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CROMWELL, "THE LORD OF THE FENS,” AND FIRST
APPEARANCE IN PARLIAMENT.
ROM our discursive view of the times and charac
ter of James and the earlier and obscure years of the life of Cromwell, we now enter upon his more public career. The first occasion of his appearance in any service connected with the public, was upon the attempt made by the needy Charles to wrest, for the purposes of his exchequer, from the Earl of Bedford and the people, the fens which had been drained. The case has been variously stated. The brief history is somewhat as follows:
In those days some millions of acres of the finest plains in the counties of Cambridge, Huntingdon, Northampton, and Lincoln, lay undrained. Several years before the period to which we now refer, the Earl of Oxford and other noblemen of that day had proposed to drain large portions of them, and in fact had done so. The Bedford Level, containing nearly 400,000 acres, had been completed, when it was found necessary to call in other aid ; and a proposition was made to the Crown, offering a fair proportion of the land for its assistance and authority in the completion of the whole.
Until now all had gone on well; but hungry Charles saw here an opportunity of gratifying his cupidity. A number of commissioners came from the king to Huntingdon; they, instructed by the king's own letter, proceeded to lay claim under various pretexts, such as corrupt and servile ministers know how to use, to 95,000 acres of land already drained. Cromwell stepped upon the stage of action, and the draining of the fens was entirely stopped. Many writers affect to put a bad construction upon this first public act of Cromwell's; while, to any but horny eyes, the reason of the whole business is most obvious.
“The Protector's enemies would persuade us, that his opposition to Charles's interference arose out of the popular objection, supported by him, to the project itself; and, that the end he proposed to himself, and obtained, was its hindrance; forgetting, that if his, or the general wish, had been to impede the work, the time that would have been chosen for the attempt would have been at the revival of the idea, some seven or eight years previously, and not that, when so large a portion of it was accomplished in the completion (nearly) of the real Bedford Level. But the obvious utility of the undertaking would alone render the idea of extended opposition to it, grounded on its own merits, unlikely; and particularly as to Cromwell, from his known approbation and encouragement afterwards afforded to all such public-spirited schemes, and the thanks he actually
It is proper
received from William, the next Earl of Bedford, for his promotion of this identical one. to observe, that though the above-given account of this whole transaction is from Nalson Cole, who as "Register to the Corporation of Bedford Level," was doubtless generally well informed, yet that it differs from that writer in stating the drainage of the Level to have been nearly, and not fully, completed at the time of the king's interposition. That it was not then fully completed appears from an Act, much forwarded by Cromwell, in 1649, which runs: “And whereas Francis, late Earl of Bedford, did undertake the said work, and had ninety-five thousand acres, parcel of the said great level, decreed and set forth, in the thirteenth of the late King Charles, in recompense thereof; and he and his participators, and their heirs and assigns had made a good progress therein.” 1
Even Mr. Forster puts a forced construction upon Cromwell's opposition to the king ; for he roused up the country, and the draining now became impossible. His name was sounded to and fro as a second Hereward. He was long after, and is to this day, called "the Lord of the Fens." Why was this? There could be nothing in the mere fact of opposing the making the watery wastes habitable calculated to arouse so stormy an opposition. The thing was most desirable ; but, to drain them so—to give additional
| Thomas Cromwell's “ Life of Cromwell," pp. 70, 71,
power to the bad Crown—nay, to consent to the dishonest forfeiture of the lands of the men who laboured first at this desirable scheme ! Here was the cause !—the claim of the king is unjust! It is not wise nor right that the king should have power here. Resist him and his commissioners. Cromwell did; as Hampden said, “He set well at the mark,” defeated monarch and commissioners; and, after acquiring no small degree of notice and fame, he retired again into obscurity and silence.
Not long ! His days of silence and quiet were now well-nigh over. Charles was compelled to “summon a Parliament,” he wanted money; he only wanted a Parliament to help him to get it;-it was long since a Parliament had met. Parliament, when it met, determined that there were other things to which to attend besides granting the king money ; that ominous short Parliament was a memorable one, and contained in it many memorable men, Knolles, Hampden, Eliot, Selden, and Cromwell as member for Huntingdon. This appearance of our hero was but for a very brief period, but it would introduce him to the most noticeable men of the popular interest. Forster has drawn a portrait in which there is great mingled power, freedom, and truth; it is an imaginary sketch of Oliver's first appearance in Parliament, in company with his cousin, John Hampden.
"Let us suppose," says he, " that he and Hampden entered the House together at the momentous opening of that famous Parliament,--two men His gait
already linked together by the bonds of counsel and friendship, yet more than by those of family, but presenting how strange a contrast to each other in all things save the greatness of their genius. The one of exquisite mild deportment, of ever civil and affable manners, with a countenance that at once expressed the dignity of his intellect, and the sweetness of his nature, and even in his dress, arranged with scrupulous nicety and care, announcing the refinement of his mind. The other, a figure of no mean mark, but oh, how unlike that! clownish, his dress ill-made and slovenly, his manners coarse and abrupt, and face such as men look on with a vague feeling of admiration and dislike! The features cut, as it were, out of a piece of gnarled and knotty oak; the nose large and red; the cheeks coarse, warted, wrinkled, and sallow; the eyebrows huge and shaggy, but, glistening from beneath them, eyes full of depth and meaning, and, when turned to the gaze, pierced through and through the gazer ; above these, again, a noble forehead, whence, on either side, an open flow of hair 'round from his parted forelock manly hangs,' clustering; and over all, and pervading all, that undefinable aspect of greatness, alluded to by the poet Dryden when he spoke of the face of Cromwell as one that
• did imprint an awe,