I would guess most of us have an imprecise image of Oliver Cromwell – We might think of the Airfix construction kit perhaps (discontinued 1980), the cinematic portrayals by Richard Harris or Tim Roth, or of course Patrick Wymark’s cameo in Witchfinder General (it’s ironic that, although Wymark played Cromwell three times, only the briefest performance survives).

Patrick Wymark as Cromwell in Royalist and Roundhead

Some may think of Oliver Cromwell, not as a man, but a mood; A stern and disapproving cloud that hung over Britain until the monarchy was restored. It’s probable that few of us think of Cromwell as a husband and father. And although we know that he ruled Britain as Lord Protector, how many of us know what that really meant?

The Puritan Princess by Miranda Malins is written in the voice of Frances, Cromwell’s youngest daughter. This gives us an insight we know is going to be biased, but at the same time very different from the standard ‘objective’ portrait. Although Cromwell refused Parliament’s offer to make him King, his family find that his position as Lord Protector means they are treated as if they are a kind of royalty, They divide their time between Whitehall during the week and Hampton Court at weekends. People curtsey, servants open doors and call them ‘highness.’ We know this will be a brief taste of elegance – the book opens with a framing sequence, based on the vindictive exhumecution in 1661 of the enbalmed Cromwell by the returning Monarchy. So we don’t begrudge the Cromwell’s their tapestried chambers. In any event their lives are touched by peril from the opening chapters, with attempts to assassinate Cromwell a vivid threat.

It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t an adventure novel. There’s a threat of violence, but not much skirmishing. At the same time, this isn’t a Dr Who-style retro-wish-fulfilment with a 21st Century sensibility imposed a 17th Century character. As Miranda Malins notes in her afterword, “the upheaval of the Civil Wars had given women new opportunities to show strength, and Cromwell’s daughters were widely admired for their staunch characters.” Frances becomes a witness to the life of the Protectorate, reporting the arguments in favour of making Cromwell a king ( the people understand and trust what a king is, whereas, “they don’t understand the role of Lord Protector, they don’t trust it, don’t know where they stand.”) and Cromwell’s reasons for refusing. She also provides a daughter’s view of the feared leader, watching him laughing and carry out drunken practical jokes at a party, and recalling the “ruddy, rustic father..” of her childhood as he works late into the night at a paper-strewn table.

But while we’re given an insight into the court of Cromwell, this is definitely Frances’ story. The early part of the story concerns the various suitors for the ‘puritan princess’ and Frances’ identification of her ‘preferred bidder’. One of the most striking pieces of ‘what if’ comes with the bid by Parliament for Frances to marry Charles Stuart, exiled son of the executed King. With Stuart desperate to regain his throne, the suggestion is that, “your father and Parliament could set him any terms, any limitations they wished. Terms which his father was too stubborn to accept.” What a concept. Charles Stuart married to Cromwell’s daughter. A peaceful transition. How different would the history of Britain have been, if Cromwell had agreed to the match?

As I’ve admitted that I know little about Cromwell, it would be wrong for me to say how accurate The Puritan Princess is. Certainly, it is convincing. There’s never a point where the dialogue seems anachronistic and the passages dealing with death and mourning do remind us that these were people who thought very differently from us. At the same time, the view of Cromwell trying to hold the republic together in the face of self-interest from both Parliament and the Army makes it seem contemporary (perhaps not for the United Kingdom, but certainly many other 21st Century states). In the final chapter, Miranda Malins takes us into the realm of myth and speculation, but it does provide a satisfying climax to a compelling novel.

The Puritan Princess by Miranda Malins. Orion Books £8.99 ISBN 978 1 4091 9481 1