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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The English way

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Having recovered from the electoral shock, I can’t help but wonder about the reasons that have brought our nation to the pathological political instability that has characterized us for decades. We have nothing wrong, for sure, we are a beautiful country with a gloriuous past, the cradle of civilization along with Greece and certainly much more could be added. However, even if we started so well, we must have missed a few steps in the path towards a mature democracy. One justification might be that we are a young nation: only 153 years old. We shouldn’t forget that before the unification, we had suffered dominations of any kind, whose positive heritage can be clearly seen in each of our regions in term of culture, food, music, language but in those centuries of oppression we had also gradually developed a higher degree of scepticism and distrust against any form of administration. Cunning, unreliability, deceitfulness, “virtues” that still characterize our being Italians abroad, were the weapons we had developed in time to defend ourselves from the foreign rules. The problem is that once free and politically united, we haven’t been able to work together for the making of a common identity, because our chronic distrust runs in our veins and has always made us choose for the “individual” way, That’s why the process towards a responsible,efficient democracy here is slower than in other countries. It’s this lack of a common political and social effort that still makes us always look for that charismatic one, who might solve all our problems. He has never showed up and never will. But as I told you before, we are young. In other countries, on the contrary, the path towards democracy has seemed somehow more natural. The last invasion in England, for example, dates back to 1066,  when the Normans conquered the country – fortunate event that might have happened in Italy as well, thus sparing us a lot of troubles, but for the Pope’s fierce opposition against the Normans’ advance from the South of Italy- therefore England, if compared to Italy, had an advantage of 800 years. It means they had plenty of time to make a lot of nice political experiments. From that moment on, and before any other country, England will undergo a gradual but constant weakening of the great powers of the Middle Age: Church and monarchy, and the growing of a modern one: Parliament. With the English Common Law, for instance, the king was not considered any longer above the law; therefore if the English ruler could be tried just like anybody else, he had started to lose that divine trait that his fellow kings all over Eupore would have kept for a long time. Furthermore with The Magna Charta the king could no longer impose taxes without that “general consent” of those who one day will become part of a fully elected Parliament. The nobles took advantage from this situation increasing their power, but they greed will bring England to the disaster of the War of the Roses. The Tudors’ were necessarily firmer monarchs whose recipe for a stronger country was the balancing of powers. They weakened the nobles depriving them of their private armies, avoided summoning Parliament, increased trade, developed alliances with the other countries, but above all, smashed the power of the Roman Catholic Church taking advantage of the Protestant wave from the north of Europe. At the dawing of the seventeeth century England was an Anglican country with a well defined Parliament and increasing middle class. The Stuarts who had been brought up in France at the court of Louis XIV, failed to understand the rooted dinstictive features of the country, and tried to make it more “European” if possible, but in this way they only succeeded in reinforcing its prior structure. After the Glorious Revolution, England had now become a modern country with a monarchy controlled by an indipendent Parliament and a growing middle class. It was therefore ready to face the great changes of the industial revolution and destined to be a long lasting power worldwide. But this is another story. As I told you before, we are young.