Thursday, 3 April 2008

Cromwell's head

I mentioned the other day that we had peeked into Sidney Sussex College here in Cambridge and that there was a plaque in the ante-chapel that reads:

Near to this place was buried on 15 March 1960 the head of OLIVER CROMWELL, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland & Ireland, Fellow Commoner of this college 1616-7.

I love the nonchalance of that '& Ireland' by the way.

So what is Oliver Cromwell's head doing there? Cromwell was not executed. He died of natural causes - well of a urinary condition or malaria (possibly) or both on 3 September 1658. But then again he was. Executed that is.

You see, when Charles II was restored to the throne, Parliament decided that they would show their devotion to the new king and teach Cromwell a lesson - despite the fact that he had been dead and buried for two years. In September 1660, these brave souls voted to exhume the bodies of Cromwell and his fellow regicides - Ireton and Bradshaw - and on 31 January 1661 they were hanged at Tyburn gallows (near to the present day Marble Arch roundabout at the end of Oxford Street in London). Their bodies were tossed in a pit, while their heads were severed and stuck on a spike on the roof of Westminster Hall where they became a grisly tourist attraction.

Twenty-five years later, the Great Storm of 1703 hits London, snaps the spike and blows it and the Lord Protector's head into the street. Or so legend has it. The head certainly disappears from the roof after the 1680s.

Things get a little vague here. But the head pops up again in 1787 being sold for a hefty £118 by a showman called Samuel Russell. Dr Josiah Wilkinson gets his hands on it in the nineteenth century and in 1960 his family bequeath it to Cromwell's old college, Sidney Sussex. The head is buried and the plaque put up to record it. The exact location is a secret

And in case you think it is just any old head, it does appear to be Cromwell's. It still has part of the spike in its skull for one thing.

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