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Of a man and his wandering head

Oliver_Cromwell_by_Samuel_Cooper National Portrait Gallery
Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper (National Portrait Gallery)

Today, I thought we’d spend some time with a certain Oliver Cromwell. Well, to be quite correct, not so much with dear Olly himself as with his mortal remains. (I call him Olly, ok? Others call him Noll. I imagine he prefers Oliver when amongst casual acquaintances, and as to what his wife calls him in private, we will never know – the man just smiles) Rarely has a decapitated head seen so much adventure as Mr Cromwell’s did – not that I think Olly cared all that much. After all, he held the opinion that once the spirit had fled, all that remained was dust.
Oliver Cromwell is one of those historical figures who triggers a black-or-white response. Either you’re with him or against him, and all those rooting for the dashing royalists (futile: they lost) will mostly be against him, holding up the execution of Charles I as the prime example of just what a low-life Oliver was.
There is no doubt Oliver Cromwell has a lot of black marks against him – I would personally consider his treatment of the Irish to be far more reprehensible than the execution of an inept king far too enamoured of the concept of Divine Right – but there are other aspects to the man. No man rises to the heights Olly did without having considerable talents, and whether or not we buy into his religious beliefs (somewhat harsh, I would say) there is no denying Olly was a devout man – and a man determined to take up arms against what he perceived as the despotic rule of Charles I.
Cromwell's head Anthony_van_Dyck_-_Charles_I_(1600-49)_with_M._de_St_Antoine_-_Google_Art_Project (1)
Charles I, by Anthony van Dyck

Olly wasn’t the only one who disliked Charles I. Initially, he wasn’t even the leader of the Parliamentarian faction, but as the Civil War went from skirmish to battles, from polite crossing of swords to fields filled with blood and gore and screaming men, Cromwell worked his way methodically to the top, this very much because of his excellent command of his men.
After the king’s execution in 1649, the monarchy was abolished and replaced by a Commonwealth. Initially, Cromwell was one of many leaders, but over the coming few years he established himself as the effective ruler of the country, and as of 1653 he became Lord Protector. Depending on your biases, you may consider Cromwell as being a man dedicated to ensuring an inclusive and relatively tolerant regime, geared at returning permanent peace to the country, or as a bigoted dictator. I lean towards the former – albeit that, as stated above, I have certain issues with some of Olly’s policies.
In general, I find Oliver Cromwell an intriguing man – on the one hand a capable and ruthless general and leader, on the other a caring family man, whose letters to his wife breathe love and affection, even after thirty years of marriage. Driven, courageous, gifted with an innate understanding of tactics – both on the battlefield and on the political stage – Cromwell was also a visionary, and a man most concerned with the state of his immortal soul.
Much has been made of Cromwell’s religious fervour and his determined efforts to clamp down on all kinds of sins. Absolutely, this was a man who believed in upholding high morals and went as far as to banish certain customs (such as Christmas) to reduce the risk of sin. But he was also a man who believed firmly in “liberty of conscience” whereby man (and woman) should be free to worship as per their own beliefs – assuming, of course, that their beliefs fell within the overall umbrella of Protestantism.
In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died. He was magnificently buried in Westminster Abbey, next door, more or less, to Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. I imagine these royal corpses were less than thrilled with their new neighbour, but seeing as they were dead, no one asked their opinion. With Oliver’s death, the backbone of the Commonwealth sort of evaporated, and after a couple of years of general confusion, Parliament decided to invite Charles II back. Needless to say, our man Charles Stuart leaped at the opportunity.
Charles II

Now, if you were Charles II, it would have been very, very difficult to endow Olly with any positive traits. After all, Cromwell had been one of the most vociferous proponents of executing Charles I, and it is hard to forgive a man for having condemned your father to death – or for having forced you to live as an impoverished exile for close to a decade.
To give Charles II his due, he did not return to his kingdom to wreak revenge on all those accursed Parliamentarians who had caused him, his family, and their loyal retainers so much grief. Instead, Charles II showed admirable restraint, issuing a general amnesty. Well, with one exception: the men who had sentenced Charles I to death – the so called regicides – were all to be subjected to being hanged, drawn and quartered.
At the time, many of the 59 men who’d signed the execution order were already dead. Twenty of them, to be exact, including our Olly. Nine of the remaining 39 were to suffer  that most gruesome of deaths, a number fled abroad, and several were granted the mercy of having their sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
Three of those already dead were condemned to posthumous executions. One of these, unsurprisingly, was Olly. (One of the others was his son-in-law, Henry Ireton). While it may seem more than petty to disinter people and subject their remains to an execution, I suppose that Charles II felt there was a high level of symbolism in doing this.
Whatever the case, the whole thing was rather ghoulish. First, the bodies were disinterred. Due to his relatively recent death and a competent embalmer, Olly’s corpse was in better shape than the two other gents who were to share the gallows with him. Ireton had been dead close to a decade, and the other corpse belonged to a certain Mr Bradshaw who had presided over the court that had sentenced the former king. Bradshaw had only been dead for a year or so, but someone had screwed up with his embalming, so he probably smelled a LOT more than the other two.
Cromwell head Execution_of_Cromwell,_Bradshaw_and_Ireton,_1661
The “execution” of Cromwell – the heads are already on their pikes…

The remains were transported to Tyburn, still in their cerecloth wrapping, where they were “hanged” mid-morning. After some hours of swinging back and forth, they were then taken down and the executioner proceeded to hack off their heads. In Olly’s case, all that cerecloth required several blows with the axe before his head finally separated from his body. I imagine there was some weak cheering – the evil Protector had been justly punished.
In difference to Olly, who ensured Charles I was buried WITH his head, Charles II ordered that Oliver’s embalmed – and now decapitated body – be thrown into a pit, while his head was to be mounted on a spike and set to adorn Westminster Hall.
And here, with Olly’s bits and pieces rotting in a pit, the head slowly disintegrating on its spike, things could have ended – rather ignominiously. If it hadn’t been for that storm late in the reign of James II which toppled the stake upon which Olly’s head balanced, thereby sending the skull to crash land on the ground far below.
By some miracle, the skull did not disintegrate, and as per tradition one of the sentries – a former Parliamentarian – found the head, swept it into his cloak and carried it home. Some years later, said sentry died, and his daughter sold the head – by now not much more than leathery skin and some stubborn strands of hair attached to the bone – to an eager French collector. Here, at last, was a nice gory exhibit for his little museum.
At some point, Cromwell’s blood relatives heard of the exhibited head, and one of his indirect descendants bought his skull and brought it home to Huntingdon. Unfortunately for Olly’s head, some generations later another member of the family – something of a drunk wastrel – took possession of the skull which was now paraded around various pubs. By now, there was not all that much left of the so carefully embalmed features. Olly was missing an ear, people had gouged out keepsakes from his desiccated facial skin, and as to his hair, well… Apparently, stealing a lock from the severed head of Cromwell was something many wanted to do.
Eventually, the drunk wastrel – Sam to his pub mates – had gone through all his assets. The only single thing of value he had left was the skull of his distant relative. After signing one IOU too many, he no longer had that, his creditor a certain jeweller named Cox who walked off with something of a spring to his step, Olly’s poor head cradled in his arms. Why the jeweller wanted something as ugly as an old skull is beyond me – maybe he was an admirer of Cromwell. Or maybe he was gambling on the value of the head increasing.
Cromwell's_head,_late_1700sIn the event, Cox did make quite the handsome profit when he sold the skull in 1799. The eager buyers, a pair of brothers named Hughes, paid him twice as much as the original value of the IOU. Cox’s walk was, I assume, even springier this time round, and brothers hastened off to exhibit Cromwell’s head to the public. At the time, there were TWO heads exhibited as being Olly’s, and whatever we may think of him, he was no two-headed monster, so one of them was obviously a fake. As per the brothers, theirs was the real thing, but it was becoming difficult to prove.
The brothers died, the head changed hands yet again, this time ending up in the hands of a doctor Wilkinson. Our good doctor had the head examined and decided it had to be the genuine thing. For the coming century or so, the Wilkinson family hung on to the head, now and then showing it to specially invited guests. Somewhat macabre, IMO. “Want to join me for a nightcap and a peek at my skull?” is not a line that would have me skipping with eager anticipation…
In the 1930s, the head was subjected to a thorough examination by cranial experts. These specialists concluded that the head had belonged to a man in his sixties, had been trepanned after death – as required to embalm a body in the 17th century – and that several strokes had severed the head from the neck post-mortem. Not that many embalmed bodies would have been subjected to such treatment. Add to this the remnants of a moustache and beard, the depression left behind by a wart over one of the eye sockets, and it was considered more than likely this was, in fact, Oliver Cromwell’s rather battered head.
Finally, in early 1960 a certain Horace Wilkinson died and bequeathed the head to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Why this particular college, you may wonder, and the simple reason is that this was Cromwell’s college, back when he was young and eager, not yet twenty years old but already determined to make his mark on the world. After spending his entire childhood and youth in a household dominated by women – his widowed mother and seven sisters – college must have seemed a bright new world indeed, although Olly seems to have been one of those men who genuinely liked and respected women. Right: neither here nor there…
Cromwell's head 800px-Sidney_Sussex_College,_Cambridge,_July_2010_(01)
Sidney Sussex Chapel, photo Ardfern Creative Commons Attr

Anyway: the college decided the time had come to bury this rolling stone of a head, and so, more than three hundred years after his death, Cromwell’s skull was secretly interred, somewhere close to the chapel. No plaque marks the spot itself, but I don’t think that old skull really cares. It lies safe at last, hidden from gawking eyes and grasping hands. And as to Olly, I imagine he now and then pops by to check on what little remains of his remains, a gust of a chuckle escaping his soul as he considers just how hardheaded his skull must have been to survive all its adventures!
For those that want to know more about Cromwell’s head, I warmly recommend the entertaining – if at times fictitious – The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell – a memoir by Marc Hartzman.

10 thoughts on “Of a man and his wandering head”

  1. C S Harris mentions the heads of Cromwell and Charles I in her mystery Who Buries the Dead.. I hadn’t realized what an adventuresome “life” heads could have on their own. The practice of punishing the corpse of a person is an old but odd one as if might partially satisfy those who consider themselves injured but does no real damage to the deceased. This was a very interesting account. Though my religion tends more towards Cromwell, I have more sympathy for the Royalists. No group has an exclusive grip on intolerance , harm, and bad governance.

  2. Hi Anna, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, a subject I knew nothing about, I mean, well, it’s not every day one learns about heads that end up all over the place. I love the way your sense of humour shines through your writing, which makes for an enjoyable read- and dare I say it, moist as opposed to dry, like some blogs I am subjected to. I don’t know much about this era, but I have seen the Cromwell film with Richard Harris all those years ago. As I remember, It portrayed him a hero of the common people. In some ways it seems he was, for his country, but I agree with you, he did a terrible job in Ireland, probably the Irish suffered due to their Catholicism. Anyway, I think it says quite a lot of the mindset of the people of the time, that they should be so gruesome in carry out macabre acts on dead bodies- wtf? It comes to something when you’re not even safe when you’re dead!! I can imagine Cromwell’s ghost running around looking for his head. Poor chap. Anyway, who am I to judge. Great post, Anna. Loved it!

    1. Thank you for a lovely comment, Paula! Personally, I think Olly’s spirit sort of wafted about not caring much about his mortal remains. A complex man, our Olly, and I hope to come back to him in future posts.

  3. Charles Spencer, Lady Diana’s older brother, tells the story of the regicide in his book, Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I.
    Although Charles II seemingly granted Parliament’s request for a general amnesty, he betrayed his promise and executed many that were not party to the regicide.
    One name in particular stands out, Sir Henry Vane, the Younger who served as Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from May 1636 to May 1637. His statue stands in the Boston Public Library. Vane also was leader of the Long Parliament and opposed Cromwell when he dissolved Parliament when he protested, “This is not honest; yea, it is against morality and common honesty”, to which Cromwell shouted in response, “O Sir Henry Vane, Sir Henry Vane; the Lord deliver me from Sir Henry Vane!” Thus ended the Commonwealth as Cromwell became the Lord Protector.
    Although Vane argued and voted against the Regicide, Vane was arrested on July 1, 1660 on orders of Charles II and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Parliament petitioned Charles II to grant clemency to Vane and others after the passage of the Indemnity Act and asked that Vane’s life be spared. The petition was granted. Yet, Vane remained confined to the Tower of London and income from his estates was seized. Later Vane was tried for treason and found guilty by a jury packed with royalists. On June 14, 1662, Vane was take to Tower Hill and beheaded. Samuel Pepys recorded the event in his diary as follows:
    “He made a long speech, many times interrupted by the Sheriff and others there; and they would have taken his paper out of his hand, but he would not let it go. But they caused all the books of those that writ after him to be given the Sheriff; and the trumpets were brought under the scaffold that he might not be heard. Then he prayed, and so fitted himself, and received the blow; but the scaffold was so crowded that we could not see it done….He had a blister, or issue, upon his neck, which he desired them not hurt: he changed not his colour or speech to the last, but died justifying himself and the cause he had stood for; and spoke very confidently of his being presently at the right hand of Christ; and in all things appeared the most resolved man that ever died in that manner, and showed more of heat than cowardize, but yet with all humility and gravity. One asked him why he did not pray for the King. He answered, “Nay,” says he, “you shall see I can pray for the King: I pray God bless him!”

  4. The irony is that Cromwell was probably one of the most religiously tolerant men of his age. For example, her permitted the Jews not only to return to England but to practise their religion openly. People forget that it was an age of general religious intolerance and almost everyone was, by modern standards, an utter bigot.
    As for the treatment of his body – it’s certain that none of those who were responsible would have had the bottle to face the man while he was alive.

    1. I agree re the looking him in the eyes. I am not so sure I’d define him as religiously tolerant, even if he does seem to have had an intellectual approach to religion which generally allows for more tolerance

  5. As always, a wonderfully witty and entertaining article, as well as an erudite one.
    I must confess that Cromwell is one of the historical figures I loathe. If any man deserved such ritual humiliation it was this self-righteous, murderous tyrant. Under his “Rule of the Major Generals” he turned Britain into a military dictatorship. One of the great “What-ifs” of history was what would have happens if he had indeed accepted the crown when it was offered to him by his stooges in parliament in the later 1650s. He and his family did however enjoy living in Hampton Court Palace.

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