My favourite archival source is the one I almost missed: a note, less than a page long, pasted into the back of a notebook belonging to the antiquary William Dugdale (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Hist. c 485, fol. 100). Dated July 1652, it recounts a shameful secret told in a private conversation thirty years earlier.
In the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries (1536-40), many abbeys and convents were converted into private houses. Courtiers under Henry VIII vied for monastic property and the status that came with it. One of these men, Sir William Dorver, recalled that Richard Cromwell, brother-in-law of the chief architect of the dissolution, Thomas Cromwell, had set his eye upon Hinchingbrooke Priory, Cambridgeshire. Dorver remembered how he had gone with Cromwell ‘to visitt the Nunnes with a purpose to debauch them’, in the hopes that this would expedite the suppression of the nunnery. When the nuns resisted their advances, the men simply spread rumours to the same effect. As a direct result, Cromwell gained possession of the priory.
It is rare to find a confession of this sort, relayed by Dorver with ‘great reluctancye and sorrow’. For obvious reasons, the occupiers of monastic property did not like to talk about their shame or guilt. It took this story a hundred years to resurface, by which time the Cromwell family had prospered. In 1652, Richard’s great-grandson, Oliver Cromwell, had recently signed the regicide order for Charles I and taken power with a new Interregnum government. Perhaps every family has skeletons in the cupboard. This note, tucked away in Dugdale’s notebook, offers a rare glimpse of a secret long buried by the Cromwells.
Image: Photochrom image taken around 1900, showing the unrestored interior of Glastonbury Abbey Lady Chapel. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1f/Glastonbury_Abbey_Lady_Chapel_c1900.jpg.