By Frances Larson, from Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, forthcoming in November from Liveright.
Josiah Wilkinson liked to take Oliver Cromwell’s head to breakfast parties. The broken metal spike that had been thrust through Cromwell’s skull at Tyburn, 160 years earlier, provided a convenient handle for guests to use while examining the leathery relic over their deviled kidneys. One of his guests in 1822 wrote: “A frightful skull it is, covered with its parched yellow skin like any other mummy and with its chestnut hair, eyebrows and beard in glorious preservation.” It was Wilkinson’s prized possession, and he kept it in a purpose-built oak box. When friends voiced their reservations about its authenticity he pointed to the distinctive wart over Cromwell’s left eye.
The ability to shock bestows a kind of power, and Wilkinson reveled in the limelight, regaling his audience with stories about Cromwell and the journeys his head had taken since 1661. For it really was Oliver Cromwell’s head, and Wilkinson was the last in a long line of showmen who had capitalized on its magnetism. He knew that people always wanted a closer look: they were drawn to the horror, the novelty, the notoriety, the intimacy, and the finality of Cromwell’s severed head.
Like all severed heads, Cromwell’s was intended to be displayed. Cromwell himself died of fever on September 3, 1658. Two and a half years later, during a spate of reprisals by the Restoration government against the “king killers,” the lord protector’s embalmed body was dug out of its tomb in Westminster Abbey, dragged through the streets of London on a hurdle, hung from the gallows at Tyburn (to the delight of a raucous crowd), and decapitated. A few days later, his head was impaled on a twenty-foot pole and mounted on the roof of Westminster Hall for the whole of London to see. Spike and skull would never part: Cromwell had returned to the public stage, transformed into the king’s puppet.
Evelyn and Pepys, the two great diarists of the age, greeted this turn of events with ambivalence. “It doth trouble me,” wrote Pepys, “that a man of so great courage as he was should have that dishonour, though otherwise he might deserve it enough”; Evelyn wondered at the “stupendous and inscrutable judgments of God!” as thousands of people watched the lord protector, formerly buried “among the Kings,” being thrown into a pit under “that fatal and ignominious monument” at Tyburn. Neither writer witnessed these events himself, but they saw the head, because it adorned Westminster Hall for the next forty years: it was taken down only for a brief period, in 1681, during routine repairs to the roof.
Westminster Hall was the perfect arena. For centuries it had accommodated coronation celebrations, state funerals, and ceremonial addresses. It symbolized the rightful passage of power, the authority of the monarchy and Parliament, and the fatal fragility of their alliance in the wake of civil war. Charles I had been brought to trial at Westminster Hall in 1649; four years later Cromwell took his seat there before the lord mayor and accepted the title of lord protector, and in 1657 he processed into the hall again for his investiture, with all the pageantry of a king at his coronation. Now, his mute, mutilated head watched vacantly as guests arrived for King Charles II’s coronation banquet in April 1661, and it continued to preside over the activities of the king’s government for decades. Cromwell, the ultimate traitor, had been deposed postmortem. His severed head was as hollow and as dead as his ideals, and so long as it played its part as the marionette on the roof of Westminster Hall, no one would be allowed to forget.
A storm blew down Cromwell’s head one night toward the end of the seventeenth century, so the story goes, and, not long afterward, it turned up in a museum. It was transformed into a curiosity, a precious relic, and a business opportunity.
Various people put Cromwell’s head on display. First there was Claudius Du Puy, a Swiss calico printer, who exhibited it in his museum in London alongside exotic herbs and rare coins. In 1710 one of his German visitors wondered that “this monstrous head could still be so dear and worthy to the English.” Then there was Samuel Russell, a drunken actor who entertained the public from a ramshackle stall among the butchers’ meat hooks in Clare Market and who used to give the head to shoppers for a closer look. Russell sold the head to James Cox, who had also owned a successful museum. Cox showed the head to select guests in private, and after twelve years decided to sell it to the Hughes brothers, who made it the star attraction of their Cromwelliana exhibition on Old Bond Street.
From one showman to another, Cromwell’s head passed through the eighteenth century, turning a profit each time. The only problem was wear and tear. At some point, perhaps as far back as the day at Tyburn, Cromwell had lost an ear and several teeth. His nose had been crushed, his hair was thinning, his flesh was desiccated, and his skin was yellow-brown. The incongruous appearance of this hard, dry object made it an effective memento mori. This was what death looked like. Cromwell, the great commander, was now nothing more than a lump of matter, subject to the whims of Mother Nature and dependent on the passions of the paying public.
During the nineteenth century Cromwell’s head began to attract scientists rather more than profiteers. Gradually, as it aged, it accrued a scholarly value. No longer a circus object, it became a specimen. Josiah Wilkinson, who bought the head in 1815, was a surgeon, albeit one who, like other scientists of the early nineteenth century, was still primarily interested in Cromwell’s head for its entertainment value.
Both Joseph Banks, the eminent naturalist and veteran of Captain James Cook’s first voyage to Australia, and William Bullock, an antiquarian whose collection was displayed at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, had concluded that the head was little more than a curiosity. Banks refused to see it on political grounds: allegedly he could not bring himself to view the remains of “the old Villainous Republican, the mention of whose very name made his blood boil with indignation.” Bullock thought about acquiring the head for his museum in Piccadilly but was advised of the impropriety of exhibiting human remains. That decision signaled a change. Cromwell’s head was no longer passed around the street markets of London; instead it was destined for more exclusive audiences who could assess its merits in controlled conditions.
As Cromwell’s head aged and the stories surrounding its past proliferated, questions were raised about its authenticity. A number of rival heads began to circulate: one of them was put on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Wilkinson was convinced that his head was the real one, but other people were not so sure. Thomas Carlyle, for instance, whose book Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches inspired a new vogue for Cromwell in Victorian Britain, thought Wilkinson’s curio a “fraudulent moonshine” and refused to examine it in person.
A lengthening list of academics examined the yellowing head: an expert medalist, a numismatist at the British Museum, a leading member of the Phrenological Society, an eminent sculptor, an Oxford physiologist, various members of the Royal Archaeological Institute, and two medical statisticians. All came out in support of Wilkinson.
By the 1930s, countless calipers had been wielded, microscopes focused, and pages written about Cromwell’s head. Every lump, bump, stitch, and scratch on that “somewhat repulsive” head had been examined and described. Yet the scientists who studied Cromwell’s head had also fallen under its spell, and the intensity of their gaze was a reflection of the power this decaying artifact still held after 200 years in private hands. The Wilkinson family, who had now owned the head for four generations, tended to shy away from publicity, but time and again they were dragged back into the news by journalists who came across the story of Cromwell’s head and wrote about its extraordinary past.
In the mid-twentieth century, Dr. Horace Wilkinson, Josiah’s great-grandson, came to feel that the burden of caring for the head was too onerous. He decided that Cromwell should rest in peace. And so, in 1960, in a small private ceremony, Cromwell’s head was buried in its old oak box somewhere beneath the floor of the antechapel at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. The exact location has been kept secret by the university. A plaque reads:
Near to this place was buried
on 25 March 1960 the head of
Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland & Ireland, Fellow Commoner of this College 1616–7
There will be no forensic examination and no DNA testing: science has been denied a final say in the story of Oliver Cromwell’s head. Of course, this does not prevent tourists coming to see the place for themselves. Cromwell’s head may have been laid to rest at last, but it still draws the crowds.