While reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (review below), I began to wonder if her protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, was in some way related to Oliver Cromwell (father of democracy, or ruthless subjugator, depending on your viewpoint). The latter Cromwell was born in 1599, while Thomas lost his head in 1540. Curiosity got the better of me, and so I set about researching the Cromwell family tree. (Yes, I know, I am a total nerd…)
Sometimes, however, a little nerdiness pays off because I came across an interesting little historical fact. Both Cromwell men were indeed related (Thomas was Oliver’s great-great-granduncle). However Cromwell was not Ollie’s real surname … it was actually Williams!
The scenario transpired as follows: Thomas Cromwell’s sister Katherine married Morgan Williams (a Welshman). They had a son called Richard. After the death of both Elizabeth and Morgan, Thomas took his orphaned nephew under his wing. Richard Williams lived with his uncle and worked closely with him during Thomas’ meteoric rise to power in the court of Henry VIII. Out of respect for his powerful uncle, and presumably to show his gratitude, Richard informally adopted the surname Cromwell.
Richard became successful in his own right, particularly after his uncle's death. He became a favourite of Henry VIII (a precarious position, given that the tempermental king was prone to beheading some of his erstwhile “favourites”). Henry made Richard a knight and he became known as “Sir Richard Williams alias Cromwell” or “Sir Richard Williams known as Cromwell”. Quite a mouthful. Sir Richard had a son Henry, who in turn had a son Robert, who had a son Oliver. And so, Sir Richard was Oliver’s great-grandfather.
However, it seems the “alias” and “known as” became too much for people, because the surname Williams gradually morphed into Cromwell over time. So there you have it! Oliver Cromwell should have been Oliver Williams … it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?