After our present queen, Richard Cromwell is Britain’s longest-lived head of state, dying in 1712 at the ripe old age of eighty-five. In his last years, the elderly former Lord Protector was known for subjecting new guests at his Cheshunt home to a curious after-dinner entertainment. ‘After an hour or two in conversation, and drinking,’ the 18th-century antiquary Mark Noble reported, Cromwell, carrying glasses, a fresh bottle and a candle, would lead guests ‘up to a dirty garret, in which was nothing but a little round hair trunk’. He would then pull the trunk into the middle of the room and instruct all the guests to charge their glasses and drink a toast to the prosperity of ‘old England’ while each in turn straddled it. The newer guests were told to take care while they did so, for ‘they had no less than the lives and fortunes of all the good people of England’ under them. At this point, to the mirth of the initiated, the trunk would be opened to reveal the dozens of loyal addresses sent to Cromwell on his accession, in which the English people pledged their ‘lives and fortunes’ to protecting a ruler whose reign would ultimately last a matter of months.
The Interregnum has long occupied the ‘attic space’ of the English historical imagination. The 1650s have often been seen as an intermission in which a number of constitutional experiments were tried before the course of English history reverted to its natural, monarchical path. Anna Keay argues powerfully, however,