Oliver Cromwell and His Secretary John Milton, Receiving a Deputation Seeking Aid for the Savoy Protestants. Charles West Cope (1811–1890). 1872. Oil, wood, 70 x 94 cm (27 1/4 x 37 inches). Signed bottom left: “CWC 1872.” [Original sketch for this painting.] Provenance: Exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1872. Sold as Lot 125 at Christie’s sale of Jonah Cressingham’s painting collection, 27th−29th June 1874. Bought by the dealer Arthur Tooth [Information provided by Dr Simona Dolari of Christie’s Archive] Bought as Lot 319 at Bonhams (Chester), 5th March 2013.

Commentary by Paul Crowther

This is one of Cope’s two most important later paintings (the other being The Council of the Royal Academy selecting Pictures for the Exhibition of 1876, (Royal Academy Collection, London). The present work is given some emphasis in Reminiscences of Charles West Cope, R.A. by Charles Henry Cope, Richard Bentley and Son, London 1891. The catalogue of Cope’s works that forms Appendix II of this book, notes on p. 387 that the painting was commissioned by ‘Mr Cressingham, of Carshalton’ (Surrey, UK).

Jonah Cressingham (formerly called Crossingham, 1789−1874) was a man of wealth and an active member of the Church of England. Indeed, his will of 15th June 1867 shows that he had the right of ‘advowson’ (in effect, to nominate the parish priest) at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill (in what is now London). Cressingham’s will also provides an important clue as to why he might have commissioned a work on this particular subject. The will stipulates that half of the proceeds from the sale of his paintings should be given to the Protestant Reformation Society, and the other half to such society or societies ‘having for its or their object the promotion or extension of Protestantism in connection with the Church of England’ [Bruce Blanchard's Family History Scrapbook]

Given Cressingham’s interest in spreading the Protestant word, it was, accordingly, very likely he who originally suggested the painting’s subject to Cope when commissioning the work. He would have selected it because of the subject’s historical significance for Protestantism. The context for the depicted meeting is the Waldensian sect in Piedmont/Savoy who had allied themselves to contemporary Protestantism, and who, in 1655, were subjected to cruel persecution and eventual massacre by the Duke of Savoy’s forces. As a result of the intelligence provided by the Elders and other sources, Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) – the head of the English state at that time – took some dramatic domestic and foreign policy measures. He declared June 14, 1655, to be a day of fasting and directed English churches to collect offerings to benefit the Waldensians. He also sent £2000 of his own money for their immediate relief. More significantly, he exerted political pressure (including the threat of military action) so as to push the Duke of Savoy into a more lenient approach to the Waldensians. Measures were also taken to create escape routes for Waldensians who wished to leave Savoy. In effect, Cromwell’s actions projected the possibility of a kind of English-led Protestant International that would protect the persecuted throughout Europe. This was not a realistic possibility, but it worked as a threat. The persecution was halted (at least) during Cromwell’s own lifetime. Hence, Cromwell’s response to the Waldensian episode earned itself romantic and utopian appeal – with lasting significance, whilstsoever Catholic and Protestant rivalries continued to divide Europe.

This enduring appeal was energized also through an important poem by John Milton. Milton was Cromwell’s secretary at the time, and was probably involved in the writing of two important letters of state concerning the Waldensian persecution. These were sent by Cromwell to the Duke of Savoy, and to the King of France, in the spring and summer of 1655 (respectively). Around this time Milton also composed the following sonnet.

On the Late Massacre in Piemont [sic]

‘AVENGE, O Lord, thy slaughtered Saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones,

Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piemontese, that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans

The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway

The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who, having learnt thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.’

Milton’s sonnet not only exemplifies the widespread contemporary revulsion at the massacre of the Waldensians, it acts also as a kind of extended battle cry for continued international Protestant vigilance against the perceived Catholic tyrants. As a striking element in Milton’s poetic oeuvre it ensured, thereby, continued attention to the Waldensian episodes and the need for Protestant solidarity, even when the historical episodes in question had long since gone into the past.

Another factor in the continuing appeal of this episode may have been the publication of Thomas Carlyle’s edition of Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches: with Elucidations in 1845. This work stimulated positive interest in the life and legacy of the Lord Protector. Indeed, the Irish born painter John Newenham (1807–1859) did an important painting in 1854 entitled The Lord Protector dictating to John Milton the Letter to the Duke of Savoy to stop the Persecution of the Protestants in Piedmont 1655. This picture became widely available through an engraving of it by William Henry Simmons, published by Owen Bailey. It acquired a visual ‘topicality’ that lasted for some years. (Indeed, as well as Cope’s picture, Ford Madox Brown’s Cromwell, Protector of the Vaudois of 1877 addresses broadly the same theme.)

Whatever the origins of Cressingham’s own knowledge of the subject, Cope himself took the trouble of researching it in detail. This is shown by a letter reproduced in full in Cope’s Reminiscences, together with the original pencil design for the painting’s composition. The letter is from E.A. Bond of the British Museum. Since the letter says ‘I would propose, as you designed, that Milton should be present’ it is clear that Cope had already been contact with Bond concerning the picture’s content. The letter reads as follows:

‘British Museum,
July 27, 1871.

I find the following passage in a letter of Nieuport, the Dutch Ambassador in England, to the States General: “Some ministers and elders of sundry churches in London have been with the Lord Protector, and have petitioned, with many moving arguments, that his Highness would take to heart the mournful condition of the poor reformed inhabitants of some valleys of Piedmont; for which he has thanked them, and declared that he was shocked in the highest degree at the inhuman cruelties which are practised there.” The Ambassador himself had an interview with Cromwell, and urged his interference. Cromwell answered that “he was moved at it to his very soul, and that he was ready to venture his all for the protection of the Protestant religion, as well here as abroad; and that he most readily with your High Mightinesses in this cause would swim or perish, trusting that the Almighty God would revenge the same,” etc. I don’t find mention of any envoy from the Protestants themselves. This subject seems a really good one, and if I might be so awfully impudent as to suggest a ridiculous idea of my own, I would propose, as you designed, that Milton should be present, and that Cromwell might be made to look with an appealing expression to him or listening, if you please as if they had already exchanged sentiments on the subject, or that Milton was speaking in their favour. Ever yours,

You will find all you want historically You will find all you want historically in Thurloe’s State Papers, vol. iii.’ [Reminiscences 273-74]

When the painting was auctioned by Christie’s after Cressingham’s death, the catalogue entry included an extract from the letter by Nieuport quoted above. It follows that Cope had passed on the information derived from Bond to Cressingham himself. From the encounters described in Bond’s letter it becomes clear that Cope’s finished painting combines two different meetings – between Cromwell and the Church Elders, and between him and the Dutch Ambassador – in a single imagined scene. It is also clear that both Cope and Bond wished Milton to be included in the picture. (The reasons for Milton’s importance have already been described.)

That being said, however, in the finished painting Milton only plays a subsidiary role. Rather than offer a visual rhetoric of the ‘Great and the Good’ (through the interaction between Cromwell and Milton – a feature that dominates Newenham’s and Madox Brown’s pictures) Cope prefers to focus on the psychology of concern for the persecuted – a concern that is masterfully declared by the expressions and gestures of all the active protagonists. The work is especially skilful in its use of the Elder rendered centrally in slightly shadowed profile to link the two major groups.

Cope’s focus on the more universal human significance of the meeting was favourably received by contemporary critics. The Art Journal noted, for example, that Cope ‘has selected a passage in connection with our Commonwealth history not so showy and sensational in painting as other events wherein Cromwell figures personally, but it illustrates the estimation in which England was held by foreign nations – a result to which we are conducted by the embodiment of circumstances that carry the mind beyond the reflections of ourselves.’ (June 1, 1862, p. 154). Interestingly, it becomes clear that the reviewer himself was familiar with Nieuport’s letter and Cromwell’s response to it.

You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art and and the National Gallery of Slovenia and the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway (2) and link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one


Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014. No. 20.

Last modified 24 November 2014