A local legend came to light in an early meeting of the fledgling Hapton History group; Oliver Cromwell stayed in the village during the English Civil War. The story had been passed around by word of mouth, one current resident remembering the shopkeeper having removed a plaque from the local stables citing the fact. But how to go about proving a local legend?
Part of the evidence for this visit is the familiarity Cromwell had to the Lord of the Manor, Thomas Knyvett III, writing to “my Noble Friend, Thomas Knyvett, Esq.”, in 1646. Thanks to the book ‘Norfolk Families’, by Walter Rye, available at the Norfolk Record Office, added to the fact that the Ancestry website can be accessed for free from their computers, it was possible to determine the two men were certainly distantly related (see below). It was also possible to determine that both men met during the course of the Civil War, finding themselves on opposite sides of the struggle, but is this enough of a link to suggest the well-established story is anything other than just that, a story?
Notes about the family indicate that Knyvett was a Royalist – “the loyal Knyvett who hated anarchy, lived a true Protestant and died with Monarchy” NRO, MC 561/80.
Like many of the gentry, he hoped the King and Parliament would come to a settlement, so kept a very low profile; having, as captain of the foot band, delivered the Depwade Hundred store of arms to the magazine house in 1642, ‘there being a great disturbance in the Country, to avoid all jelousies’ (NRO NAS 1/1/2/13).
By 1643, however, Knyvett was thought to have declared his hand, by taking himself to Lowestoft and getting caught up in trouble there in March of that year. Lowestoft was believed to undergoing fortification by Royalists and Cromwell, at the time stationed in Norwich with the Eastern Association of Counties under the command of the Earl of Manchester, immediately seized control of the town, where “they yeilded to deliver vp their strangers but not to the rest, wherevpon our Norwich dragoons crept vnder their chaine… where presently 18 strangers yeilded themselves, among whom were… of Norff. Mr Knyvett of Ashwell Thorp” (NRO RYE 72).
Knyvett himself claimed to have been the unfortunate victim of circumstance – “being at Lowestoft purposing to wait an opportunity to go over to Holland….and at that time there being a high contest between the town of Yarmouth and the poor town of Lowestoft, which made them stand upon their guard to defend themselves….but in no way in opposition to the Parliament’s authority and commands, but it so fell out, whilst I was in the town….all gentlemen strangers walked out of the town and yielded themselves without the least opposition, whereof myself was one” (NRO RYE 72).
During his early time in London Knyvett corresponded with his wife, Katherine, at Hapton, only later addressing letters to her at Ashwellthorpe; Hapton Hall having been “always the jointure-home of the Knevet family”, where the widow of the last Lord would live once his son took over the estate.
All captured Royalists had their land sequestered by Parliamentary committees, in order to pay for the war, and Nathaniel Beadle, solicitor for the Norfolk Committee, was particular in his zeal to attack Knyvett, perhaps driven by the fact he would be entitled to a “shilling in the pound”. It fell upon Knyvett’s wife, aided by the intervention of friends he still had on the Parliamentary side, to deter “Captain Warner “who said he had an express command from the E. of Manchester to seize Knyvett for his fifth and twentieth part.”” (NRO RYE 72).
Knyvett had several influential friends to call on; most notably Sir John Holland of Quidenham and Elizabeth Hampden, Cromwell’s Aunt and also a relation of his own. Holland’s private correspondence with Knyvett showed a great deal of concern, stating that “we cannot be thankful enough for the preservation that God in his wisdom have given those Countyes from the glory(?) of the sword rage of warr that most parts of the Kingdom have already felt” (NRO NAS 1/1/11/126).
The Earl of Manchester, himself, pleaded Knyvett’s case – “….having understood of Mr Knyvett’s innocency since my coming to London from Colonel Cromwell himself, who hath assured me that upon his coming to Lowestoft the same Mr Knyvett did voluntarily yield himself without any resistance, being not otherwise armed than with his sword he ordinarily wore.” .
Be that as it may, Cromwell later withdrew this statement of support, claiming Knyvett had tricked him at Lowestoft. All the while Manchester’s stock with Parliament was diminishing, thanks to his knack of falling out with Cromwell. Knyvett’s case almost became a disaster when letters from his sons were intercepted that spoke of their distaste for Parliament and the Puritanical changes taking place. This set Beadle and the Sequestration Committee about trying to seize all of Knyvett’s assets. Knyvett’s son, John, sought to appease his father, saying “I am extremely ignorant in what language to write. I do acknowledge my offence is beyond excuse…of your danger my indiscretion have thrown you into”.
Nonetheless, Knyvett tried again with Cromwell, drawing up a statement of his case and concluding with an appeal to Cromwell’s graciousness. Knyvett’s letters do not indicate the success of this approach, but the appeal of his friends obviously worked because in August 1644 the order for sequestration was discharged.
Nothing is known of any further interaction between Knyvett and Cromwell until the latter’s correspondence of 1646 in support of the villagers of Hapton. The village was home to Dissenters, known as Independents – a chapel was built there in 1749 (now a private dwelling) – whose beliefs were broadly similar to Puritanism. The local Presbyterians, not friendly toward Independents, were trying hard to suppress them– hence the appeal for the protection of “certain poor men of Hapton”.
The direct response from Knyvett is not known, but he certainly asked advice of his friend, Henry Elsynge, who wrote “if you thinke it fitting to return him soe large an Acct of what hath concerned you in yor carriage towards these People of Hapton, which his letter to you doeth not seeme cleerely to invite, nor doeth he touch vppon any complts agt you, onely desires you to vse yor interst with one Robt Browne, yor Tenant, that those Poore people may by him receiue noe Trouble & that you would protect them from Iniury and Oppression. You may in a general way of answr satisfie his desire concerning Robt. Browne, & promise positiuely vnto them such Proteccion as yor condicion can afford them.”. Was Knyvett sending a friendly, familial response, or acting in fear of the man who’d put him in prison?
Cromwell had several reasons why he would have visited Hapton and equally several why he wouldn’t. Can it be proved he really came? Sadly not, but does that really matter?
Compiled by Tim Ward, NRO research blogger.