Cromwell and the 300 year journey of his posthumously severed skull

Cromwell and the 300 year journey of his posthumously severed skull

Cromwell and the 300 year journey of his posthumously severed skull


Cromwell and the 300-year journey of his posthumously severed skull

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It was only five years in the 17th century that Oliver Cromwell ruled England, Scotland and Ireland, but that was enough to wreak havoc. And he didn't even need a crown for that.

Cromwell as general around 1649 in a painting by Robert Walker. Photo: wikimedia

He even turned it down when it was offered to him. He, the Puritan who had rid the island kingdom of that absolutist royal monster and made England a republic, would certainly not adorn himself with the regalia that had stood for that very oppression.

The monarchy had died, along with Charles I, whose head was severed on January 30, 1649 in front of the citizens of London.

The execution of Charles I in a contemporary print. The Banqueting House, in front of which the execution took place, is the only surviving building of Whitehall Palace, which burned down in 1698. picture: wikimedia

A specially convened High Court of Justice had him charged with high treason and sentenced to death sentenced.

The trial of Charles I on January 4, 1649. picture: wikimedia

And yes, this king's domineering behavior had actually provoked a civil war between royalists and parliamentarians. Charles I had levied taxes on his own authority and had those unwilling to pay arrested. He had betrayed the House of Commons, failed to convene at all for years and finally tried to remove his opponents from it by force of arms.

He came from the house of the proud Stuarts, he was the grandson of the decapitated Mary Stuart. What a disgrace for a man of his cut, to have to beg from Parliament for money for his wars, to bow down to those gentlemen with the ridiculous short haircuts, those wretched roundheads!

A Roundhead in the 19th Century Imagination, by John Pettie. This is what the supporters of Parliament were called during the English Civil War (1642-1649). In demonstrative contrast to the shoulder-length curls of the nobles, they wore short hairstyles close to their heads. Their enemies, the royalists under King Charles I, were called Cavaliers (cavaliers). picture: wikimedia

Charles I was an ardent supporter of divine right, completely convinced of the idea of ​​the "Divine Right of Kings". And because he saw his rule as divinely legitimized, he was accountable to the Lord alone. This was how his predecessors, the kings of Scotland, had done it. But with the English crown, which had also fallen to the Stuarts since the death of the childless Elizabeth I in 1603, the English system of government had also been added: and for 300 years, Parliament had been involved – albeit to a limited extent – ​​in state affairs.

In short: Charles I could not be integrated into the existing English institution. Only the one who now took his place differed only slightly from the king who had his head beheaded.

Charles I from three sides, portrait by Anthonis van Dyck, 1635/36. Photo: wikimedia

Oliver Cromwell didn't want to crown himself, he liked to call himself the "Lord Protector" of England, Scotland and Ireland and not their king , but these outward appearances did not hide the fact that he was beginning to erect a military dictatorship on the shaky pillars of the newly born republic.

When he raised a light cavalry force at the beginning of the Civil War in 1642, his so-called Ironsides - the Ironsides or Eisenharten, which protected the flanks of the infantry - became the most powerful elite unit of the entire Parliamentary army. His men were not only well-trained and well-equipped, they were united above all by their belief in the just and good cause for which they went into battle, and not money: They were all Puritans - and only the truly best among them rose , regardless of their social rank, to officers. Cromwell bestowed authority on merit and ability alone. And so it happened that carpenters, tanners and blacksmiths suddenly came to the head of the army.

"I implore you to be careful who you make captains of horsemen. Seek out decent men and decent men will follow them. »Oliver Cromwell 1643 before Parliament

And indeed, the fighting spirit of the Ironsides was unusually high, that puritanical zeal soon spelled the end of the Royalists.

Allegory of the English Civil War by William Shakespeare Burton, 1855: A royalist lies wounded on the ground, a Puritan in black stands in the background. Photo: wikimedia

Cromwell's revolutionary military hierarchy, however, soon made the petty bourgeois dream of equality just as boldly as the big ones: If they could hold such high positions in the army, why not in politics?

And already the "Levellers" formed in the House of Commons, the levellers and levellers, who had in mind a free and democratic society, one of men who would no longer be divided into estates, but would be equal before the law.

But Cromwell was like Luther and every other man who in the long history of mankind first appears as a beacon in the firmament, promising a renewal, a step towards a more just world - his horizon was also only a limited one, the one wealthy landowner in the 17th century, a Puritan who thought the order, where it should remain as it was, to be divine.

Some people are just more equal than others. And very different for Cromwell were the Presbyterians in Scotland and the Catholics in Ireland.

The latter, in particular, he punished with a bloody war, having now risen to become the decisive commander of the parliamentary army. They had dared to rage against the wealthy Scottish and English settlers who had been settled since the 16th century, particularly in the Ulster area: in the midst of the poor, peasant Catholics, the English monarchs had planted rich, industrially-leaning Protestants , who gradually appropriated the land and made the Irish their tenants.

Those “plantations” – colored on the map – laid the foundation for the Northern Ireland conflict that is still ongoing today: Ireland was nothing more than a colony for the English, and they exploited their “uncivilised” island neighbors with the typical imperialistic arrogance of an empire. picture: wikimedia

After Cromwell conquered Drogheda in 1649, he had 3500 people murdered – about 2700 soldiers loyal to the king and all the armed men of the city; Civilians, prisoners and Catholic priests.

«I am convinced that this is a just judgment from God on these barbaric scoundrels who have stained their hands with so much innocent blood, and that it will help prevent the shedding of blood for the future, which is satisfactory are reasons for such actions which otherwise can only arouse remorse and regret." Cromwell in a letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons

A 19th-century depiction of the Drogheda massacre. The brutal reconquest of the country, which ended with the withdrawal of British citizenship for the Catholic Irish, is what they call "An Mallacht Cromail", Cromwell's curse. picture: wikimedia

Eleven years later, Cromwell was also dead the stones blocking his ureter.

With his death, the republic, the only eleven-year-old Commonwealth of England, also dies. Because his son Richard didn't know how to lead the army. And so Parliament dusted off the throne for Charles II, son of the beheaded Charles I, who thirsted for posthumous revenge for regicide.

Cromwell and the 300 year journey of his posthumously severed skull

On the anniversary of his father's death, he had Cromwell's bodies lifted from their coffins along with those of Henry Ireton - Cromwell's son-in-law - and John Bradshaw - the judge in Charles I's treason trial.

They were taken in a sled to Tyburn, where the Triple Tree stood, an infamous triangular wooden beam structure resembling a three-legged mare, on which several criminals could be unbuttoned at the same time.

The three men dangled from that tree of death all afternoon, Cromwell looking quite fresh to a Spanish merchant in attendance. But Ireton was hung on the gallows like a dried rat, although he too had been embalmed before his death.

Then they finally took them down, cut off their heads and buried the rest of their bodies in the ground just below the Triple Tree. But their heads were impaled on poles twenty feet high and displayed on the roof of Westminster Hall.

The numbers indicate the corresponding place given to the impaled heads of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw on Westminster Hall in 1661.image: wikimedia

For 28 years, Cromwell's head warned Londoners not to resent the monarchy. Then a storm swept the skull at the feet of a security guard, who immediately hid it under his coat and in the fireplace at home. Even the search notices for the lost head now posted on doors and pillars, which promised the finder a handsome reward, did not persuade him to empty his chimney.

Only on his deathbed did the security guard reveal to his wife and daughter what he had secretly kept in the chimney for so long.

A drawing of Oliver Cromwell's head on a spike from the late 18th century Image: wikimedia

The daughter, on the other hand, wanted to get rid of that morbid legacy as quickly as possible and sold the Lord Protector's head to an unknown person.

It reappears in 1710 - in the curiosity collection of the French-Swiss calico printer Claudius du Puy, alongside snake skins, mummies, shells, coins and 20 wax dolls dressed as nuns.

He then fell into the hands of drunkard Samuel Russell, a failed comedian and descendant of Cromwell. He displayed the head in a stall in London's Clare Market and used to pass it around during his binges, eroding its features beyond repair.

This didn't seem to bother wealthy jeweler James Cox in the slightest. He did not intend to exhibit the maltreated skull, but to acquire it as an investment. In the meantime it had gained in value, it had risen to the status of a kind of relic, an object of public interest.

And when Russell, heavily in debt, wouldn't stick his head out, Cox began lending him money, which, of course, Russell couldn't pay back. In the end, poor Russell had no choice but to give his relic to the jeweler.

Cox then managed to resell the head for twice as much: the three Hughes brothers, who were speculators, paid him £230 – today this would be around £30,000.

They displayed it on Bond Street, but few people were willing to pay two shillings and sixpence admission (about £5 today) for a battered head of dubious provenance. In fact, the gaps in his journey could not be closed, so that the rumor soon spread that the head on display was a fake.

Advertisement for the Hughes brothers exhibition of Cromwell's head, 1799. Photo: wikimedia

And as if that wasn't enough of a failure, the three brothers died in quick succession. The daughter of one Hughes tried to sell the head to a public museum, but Lord Liverpool, acting Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1812-1827), managed to thwart such a sale by pointing out the strong reluctance that the exhibition of human Able to trigger remains in both sexes.

In not much more than a hundred years, Cromwell's head had gone from being a deterrent impaled on Parliament House to a tacky corpse that no human eye could bear. At least not publicly.

In 1815, the year Napoleon returned for a hundred days, the head went to a private collector named Josiah Henry Wilkinson, who liked to bring it out to dinner parties and carry it with him on his travels.

In this new century, calls for a full scientific investigation began to grow louder, not least because a competing skull had emerged, also claimed to be Cromwell's.

Archaeologists were soon able to expose the rival's head as a fake, however: it was pierced from above instead of below. And it showed no trace of skin or hair, indicating it had never been embalmed.

In 1875 an Oxford professor examined the skull of the Wilkinson family, compared it to the Cromwell death mask (pictured) and concluded that it was genuine. picture: britisharchaeology

But it was not until 1934 that Wilkinson's descendant, Horace, agreed to entrust the controversial object to the eugenicist Karl Pearson and the anthropologist Geoffrey Morant for proper surveying.

Their 109-page report came to the conclusion that it was "morally certain" that it was the head of the former Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland, severed around 1661.

Pearson's report on the skull states: "The Wilkinson skull in right profile shows the oak stake and the corroded tip of the iron spigot, as well as the breach at the top of the skull where the brain was removed. Note also the flowing mustache and the hair on his chin.»image: via

It was Horace Wilkinson's son of the same name who finally ended the 300-year journey of Cromwell's head. Nobody would ever again eye him with lust, disgust or amazement, no hand would ever rock him curiously again, finger him awkwardly or lovingly stroke the brittle parts of his old leather skin.

On March 25, 1960, he was buried in an oak casket in a secret small ceremony in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, where Cromwell had once studied. It says somewhere near the lobby, but you don't know exactly, the place is secret.

Truth BoxThis article has been researched to the best of our knowledge. However, the moment the head was stormed down from the Houses of Parliament and sacked by said guard, we step into the realm of legend with one foot. Here is a gaping hole in the skull's travel documentation, which has been stuffed with the wildest speculations and conspiracy theories throughout the centuries. A legend written by John Oldmixon in the 1730s has it that as soon as he died a trusty woman had Cromwell's body wrapped in lead, placed on a barge and then sunk in the deepest part of the Thames to save it from barbaric royalist hands .1664 Samuel Pepys wrote down a story he had heard, according to which Cromwell had, during his lifetime, transferred the bodies of a number of English royals from one grave to another. In this way, it is not certain whether the head that hung above the Houses of Parliament at the time was really Cromwell's or whether it belonged to one of those monarchs. What a fine sense of irony!

You can find more about Irish history here:

32173Women of historyThe Irish rebel who would rather die than swear by the British crownby Anna Rothenfluh


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