Contributed by Amber Rae and Andrew Mckay, Hosts of Into The Portal Podcast

The missing head of oliver cromwell.jpg

Execution is a nasty business, even at the best of times… however, it was a particularly brutal practice in the 17th century. The bloodthirsty crowds would gather en masse to take in the imminent demise of many a divisive figure. For certain this was the case with King Charles I, who suffered just such a fate by the order of Oliver Cromwell.

However the reign of Cromwell did not last particularly long and despite the common belief outside of history circles that Cromwell was executed after the Monarchy regained the throne, this was not in fact quite the case… In most bizarre fashion and under extreme political circumstances, Oliver Cromwell was ‘executed’ posthumously, over ten years after his actual death, all so he could be made an example of for those who opposed the crown.

Not only was Cromwell executed, after the fact he was also beheaded, an indignity only few historical figures have endured posthumously. But the story doesn’t end there, as after several decades on ghastly display to the passing public of London, Cromwell’s head would mysteriously disappear… And so we are left with a tale that is truly strange, but what actually happened to the head, where does it reside to this day? And, perhaps most importantly, is the head associated with the legendary history even Cromwell’s at all? Let’s get into it!

Oliver Cromwell officially died on Friday, September 3, 1658 in London. The cause of his death is presumed to be septicaemia, commonly known as sepsis or blood poisoning, which is a bacterial infection of the blood which can be fatal if untreated. So poor Oliver Cromwell suffered a rather uncomfortable demise, however, he was saved from an embarrassing public execution, which his corpse would suffer alone years later.

Following his death, Cromwell was embalmed and buried in Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey because of his position as Lord Protector - a position he made for himself after overthrowing the English monarchy. Cromwell’s funeral was a lavish affair modelled after the funeral of King James I. Not a big surprise, but a little ironic, too.  

Cromwell, was a big supporter of the execution of Charles I. On the warrant for that execution, Cromwell’s name appears as the third signature. It was said that Cromwell was temporarily delayed to the signing party, and he was furious that his wasn;t the first signature on the warrant. In another twist of irony, it was the conviction he had in acquiring the execution of Charles that caused his own execution, even if it was a little late - over a decade late!

Cromwell’s body lay for a time in the state before he was moved and buried at Westminster Abbey. And it might have actually stayed there too if it hadn't been for his dolt of a son who took over his rule as Lord Protector. But he really sucked at this and made a lot of people angry. Amongst all of this was a battle for the commonwealth and control of the country, and eventually the Monarchy was restored in 1660. 

According to this is how it went down.. 

Upon the restoration of King Charles II to the throne, an Act of Indemnity, Pardon, and Oblivion was passed. However, the act excluded the regicides from amnesty (regicide: a person responsible for the killing of a monarch). Along with the trial and punishment of the surviving regicides, it was decreed that the bodies of the deceased regicides (including Cromwell) should suffer the indignity of a posthumous execution. 

So, on January 26th, 1661 Sergeant James Norfolke removed Cromwell’s remains from the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey. Cromwell’s body was moved to Tyburn in London.It was here that Cromwell and the other Regicides who fought against the new king’s brother had their corpses hung for the city to see. 

They were hung there for a brief time then cut down to the streets, and of course… decapitated. It’s said that it took 8 blows to sever Cromwell's head from his corpse! A whole 12 years after lying in Westminster Abbey. Then it was mounted on a spike outside Westminster Hall, while the bodies were thrown in a pit. 

The dead was left on display from 1661 all the way till around the late 1680s but with murkey record it’s not certain exactly when the head managed to find its way down. One legend goes that the head was blown down in a windstorm in 1688 and spotted by a guard who took it into his possession. He allegedly hid it in his coat and brought it home to his Chimney for safe keeping.  

Then, the Head would go through numerous private hands. People really wanted this guy’s head. At one time in the 18th century it was on display in London for the paying public as a sort of local macabre curiosity. But at this time the ownership and changing of hands became muddied. BUT! In 1815 the head was purchased by a man named Henry Wilkinson. He had been convinced of its authenticity like all the others before him, as the head had been out in the elements for 28 years before it even began its circuit through the hands of underworld collectors. 

The head lasted a long while in the Wilkinson line. Passed down through the family till the 1960’s. By this point you must be wondering, where are you keeping this thing?? On the mantel? So many questions. In 1960 Horace Wilkinson reached an agreement that the head should be finally laid to rest in the grounds of Cromwell’s former Alumni, alma mater Sydney College at Cambridge.

This is the basic story of Oliver Cromwell’s head. Strange to be sure. However there is much reason to believe that the head ended up elsewhere, for reasons unknown... It is generally accepted that the head does lie in rest at the grounds of the college, however this may not be the case 

Tracing the Corpse 

There are massive gaps in the story of what actually happened to the body of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, as well as some debate if it even was the body that was executed and that is was actually Cromwell’s head that was on the spike. We know for certain that it was embalmed but after that there is some evidence to suggest that the body was not transported to West Minster monastery but rather taken away from the scene quickly and buried at a private location, somewhere unknown? 

It's commonly known that the body that ‘lay in rest’ in London following his death was almost certainly a fake, a mannequin with a wax body. Yet another idea is that his friends had snuck his body away and buried it at Holborn in London, Or Naseby which was the location of one of his greatest civil war victories. Whatever the case, the cloud of mystery surrounding the fate of Oliver Cromwell’s remains to this day.


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