This 17th-Century Cookbook Contained a Vicious Attack on Oliver Cromwell’s Wife

The Cromwell Museum has republished a text first issued by the English Lord Protector’s enemies as propaganda

A historical copy of the cookbook
The Royalists used the cookbook to paint Oliver and Elizabeth Cromwell as commoners unfit to rule the kingdom. Cromwell Museum via Facebook

The death of Oliver Cromwell, the embattled Lord Protector of 1650s England, didn’t stop his enemies from doing everything they could to tarnish his reputation. And these efforts included one very odd line of attack: namely, publishing a cookbook that claimed to offer recipes collected by the Parliamentarian’s wife, Elizabeth.

Titled The Court & Kitchen of Elizabeth, commonly called Joan Cromwell, The Wife of the Late Usurper, the text clearly isn’t a cheery celebrity cookbook. Aside from the obvious attack represented by the word “usurper,” the name “Joan” is a reference to sex workers, not a nickname actually used by Elizabeth, writes scholar Stuart Orme for the Moment magazine.

The cookbook, newly republished by the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, contains 102 recipes, including barley broth, venison pasty and a rare Dutch pudding. Some ingredients listed, like eels from Cromwell’s native region of Fenland, may have been intended to paint the family as unsophisticated.

“There was a lot of snobbery going on,” Orme, the museum’s curator, tells ITV Anglia’s Matthew Hudson. “A lot of the recipes were very ordinary by the standards of the time, … [the] sort of dishes that would have been eaten by middle class people across England in the 17th century. Part of the argument that the Royalists were making was the Cromwells weren’t suited to rule because, quite frankly, they were a bit common.”

In the book, Elizabeth’s recipes are described as “the most usual Meat and Diet observed at her Table, most of them ordinary and vulgar, except some few Rarities.” An introductory essay filled with insults aimed at the Cromwells adopts a similar tone.

“It would be a bit like today, if you were to go out and buy a cookery book [supposedly] written by Michelle Obama and the first third of it was an essay by Donald Trump saying how awful Barack Obama was,” Orme tells Atlas Obscura’s Anne Ewbank.

Oliver and Elizabeth Cromwell Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Oliver Cromwell was the first person who was not a member of the royal family to serve as Great Britain’s head of state. He helped lead the Parliamentarian side in the English Civil Wars of 1642–1651, contributing to the downfall of Stuart king Charles I and the temporary abolition of the monarchy itself.

Cromwell was a radical Puritan known for the brutal reconquest of Ireland in 1649. But after taking power as Lord Protector in 1954, he advocated against severe punishments for minor crimes, readmitted Jews to England and worked to improve education at all levels. Most modern scholars, wrote John Morrill for History Extra in 2014, view him as “a man of towering personal integrity [who] … believed in broad terms in social justice, equality before the law and the accountability of governors to the people.”

In the years directly following his 1658 death, however, Cromwell had a decidedly different reputation. Charles II reclaimed the crown in 1660, restoring the monarchy and ending the nation’s brief tenure as a republican commonwealth. He then ordered Cromwell’s body exhumed and, after a posthumous trial for high treason, “executed.”

Elizabeth, who was still alive at the time, bore some of the brunt of continuing anti-Cromwell propaganda designed to support the monarchy. She was targeted partly because of her class background: Though her husband had come from a somewhat prominent family—he was indirectly descended from Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, and his grandfather was a knight who sometimes entertained royal hunting parties—Elizabeth (born Elizabeth Bourchier) was “a genuine commoner,” albeit one from a prosperous merchant family, according to BBC News. She died in 1665, seven years after Oliver.

As former Cromwell Museum curator John Goldsmith told BBC News in 2014, “The whole point of the curious [cookbook] is that she’s this ordinary Fen housewife and how ridiculous [it is] that she’s elevated to this position.”

Still, Orme tells Atlas Obscura, the recipes themselves aren’t bad. He recommends the carbonnade of beef, which, he says, is “really nice, actually.”

The newly published edition of the cookbook includes a glossary and introduction by Orme. The full text of the original book is also available online through the University of Michigan Library’s Early English Books Online program.

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