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.







81 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.

  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”.

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