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.
If you think Brexit is making Britain more xenophobic, then you need to get a time machine and go back to Georgian London. Because two hundred years ago, a French person walking around London might not only endure abuse but come to an unfortunate end!
Eighteenth century London was a dangerous place to walk around if you were French. As England was in an almost constant state of war with France, Londoners often sought out a Frenchman in the city to pick on or worse.
If you think Brexit has made people more xenophobic about the French – eighteenth century London would be a huge shock.
There are several accounts of unpleasant abuse meted out by London folk against the French in the 1940 history book The Streets of London by Thomas Burke. He details one appalling incident where a French servant went to see a public hanging at Tyburn and nearly got executed himself!
The hanging of two criminals had just finished when three people in the crowd, realising the servant was French, began pulling at his coat-tails and powdered wig (this is the 18th century after all).
At which point the hangman was going past in the cart, in which he’d brought the condemned in to die, and began joining in the harassment by taking to the French servant with his whip.
He began to wonder if his time was up when three other Frenchmen came to his rescue. They beat the English thugs back and got him into a nearby tavern.
The narrator of this story then pointed out that should a Frenchman find himself in this predicament, he should single out one of his assailants and fight him with his fists. If he wins, the typical English crowd would then declare him a good sport and parade him around in a chair!
No matter how bad things are with Brexit – no French person to my knowledge has faced such a terrible threat today in London. But correct me if I’m wrong.
If you stand in front of St Paul’s cathedral and look to your left, towards Paternoster Square, you’ll see a stone arch with windows and well-worn statues. This is Temple Bar. Hard to believe now, but there were once human heads on poles adorning the top of it.
The structure was built in 1670 by Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect who gave us St Paul’s Cathedral and many smaller churches. He set about rebuilding London in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, a vast inferno that consumed much of the ancient city.
This terrible event had one upside. It gave Wren the opportunity to design a new and more ordered metropolis. However, poor Wren’s hopes of creating piazzas and wide streets was confounded at every turn by stubborn Londoners and their wish to keep the medieval winding thoroughfares and dark alleys.
So, why did Wren build Temple Bar?
The stone gate replaced wooden posts and chains that separated the City of London from the City of Westminster. It was originally positioned across the road in front of what’s now the Royal Courts of Justice. On one side was Fleet Street in the City and on the other was The Strand leading to Whitehall and the centre of royal government.
Everybody entering the City had to pass under the Temple Bar. It wasn’t entirely popular. For one thing, it held up traffic. The archway soon became way too narrow for the mass of carts, horses, carriage and people trying to cram through and do business.
It also had four poorly crafted statues of James I, Elizabeth I, Charles I and Charles II that were described in very unflattering terms by one Victorian writer as “mean” with “small feeble heads”. They’re not the greatest works of art it must be said.
The man who carved these mediocre works of art was called John Bushnell. By all accounts, he was somewhere between eccentric and insane. One scheme he devised was to prove that the Greeks could have invaded Troy by building his own Trojan Horse out of timber and covering it in stucco.
He spent £500 of his own money (a vast sum then) on this project creating a horse’s head that could hold a dining table to seat twelve people. The whole thing fell to pieces during a storm.
There is a room along the top portion of Temple Bar that was used as a storage room for Child’s bank. On the very top of Temple Bar, the heads of traitors once stared down on passers-by. This was meant to be an object lesson for 17th and 18th century Londoners not to rebel against their anointed kings and queens.
The first head to appear on Temple Bar was Sir Thomas Armstrong involved in the so-called Rye House Plot. Next came Sir William Perkins and Sir John Friend who planned to assassinate King William III as he returned from hunting in Richmond – intercepting his coach between Brentford and Turnham Green.
They were hanged at Tyburn despite pleading their innocence – and their heads removed for public display.
In a ghoulish twist, typical of London, there were enterprising people in 1746 who were reportedly hiring out looking glasses at Temple Bar so that passers-by could take a closer look at the severed heads. It cost a halfpenny apparently. In 1766, a man was arrested for firing musket balls at the heads – which he then confessed to having done for three nights running.
In 1772, one of the heads blew down during a storm. Incredibly, the blackened object had been on top of Temple Bar since 1723 – nearly fifty years! A chap called John Pearce took it to a local tavern where it was then buried under the floor. Must have been an amusing subject of conversation beforehand!
Between 1880 and 2003, Temple Bar sat forlornly in a park in Hertfordshire. It was bought by the Meux brewing family. The City of London sold it to them as they’d long wondered what to do about what had become an unloved traffic obstruction. However, nearly twenty years ago it was uprooted once more and brought back into town.
Temple Bar has returned to the centre of London – not blocking any traffic and not sporting any severed heads.
The death penalty applied to many crimes in the past – not just murder. And hangings took place in public up until the mid-19th century. So – where could you expect to see an execution in London?
The following are venues for hangings and other forms of execution in London:
Tyburn. If you were a commoner, then it was off to Tyburn to be hanged high in the air dancing at the end of a rope for a vast crowd. The location of the triple gallows that entertained so many Londoners was on what is now a traffic island at the intersection of Oxford Street and the Edgware Road. Oxford Street was called Tyburn Road up until the 1700s and the area was semi-rural, effectively the edge of London.
Tower Hill. If you were an aristocrat, you could avoid the shame and humiliation of dangling at Tyburn by being beheaded on Tower Hill. Your end was swift provided the executioner was good at his job – and that wasn’t always guaranteed.
Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Those conspiring against the life of the monarch might be dispatched at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Such was the fate of Anthony Babington who plotted against Elizabeth I. Her day out was ruined however by his persistent screams of agony while being hanged, drawn and quartered. He made such a racket that the Queen decided just to behead everybody else involved in the conspiracy.
Smithfield. Now being heavily redeveloped, the meat market near Farringdon tube station once rang to the shrieks of Protestants being burned for their faith by Queen Mary Tudor aka “Bloody Mary”. The Catholic Queen was out to reverse the religious reforms of her father Henry VIII using the flames to consume those who had rejected the pope’s authority.
Execution Dock. Pirates breathed their last here – in a location deemed to suit their crime. They had lived by stealing on the waters – and so they would face their end by the river with the tide submerging their bodies. Captain Kidd was hanged at this location.
Banqueting House, Whitehall. King Charles I stepped from a first floor window and on to a wooden scaffold to lose his head. When his son Charles II became king, he hunted down those who had signed his father’s death warrant and had them executed a stone’s throw away at Charing Cross. The diarist Samuel Pepys, a bit of a royalist toady by then, wrote an inappropriately merry account of one of those hanging, drawing and quarterings.
Kennington. This was south London’s main place of execution. I’ve blogged before about two unfortunately gentlemen who were hanged for the crime of being gay. It surprises me that given the large LGBT population in the area, there is no monument to this injustice.
Stratford-le-Bow. Now I knew nothing about this execution site until recently. But this is where Queen Mary Tudor burned another load of Protestants as part of her ongoing and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to turn Britain back to Catholicism. Thirteen men and women were burned in front of 20,000 people on 27 June 1556.
Shooters Hill Crossroads. Little bit further out of town towards Woolwich is where highwaymen were hanged. This was presumably to warn any wannabe Dick Turpins heading towards London that they would meet a grim fate.
St Thomas-a-Watering. Right next to the Thomas-a-Becket pub on the Old Kent Road, famous in the 20th century for playing host to gangsters and boxers, was the place of execution for a small group of Catholic friars in 1539. As with Marble Arch and Tyburn, you’re going to need to summon up those powers of imagination to picture the scene now.
How could somebody come to be executed not once – but twice? Such is the tale of one poor, unfortunate Londoner at a time of great cruelty and savagery.
Thomas Savage – appropriately named – was born in the parish of St Giles in the Fields and as a youth, became an apprentice to a certain Mr Collins, a vintner at the Ship Tavern at Ratcliff Cross. Three hundred years ago, when this story is set, Ratcliff was a hamlet by the river Thames with a strong ship building and provisioning tradition. It’s long been swallowed up by the borough of Tower Hamlets, located between Shadwell and LImehouse.
Thomas Savage at the “bawdy house” with Hannah Blay
The teenager Thomas showed what a wicked person he was by not attending church on the Sabbath. “Breaking the Sabbath” was illegal at the time – this being the late seventeenth century. But that didn’t bother Thomas too much who spent his Sunday at a “bawdy house” with Hannah Blay, “a vile common strumpet , who was the cause of his ruin” (as one account puts it).
At first, Savage turned up at the brothel with wine and he and the prostitute Hannah got merrily drunk and enjoyed themselves. But being a lady of the night, Hannah wanted money for her services. So she goaded Thomas into robbing Mr Collins. But Savage explained that Collins’ maid was always in the house. To which Hannah responded:
Hang her, a jade! Knock her brains out and I’ll receive the money and go anywhere with you beyond sea, to avoid the stroke of justice.
So the weak-willed Thomas headed back to the Collins house and avoided his master by climbing over a back wall. He then ran into the other servants having dinner including the ever-present maid. Rather unwisely, she took Savage to task for spending too much time at the bawdy house. He didn’t like this telling off and it convinced him to bash her brains out as Hannah had advised.
So one day he took a hammer and began hitting out at objects round the house to provoke her to anger. This presumably would have made it easier for him to do the foul deed. Thomas needed to psyche himself up to commit his first murder. Initially, the maid seems to have tried to ignore this bizarre behaviour but eventually she asked him to stop. He then threw the hammer and scored a direct blow on her head. Falling to the ground she screamed in pain and her assailant hesitated to deal the fatal blow. He just couldn’t quite do it.
But as she moaned and groaned, he set about her with the hammer and snuffed the maid’s life out. Breaking open a cupboard, he found a bag with sixty pounds of Collins’ money – a princely sum then – and escaped. Meeting up with Hannah, his behaviour became increasingly erratic. She asked for all of it but he only gave her half a crown and then fled. In the hours that followed, he sat by the roadside crying out loud about what he had done. Eventually, gathering his wits about him, he went down to a guest house in Greenwich.
The mistress of this guest house was very suspicious to find a seventeen year old with a bag bulging with so much money. She asked him what he was doing. Thomas lied that he was on his way to Gravesend to meet his master, a wine cooper. This story seemed a bit fishy and Thomas, now in a total panic, said she could contact his master and in fact, he’d leave the money with her until she did.
So without any of his ill-gotten gains, Savage wandered off to Woolwich. Shortly after, word of his murder filtered down from Ratcliff to Greenwich – it took much longer for news to get around in the days before mass media. The mistress of the guest house sent a group of men to go after him and he was found in a Woolwich ale house, head on the table and a pot of beer by his side. The men challenged him:
Tom – did you not live at Ratcliff?
And did you not murder your fellow servant? And you took so much money from your master? You must go along with us!
Yes, with all my heart.
In custody, Savage confessed everything. On the day he went to court, his fellow prisoners got him a bit drunk and he shopped Hannah Blay to the authorities. She was then arrested too. Thomas was sentenced to death – the punishment to be carried out at Ratcliff Cross. This was quite a common thing to do – to kill the criminal at the place where they had committed their crime. Savage’s hanging was postponed on one occasion and news was given to him as he was dressed up for the occasion.
What – have I got on my dying clothes? Dying clothes did I say? They are my living clothes, the clothes out of which I shall go into eternal glory. They are the best clothes that ever I put on!
At Ratcliff Cross, there seems to have been some sympathy among the crowd for this pathetic figure. He said a little prayer and the cart pulled away to leave him struggling at the end of the rope. A friend beat Thomas around the chest to shorten his misery. Motionless and left dangling for a while, everybody assumed Savage was dead. His friends then took him to a nearby house and laid his body on a table. Then something incredible happened. Thomas started breathing!
His throat rattled. He heaved upwards. Then his eyes and mouth opened. His teeth are described as having been “set before” – I assume that means in his death struggle, they’d been pushed out – and he couldn’t speak. Now you might think he’d have been let off but not in seventeenth century England. As word got out that Savage was alive, an embarrassed sheriff turned up and took him back to the gibbet. Poor Savage was then hanged all over again until he was properly dead.
His forlorn friends then spirited his seventeen year old body away to Islington where he was buried on the 28th October, 1668.
Mall Floyd was a wicked woman who developed an unpleasant line in criminal activity. She would steal or kidnap children, take them somewhere far from their parents or guardians and then relieve them of their clothes and valuables. They’d then be left to fend for themselves as best they could.
In 1674, Mall Floyd found a girl of about eight years of age in Shoe Street. I may be wrong but I think Shoe Street now corresponds to what’s called Shoe Lane in Farringdon. In the seventeenth century, that thoroughfare would have been just outside the ancient city walls.
The road ran parallel to the Fleet River, which is now hidden away in a sewer. It was there then that Mall Floyd chanced upon this refined girl who looked very finely dressed. Our thief figured the girl’s clothes would make a pretty penny or two.
Approaching the eight year old, she claimed to be from her mother and then carried off the child as far as St Giles. That was a pretty run down village where Centre Point stands, at the top of Tottenham Court Road. The parish church of St Giles is still there behind Centre Point. St Giles was a notorious slum that contributed a great number of villains to the hanging tree at nearby Tyburn.
So, Mall Floyd took the child to an ale house and seeing that it was about to rain, suggested that the girl should remove her expensive laces and linens as they would be spoilt. Now with her hands on the goodies, Mall Floyd took the girl to the churchyard of St Giles. Luckily for our villain, there was a burial going on with a big crowd. Without a second thought, Mall Floyd simply dumped the girl in the crowd and melted away.
Mall Floyd was lucky not to end up here
The distressed kid burst into tears and a charitable individual took pity and very gallantly escorted her back to the house of her parents.
The girl recounted everything that had happened – the women claiming to be a friend of her mothers, taking her to a pub, removing her pricey garments and then disappearing. The family were furious but what could they do? Then a remarkable thing happened.
The child’s mother was walking through Holborn when she saw her daughter’s lost clothes hanging up for sale in a shop window. She raised hell with the shopkeeper and after some investigating – there were no police in those days remember – the family found the culprit. Mall Floyd was dragged before the courts.
Incredibly, she confessed everything and was sent to Newgate prison. When she returned for sentencing, Mall Floyd might have expected to dangle from a rope for the amusement of the crowd at Tyburn. Instead, she was “transported to some of the plantations beyond the seas”. Most likely the Americas where Mall Floyd, if she survived the journey, undoubtedly breathed her last.