Browsing old Letters to the Times today, I came upon the dour business of Oliver Cromwell’s head.
I had always assumed that the Lord Protector’s overly solemn cranium remained united with the rest of his frame; but that is because I had not read the history books nearly carefully enough.
Extraordinary, really, the whole business of what happened after Cromwell had lost sentience for the last time. He had shuffled off this mortal coil. As far as he was concerned, he died peacefully a great man, buried with pomp in Westminster Abbey on September 3rd 1658, his respectable place secured for posterity and eternity alike.
The logical among us will hold that, while Lord Cromwell would not have chosen to be exhumed, dismembered and exhibited to the great unwashed of London, he never knew about it.
What a breathtaking act of audacious spite, then, to dig him up; and not only that, but to hang what was left of him, and take his head and stick it on a pole high above Westminster Hall.
Audacious, yes; but not necessarily unusual in those times. What remains truly unusual is the chapter of accidents which may – or may not – have befallen his befallen head in the 350 years since it took up its post atop of Westminster Hall as a new and titillating source of entertainment for the gawping gaggle below.
You put something up on a pole like that, it’s going to hang tenaciously up there for a good long while.
Down below the conspiracy theories were seething and bubbling like a witches brew. Cromwell had swapped around many a king’s remains during his lifetime, Samuel Pepys relayed from local tittle-tattle and hearsay. What if it wasn’t Cromwell at all, but a king? It could be King Charles I’s head up there, the wildly fanciful public speculated. What if the family had taken Cromwell’s body to be buried at Naseby? What then?
The head glared down in all weathers, taciturn, remonstrative. It was not for moving, but a storm broke the pole after a brief spell of two decades or so. And myth takes over as tales tell of a soldier who found it and squirrelled it away.
By 1710 it was the prize exhibit in a London museum of curiosities owned by the Swiss-French collector Claudius Du Puy, where travel writer Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach viewed it, allbeit distastefully. And for a while, after De Puy’s demise, the head went to ground.
By the end of the 1700s, museum owner James Cox was convinced he had found it once more.
It belonged, he was sure, to an inebriate actor names Samuel Russell, and whilst Russell would not sell it, Cox contrived to make the actor indebted to him to the tune of £100 so that he had no recourse but to give it up.
The head’s fate was to be sold on, in a chain of curiosity museums and private owners.
Until 1911, and the letter I read to the Times. Archaeologists had just pronounced the head a convincing possibility, and Mr C.R. Haines wrote: “Is it not high time that some steps should be taken to put an end to the national scandal of keeping this ghastly relic as a curio?
“….I am sure,” he went on, “the present owner, the Rev H.R. Wilkinson, would be horrified if the skull of an eminent parishioner were exhumed and kept as a curio in a box.”
The vicar of Stoke- by-Nayland, Colchester, who had inherited the head, later bequeathed it to Cromwell’s old college, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. And on March 25, 1960, the head was finally laid in the ground, in a secret location at his alma mater.
January 30, 1661 to March 25, 1960. After 299 years of scandal, the Protector slept once more.
Though, obviously, in two different places.