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The unlikely escapades of Oliver Cromwell's head

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On 28 January 1661, Oliver Cromwell went to the pub. Which was quite an unexpected event for two main reasons. First, Britain’s puritanical Lord Protector was a notorious party pooper who disliked alehouses and fun. Second, he was dead. He had, in fact, expired back in 1658, after suffering what was described at the time as a 'bastard tertian ague', which sounds like an illness exclusive to Vikings, dragon-slayers and Lord Protectors. Yet, despite being long in his grave, Cromwell put in an appearance at the Red Lion Inn in London, having been recently exhumed under the orders of Charles II.

It was a brief stop-over en route to the gallows in the village of Tyburn, where Cromwell’s corpse was subjected to a ritual hanging, as punishment for his part in the execution of the current king’s dad, Charles I. But the story of Cromwell’s post-mortem adventure doesn’t end here. While his body was cast into a pit, his embalmed head was kept and put on public display as a major London tourist attraction.

And then, after that… well, before we get into the unlikely escapades of Cromwell’s head, some backstory is required here. 

When Cromwell had died in 1658, it had put the nation in a nerve-janglingly precarious position. Despite helping to overthrow the monarchy and making a big show of refusing to become king himself (he proclaimed to Parliament that he was 'not to be convinced of the necessity of that thing that hath been so often insisted upon by you, to wit, the title of king'), Cromwell basically HAD become a king in all but name. Just look at his gaudy funeral, which featured an effigy of Cromwell decked out in velvet and gold, a carriage with six feather-plumed horses, and a public procession so slow and grand and regal, it took seven hours to travel just over a mile. 

The title of Lord Protector was also passed to his son, Richard Cromwell, in a manner not at all precisely like a royal succession. The problem was, this impromptu faux-monarchy didn’t have the deep foundations of history behind it, and Richard wasn’t quite the man his father was (Oliver’s nickname was Old Ironsides; Richard’s nickname was Tumbledown Dick, which about sums it up). The resulting power vacuum plunged the country into crisis, and pretty soon the brave new republic was asking the exiled Charles II if he wouldn’t mind, you know, coming back to sort the whole mess out. No hard feelings.

Sometime in the late 1680s a gust of wind brought the head crashing to the ground, where a guard nabbed it and whipped it under his coat

Except there were hard feelings, lots of them, towards the men who had ordered his dad Charles I’s death. As Cromwell was already dead, the best the vengeful Royalists could do was exhume him, 'execute' him in public, and then put his head on a stick over Westminster Hall. And not just for a token few days or weeks. Oh, no. That head would stay up there like some ghoulish gargoyle for decades.

As the story goes, sometime in the late 1680s a gust of wind brought the head crashing to the ground, where a guard nabbed it and whipped it under his coat. According to myth, the guard hid the head in his chimney, but what happened afterwards? Here, there’s a gap in the narrative, but in the early 18th Century it turned up in the possession of Claudius Du Puy, a French-Swiss curiosity collector who was described by a writer of the day, Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, as an 'extremely strange creature'. As von Uffenbach tells us, the little London museum owned by Du Puy’s little museum in London showcased a religious idol 'with an ass’s head', a 'snake skin sixteen feet long', and 'the head of Oliver Cromwell (M. Du Puy was confident he could get sixty guineas for it)'.

A poster advertising an exhibition of Oliver Cromwell's head

By the late 18th Century, the head somehow wound up in the possession of a certain Simon Russell, later described in one account as 'an indifferent comic actor, of dissolute habits and very needy', who didn’t take very good care of the head (and was reportedly fond of getting it out and passing it around at parties). Cromwell’s long-suffering noggin was then purchased by a goldsmith called James Cox, who in turn sold it to three brothers who thought they had a real money-spinner on their hands. 

Unfortunately, the three brothers vastly overestimated the commercial appeal of a long-dead Puritan’s desiccated skull, and a much-hyped exhibition in London’s Bond Street proved a massive flop. Also, according to an account given at a meeting of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, 'it is rather remarkable that each of these three gentlemen met with a sudden death', which begs the question: is there a Tutankhamun-like curse around Cromwell’s head? (Probably not.)

The head was eventually sold to a surgeon called Josiah Henry Wilkinson, who put it on display for guests to enjoy. One perturbed visitor to the Wilkinson home described its mummy-like 'parchment yellow skin' and a 'beard in glorious preservation'. While some doubted its authenticity (the renowned Victorian essayist Thomas Carlyle dubbed it 'fraudulent moonshine'), it was pointed out that the fact it was first embalmed and then impaled on a spike pointed to it being the real deal, because these 'extremes of honour and disgrace' did indeed tally with the facts of Cromwell’s death. Some experts also compared the skull to Cromwell’s death mask, noting the similarity of features.

The head remained in the Wilkinson family until well into the 20th Century. In 1960, it was finally buried again, at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, where Cromwell had once been a student so many centuries before. The burial was a closely guarded secret, both in terms of its timing (the public wasn’t notified until a few years later) and its exact location (all we know is it’s somewhere on the college grounds).

And thus ends the strange story of how Oliver Cromwell, taker of a king’s head, wound up losing his own, in even more elaborate fashion.