What Happened to Oliver Cromwell’s Head?

File:Oliver Cromwell's head, late 1700s.jpg

Sketch of Oliver Cromwell’s Head from the late 18th century

On September 3rd 1658 a stately funeral was held at Westminster Abbey, the burial place of the Kings of England. However, this funeral was not for a king, it was for a regicide, the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Following the end of the Civil War and the execution of Charles I, Cromwell had been made ruler of the newly formed English Commonwealth. His reign has been characterised in many ways by many different people: a regicidal tyrant to historian David Hume, a military dictator to Winston Churchill, a hero of liberty to historian and writer Thomas Carlyle, and a genocidal maniac by the Irish.

File:Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper.jpg

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper

On his death Cromwell’s son, Richard Cromwell, was made Lord Protector but his rule was so ineffectual (it was mockingly called The Reign of Queen Dick) that he was deposed in a coup less than a year later, in May 1659. With Richard’s deposition the monarchy was restored and Charles I’s son was invited back and crowned Charles II. One of the first acts of the new monarchy was to round up all those involved in the execution of Charles I. This included the corpse of Oliver Cromwell which was disinterred from Westminster Abbey and put on trial in Westminster Hall. His corpse, being unable to issue a defence, was found guilty of regicide and hanged at Tyburn. Afterwards Cromwell’s body was cut down and beheaded, his head was set on a spike outside Parliament. There the head remained throughout the entirety of Charles II’s reign.

In 1685, in an England ruled by her last Catholic monarch, James II (Charles II’s brother), a terrible gale broke the spike and sent the head tumbling into Parliament square. It came to rest outside the Exchequer’s Office. An unnamed sentinel outside the office came upon the head, and thinking to make some money from it, hid under his coat and took it home. However, he soon got cold feet when he saw placards ordering anyone who came across it to return it to a “certain office”. This vague reference was apparently enough to put the fear of God into the sentinel who not only kept the head but hid it up his chimney, not even telling his wife and daughter about it. On his deathbed he finally plucked up courage and relayed his secret to his family about the Lord Protector’s head being up the chimney.

The sentinel’s family sold the head to a Swiss-French collector of curiosities, Claudius De Puy. De Puy’s museum of curiosities was apparently one of the most visited museums in London at the time. Among the visitors who came to see the head was the German traveller Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach. Being underwhelmed by the head Uffenbach was surprised to hear De Puy boast that he could sell the head for as much as 60 guineas (£5000 in today’s money). Uffenbach would exclaim in one of his travelogues his surprise that “this monstrous head could still be so dear and worthy to the English”. De Puy died in 1738, by which time the head had undergone a curious transformation from an object intended to project power and induce fear, into a mere grotesque item regarded as an object of cheap amusement.

Following De Puy’s death the head was sold to the Russell family (relations of the Cromwells) who were identified as easy targets. However, the Russell family was in terminal decline and by the end of the 18th century it was in the hands of a failed comic and alcoholic, Samuel Russell. During drunken gatherings at his house the head was reportedly tossed around and “treated incorrectly”, leading to the loss of one of the ears and general wear and tear. However, when Russell was approached by a museum owner, James Cox, who offered him £100 pounds (£5,600 today), despite being deeply in debt Russell refused to sell (he maintained a deep attachment to the head due to the family connection). Cox adopted a different approach of gradually loaning Russell sums of money which eventually totalled just over £100. Russell soon defaulted on his debt and had to give up the head.

However, by the time Cox acquired the head he had moved from the museum business to the jewellery business and therefore he had no means to display it. By 1799, having no use for the head, Cox sold it for £230 (£7,400) to three brothers named Hughes. The brothers were hoping to set up a museum of Cromwell related items. A large advertising campaign was undertaken to encourage visitors. However, by now the head’s authenticity was being called into question as Cox had made himself unavailable to give a provenance for the head. The show was a complete flop, however, the Hughes family continued showing the head to any who were interested in seeing it. By 1815 it was sold for the last time to Josiah Henry Wilkinson in whose family it would remain.

Oliver Cromwell's Head

Oliver Cromwell’s Head

Whilst in the possession of the Wilkinson family the head was subject to many studies which concluded that it was indeed the head of the the infamous Lord Protector. On the 25th of March 1960 the head was finally interred again by Horace Wilkinson in a secret location near the antechapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Cromwell had been the Member of Parliament for Cambridge before he became Lord Protector). The burial was not announced until October two years later. Thus Oliver Cromwell’s head was finally laid to rest after a turbulent journey lasting 301 years.


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