The Remarkable Adventures of Oliver Cromwell’s Head
Those of you who know me well know my predilection for Sam Pepys. On this day (30th January) in 1661 Sam wrote
“Then to my Lady Batten’s; where my wife and she are lately come back again from being abroad, and seeing of Cromwell, Ireton, and Bradshaw hanged and buried at Tyburn. Then I home”.
Now since Oliver Cromwell had died three years earlier, and been given a lavish state funeral at Westminster in November 1658, why was Sam telling us that Bess, his wife, had just seen Cromwell hanged and buried three years after his death? It’s a bit of an odd, and gruesome story.
When the monarchy was restored in 1660 with King Charles II, the surviving men who had participated in the trial and execution of Charles I were hung, drawn and quartered. The recalled parliament also ordered the posthumous execution of the three ‘deceased regicides’ Oliver Cromwell, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton.
On the morning of 30th January 1661 (the anniversary of Charles I’s execution), the three bodies were dragged on a sledge through the streets of London to Tyburn gallows, where they were hanged in full public view until around four o’clock in the afternoon. After being taken down, their heads were cut off, and stuck on 20 ft pikes raised above Westminster Hall.
“Jan. 30th was kept as a very solemn day of fasting and prayer. This morning the carcases of Cromwell, Ireton, and Bradshaw (which the day before had been brought from the Red Lion Inn, Holborn), were drawn upon a sledge to Tyburn, and then taken out of their coffins, and in their shrouds hanged by the neck, until the going down of the sun. They were then cut down, their heads taken off, and their bodies buried in a grave made under the gallows. The coffin in which was the body of Cromwell was a very rich thing, very full of gilded hinges and nails.”—Rugge’s Diurnal.
In 1685 a mighty storm broke the pole which carried Cromwell’s head, and it was retrieved by a sentry. He hid the embalmed head in his chimney for many years. On his deathbed, he left the relic to his daughter who, presumably, sold it.
In 1710 the head appeared in a Claudius Du Puy’s museum of curiosities, described as ‘The Monster’s Head’. Later it passed through various hands, being sold each time for sums which were equivalent to thousands of pounds today. It also appeared in a failed exhibition in 1799.
In 1815 a Dr. Wilkinson bought the head. It then remained in the Wilkinson family, who allowed several scientific studies to be undertaken as to its authenticity. The conclusion was that there was a “moral certainty” that it was indeed Oliver Cromwell’s head. In 1960 it was offered to Sydney Sussex College, where Oliver Cromwell had studied.
There it was buried on 25th March 1960, in a secret location near the antechapel, preserved in the oak box in which the Wilkinson family had kept the head since 1815. The box was placed into an airtight container and buried with only a few witnesses, including family and representatives of the college.
If you want to find out more, you can buy a book by Jonathon Fitzgibbons all about Cromwell’s Head. There was also a Radio 4 programme about it which I’d love to hear.