The missing head of Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell overthrew the monarchy in England and brought about – in effect – a republic. That was more than a hundred years before France and the new United States did the same. But, after his death, the mighty Cromwell’s head mysteriously went missing.

After a bloody civil war, Cromwell imprisoned King Charles I and then had him executed by beheading in Whitehall. But maybe the king got to have the last laugh. Because whereas King Charles was reunited with his head in his grave, Cromwell’s head was to go missing for hundreds of years.

In 1911, The Reverend H R Wilkinson gave an address to the Royal Archaeological Institute and exhibited what he claimed was the head of Oliver Cromwell. How had it become detached?

After ruling England in the absence of a king and calling himself the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, Cromwell died aged 59 in 1658. He was buried with due pomp in Westminster Abbey – much as a king might have been interred.

However, a year later, the brave experiment in republicanism collapsed and King Charles II – son of the beheaded king – took the throne. He immediately had Oliver Cromwell exhumed and hanged in chains at Tyburn. This was the gallows in London where common people dangled from a rope.

His head was then struck from his body and put on a pole. According to some accounts, his body was dumped in a hole under the gallows at Tyburn. But others say that friends of Cromwell took his abused carcass away and buried it in Red Lion Square, Holborn. Without the skull.

His impaled head was displayed at Westminster Hall right outside the Houses of Parliament. Unbelievable though it may seem, it remained there until 1703 when the mouldy head blew down during a big storm.

A sentry guarding parliament picked it up and took it to his home. Apparently he never confessed to having done this until he was on his death bed. Then his family sold the grisly object to a family called Russell although the portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds attempted to make a rival bid.

The head of Oliver Cromwell then ended up around 1787 with an antiquarian dealer called James Cox who put it in the window of his Bond Street art gallery in 1799!

Cox even placed an advert in the Morning Chronicle on 18 March that year stating:

The Real Embalmed Head of the powerful and renowned Usurper Oliver Cromwell with the Original Dies for the Medals struck in honour of his Victory at Dunbar etc are now exhibited at No. 5 in Mead Court, Old Bond Street…”

Morning Chronicle – 18 March 1799

In 1812, the Cromwell head came into the ownership of the Wilkinson family and a hundred years later the Reverend Wilkinson was making his speech. If that really was the head of Oliver Cromwell, it was then buried under the floor of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, in 1960.

Galvanism – Frankenstein science and the dead!

The Georgians and Victorians did love the shock of the new. And science provided plenty of thrills and spills. For example, the use of Galvinism to bring the dead back to life. Or so it seemed! What we might call Frankenstein science.

Galvinism turns a dead criminal into a real life Frankenstein!

At the start of the 19th century, a criminal hanged in London was seemingly brought back to life through an early use of electricity to re-animate the dead – something called Galvanism! It was this primitive use of electricity that inspired Mary Shelley to write the novel Frankenstein.

If you go to the Old Bailey in London today, you’ll just see the Central Criminal Court and nothing much else. But in the late eighteenth century, you would have encountered Newgate prison next to the Court of Justice and close by, the Surgeon’s Hall.

This was pretty much the journey that those condemned to death took on a single day: prison cell, hangman’s rope and then dissected on the surgeon’s table.

While on the surgeon’s table – the dead criminal might be exposed to the new technological trick of Galvanism – a Frankenstein technology that involved using electricity to bring corpses back to life!

Galvinism turns dead murderers into entertainment

The bodies of murderers, once executed, were subject to a display of anatomy in front of an audience of students and other interested individuals – who may have paid to get access.

It seems incredible, but operations on the living and the dead were a spectator sport in London two hundred years ago. Although those present would have claimed they were there to be educated and informed!

A man called Foster was executed for killing his wife. Following the usual routine for the accused, he was brought from the typhus-infested Newgate prison out to the Court of Justice and condemned to death.

The sentence, up until the 1860s, was carried out in front of the court house on a platform for crowds to watch. He was then cut down and his body taken over to the Surgeon’s Hall.

Mr and Mrs Galvini – pioneers of Galvinism!

It was then subjected to what was described as the “Galvanic Process” – invented by Luigi Galvani (pictured below) and his wife, Lucia Galvani. They found that frogs’ legs could be made to twitch using an electrical current long after the animals had died. In London, they decided to see if this would work with dead humans. And yes – we are talking about the period when the author Mary Shelley wrote her novel Frankenstein.

The thrill for the spectators in the anatomy theatre was to see a dead murderer brought back to life using Galvanism – a brand new science. What would the killer do? Would he lunge at the audience? Would he speak? Could he be made to do their bidding?

Truly – Frankenstein stuff!

A nephew of the Galvani duo was present as the doctors began applying electricity to the dead man’s face and jaw – at which point, one of his eyes opened! According to a contemporary account, “the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted”. Then the right hand rose up, clenched. Following that, his thighs and legs began to move.

Tony McMahon investigates how criminals were brought back to life using Galvanism in 19th century London

The contemporary account goes on to say that the object of the exercise was to show “the excitability of the human frame when animal electricity is duly applied”. It was hoped that this Galvanism could be used for victims of drowning, suffocation or even stokes (“apoplexy” as it was called) “thereby rekindling the expiring spark of vitality”.

Unfortunately, the account then claims that the right arm of the deceased rose with such force that it actually struck one of the employees of the Surgeon’s Hall “who died that very afternoon of the shock” (most likely a heart attack).

So instead of Galvanism presenting hope to those feared drowned – it became more associated with a the sort of Frankenstein horror that of course Shelley would immortalise.

Bear baiter tragically eaten by one of his bears

If you’re going to run a bear-baiting arena – it’s best not to get eaten by one of your bears.

In 1709, that was the fate of Christopher Preston who ran the Bear Garden at Hockley-in-the-Hole, a very dodgy part of the Clerkenwell district of London. It roughly corresponds to where Ray Street is today and there’s a little warren of streets in the vicinity that still has a slightly old world feel. But back to Mr Preston and his hungry friend.

Bears had a rough time in Clerkenwell circa 1700

Bears had a rough time in Clerkenwell circa 1700

Apparently the bear had got loose from its cage and Preston was “almost devoured” before his mates noticed. The Reverend Dr Pead apparently preached a very touching sermon afterwards at the church of St James’s in Clerkenwell. Though it’s hard to imagine what he could have said. No doubt a pithy parable summed up the tragedy.

On Mondays and Thursdays, bulls and bears were paraded through the streets to drum up business for the baiting. In 1700, the Daily Post ran its first recorded advertisement for the proceedings. It also included references to bare knuckle fighting and the kind of wrestling that left men blinded or maimed. Not everybody was enthralled. Local Christian folk distributed leaflets and petitioned the courts to close the whole thing down. This is the sort of notice that distressed them so:

At the Bear Garden, Hockley-in-the-Hole, 1710 – This is to give notice to all gentlemen gamesters, and others, that on this present Monday is a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate Market against one from Hony Lane Market, at a bull, for a guinea, to be spent. Five let-goes out of hand; which goes fairest and farthest in wins all. Likewise a green bull to be baited, which was never baited before, and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him; and also a mad ass to be baited. With a variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. To begin exactly at three o’clock.

And Hockley thrived in these years with bulls and bears meeting a bloody fate and swordsmen duelling for the amusement of socially very mixed crowds – from fancy fops to thieves and cut-purses. They’d all eat furmenty and hasty pudding while enjoying the bestial carnage. The old dwelling house that adjoined the Bear Garden was a pub called the Coach and Horses that is still there today.

(Source: Old and New London – 19th century publication)

Ever wondered what Londoners died of in the year 1791?

One book in my collection of antiquarian guides to London dates from 1791 – and in the appendices details what Londoners in that year died of.  If any of you are medics, I need your help working out what some of these illnesses are.

I’m aware that “lethargy” meant a stroke for example. But what about “rising of the lights” as a cause of death. Sounds very dramatic – if it’s painless, I’d like to go that way please.

So – what did Georgian Londoners die of in 1791?  By far the biggest cause is “Consumption” – which could mean tuberculosis but also other chest related diseases. Not surprising given that TB was incurable.

Also, the air was thick with poisonous fumes from domestic chimneys and factories located right in the heart of the city, giving rise to other pulmonary diseases. “Convulsions” account for 4,485 deaths and various fevers swept away 2,769 Londoners including Malignant Fever, Scarlet Fever, Spotted Fever and “Purples”.

Gout was like a devil gnawing at your foot - James Gillray cartoon

Gout was like a devil gnawing at your foot – James Gillray cartoon

Gout only accounted for 58 people – but it was a very common problem at the time. Large scale port wine drinking didn’t help matters. Gentlemen of distinction could be seen hobbling in agony round the city and would have to prop their legs up on an Ottomon to get the acid flowing out of their feet. Leaving their club or the coffee house, they’d need a sedan chair to take their pained bodies back home.

One of you doctors can describe Headmouldshot, Horseshoehead and Water in the Head that struck 44 individuals. Measles was still a killer – as was flu – but how on earth did eleven people succumb to “Evil”!!?  “Surfeit” I assume means eating way too much and keeling over. And “ague” is malaria in modern parlance – a condition which prevailed with undrained marshes, especially to the east of London and in Essex.

Infant mortality was horrendous in the 18th century.  The biggest number of deaths in 1791 were under two years of age by a big margin – 6,138. The next largest figure is 2,086 between 40 and 50 years of age. Contrary to what you might assume, plenty of people made it into their fifties and sixties and 460 people died that year between 80 and 90 years of age. Seven were a hundred years old while one was reputedly 113 years old.

There were 35 executions in Middlesex and Surrey, which covered much of what is now called London. In 1791, pirates were still being put to death at Wapping. The gallows were deliberately placed at the low-water mark to be viewed by incoming boats. However, the guidebook says the habit of leaving the body to be washed over by three river tides had been discontinued.

The Knights Templar, a feudal lord and the Nazis

What could possibly link the Knights Templar, a particularly controversial medieval aristocrat and the Nazis? Well, more than you might think!

First let’s start with the medieval aristocrat. Geoffrey de Mandeville was a serial rebel and of a violent disposition. Well suited to his times you might think as the early 12th century in England was referred to as the Great Anarchy.

This was following the death of King Henry I in 1135 after eating a “surfeit of lampreys”. His daughter Matilda expected to take the crown but medieval lords weren’t up for giving power to a woman. Her cousin Stephen knew this and declared himself king.

DISCOVER: The gory history of Temple Bar

That led to a vicious civil war between Matilda and Stephen where each gained the upper hand at different times. Geoffrey nimbly swapped sides repeatedly but managed to annoy both Matilda and Stephen in the process.

Eventually, a victorious Stephen ordered the arrest of Geoffrey, who was the first Earl of Essex, and the seizure of his castles. Geoffrey responded by becoming a bandit and holing up in the marshes of East Anglia.

Eventually, the king’s forces surrounded the troublesome earl and he was shot through with arrows. A traitor to his king and rejected by the church for raiding Ramsey Abbey – Geoffrey’s body couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground.

In fact, nobody knew what to do with his remains. Until the Knights Templar stepped in. They took his carcass to their London headquarters – the Temple church still standing – in a lead coffin and hung it from the branches of an apple tree. That way it was in their protection without being placed in the ground.

At some point, a burial was made possible and his son arranged for an effigy of his father to be placed in the Templar church. It can still be seen today. But it’s taken a bit of a bashing.

Up until the 10th March, 1941, the effigy was in almost pristine condition. But this was the Second World War and the Blitz meant Nazi bombs were raining down on the city. One exploded in the circular church bringing the roof crashing down on top of the effigy. As you can see – he took quite a pounding.

Even in death – Geoffrey had a rough time.

Dryden funeral disrupted by thugs

A funeral is a respectful affair. Unless you’re living in eighteenth century London – in which case anything could happen. And with the poet John Dryden – deceased – it most certainly did. The funeral of England’s first Poet Laureate became a complete farce.

John Dryden was one of England’s greatest poets and he lived at 43 Gerrard Street with his beloved wife Lady Elizabeth Howard. In the year 1700, he passed away. A sad cultural loss to the nation.

Maybe it was a relief to him as he had such appalling gout that he was in constant pain and his servants had to carry him round everywhere. Dryden was determined not to have his leg cut off – death would be preferable he said. When a black spot was found on the offending leg, he announced that “mortification had commenced”.

Dryden dies and his funeral commences

On the 1st May, with both legs still attached, Dryden passed away. Eighteen mourning coaches were assembled to take the great man’s carcass to Westminster Abbey.

But as his tearful widow came down with the coffin, she was confronted by a gang of very drunk, aristocratic young men.

They were led by the son of the notorious seventeenth century hanger and flogger – Judge Jeffreys. “The Hanging Judge” had presided over the so-called Bloody Assizes and seemed to take a great deal of pleasure consigning those before his courts to the hangman’s rope. His son seemed to have inherited Dad’s volatile and vicious traits – as poor Lady Howard was about to find out.

Aristocratic yobs hijack the funeral of Dryden

Jeffreys junior was leading a gang of what were referred to in the eighteenth century as “mohocks”. These were wild youths with few morals who delighted in sadistic attacks on innocent folk. The very drunk Jeffreys loomed over Lady Elizabeth in her bedroom, where he and his mates had now rushed in, and told the terrified woman that her late husband deserved a better funeral, which he would personally arrange.

In fact, he would spend £1,000 (a vast sum) erecting a monument in Westminster Abbey. Despite her protests, Jeffreys rushed into the street and said she’d agreed. He then whisked Dryden’s body off to an undertaker in Cheapside.

Meanwhile in Westminster Abbey, the bishop and others were waiting to perform the poet’s funeral service. They would be waiting for a long time. Because as Jeffreys sobered up, he lost interest in this project and the body was left lying around for about three weeks. When asked what to do with Dryden’s decaying corpse, Jeffreys just denied having anything to do with it.

Eventually, it was popped into the ground. So furious was Dryden’s son Charles that he repeatedly tried to challenge Jeffreys to a duel but the king of the mohocks studiously avoided him for the next three years – until Charles obligingly drowned in the river Thames.

The scene of the Dryden funeral fiasco is now Chinatown

Gerrard Street is now at the centre of London’s Chinatown. But use your eyes – those buildings with neon Chinese restaurant signs are often Georgian. Some of them still have inscriptions giving the date of their construction in the eighteenth century.

You have to imagine Lisle Street, Rupert Street and Gerrard Street as well-to-do residential quarters. And see if you can picture in your mind the strange scene that unfolded there in 1700.

Teenage Londoner whose dress caught on fire!

This is the sad tale of a young lady whose rather large dress caught on fire. It’s an instructive story about the perils of high fashion. It’s also a warning not to stand next to an open fire when you’re wearing highly combustible fabric.

This account of the death of an 18th century socialite comes from a contemporary book in my large collection of antique volumes, magazines and documents. I am a terrible hoarder of ancient stuff. I scour book fairs and antique markets – plus ebay of course – for new additions to my old library. And then flick through the pages looking for stories that would otherwise be forgotten forever.

And so – let’s go back and discover our teenager from two hundred years ago who caught fire.

Isabella Courtenay lived in Grosvenor Square. She was “most elegantly accomplished” according to a report in 1783, the year of her untimely death. Just eighteen years old, this privileged young lady had everything to live for.

But in March of that year, she was warming herself before a fireplace when a spark flew from the grate setting her clothes on fire. This was in the days of big dresses, petticoats and suffocating corsets.

Still, you might have reckoned that somebody would be able to put out the flames that were now engulfing her. In the same room were Isabella’s sister, Lady Honywood, and child.

But the latter was unable to offer any assistance, for reasons not specified, while her ladyship fell into a fit. Poor Isabella ran screaming from room to room without meeting anybody who could help.  In no time at all, she was quite the fireball!  

As a contemporary chronicle explains:

It is generally thought her immediate death, however, was owing to the fright

The same chronicle then advises that should you, as a lady wearing big dresses, catch fire – then the best thing to do is NOT run about. In fact, you should fall down and roll yourself up in a carpet or bed quilt.

Here is the contemporary account below from 1783…

The story in a 1783 annual register