Oliver had six sisters. He had brothers too, but they all died young, so I expect he grew up rather domineering. It is said that the year after the King visited Hinchingbrooke, his little son Prince Charles, then about four years old, came to spend a few days there, on his way to London. Oliver was sent for to play with the little Prince. But they did not get on at all well together. They soon began to quarrel, and then to fight. Oliver, who was bigger and a little older, gave Prince Charles such a blow between the eyes that it made his nose bleed. If the story is true, this was not a very good beginning, and, as you will see, these two little boys grew up to be deadly enemies.
Oliver and Charles.
When Oliver was old enough, he was sent to school. The school is still pointed out, although it, too, like the house in which he was born, has been built again. We do not know much about what Oliver did at school. Some old writers say he was a very naughty boy. He climbed trees, robbed orchards and dove-cots, and was always getting into mischief and danger. Once he fell into the river and was nearly drowned. But a clergyman, named Johnson, pulled him out. Many years after, when Oliver was marching through Huntingdon at the head of his rebel troops, he met this clergyman, then a very old man. Oliver knew him again. "Do you remember me?" he asked. "Once you saved my life."
"I do," replied the old man, "and I wish now that I had put you in rather than see you in arms against your King."
Some people say that Oliver did not learn much at school. Others say that he did. It seems at least that he was fond of history and knew the stories of both Greek and Roman heroes. He liked Sir Walter Raleigh's "History of the World," too, and long years after advised his own son to read it. He also learned enough Latin to be able to talk it when he grew up and became a famous man.
Oliver was good at games. We do not know, but I think he must have played at soldiers with his school-fellows. I am sure that Oliver would always be general, and perhaps they marched along the Ermine Street and played at Romans and Britons. Perhaps, too, he sometimes sailed boats upon the lazy Great Ouse which flowed so slowly past his home.
Then his father might tell him how the river came winding and winding through the clay soil of Bedfordshire, at one place twisting about so much, that although it only got seventeen miles on its way, it wound about for forty-five. He might be told that the reason why the Great Ouse flowed slowly was because the land was so flat that it did not run down hill much to the sea. Then, too, he might know that the Great Ouse flowed into the Wash, where, he had learned in history, the bad King John was nearly drowned.
If you look at the map you will see that the Wash makes a big bend into the land. You will wonder why the clever Romans did not make their road go eastward to the Wash, for surely that big bay must be a good shelter for ships. But it is nothing of the kind. If you will look again at the map you will see that round the Wash there are no towns marked in big letters. That means that there are no large towns there. And the reason is that the Wash is quite useless for shipping. It is full of sand-banks, its low-lying coasts are damp and therefore foggy, the tide is rapid, and altogether it is one of the most dangerous places for ships on the east coast of England. The only part of the bay into which they may safely go lies along the Lincolnshire coast, and is called the Boston Deeps.
All these things and much besides Oliver would learn about his home and the places round it. At last he grew to be a big boy, and when he was seventeen years old it was decided to send him to college. So one fine morning, provided with every thing that befits a gentleman, he mounted upon his horse and rode away to Cambridge.
The country through which Oliver rode was little different from that which he had left. It was flat and swampy fen-land. In those days all the north of Cambridgeshire was little more than a watery desert. In the fens there were men called Fen-slodgers, who made a scanty living by catching the wild-fowl and the fish. These men were dreadfully poor, rough, ignorant, and half-savage. They walked about on high stilts, which both raised them out of the wet of the marshes and helped them to see their flocks of geese far across the fens. It was a miserable life, and, pale and gaunt, they prowled about the fens, shaking with ague, and bent with rheumatism, brought on by living in the constant damp.
Now all that is changed. Canals have been dug, dykes built, the water has been drained away, and Cambridgeshire has become one of the finest corn-growing counties of England. There is good pasture too, with dairy farms, where cheese is made which some people think as good as the famous cheese of Stilton.
So through fifteen miles of dreary fen-land Oliver rode until he came to the grey old town of Cambridge. Cambridge was then, as now, one of our two great University towns. It takes its name from the Cam, a tributary of the Great Ouse, upon which it lies.
There are seventeen colleges in Cambridge. The chief of them lie along the river bank, their still gardens and green, green lawns sloping to the water. The grey old buildings show calm and grand against the waving trees, and as one wanders among them to-day one is carried back to days long past. The University is so old that no one knows quite how old it is. Some Cambridge folk would like to think that it was founded by a Spaniard called Cantabar 375 years before Christ. But the oldest of the colleges now standing was not founded until the time of Edward I., although there was a school there long before, at which Henry Beauclerc, for one, was taught.
To Oliver, as he rode across the bridge over the Cam, the town must have seemed very beautiful and fresh, and he must have looked in wonder at the stately old buildings, for even in Cromwell's day many of the buildings were old. But it was to a new college that Cromwell went. It was Sidney-Sussex College. There he wrote his name in the list of scholars, "Oliver Cromwell from Huntingdon, admitted Fellow Commoner, 23rd April 1616."