Love him or hate him, Oliver Cromwell certainly made his mark on British history. One of the most hotly disputed aspects of his time at the helm of British politics was how he interacted with those who crossed his path – and was he really quite as bad as is sometimes made out?
One interesting piece of evidence in his favour comes from his brief stay at Netherwitton Hall and its environs in the summer of 1651 whilst on his way north to face the Scots. He called in for an overnight stop at the little Northumberland hamlet of Netherwitton, which was watched over by the incumbents of the aforementioned mansion, namely, the Thornton family. The army, consisting of nine regiments of foot, Cromwell’s horse guards and two regiments of dragoons (as well as assorted ‘baggage’) put quite a strain on local resources and one might have feared for the general well-being of the villagers during what must have been a fraught night.
However, a rare survival from the event itself demonstrates the lengths to which the Lord Protector was prepared to go to appease those upon whom he imposed himself. On 17th July 1651, special letters of protection, signed by Cromwell, had been given to the family’s head, Lady Anne Thornton, by which ‘all Officers and soldiers under my Command, and all others whom it may concern’ were forbidden to ‘prejudice’ the said lady ‘either by offering any violence to her person, or any of her family, or by taking away any of her horses, cattle or other goods whatsoever without special order’. Despite this, of course, considerable damage was done by several thousand men and animals traipsing here, there and everywhere across and around her estate, but, soon after Cromwell had moved on, £95 5s 6d was paid to Lady Thornton as compensation for corn and grass used/destroyed by his army, as well as other random incidents such as the burning down of a barn and the consumption of sixteen sheep. What made the act of reparation especially noteworthy was that the woman in question was a known Royalist.
It is, of course, likely that Cromwell’s action was little more than a ‘keep ‘em sweet’ tactic – and it is not known if any of his compensatory instinct trickled down to the lower classes of the parish, many of whom must have suffered in one way or another. However, the whole episode is a nice little insight into the sometimes murky world of Cromwellian diplomacy.
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