The incredible story of Oliver Cromwell’s head


Horace Wilkinson and Cromwell’s head


crom7I guess King Charles II was not the “turn the other the cheek” or “let’s bury the hatchet” sort of man. No, indeed. I may understand that once back from  his exile in France, he wished to punish the twelve surviving regicides, who had participated in the trial and execution of his father, Charles I. I cannot even blame him upon the particularly brutal choice of punishment it was inflicted on them, as very likely it was the fate any traitor of the country shared at those times. It seems, in fact, that the twelve conspirators were dragged through the streets on an unwheeled sledge or hurdle, hanged by the neck, disembowelled while alive, beheaded  and dismembered. But what makes his actions exceptionally cruel to a modern reader was his determination to see all the conspirators punished; and when he said ALL, he really meant all, even those who already rested in peace. Hence, it was ordered the posthumous execution of the deceased regicides as well : John Bradshaw, Henry Ireton and Oliver Cromwell.


Charles I’s execution

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), was very likely Charles II ‘s most odious enemy. He had led England into a republic, abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords after the execution of his father. However, even if he ruled as Lord Protector, his life was not so dissimilar from that his royal predecessor. He lived in many royal palaces, maintaining sole, unrestricted power. He was also offered the title of King, which he refused after an “agony of mind and conscience“. Even his funeral measured up those of the English monarchs before him and it seems the catafalque which had been erected to receive his richly decorated coffin was similar to that of James I, only “much more stately and expensive”. His body lay undisturbed at Westminster, till the Stuart monarchy was restored. Cromwell’s very last words seem to foreshadow the future events :”Pardon such as desire to trample upon the dust of a poor worm, for they are thy people too”, and Charles II did wish to trample upon his dust, for sure.


Oliver Cromwell

The bodies of Oliver Cromwell, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton were exhumed and taken to the Red Lion Inn in Holborn. On 30 January 1661, on the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, they were taken to the Old Bailey court, where a judge pronounced the sentence of death for the traitors. At Tyburn (now Marble Arch) the body of Cromwell along with the others, was subjected to the macabre ritual of posthumous execution (hanged, drawn, quartered): “  the shrouded bodies in open coffins were dragged on a sledge through the streets of London to the gallows, where each body was hanged in full public view until around four o’clock that afternoon.” Then their remains were buried in a mass grave at Tyburn, while their heads – Cromwell’s head was severed with eight blows –  were placed on wooden spikes on 20-foot poles, and raised above Westminster Hall.

crom1The heads remained on their spikes until the end of 1680 as sinister and potent warning to the spectators. It seems that Bradshaw’s head was in the middle, while Cromwell was to the right and Ireton to the left. A powerful storm broke the pole bearing Cromwell’s death, throwing it on the ground. A sentinel guarding  the Exchequer’s office came across it, put it under his cloak and hid it in the chimney of his house. Despite the considerable reward offered for its return, the guard was afraid to give it back and for some years it was lost track of the relic, till in 1710, a Swiss-French collector, Claudius DePuy, displayed it in his private museum in London, which was ranked among the top attraction in London at the time. He used to boast that he could have sold that head for as much as 60 guineas (more or less 5.000 pouns), but a visitor, who was not much impressed by that sight, commented with a certain sarcasm that “this monstrous head could still be dear and worthy to the English”.

After De Puy’s death, the head was sold to the Russell family, who seemed to be connected somehow to Cromwell, and came into the possession of Samuel Russell a comic actor and drunkard. James Cox, an important goldsmith and clockmaker offered him £100 (about £5,600 in today’s money), but despite his poverty, Russel refused the offer. Later, Russell offered the head to the rector of Sussex College, but he did not seem to be interested. Cox, then, got the relic in a different way: he began to lend small sums of money to Russell, gradually reaching the total of just over £100, and when Russell found himself unable to return the loan, he had to give up the head.

James Cox sold the head in 1799 for 230 pounds to three brothers named Hughes. Interested in exposing it as a museum piece, the Hughes brothers had hundreds of posters printed, but the exhibition was not so successful as they expected. The three brothers thought that the fiasco was due to the allusions on some the newspapers about alleged falsity of the relic. They wrote to Cox, then, asking for explanations, but he was very elusive, thus fueling the suspicion that the head was a fake. 
crom 6Despite the failure of the exhibition, a daughter of the Hughes brothers continued to show Cromwell’s head, describing it as authentic to anyone who wanted to see it and in 1815 it was sold to Josiah Henry Wilkinson. In 1845, Thomas Carlyle asked to examine the head, and he found it fraudulent”, while others, however, like George Rolleston, were convinced it was authentic. After a more thorough examination, performed in 1911, the authenticity of the find was confirmed. However, the absence of evidence and its complete disappearance between 1685 and 1710 put into question the conclusions of the examination. The head was inherited by the Wilkinson family until 1957, when Horace Wilkinson decided to give it a decent burial. The burial took place at the Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, March 25, 1960 where it rests in peace. At last.







101 thoughts on “The incredible story of Oliver Cromwell’s head

  1. This story really shocked me. I understand somehow the fact that Charles II decided to torture Cromwell’s body even if he was already dead because I think that this kind of things were considered normal at those times. In addiction his father died because people wanted a Republic, a government that respected the rights of important people of the time, a state where there was not a person who had all the power. But with Cromwell it happened again, he was a sort of dictator, he did the same things of Charles I, even if he pretended to fight against this kind of government. I can justify Charles II, but I can’t understand why people after him were so obsessed by Oliver Cromwell’s head. Times changed but he wasn’t buried till the 20 century and I think it is very strange. It’s not a long time ago but I can’t imagine how this fact could happen and why people paid money for a head.

  2. I think that this article is in compliance with a modern way of thinking: Oliver Cromwell has eventually met his fate, his Karma: there are no two ways about it, that is the same old story. This article made me think about how time goes by, History is an amazing succession of facts, unavoidably related among themselves.

  3. I think that Charles II wanted only to find a way to show what’s the punishment for a traitor of the Crown. It’s very strange that he had to abuse of Cromwell’s dead body to take his revenge. Cromwell’s head history is so macabre, if you think that it only found an end in the 20th century.

    • I think that for the traditions of the time it was not as shocking an event as it would be today. certainly reducing bodies like this, but above all leaving heads exposed and even selling one is very macabre as a thing. I think we are lucky to have changed traditions because as a scenario I find it disgusting

  4. The story of Oliver Cromwell’s head was an interesting read, but in my opinion even if a man had committed a crime during his life-time, once dead, he should be left in peace, whatever his guilt might have been.
    For me, it’s useless to take revenge on a dead person because “punishment” has already hit him through death, and if ones does want to take revenge he had better do it , when the object of his anger is still alive and can react.

  5. This story is shocking, I cannnot imagine how strong the feeling of revenge could have been at the time. Even if, obviously, I do not agree with Charles II’s behavior, I understand him because as a king he wanted to display his power and show everybody what could happen to anybody who conspired against him and his family. However, I cannot think about how, also with the passing of time, people have been so focused on the price of Oliver Cromwell’s head rather than thinking about what was right to do. In my opinion, at least one of those owners’ head should have put ethics before money and “bury” Oliver Cromwell once and for all. Nevertheless, this is history that explains how, most of the times, money and power come before everything.

  6. In my opinion the hanging of Oliver’s head has two important meanings, the first that power returned to Charles II and as revenge for his father’s killing, on the other hand a warning to all traitors.
    I believe that for the times that run today it is obviously a macabre event to exhume a person’s body to destroy it again, but at that time the customs were different and in that precise context this event was seen as a symbol, as a warning.

  7. I think the act of Charles Il is something inhuman. Surely what drove him to do this was the great disappointment and the memory of his father, but nobody deserves to be exhumed and to be shown to the people by “skeleton”; it is an act that completely takes away the dignity of a person. On the other hand, Cromwell has been inconsistent with his morals and politics. He seemed to want to change the situation in England after Charles I and his murder, but in fact during his reign he did everything but giving power to parliament despite he had been the learder of the Parlamentarians. Perhaps this also urged Charles Il to take such a decision.

  8. Obviously, it’s a story outside the rational stuff, it’s extra-ordinary. Wasn’t executing only the other alive regicides satisfying enough? No, because Charles II had to give a strong signal to his own nation: the monarchy is back and woe betide anyone threatens it. Then, when the Parliament invited beheaded Charles I’ son, that one was an act of complete submission to the power of the king. However, Charles II’s macabre act was dictated by both blinding anger and royal cynical propaganda. The posthumous execution wasn’t unknown in the English history: Richard III, Duke of Gloucester and John Wycliffe had the same fate.
    After all, remind the famous warning of Gallic commander, Brenno, after the sack of Rome in 387 B. C.: “Vae victis”.
    About trade of relics, in this particular case Cromwell’s head, monks and the Christian Church were light-years ahead of them. What a pity, Oliver Cromwell was neither saint nor martyr!
    Nowadays there are different saints’ remains: “mala tempora currunt sed peiora parantur”.
    Rest in peace “Lord Protector”.

  9. I think that the way Charles II acted was justified for the time he lived in, you know “eye for an eye”. I personally think I would have done the same, I can’t blame him. Nowadays maybe I would think twice, or even more, before doing so. I would be curious to ask the people who paid for Cromwell’s skull, why did they regard it such an attraction, I just can’t say.

  10. A truly disturbing story. It seems like something that could only happen on tv. From events like this we understand how dark and violent the past eras were. The king’s desire for revenge had no limits, the death of his enemies was not enough for him, he wanted to humiliate them and terrorize anyone who had only thought of opposing him. I believe that the real purpose wasn’t a real revenge for the murder of the father, but rather a demonstration of power and no mercy for the enemies, who would have been persecuted even after death.
    As for collectors, I think that the display of a human head and the profit on it are equally disturbing and immoral actions.

  11. A truly disturbing story. It seems like something that could only happen in tv. From events like this we understand how dark and violent the past eras have been. The king’s desire for revenge had no limits, the death of his enemies was not enough for him, he wanted to humiliate them and terrorize anyone who had only thought of opposing him. I believe that the real purpose of the king wasn’t a real revenge for the murder of the father, but rather a demonstration of power and no mercy for the enemies, who would have been persecuted even after death.
    As for collectors, I think that the display of a human head and the profit on it are equally disturbing and immoral actions.

  12. This is such an awful scenery; I mean, I know that they killed his father, he wanted to revenge and at those times it was “normal” to act that way, but in my opinion to exhume the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton, even if it was the fate of any traitor of the country at those times, it’s absurdity, not revenge. I’m sure that the showing heads has been incisive. Anyway I find this fact so disrespectful and disgusting. And as if it wasn’t enough the head has been sold and hidden as an object without a minimum of humanity until 1960, such a long time. Poor head. I’d be kind of very, very disgusted and, obviously, I would have done everything to not end up that way (I think that’s the reason why Charles II did it, and honestly it works). Plus the others were dragged through the streets on an unwheeled sledge or hurdle, hanged by the neck, disembowelled while alive, beheaded and dismembered. For me it’s something crazy to imagine. I mean, we’re lucky things change in time.

    • In my opinion this story is as macabre as it is interesting. Oliver had already been punished with death, and in my opinion, there was no need for further punishment and humiliation. In fact in this way Oliver became the victim of the executioner.

  13. The anecdotes of this story are really interesting, I think we should judge the behaviour of King Charles II in relation to the context and the era he lived in. I can understand his hunger for revenge , while I dislike the ways in which he got it. As for Cromwell’s head I think this is one of the craziest stories I’ve ever heard, I find it strange to want to have the head of a dead man but at the same time I can understand it since it is the head of one of the most important men in English history.

  14. I think that Charles II was a genius to take revenge in this way. Considering that they killed his father he had the reasons to do that. The funny part is the story of Cromwell’s head who travelled until 20th century. I also think that he did the right thing with the ones who were alive because they wanted his father’s death and in this way nobody would have done it anymore.
    I think it is very cool.

  15. I think that Charles II was right. Even if Cromwell was dead, for me he had to have the same destiny of the others who had taken part in the execution of his father. The fact that he had already died doesn’t mean anything because for the Stuart monarchy he had represented a real threat; he had dissolved the house of Lords and led England into a Republic, he made this all after the execution of Charles II’s father. This is the only and main reason that justifies his inhuman action.

  16. In my opinion, the feeling of revenge and the continue search of power were different in that time and now considered wrong. Yet, I can understand Charles II’s behavior that wanted to show his power and the punishments/consequences that could have happened if someone went against the King. I think that the punishment was justified for the time but after Oliver Cromwell’s death I would have let him Rest In Peace. I find miserable and awful the fact that people wanted to buy his skull and I sincerely don’t understand why.

  17. What a terrible story! It’s okay to hold a grudge, but that’s a bit much. Probably the fact went beyond revenge, it had to be a warning to others. However if we went back to that time it would seem just a public execution like the others, especially if we think about the fact that Charles II was returning from an exile in France. There he looked to Louis XIV as an example of an absolute monarch, an example he would have liked to follow as King of England. Going back to Oliver Cromwell’s terrible head exposure, I can’t even imagine what people thought looking at his head, it probably had to be something like this: “Mmmmm yeah, I don’t really like my life, but I prefer it instead of being gutted and dragged around the city “. Even the market that had been built around him, with no respect for that bone, which had belonged to a man, must not have been a pleasant rest in peace.

  18. In my opinion this story is the epitome of evil. I understand that in that period laws were more violent and the sentences less humane however, I still do not comprehend this extreme taste for revenge. What puzzles me even more is the list of people who passed the head on as a “show piece” without regard. At least in the end he was put to rest in peace.

  19. This story is very macabre. I think that Charles II wanted to avenge himself but, in my opinion, it is not very right to do this with a person. Even though he has committed evils during his life, I don’t think it is right to execute him in this way, especially if he was already dead. Severing the head of a dead person with eight blows is madness but, perhaps, in those days, it was normal to do that. Now it would be inconceivable to do such a thing.

  20. What a terrible story!
    Charles II’s anger and desire for revenge are frightening.
    I can’t imagine how much hate can be felt.
    It is true that Charles II acted to revenge his father and this may be understandable but he choose such a bloody way.
    Even killing someone who is already dead is so incredible that it seems almost comical.
    Furthermore, the interest in buying Cromwell’s skull is also shocking.
    Sometimes the human being performs inexplicably foolish and cruel actions

  21. This story is about Charles II , who took revenge on Oliver Cromwell by executing him, as a sign of power. One reason why he decided to kill Oliver Cromwell was to make the people understand that the monarchy had returned and that no one should rebel. Personally I believe that he can be justified because in the period he lived revenge and executions were something that happened every day. I believe that after his death he should have been left to rest in peace. I find intolerable the fact that the skull was sold again and again .

  22. I find this incident truly creepy, but, the fact of a certain amount of people who were willing to buy the head of a dead man, who was brutally executed even after his death, is way more shocking of the event itself for me. I can understand that a certain relic could have a value for a person interested in a certain matter, but can a human head be considered a relic? I don’t think so; but who am I to judge those people? I just hope that tragedies like this one may not happen in the future.

  23. I personally find this story really weird and disturbing. The fact that a person can do all this to a dead person is truly disrespectful, even though the body belongs to a traitor.
    As the burial has always been considered “sacred” for thousands of years, I don’t think I would wish anyone to be humiliated in this way for such a long time.
    At the same time, however, I can understand the anger and desire for revenge that Charles II felt.

  24. For me this is a very raw story. Oliver had already been punished with death and it wasn’t necessary everything they did to him

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