Amsterdam, 4 June 1877
My dear Theo,
You remember that evening in Dordrecht when we walked through Dordrecht together,1
around the Grote Kerk and through all kinds of streets and along the canals with their reflections of the old houses and the lights from the windows. You spoke then (or rather it was that Sunday when you arrived) about a description of a day in London by Théophile Gautier
, the coaches from a wedding before the doors of a church on a stormy and misty day.2
I saw it all before me, but if it struck you then you’ll also feel moved by the enclosed, I read these pages on a very stormy day last week, also with thoughts about the Queen
it was evening when the sun went down, casting a reddish glow on the grey evening clouds, against which the masts of the ships and the row of old houses and trees stood out, and everything was reflected in the water, and the sky cast a strange light on the black earth, the green grass with daisies and buttercups, and on the shrubs of white and purple lilacs and elderberry from the garden at the dockyard. I had read that book by Lamartine
in London and it had made a deep impression on me, and did so again this time, especially those last few pages.
Write and tell me what you think of it. The places spoken about: Hampton Court with its avenues of lime trees full of rookeries,a
Whitehall overgrown with ivy on the back, and the inner courtyard bordering on St James’s Park where one can see Westminster Abbey &c., I see it all before me, and the weather and the sombre tone covering it all.4
(That’s what keeps me from sleeping!)
Did you go to Etten on Sunday? I sincerely hope so, and that you had a good day; I gather this from a sentence in the last letter from Etten: ‘we expect Theo, probably this Sunday’. This evening I have to go to Uncle Stricker
’s. Went to the early sermon yesterday morning,5
heard a sermon on the text ‘Wilt thou be made whole?’,6
how they that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.7
Afterwards I heard Uncle Stricker in the Amstelkerk that you know8
on 2 Cor. 4:18b
, ‘for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal’.
There was a bit at the end where he spoke passionately and cried out ‘but Charity abideth’.9
How we are bound to one another through God by bonds that are in God’s hand, and in those bonds lies our strength, and they are old and do not break easily.
Have got a lot to do, so adieu, perhaps this evening I’ll write a few more words below. Accept in thought a handshake, and believe me
Your most loving brother,
Went past the flower market on Singel today,10
I saw such a nice thing there. A farmer was standing there with lots and lots of pots, all kinds of flowers and shrubs, the ivy was at the back, and in between sat his little girl, a child like Maris
so simple, wearing a black cap, and with a pair of eyes so lively and really so friendly, she sat there knitting, the man was hawking his wares, and if I’d been able to I would gladly have bought something, and he said, also pointing unintentionally at his little daughter, ‘Doesn’t it look good?’
5 June. Last night I was at the Strickers
’, Margreet Meyboom
, to whom Paul12
is engaged, was there as well. That’s a girl who’s very reminiscent of Ellen in ‘The wide, wide World’,13
her father was a very clever preacher, an extraordinary man and close friend of Uncle Stricker.14
We walked along Buitenkant and there by the sand works at the Oosterspoor, I can’t tell you how beautiful it was there in the twilight. Rembrandt
and others have painted it, the ground dark, the sky still lit by the glow of the sun, already gone down, the row of houses and towers standing out above, the lights in the windows everywhere, everything reflected in the water. And the people and carriages like small black figures everywhere. Like one sometimes sees in a Rembrandt. And it put us in such a mood that we began talking about all sorts of things.
Sat up late last night writing, and early this morning it was such gorgeous weather. In the evening there’s also a beautiful view of the yard, where everything is deathly still and the street-lamps are burning and the sky above full of stars. When all sounds cease – God’s voice is heard – Under the stars.15
Be sure to write soon and tell me whether that piece about Cromwell
isn’t something right out of the heart of London.
It did not take long for his family to fall from its position of wealth. He retired to a small estate which he owned in the Huntingdon fens. The poor, harsh, desolate surroundings of this watery region, the monotonous horizon, the filthy river, the overcast sky, the spindly trees, the few scattered cottages, the rude manners of the inhabitants were of a kind to concentrate and to darken the young man’s character. The souls of places seem to enter the souls of men; often from a barren, dreary region there emerges a lively, ardent and profound faith. As the place, so the man. The soul is a mirror first, and only then a seat of feeling.
A family misfortune affected Cromwell during this period of ascendancy in his life, when we are surprised to see tears in the eyes of a man who had watched dry-eyed the ill-fated Charles I torn from his children’s arms to die. He lost his mother, aged ninety-four. She was this Elizabeth Stuart, blood-daughter of the kings whom her son had dethroned, a biblical woman, mother of a large family, the wellspring of their piety, the nursemaid of their virtues, the living inspiration of their passion for the religious liberty of their sect; while in the full possession of her faculties, she enjoyed earthly glory, but most of all the heavenly glory of the greatest of her sons, the Maccabeus of her faith. Cromwell, as he wielded supreme power, cherished and venerated her as the root of his heart and of his destiny.
My Lord Protector’s mother, wrote Cromwell’s private secretary, Thurloe, in that year of 1654, died last night almost a century old. Moments before she expired, she asked for her son to be called to her bedside, and giving her blessing with her hand, she said to him ‘May the Lord constantly make the splendour of His face to shine upon you, my son! May He sustain you in all your adversities! May He make your strength equal to the great things the Highest has charged you to accomplish for the glory of His Holy name and for the salvation of His people! My dear son, she continued, emphasizing the name that was her glory in her last moments, my dear son, I leave my spirit and my heart with thee! Farewell! Farewell!’ And she fell back, says Thurloe, in her final slumber. Cromwell burst into tears like a man who seemed to have lost part of the light that illuminated him in his darkness. His mother who loved him as a son and venerated him as God’s elect, resided with him in the royal palace of Whitehall, but she lived in a bare, secluded apartment in the palace. Not wishing, she said, to appropriate unto herself and to her other children that glory to which the Lord had condemned her son, but which was no more than the temporary furnishings of an inn, to which she wished to attach neither her heart, nor the future existence of her family. Keen anxieties troubled her days and nights in that palace of kings, where she missed her rural farm in Wales. Cromwell gave his mother a queen’s funeral, a sign rather of filial piety than of ostentation. She was buried among the ashes of royalty and illustrious men, beneath the parvis of Westminster, that Saint Denis of Britain’s royal houses and great men.
Hampton Court, the magnificent feudal residence of Henry VIII, was an abode which, in its gloomy monastic grandeur, ought to have pleased Cromwell. The palace, flanked by broad, squat towers like the bastions of a fortress, is crowned with crenellations constantly blackened with flocks of crows (rooks). It was built on the edge of those deep forests, one of earth’s extravagances dear to the Saxon race. The ancient oaks of its vast park seem to assume the majesty of a royal plantation to match the castle’s Gothic towers. Long avenues veiled in shadow and mist afford no view other than green lawns crossed in silence by herds of tame fallow deer. Low, narrow doors with pointed arches, like the mouths of caves in a formation of rocks, give access to underground chambers, guardrooms and vaulted halls, hung with an array of ancient arms and armour. Everything there exudes that shadowy sovereign power that creates an empty space around kings, whether out of respect or terror. Hampton Court was Cromwell’s favourite residence, but at that moment it was pain as much as relaxation that detained him there. His first love, the love of nature in the countryside and the animals that give it life, was the last to die in him. The gentleman farmer was still to be found behind the master of an empire. The Bible and the patriarchal life, of which the Bible constantly speaks, were associated in his imagination with his memories and rural activities, which he missed even in his palaces. He often said: Happy he who lives under the thatch and tills his field. At Hampton Court, a lingering and recurrent fever seized hold of him. He braved the first bouts without anyone around him suspecting the seriousness of his illness. The fever became tertian and more acute; doctors summoned from London attributed it to the marshy air of the poorly embanked sides of the Thames, at the bottom of Hampton Court’s gardens. It rapidly consumed his strength.
He was taken back to the palace of Whitehall, as though it had been decreed by Providence that he should die before the same window in the same palace where, at his wish, the scaffold of his victim, the king, had been erected ten years previously. Cromwell was never again to rise from the royal bed in which he was laid on his return to London. The things he did and said during his long illness have been misrepresented or interpreted a thousand times, at the will of those who had reason to seek revenge for his life or to enhance their own position through his death. A new, authentic and invaluable document, the notes taken unbeknownst to him, hour by hour and sigh by sigh, by the groom of his bedchamber, who was at his service day and night, makes us privy to his every word and thought. Words spoken at this hour of death are thought’s secrets. Death removes the mask from every face, and there is no hypocrisy beneath the raised hand of God.
Between his bouts of fever he filled his hours reading holy books and dwelling, sometimes in despair and sometimes with resignation, on his daughter’s death. Read to me, he said to his wife, on one such occasion, the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Philippians. She read these words: I have learned to be satisfied in whatever tribulation God casts me, I have learned to know the two fortunes, the excess of abasements and the excess of abundance. I can face both the one and the other with the strength of the God Who sustains me. The reader stopped. This verse, said Cromwell, once saved my life, at the time when the death of my firstborn, little Oliver, pierced my heart like a dagger. Ah, Saint Paul, he went on, you had the right to speak thus, you had measured yourself beside grace, but I!... Then, rallying, in a tone of reflective confidence, after a brief silence: But he Who was the Christ of Saint Paul, he said, is he not mine also?
They prayed for him in the three kingdoms: Puritans for their prophet, republicans for their champion, and patriots for the mainstay of their country. Antechambers echoed to the ceaseless, muffled murmur of ministers, preachers, chaplains, visionaries, mystics, friends of his person and of his family, offering up their groans to God in order to redeem the life of their saint. Whitehall was more like a shrine than a palace, and the same spirit of mystical inspiration which had brought him to this dwelling-place at the beginning was bursting forth at his end. He talked only of devotion, never of policy; by so much more did the thought of salvation weigh with him than the thought of prolonging his power. He had named his son Richard as his successor, in a document which had been sealed and mislaid on the day he was named Protector. Those around him would have wished him to repeat this act; but he showed either indifference or repugnance towards doing so. At last, when he was asked before witnesses if it were not true that it was his wish that Richard should succeed him: Yes, he stammered, nodding his head in assent. And he immediately changed the subject. It was clear that this man, broken by the vicissitudes of empires and the fickleness of peoples, set little store by a dictator’s testaments, and relied on Providence to determine the fate of the dictatorship after him. God will govern through the instrument that it pleases Him to choose, he said; who was it who gave me authority over his people? He believed he had deposited this document at Hampton Court, people went to look for it, but found nothing, and it was not mentioned again. Richard, who was still living in the country at his wife’s father’s house, arrived in London with his sisters and brothers-in-law, to gather around the deathbed of the head of the family. He himself appeared to have no more illusions than his father as to the hereditary nature of his power. He had neither the inclination nor the ambition for it. The whole family, whom the Protector had consigned to private life and to the mediocrity of life in the community, seemed prepared happily to return to it, like actors leaving the stage after the play. They had brought neither hatred nor envy upon themselves through their arrogance or their pride. The mutual tenderness, and the tears, of this family, children of Sulla, who could mingle with impunity in the crowd, were the only funereal pomp around the Protector’s bed. ‘Do not weep thus,’ he said on one occasion to his wife and children, who were sobbing in his bedchamber, ‘do not love this vain and empty world; I say this to you from the brink of my tomb, do not love this world.’ And yet there was a moment when he seemed to feel some weakness for life. Is there no one here who could bring me out of danger? There was no reply. Men can do nothing, he continued, God may do what He will! Ah well, is there no one who will pray with me? The silence on his lips was broken from time to time by mystical yearnings and by mutterings, and one could hear the sounds of the inner prayer.
Lord, Thou art my witness that, if I desire to live, it is in order to glorify Thy name and to perform Thy works. It is terrible, he murmured three times in succession, to fall into the hands of the living God!
Do you believe, he said to his chaplain, that man can ever lose the state of grace before God once he has been raised to it? No, replied the chaplain, the state of grace does not allow of the possibility of lapsing from it. ‘Well,’ replied Cromwell, ‘then I am happy, because I am sure that I have been in a perfect state of grace at a certain time in my life.’ All his problems were of the life to come, none of this present life. I am the least of men, he continued a moment later, but I have loved God, praised God, or rather, I am beloved of God! There was a moment when the crisis of his illness was believed to have passed, and when he believed it himself. Whitehall and its churches resounded with thanksgiving. This moment was brief; the fever doubled in intensity. He had days and nights of calm enfeeblement and of wandering delirium. On the morning of August 30th, one of the officers, looking out of the window, recognized Captain Ludlow, exiled from London, passing by. Cromwell, informed of Ludlow’s presence, became anxious about what was making him bold enough to show himself in the capital and to walk beneath his windows. He feared an outburst of republicanism, calculated to erupt as he breathed his last. He sent his son Richard to Ludlow to probe the republicans’ secret intention. Ludlow assured Richard that he had come to London on private business only, and that when he came he did not even know of the Protector’s illness. He promised to leave the same day. This is the same Ludlow who, banished as a regicide shortly after Cromwell’s death, departed to grow old and die, impenitent for that murder, at Vevay, on the shores of Lake Geneva, where his tomb may be seen. Reassured as to the republicans’ intentions, Cromwell concerned himself only with making his death holy. The groom of his bedchamber, who kept vigil over him, heard him uttering his last prayer aloud in disjointed verses. For his own edification, he made a note of the words as they escaped from the lips of the dying Protector, and imparted them to history long afterwards:
Lord, I am a miserable creature. But I am in Thy truth through Thy grace and I hope to appear before Thee for this people. Thou hast created me, though unworthy, to be the instrument of some good here on earth and of some service to my brethren. Many of them have had of me too superior a notion of my strengths, others will rejoice at my death. This is of no import, o God! Continue to shower Thy succour upon them, give them constancy and uprightness of judgement, through them make the name of Christ ever more glorious in the world, teach those who placed too great reliance in Thy instrument to place their faith in Thee alone! Pardon those who are eager to trample this worm under foot! And give me a good night if it be Thy pleasure!
On the following day, the anniversary of the battles of Dunbar and Worcester, his greatest triumphs, the noise of military fanfares in celebration of these victories rose into his apartments. I should like, he cried, to live long enough to render similar service to this people, but my day is done. May God always be with His children! After a final night of agony and sleeplessness, he was asked if he wished to drink or to sleep. Neither to drink nor to sleep now, he replied, but to go speedily to my Father. At sunrise he lost the power of speech, but could be seen still praying in a low voice.
The equinoctial gales, which had been blowing since the previous day, at that moment turned into a storm so violent that it resembled an earthquake. Carriages bringing to London the Protector’s friends, who had been warned of the extremity of his peril, could not make headway against the wind, and sought refuge at roadside inns. The tall London houses seemed to sway like ships on the waves. Roofs were carried away and centuries-old trees in Hyde Park torn up by the roots and swept along the ground, with all their leaves, like tufts of grass. Cromwell expired at two o’clock in the afternoon, in the midst of this upheaval of nature. The storm carried him off as it had brought him in. The people saw a wonder in this convulsion of the atmosphere with the final convulsion of their prophet.