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.








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

  1. Oliver Cromwell still needs to be re-assessed. He achieved many worthwhile things.
    The Puritans did become akin to our present fundamentalists in some respects.

    To kill a king: as though it was unheard of! They were busy killing each other, jockeying for the big job, for may centuries. A king was/is no one special. The spectacle is what is needed – the bigger the better.
    Senators and Presidents don’t seem to have it, that glamour of title.
    On Kings remember The Wizard of Oz, the little anonymous guy behind the big screen.

  2. Oliver Cromwell’s skull may have been confined to a small part of England, but his ideas crossed the Atlantic and played a good part in our independence. In his diary, John Adams declared him the most brilliant military leader since Julius Caesar. Whether that was written before or after Napolean, I don’t know, but, remember, Napoleon lost. Twice. Also, unless I am misinformed, Cromwell tried to establish a governmental body of three powers established by elections where it never had been done before. Unfortunately, the population had suffered centuries of monarchical Stockholm syndrome and so had to return rulership under people wearing metal hats that had shiny stones affixed. I know that Cromwell has a terrible and earned reputation regarding his treatment of the Irish, but that didn’t start with him, nor did it end after him.
    Just a question: would he put up for an instant with the despicable attempt at savagery and overthrow of the great institutions and traditions of England? It seems that present rulers may soon say, “Londres vaut bien un hajj.”

  3. Pingback: The incredible story of Oliver Cromwell’s head | necltr

  4. Oliver Cromwell was important for his actions in England but I can’t imagine how a person could be so interested in buying his head…it’so incredible and disgusting.Fortunately now the Oliver Cromwell’s head is in peace

  5. Charles II had his revenge a few years after his father’s execution in 1649.
    What he did was terrible, certainty he thought about a possible revenge during his exile in France.
    The history of Cromwell’s head is so interesting, it changed several owners and its disappearance between 1685 and 1710 leaves doubts about his authenticity.

  6. I found this article very interesting. It’s amazing and disgusting at the same time how much Oliver Cromwell’s head has travelled during the centuries and how many people possessed it. I really don’t know why people should keep the head of a dead men even if they were poor and they wanted to make some money. I hope that his head and his body now rest (??) in peace.
    Matteo troiani 3 E

  7. I found this article as much interesting as creepy.Oliver Cromwell was a big piece in England’s political development and I think it’s a bit disrespetcful that people traded his head like a soccer ball.I really hope that it was a fake head and that the real one is in his grave.
    Tiziano Salvoni 4E

  8. I know that Charles II wanted to take his revenge but I think what he did was a terrible act of abuse of power. I am disgusted about him and about who bought the head .I hope he can rest in peace now.
    Francesco Rizzitelli 4E

  9. I have to say that this article, even if very strong, didn’t impress me so much, because I completely understand the anger and the desire for revenge of Charles II but I find incomprehensible that in addition to the living he tortured the dead without mercy. I also find unjust keeping the head of a dead man as a piece of a museum.

  10. Charles 2’s anger is understandable, but in my opinion it is wrong to take it and torture the dead that should be left.
    I would have put his living alive in prison, without killing them, and without selling their heads.
    It’s a very tragic story and it’s wrong that people’s heads is exposed in the museums.

  11. Charles II was not the kindest person ever, but I can’t blame him: he was exiled after the execution of his father. His reaction was exaggerated and inhuman, but the question is: if we lived in that period, would we have thought the same thing? I’m not sure.
    Another interesting and creepy aspect is the tour, the “journey” that Oliver Cromwell’s head did, to find peace finally in 1960.

  12. I found this article very interesting.Many people,some even poor,bought the head of Oliver Cromwell but its disappearance between 1685 and 1710 causes many doubts about its authenticity.After many passages of property the relic can be found at Cambridge.Its disappearence leaves me uncertain about its story.

  13. Oliver Cromwell is, probably, one of the most controversial characters in English history: after the defeat of Charles I and his death, he abolished the monarchy, which was replaced by a republic, and he encouraged foreign trade with the Navigation Act, helping merchants to increase their wealth. On the other hand, he ruled without Parliament and he modified the lifestyle of English citizens, introducing censorship and Puritan rules and abolishing games, theatres and public festivities. When Charles II was invited to restore monarchy, he decided that Cromwell’s body had to be subject to posthumous execution. I think the king ordered so for two main reasons: to revenge his father’s death, and avoid another civil war and another dictatorship, as Cromwell’s one, by frightening people with this disgusting act, that, actually, was quite normal in that period. The head, which was saved, represents one of the most important relics of that time, with lots of people wishful to obtain it for economic purposes and also for historical reasons: in fact, Cromwell is the symbol of one of the most important periods in English history, a man with his values and his flaws that has completely changed his country and the course of history. This could be the reason why his head was so wanted throughout time: it is just a piece of story. However, some people strongly believe this relic is false: well, this story is so fascinating that I simply prefer to trust in it.

  14. I found king Charles’ story very interesting and at the same time creepy and grisly. Indeed I think that what he did to the twelve conspirators and, mostly to the deceased regicides can’t be justified, even if at that time it might be not as scandalous and horrible as today (because they were used to terrible actions like that everyday). While I think that neither Oliver Cromwell, nor anyone else, deserves the ritual of posthumous execution, which is awful and inhumane.

  15. Prologue: I had already written half of my comment when my facebook app decided to crash, also, I have a temperature of 38 right now so I feel like I could be the next Charles II.Anyway-

    This post doesn’t surprise me at all.I guess my natural response (as would anyone else’s) would be “Oh my gosh I would never do something so despicably disgusting.” However I don’t think that would actually be my reaction if I lived at a time where excecutions (and bear fights) were considered entertainging. So I think that I could actually understand Charles’ decision (at the time). Of couse I really don’t get how people were so obsessed with that gruesome “piece of history”. My reaction as a mildly decent human being would be to just bury the head with a little respect to the deceased ,no matter what time in history.

  16. There are people who hold a grudge to the living … and people who hold a grudge to the deceased, evidently.
    It’s normal Charles II as human being to feel anger and resentment towards his father’s assassins; but I think that a reaction like this was exaggerated. Scenes like these are seen in horror movies and thrillers.

    Equally creepy, if not more, is the path that Cromwell’s head has taken; I don’t know how anyone can want it as a museum attraction, especially knowing the way it was separated from the body and the tortures that the owner must have suffered

  17. This article container a really interesting story. I’m particulary impressed by determination of Charles II for his revenge and how he umiliates Cromwell, putting his head on a wooden spike, crating mystery in long English story. Though he exaggerated a bit.

  18. After reading this article,I have to think about Charles II’s deep hatred between for Oliver Cromwell.
    Charles wanted to avenge his father, and in my opinion, he didn’t have all the wrongs even if he could have done it in a more civil way
    I think that Horace Wilkinson did the best thing burying Oliver’s head,even though I would have been curious and thrilled to see this historical find in a museum.

  19. I find really awful Charles II’s obession for his (already dead) enemies but he was seriously angry for his exile and for his father’s death so it’s quite understandable considering the historic period it happend.
    The fact that Oliver Cromwell’s head was seen as a relique is really strange and creepy but it represents a part of English history and it’s normal to see it in a museum and terrifying to see it in a house.

  20. Shakespeer/Shakespere/Shakspeere/Shakespeare, however he signed his checks or credit card slips that day, had Henry IV saying, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Henry IV pre-dated the eighth, of course, and read about what he did.

  21. Mary, Queen of Scots, daughter of abovementioned Eighth, burned 280 religious dissidents at the stake and had the teenage Queen (for nine days) Lady Jane Grey beheaded. That was but a small part of life among the royals centuries ago; things so far are much better.

  22. Sorry, just received report from forensics, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded on orders of Queen Elizabeth I; it was Queen Mary I who was the daughter of Henry VIII, responsible for the killing of many Roman Catholics who, as a Roman Catholic, had the Protestants burned at the stake. Mary I, 280 wrongs and more don’t make a right! Whew, couldn’t make this stuff up. Not even present day newscasters.

  23. It’s a very creepy story and if I had been to Charles 2 I would have acted less instinctively. He made a carnage killing all Cromwell followers. And after torturing and cutting Cromwell’s head he sold it and is now exposed in the museums.
    The anger he has experienced is normal and well-off but he is wrong to do so. I do not share anything he did.

  24. Martina Sclavo IV A

    In this post you understand that Charles was dominated by revenge, especially with Oliver Cromwell, who was the most hated enemy of his father.
    I understand Charles II’s anger, but his actions are absurd, for example: the posthumous execution of the deceased regicides
    But now I understand why the post is called
    “The incredible story of Oliver Cromell’s head”. It’s really an incredible and hideous story. A head that is sold and used as an artwork in museums. This is what surprised me more.
    If I had had the head I would have buried it for the respect of the deceased.

  25. Such a strange story.I don’t understand this interest in a head,but the answer could be that it would be an important piece of antiques which could have earned so much money from the owner.Interesting is the randomness of events,wich have long travel this head.
    At last it found a home.

  26. In my opinion Charles 2 behaved well and has taken his revenge against his father. It’s a really interesting story, but it did not surprise me a lot knowing the ways of revenging people at that time. Fortunately, in the end, Oliver’s head is in peace after all those trips it made.

  27. Let’s remember that Charles I ( the executed king) hadn’t been a great king. In fact he was also a despot because he thought that he had the divine right to rule. When there is a war it’s common that the loser loses (but not always his head) . So Cromwell’s action could be justified . On the other hand Charles II’s behaviour was normal for that period because people loved to see executions. Regarding Cromwell’s head I’m glad that it is finally, after many years, buried in a safe place.

  28. If I were Charles II, I would have done the same thing,for revenge and to intimidate people.
    Because,for me, thanks to that all Charles’s subjects understood the power of the king .

  29. I think the brutal treatment inflicted by Charles II tonthise bodies was an ammonitive tool too: it showed the fate of those who challenged the king and the monarchy itself. I wonder too why a head should be considered so interesting.

  30. First of all I think that all the cruelty showed with the bodies of Oliver Cromwell,Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw was really unuseful because they were already dead so it made no sense. The king only wanted to demonstrate how cruel he could be with traitors. In my opinion he feared traitors so it was a sign of weakness rather than strenght.

  31. If I had been Charles II , I would have done the same thing.
    The “travel” of Cromwell’s head is very disgusting. But for the money making the head would not have travelled so much.

  32. This article is very interesting, in particolar the “journey” of Cromwell’ s head. Reading this article we can understand how Cromwell led the State. And we can understand that his government is a dictatorship which wasn’t approved by people. For this reason people helped Charles II avenge his father.

  33. I believe Charles II’s behaviour was normal at his time. It was a way to re-assert the king’s power. I am disappointed about the travel Cromewll’s head because people must respect the deceased.

  34. I think that Charles II was right to get revenge for his father, but he exaggerated… He could only kill Cromwell instead of doing what he did.
    Also I think the story of the Cromwell’s head is very weird and creepy and I can’t understand why anyone should buy a head.

  35. In my opinion We must consider a multitude of data (such as political events,characters involved and their personalities,epoch,etc..) in orderd to express a point of view about a possible right or wrong behaviour or whatever,so I’ll just say that I appreciated this article (especially the part about the “money-trip” of the head) and I don’t consider it as creepy or disgusting as others.

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