On the 25th of April 1599, more than three hundred years ago, when the great Queen Elizabeth was still on the throne of England, a baby was born in the little country town of Huntingdon. Four days later, the tiny baby was carried out of the goodly house at the end of the long straggling street, and taken to the Church of St. John to be christened. "Oliver" was the name given to the baby, and it was a name with which, forty years or more later, all England was to ring. For this tiny baby grew up to be Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England.
Oliver's father was named Robert and his mother Elizabeth. Before she married her name had been Elizabeth Stewart, and some people say that she was a distant relative of James Stewart, King of Scotland, who afterwards became King of England too. But people only like to believe this because it is curious to think that, in days to come, Oliver Cromwell helped to bring his own distant cousin to death.
The house where Oliver was born is still pointed out in Huntingdon. But we can hardly tell what it looked like on that spring morning, so long ago, for it has twice been pulled down and built again. The church too in which he was christened has now disappeared. But some things are still unchanged. The town, with its one long, narrow street and irregular market-place, is much the same as when little Oliver was first carried out into the sunshine.
The Great Ouse still glides slowly by the town with many windings and twistings, from where it rises in Northampton, until it takes a sudden bend northward, and flows sluggishly onward, through flat fen-lands to the Wash.
The Fens, upon which little Oliver looked out from his nursery windows, were black marshes, here and there covered with stagnant water. There by day was heard the dreary cry of wild water-fowl, and there by night the treacherous will-o'-wisp gleamed and flitted. Now, Huntingdon is a farming county, for the fens have been drained, and where only water-fowl cried and will-o'-wisps danced, sheep and cattle graze, corn ripens, and comfortable red-roofed farm-houses dot the flat lands.
We know but little of what Oliver did when he was a boy. But he must have had some good times, for his grandfather, Sir Henry Cromwell, lived at the great house of Hinchingbrooke, only a mile or two away. There little Oliver would pass many a happy hour.
There is a story told—I will not say that it is a true one—of how, one day, when Oliver was still a baby, he had been taken to see his grandfather. He lay asleep in his cradle, and his nurse must have been careless, for he was left all alone. As he lay there, a monkey came lolloping into the room and right up to the cradle. The monkey thought that the baby would be a lovely plaything, so he seized him and ran away with him. Leaping, swinging, clinging with hand and tail, he swung himself and his prize up to the flat lead roof of the house.
Soon the baby was missed, and when it was discovered that the monkey was playing with him on the roof, the whole household was thrown into a state of confusion. Beds and blankets were brought out and placed on the ground, to catch the baby, in case the monkey should drop or throw him down. But the monkey was careful, and presently he brought Oliver safely to the ground again. So the baby was saved to grow up to be a great man.
Sir Henry Cromwell lived in very fine style and spent a great deal of money. He was so grand indeed that he was called The Golden Knight. When Oliver was nearly four years old his grandfather "The Golden" died. We can imagine the stir in the great house, the comings and goings, the grave talks, sad faces, and little Oliver among it all hardly understanding what it meant. But perhaps he would cry a little, when he was dressed in black, and told that he would never see his kind grandfather again. He still went often to Hinchingbrooke however, for his godfather, Uncle Oliver, now lived there. And Uncle Oliver was almost as splendid and fine, and as kind to little Oliver as his grandfather had been.
Then one day there was again much stir and bustle in the great house. The best silver was brought out, the best silken robes and draperies. Every one was busy, hurrying hither and thither, full of anxious preparations. For why? The King was coming.
The great Queen Elizabeth was dead, and the new King, James, was journeying from Scotland, to claim his crown. Everywhere, in each town and village as he passed, he was greeted with shouts and cheering. The people hung out flags and made their houses and streets gay, and the lords welcomed him to their castles. Everywhere there was hunting, balls, and parties, but nowhere was there greater splendour than at Hinchingbrooke.
Just two days after Oliver's birthday, the King came. We can imagine how the little four-year-old boy would watch, as the gay procession came along the road. The glittering dresses, prancing horses, flashing armour, the noise and dust, the clatter and jangle would be something to think about and remember for many a day to come.
For two days the house was full of gay folk, splendidly dressed, coming and going, talking and laughing. Then the King, laden with rich presents from the knight of Hinchingbrooke, said good-bye, and rode away towards London.
Once more Oliver watched the grand procession, as it splashed through the ford over the river Ouse and passed southward along the old Roman road, the Ermine Street. For one of the great roads which the Romans had made hundreds of years before runs right through Huntingdon.
These wise and wonderful people, when they tried to conquer Britain, knew that they must keep a way open to their ships. So, as they fought and chased the Britons from place to place, they made roads which seemed meant to last for ever, and over which their armies could easily pass. One of these roads led from the safe harbour of Southampton Water north-eastward to Huntingdon, then bent north-westward to the estuary of the Dee. Thus, cutting through forest, hill, and valley, the Romans joined two of the best harbourages in the island, and by this road their ships, lying safe in port, could easily be reached. In Southampton Water, Southampton, one of our greatest seaports, still lies. But the estuary of the Dee has long ago been silted up, and is now of little use for shipping.
Some people say that Ermine Street did not go westward to the Dee, but right northward to the Humber. In either case the road led from sea to sea and to safe harbourage. For the wise old Romans knew the value of a port which was as an open door, through which help might come, or escape might be made.