Monday, September 20, 2010

Oliver Cromwell's Head

Cambridge, England.  Visited December 1997

Oliver Cromwell
Ok, this post might be a little beyond the interest of most people. If there is a line between reasonable hobby and what should probably be left alone, the story of Oliver Cromwell might be on the other side of that line, because all I have to talk about is his head. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the whole man.

Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658) is one of the most controversial figures in British history. To some he was the destroyer of an ancient monarchy, the only dictator in the history of Great Britain. To others he was the final guarantor of true religious freedom in England. To history he is one of the greatest military leaders the world has known. The complexity of his legacy is perhaps best illustrated by one later biographer, who described him as "a brave, bad man."

Oliver Cromwell was raised in the English countryside as a minor gentleman and was educated at Cambridge University. Around the age of 30 he became a member of Parliament during its political ascent and rivalry with the court of Charles I. In his mid 30’s, Cromwell experienced a radical conversion to Christ under the ministry of the English Puritans, with whom he would identify theologically and politically for the rest of his life.

During the English Civil Wars (1642-49) Oliver Cromwell emerged as the most effective leader of the Parliamentary Army, never being defeated in battle. After the execution of Charles I, Parliament offered Cromwell the throne, which he refused. But bowing to political pressure Cromwell agreed to accept the temporary position of "Protector of the Commonwealth," essentially ruling the country until a parliamentary republic could be secured. While his ultimate vision was for a parliamentary rule, Oliver Cromwell died as Lord Protector in London in 1658 – the only ruler in Great Britain never to claim royal privilege. His final words reflect both his Puritan hope and his unpretentious approach to life, “My design is to make what haste I can to be gone.”

Cromwell was buried with great fanfare among the great heroes and rulers of England in Westminster Abbey.

Oliver Cromwell honored on the Reformation Wall
 in Geneva Switzerland

But our present interest in Oliver Cromwell is what took place after his death. Here’s the story as reported by the London Daily Telegraph in November 2008.

Cromwell's head - stone version

But now return to England, winding back the clock… to the 1670s… London is one of the most advanced cities in the world. Take a stroll past Westminster Hall, and look upwards. There, on the roof, are three strange objects impaled on wooden posts, looking suspiciously like human heads.

And that is just what they are; not mock-ups or effigies, but the actual heads of three of the 'regicides' who had signed the death-warrant of Charles I in 1649 - John Bradshaw, Henry Ireton and Oliver Cromwell. When Charles II was restored to the throne, the corpses of those three men were dug up, ceremonially hanged and then decapitated, and the heads remained on public display for at least 20 years.

Ollie on a portable pike held by his last private owner
Little is known about the eventual fate of the other two; but Cromwell's head went walkabout some time in the 1680s, when his wooden pole snapped in a storm. A surprised sentry, at ground level, recognized the face that came rolling down the street at him; for Cromwell had been professionally embalmed for his original funeral, and the treatment had preserved his skin like leather.

Tradition has it that the sentry had republican sympathies, and hid the severed head like a holy relic in his home, revealing its existence only on his deathbed. His daughter later sold it, and during the 18th century it passed through the hands of various entrepreneurs and showmen, who thought - mistakenly - that they could make their fortune by exhibiting it. In 1815 this bizarre item was bought by a Mr. Wilkinson, whose family kept it out of public view, but allowed it to be carefully inspected by two scientists in 1934; finally, in 1960, it was given a decent burial in or near the chapel of Cromwell's old Cambridge college.

To be honest, I never went looking for Cromwell’s head. I stumbled on it, figuratively speaking. My brother John and I spent a week in England together in December 1997 which included a couple of days touring in Cambridge. As we walked through the University we ducked out of the rain into the entryway of Sidney Sussex College – which happens to be the alma mater of Oliver Cromwell and the final custodian of his noggin. Naturally I had to get a picture. And naturally Ollie Cromwell became a prime candidate for this blog.

The college purposely didn't identify the exact burial place of the head so no one would be tempted to dig it up and take it on the road again.  I think my head in this picture is scary enough.

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