The Strange Fate of Oliver Cromwell’s Head

We all know someone who just can’t leave things alone. No matter how little the slight and regardless of how much time has passed, they have an irresistible compulsion to have the last word.

People like that can lose their heads over their need for oneupmanship. They may even go to the extreme of causing others to lose their heads.

Consider, for example, King Charles II and the curious case of Oliver Cromwell’s head.

Oliver Cromwell presided over the English Commonwealth as Lord Protector from 1653 to 1658. This was a period after the English Civil War during which England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland banded together as a commonwealth, abandoning its monarchial system of government.

The preceding king, Charles I, lost his crown and his head when he was deposed in 1649. For nearly four years, the former kingdom attempted to operate as a republic. The transition to the Commonwealth and the elevation of Cromwell as its Lord Protector saw many of the elements of the monarch restored under different names.

Cromwell died in 1658, and his son Richard succeeded him as Lord Protector. Richard didn’t have the force of personality or will of his father. He also lacked the senior Cromwell’s popularity. Richard’s tenure lasted less than nine months. One year later, the monarchy was restored, and the prior king’s son, Charles II, ascended to the throne.

The new king wanted to bring stability to his kingdom and was magnanimous in many ways. He granted a blanket pardon to most of those who participated in the revolution. The top conspirators, however, would have to face justice. The king oversaw the trials and executions of a dozen co-conspirators who were still living.

Saying that those men were executed is a bit of an understatement. The punishment for treason and regicide was hanging, drawing, and quartering. Each man was stripped naked, tied to a wooden panel, and dragged through the streets to the place of execution. There, they would be hanged by the neck but not allowed to die. Before that could happen, the prisoner was pulled down, tied to a table, and forced to watch as his belly was sliced open and his intestines were pulled out. Then, as if that were not enough, the condemned man was kept conscious long enough to endure the experience of having his genitals cut off. Only then did he experience the merciful touch of Death’s mysterious hand when the executioner severed his head with a sword.

Although the prisoner’s life was over, the punishment was not. The limbs of the headless body would be tied to four different horses. The body was ripped apart as the horse ran in different directions. The bits and pieces of the executed prisoner were then unceremoniously dumped into a rubbage pit.

Oliver Cromwell’s head, as displayed over Westminster Hall, after decapitation

Thus, twelve of the co-conspirators met their fate. Three of the top leaders of the rebellion threatened to elude the king’s wrath through what seemed to be a pretty ingenious loophole: they were dead. If you are king, however, nothing as trivial as the grave can stand in the way of revenge.

January 30, 1661, was the anniversary of the execution of Charles I. In honor of the occasion, the king had the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, John Bradshaw, and Henry Ireton exhumed so they could be posthumously executed. No, that’s not a typographical error. He actually had the corpses dug up so he could carry out capital punishment on someone already dead.

The open coffins of the three corpses were dragged through London’s streets to the gallows. In full view of the wide-eyed public, each of the bodies was hanged on the gallows until 4:00 in the afternoon.

The public hanging of an already-deceased adversary wasn’t enough for the king. After the executioners pulled Cromwell’s body from the gallows, Charles II ordered his beheading. The executioner swung his axe eight times before Cromwell’s head was liberated from its body.

The head was placed on a 20-foot (6.1-meter) pole and put on display over Westminster Hall. That, not coincidentally, was the place where Charles I had stood trial.

Advertisement for the Hughes brothers’ exhibition of Cromwell’s head, 1799.

The fate of Cromwell’s body remains a mystery. It appears that the body was thrown into a pit at Tyburn. Some say that his daughter, Mary, recovered the body from the pit and had it interred at her home at Newburgh Priory. A sealed stone vault was purported to house his headless mortal remains. All requests to examine the vault have been refused.

As for Cromwell’s head, we have more certainty. For at least the next twenty years, the ghastly sight of the former Lord Protector’s head greeted visitors to Westminster Hall with the cheery reminder of what happens to those who participate in regicide. Construction workers briefly removed it in 1681 during roof maintenance, but it went right back up when they were done.

Charles II died in 1685, succeeded by his son James II. At about the same time, Cromwell’s head disappeared from its perch. Tradition says that it was blown down by a storm and claimed by a sentry who kept it in the chimney of his home. For the next 25 years, the location of the head remained a closely-guarded secret.

Things changed in 1710 when the head fell into the hands of curiosity collector Claudius Du Puy. He put the head on display. This time, instead of it being on a spike over Westminster Hall, it was on a shelf in Du Poy’s London museum. It became one of the biggest tourist attractions of the day until the museum closed after Du Puy’s death in 1738.

The next time the head showed up, it was in the hands of Samuel Russell. Russell was a distant relative of Cromwell. He tried and failed to make his fortune as an entertainer. He was an unqualified success at being a drunken lout. During many of his alcohol-fueled parties, Russell delighted guests by bringing out Cromwell’s head. Partiers tossed it back and forth in a morbid game of hot potato. It was during Russell’s custody of the head that it suffered its worst damage.

Oliver Cromwell’s head, while in the possession of the Wilkinson family, in the 20th century

When Russell drank his way through all of his money, he tried to sell the head to Cromwell’s alma mater, Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. The college passed on the opportunity to buy a damaged, grotesque, head of the former Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. James Cox, a goldsmith, and toymaker, on the other hand, was interested. He paid £100, the 2023 equivalent of £33,611 (USD $18,199) for the item.

In 1799, Cox sold the head for £230, the 2023 equivalent of £33,611 (USD $41,856) to the three Hughes brothers to use as an exhibit at their curiosity exhibition. They printed and distributed thousands of flyers throughout London, urging curiosity seekers to come to the exhibition. Despite the publicity, the venture was a dismal failure, and the brothers lost their shirts. They kept the head, however.

Marker at Sidney Sussex College, near the head’s burial site

In 1815, the daughter of one of the Hughes brothers sold the head for an undisclosed amount to Josiah Henry Wilkinson. He started the tradition of keeping the head as a family heirloom. For the next 150 years, the Wilkinson family handed it down from generation to generation. It was during this time that the family had the head studied by several science and history experts to verify the artifact’s authenticity. A 109-page report in 1934 concluded that there was a “moral certainty” that the head was, in fact, that of Oliver Cromwell.

In 1957, the head passed to Horace Wilkinson. At last, it was in the hands of someone who believed Cromwell’s head should rest in peace. On March 25, 1960, in a private ceremony in a secret location at Sidney Sussex College, the head was buried. A marker discloses the general area of the burial but leaves the specific location unidentified. Three hundred years after his death, the Lord Protector’s head found peace.

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