his Majestie tooke leave of Master Oliver Cromwell and his lady."

The king was greatly pleased at this reception, and at his coronation created Master Cromwell a Knight of the Bath.

On the outbreak of the civil war in the next reign, Sir Oliver naturally took the Royalist side, raised men, and contributed large sums of money to the king's cause. His loyal devotion to Charles exhausted his resources, and he was obliged to sell Hinchinbrook to the Montagues, since Viscounts of Hinchinbrook and Earls of Sandwich.

Sir Oliver, now a poor man, retired to Ramsay Abbey, where, heartbroken at his royal master's troubles and his own, he died in his ninety-third year. His eldest son, Colonel Henry Cromwell, inherited the little left of their great fortune; but having also taken an active part on the king's side in the civil war, his estates were sequestrated; but the sequestration was afterwards removed at the intercession of his kinsman, Oliver, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Colonel Cromwell died in 1657. His son Henry - perhaps influenced by the Protector's former kindness - went over to the side of the Roundheads, and entered Parliament. He died in 1673, leaving no children; and the great Huntingdon line - one of the wealthiest families in the kingdom, till the civil war - became extinct.

Robert Cromwell - the head of the younger branch of the family - settled at Huntingdon, married, as we have said, and had five daughters and one son - the famous OLIVER, who became Protector of England.

He (Oliver) belongs to history, and not to Hinchinbrook, except by relationship; we shall therefore here conclude our sketch of the family of Cromwell.

Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page
Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004