#OTD in 1661 – Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, is ritually executed more than two years after his death, on the 12th anniversary of the execution of the monarch he himself deposed.

On 20 April 1653 Cromwell dismissed the Rump Parliament by force, setting up a short-lived nominated assembly known as the Barebones Parliament, before being invited by his fellow leaders to rule as Lord Protector of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland from 16 December 1653.

Oliver Cromwell’s skull has changed hands many times since the Lord Protector lost exclusive use of it in 1658. After the restoration of the monarchy, Cromwell’s corpse was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and hanged at Tyburn. It was then taken down from the scaffold and decapitated. The body was thrown into a pit beneath the gallows and the head set on a spike above Westminster Hall.

Cromwell’s head went missing in around 1688 when a storm snapped the pole on which it was impaled and the head fell into the grounds of Westminster Hall. A sentry found it and hid it in the chimney of his house, ignoring the considerable reward that was offered for its return. No one knows what happened to the head after this until it reappeared in 1710 in the Cabinet of Curiosities owned by Claudius Du Puy who put it on public display. Du Puy boasted to a German visitor that he could get 60 guineas for the head if he wished to sell it. On Du Puy’s death in 1738 the head passed through various hands; a failed comic actor named Samuel Russell used to produce the head and pass it around at drunken revels, the clumsy hands of the carousers causing ‘irreparable erosion of its features’. The Hughes Brothers put it on public display in Bond Street and charged two shillings and sixpence to see it but the venture was a failure as many potential customers simply did not believe that it was the head of Cromwell.

In 1815 one of the Hughes’ descendants sold the head to Josiah Henry Wilkinson who astonished the novelist Maria Edgeworth by producing it one morning at breakfast ‘not his picture—not his bust—nothing of stone or marble or plaster of Paris, but his real head’. On the other hand Thomas Carlyle point blank refused to see it or to believe that the head could be Cromwell’s ‘it has hair, flesh and beard, a written history bearing that it was procured for £100 (I think of bad debt) about 50 years ago…the whole affair appears to be fraudulent moonshine, an element not pleasant even to glance into, especially in a case like Oliver’s.’ There were other candidates to be the authentic head of Cromwell – a skull in the Ashmolean museum in particular made strong claims to the one and only genuine article. The distinguished physician George Rolleston examined both heads and thought that the Ashmolean skull was a fake, a verdict concurred with by later investigators who pointed out that it had been pierced from the top, not the bottom, and that there were no vestiges of skin, flash or hair as would be expected from an embalmed head. In 1960 a descendent of Wilkinson’s presented the head to Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge where Cromwell had been a student. On 25 March 1960, the head was finally reburied in the college chapel inside an airtight container with just a few witnesses. The burial was only made public in October 1962 and a plaque now marks the approximate spot, the exact location remaining a closely guarded secret.

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