The incredible story of Oliver Cromwell’s head

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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23 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

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