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.