On a cold January 30 in 1649, a large crowd of Englishmen witnessed the reign of King Charles I come to an end with the swift blow of an executioner’s blade. The man who led the charge for his trial and beheading was Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell. Little did he know, however, that his own head would soon roll, too. And roll and roll—across the country for the next 300 years.
Cromwell, born in 1599 in Huntington, Cambridgeshire rose through the military ranks in the civil war that broke out between Charles I and the anti-king Parliamentarians in 1642. After the king was tried for high treason and subsequently executed seven years later, Cromwell defeated supporters of the king’s son, Charles II, at Dunbar in 1650 and Worcester in 1651 to finally put an end to the war. By 1653 Cromwell pronounced himself Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland and began to reorganize the national church and institute various religious tolerances. Militarily, he ended wars with Portugal and Holland and helped France defeat Spain at the Battle of the Dunes in 1658. But later that year, he succumbed to attacks by malaria and a kidney infection, which eventually proved fatal on September 3.
Cromwell’s body was embalmed and buried in Westminster Abbey. His son, Richard, succeeded him as Lord Protector, but a lack of support led him to resign in May 1659. By 1660, Charles II was invited to return from exile and the monarchy was restored.
Back on the throne, the king decided to exact a posthumous revenge on Cromwell—along with two other deceased military commanders and the President of the High Court of Justice who had sentenced his father. So on January 30, 1661, the 12th anniversary of his father’s execution, the king had the four bodies exhumed and symbolically executed. Cromwell’s body was hung for the day, where it swung with the others for all to see. At the day’s end, the head was severed and the body was thrown in a pit. His head, however, was kept, so it could be stabbed into an iron spike and presented outside Westminster Hall, where it gazed emptily upon passersby for more than twenty years—a grotesque deterrent for any anti-royalist thinking of following in Cromwell’s footsteps.
The embalmed head was finally freed from its public display by a heavy storm, which ripped the weather-worn oak post and iron spike from its position. The head, with the spike still intact, fell to the ground and was retrieved by a passing guard who scooped up the noggin and snuck it home under his cloak. There, he hid Cromwell in the chimney corner, away from inquiring government authorities. It wasn’t until he lay on his deathbed that he informed his family of the whereabouts of the former Lord Protector’s head.
His daughter inherited the remains, but sold it to the Russell family of Cambridgeshire, who gave the highest bid. It descended through the family to Samuel Russell, an unsuccessful, poor actor who liked his booze. Russell took delight in owning the oddity and exhibited Cromwell’s crown at a local market.
There was plenty to see—the embalmed head still bore many of Cromwell’s features despite the hard, dry, leathery appearance of the flesh. A small hole could be seen on his forehead where a wart had been, and his eyebrows met in the middle. Within his mouth, several teeth remained, along with parts of the gums and membrane of the tongue. In back, the mark of the ax was distinguished near the vertebrae. Hair still clung to the face and head, with the beard stained the color of the embalming fluid. Strands of hair, however, began disappearing during Russell’s exhibitions. The amateur impresario was often inebriated and friends had pilfered pieces for their own personal collections. Topping it all off, literally, was the iron spearhead prominently jutting through the cap of the skull. Truly a sight worth a small price of admission.
One of Russell’s patrons was a museum of curiosities owner named James Cox, who took great interest in the relic and wished to display it in his collection. Russell resisted numerous purchase attempts from Cox, but his need to pay off debts led him to eventually make the sale for 118 pounds in 1787 (roughly equivalent to more than 13,000 pounds today).
Cromwell now enjoyed a brief stint as a museum star until Cox had to shut its doors. In 1799, he sold the head to three interested brothers, named Hughes, for 230 pounds. They attempted to capitalize with a heavily advertised exhibition, but were met with skepticism about the head’s authenticity and found few takers for the overly priced admission of two shillings and sixpence. The brothers, however, all met their own demise within the next 15 years and the head rolled into the possession of their daughters. The young girls didn’t know what to do with the old rotting remnant, so in 1814 they sold it to an acquaintance, Josiah Henry Wilkinson. Wilkinson kept the head wrapped in silk within a black box, but frequently opened it to share with locals and various distinguished men of the time seeking a visit.
One of these visitors was renowned British sculptor John Flaxman (1755-1826), who was well informed about the appearance of Cromwell and expressed doubt that Wilkinson possessed the real thing. So the showman asked him to first give a description—they would then see if Flaxman’s words matched what he would soon see. “He had a low, broad forehead, large orbits to the eyes, a high septum to the nose, and high cheekbones,” Flaxman said. “But there is one feature which will be with me a crucial test, and that is, that, instead of having the lower jawbone somewhat curved, it was particularly short and straight, but set out at an angle, which gave him a jowlish appearance.” Upon taking view of the head, Flaxman was persuaded it was genuine. The visual matched perfectly.
The head passed through several generations of the Wilkinson family before finally being left to Sidney Sussex College—Cromwell’s alma mater—where it continued to live on. It was eventually given a number of forensic tests that proved its authenticity. There, the head was finally buried once again in 1960, hundreds of years after its original resting place at Westminster Abbey.
© Marc Hartzman