Miscellaneous

The head of the Head of the Commonwealth

Next week at Sotheby’s an engraved bronze relic from 1658, taken from the coffin of Oliver Cromwell, is for sale. It is to be sold in London on 9th December 2014 in the English Literature and History Auction and can be yours for about £12,000. Cromwell was buried as a King but exhumed as a criminal. The bronze plaque, engraved with the coat of arms of the Commonwealth, was buried with him in his coffin at Westminster Abbey in 1658 and purloined by the Serjeant of the House of Commons, James Norfolk, when Cromwell was dug up on the orders of the Restoration Parliament in 1661.

Cromwell died, aged 59, on 3rd September 1658; he had been the Commonwealth Head of State for five years. He had refused to wear the English Crown on his head whilst he was alive, but on his death he was given a funeral fit for a King. His embalmed body lay in state at Somerset House dressed in royal purple velvet robes and wearing a crown, for two weeks. A £4000 funeral hearse processed to Westminster Abbey flanked by massed crowds. In fact the coffin was, during the procession, empty. Cromwell’s body had been embalmed so inadequately that it exploded at Somerset House emitting a disgusting stink. It was hastily buried in the Abbey well in advance of the funeral, the body sealed in a lead coffin and the bronze plaque inserted into a separate canister.

On 30th January 1661, on the twelfth anniversary of the execution of Charles I, Cromwell’s body on the orders of Parliament was exhumed for a posthumous execution by hanging and beheading at Tyburn. This was the site in London for the public hanging of common criminals. The body was exhumed from its grave in the Abbey and displayed overnight at the Red Lion public house in Holborn. It was strung up on the gallows from the neck the following morning and cut down at four in the afternoon and beheaded. The headless body was buried at the site, although some say it was quietly secreted away by his daughter.

The severed head was mounted on a spike over Westminster Hall where it remained for the next twenty years or so, as a warning. It blew down in a storm and was hidden by the guard at whose feet it fell. Over the years the skull was passed from antiquary collector to collector before in 1934 it was compared with Cromwell’s busts and death masks and, as a near perfect match, its provenance confirmed. The skull had a depression on the side where Cromwell’s prominent wart had been. On 25th March 1960 the skull was buried in the quad of Sidney Sussex, his college at Cambridge, in a position not made public. The wart was taken out at parties in a snuff box by the Secretary of the Society of Antiquities in the eighteenth century.

What conclusions can we draw? Cromwell’s dead skull had a longer career in public life than his live body did as Head of State. He must be one of the very few people to be buried as a King and buried as a murderer. His body was already in the ground days before his funeral. His head is in Cambridge and his body somewhere unknown. The body was hanged from a gallows even though it had been underground for three years. I think that it is now safe to draw the conclusion that Cromwell is, in fact, dead. The wart is still at large.

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