Oliver Cromwell Lost His Head Long After He Was Dead

By: Dave Roos  | 

Cromwell refuses the Crown of England
Cromwell refuses the Crown of England, preferring to be known as Lord Protector. Bettman/Getty Images

Oliver Cromwell has the peculiar distinction of being the only political criminal to be executed two years after his death.

Yup, that's right.

Cromwell, the controversial English historical figure who led the parliamentary revolt that ended with the execution of King Charles I, was exhumed from his grave in 1661 and put on trial by the late king's son, Charles II. Posthumously convicted of high treason, Cromwell's corpse was hanged and beheaded, and his head was impaled on a 20-foot (6-meter) spike outside of Westminster Hall.

In an age when drawing and quartering was also a popular punishment, it takes a special kind of traitor to warrant digging up his dead body and "killing" him again. But that's the level of loathing that Cromwell inspired in his 17th-century enemies, and that his name still provokes in places like Ireland, where Cromwell's troops committed wartime atrocities.

But Cromwell has his defenders, too. He dared to challenge the "divine right" of the British monarchy, oversaw the creation of England's (and arguably the world's) first written constitution, and was the first commoner to rule the short-lived British republic as its "Lord Protector." A devout Puritan, he also believed in religious freedom and tolerance, a cornerstone of modern Western democracy.

We reached out to Stuart Orme, curator of the Cromwell Museum in Cromwell's hometown of Huntingdon, near Cambridge, England, to learn why Cromwell remains one of the most important and divisive figures in British history.

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From Obscurity to Civil War Hero

Americans can be forgiven for thinking they were the only country to experience a bloody civil war. Centuries earlier, England suffered through not one, but three consecutive civil wars from 1639 to 1651. The two sides in the British civil wars were the Royalists, who supported Charles I and his absolute monarchy, and the Parliamentarians, who wanted to strip the Crown of power and convert the nation into a republic.

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell famously told his painter Samuel Cooper he wanted a "warts and all" image that reflected accuracy rather than flattery. You can see a wart above Cromwell's left eyebrow.
VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

Cromwell was a Parliamentarian, but he wasn't a well-known or influential player until fighting broke out, says Orme. Cromwell came from a minor landowning family in a small town, didn't distinguish himself in school (he dropped out of the University of Cambridge after 18 months when his father died), ran into financial problems in his 20s, was diagnosed with "melancholia" (a 17th-century term for depression), inherited some land, restored his fortune and found God.

"You could say he was a 'born again' Puritan," says Orme, referring to the Protestant reformers who wanted to "purify" the Church of England from any hints of Catholicism.

In 1640, Cromwell was elected to Parliament backed by a growing Puritan movement, but "he was a very obscure figure, a scruffy oik from the provinces," says Orme ("oik" = rube or oaf). "Most people who noticed him at all commented on the fact that Cromwell was usually badly dressed and had blood on his collar from where he cut himself shaving in the morning. He appeared to be another back bench MP of no particular note whatsoever."

That all changed in 1642, when fighting broke out between the king's army and parliamentary forces. Cromwell, who had never stepped foot on a battlefield ("He may have read a few books or a pamphlet on the subject," says Orme), discovered that he was a natural-born cavalry commander. Cromwell was quickly promoted up the ranks to become second-in-command of what's known as the New Model Army, the first British army to choose officers for skill rather than social status.

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The Horrors of the 'Irish Campaign'

The Parliamentarians eventually won the civil wars, and King Charles I became the first monarch to be put on trial and executed for treason (plenty of prior kings had been killed or abdicated the throne). Cromwell was one of 59 members of Parliament to sign the king's death warrant.

But even after Charles I was deposed, there were Royalist holdouts in Ireland. Around the same time as the civil wars, Irish Catholics rose up against Protestant English settlers who had taken their lands. In 1649, Cromwell was sent by Parliament to quash the Catholic rebellions and defeat what remained of Royalist supporters in Ireland.

What happened next is hotly debated by historians even today. The Irish town of Drogheda, defended by Catholic, Protestant and English Royalists, refused to surrender to Cromwell and his invading army. Orme says that Cromwell ordered his men not to kill any civilians who didn't take up arms, but that order likely fell on deaf ears.

"It was a bloodbath," says Orme. "An estimated 3,500 people were killed, including 700 civilians. Technically, under the rules of war Cromwell was justified, but there's also a case to be made that he committed a war crime."

The storming of Drogheda
The storming of Drogheda in Ireland by Cromwell and his troops of the New English Republic, Sept. 11, 1649. Many citizens were massacred and the garrison's officers shot. Engraving by Barlow.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Cromwell was only in Ireland for nine months, but things got "increasingly nasty" after he left, says Orme, with the English army committing numerous atrocities that some say amounted to ethnic cleansing. Even if Cromwell didn't directly order or oversee the killings, it was a dark stain on his reputation and turned him into "one of the bogeymen of Irish history," says Orme. To this day, a common insult in Ireland is "the curse of Cromwell upon you!"

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Cromwell the Political Reformer

With the monarchy deposed, England experimented with various models of a republic. In 1653, the "Instrument of Government" became the first written constitution of a modern nation-state and established England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland as a "Protectorate" governed by a democratically elected legislative branch (Parliament), an executive branch (Council of State) and a chief executive called the "Lord Protector." The constitution named Cromwell Lord Protector for life.

In practice, the Protectorate operated at times like a military dictatorship or a monarchy by another name, since Cromwell was invested with near-kingly powers (Cromwell was even offered the crown twice, which he refused). But the Protectorate period — also known as the Interregnum — was also the first time that all of the British Isles were united as a single commonwealth, and Cromwell helped to usher in an era of religious tolerance and reform.

For example, Jewish people were welcomed back to England for the first time since they were expelled in 1290 and citizens were no longer required by law to attend the Church of England. Catholics and Protestants, including new sects like the Baptists, were free to practice their religion under the Protectorate, but Parliament also passed a number of Puritan-themed morality laws that restricted drinking and gambling, and banned immoral entertainments like cock-fighting and bear-baiting.

Contrary to popular belief, though, Cromwell did not ban Christmas. Years before the Protectorate, a Puritan-controlled Parliament passed a series of laws outlining which calendar days were Holy Days, and both Christmas and Easter were left off the list. Apparently, Puritans took issue with the drunken feasting that traditionally accompanied the celebrations. An official ban on Christmas and Easter was passed by Parliament in 1647 during the civil war (again, before Cromwell was in charge) and outlawed both celebrations at church or in the home, but Orme says it was almost impossible to enforce and provoked riots.

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What Happened to Oliver Cromwell's Head?

death mask of Oliver Cromwell
The death mask of Oliver Cromwell. His conquest of Wales and Scotland ensured the English Commonwealth remained intact.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Cromwell was only Lord Protector for five years. He died from a kidney infection Sept. 3, 1658, and his son Richard was named as his successor. But Richard's reign was brief — the military "asked" him to step down in what Orme says was essentially a coup. In the resulting power vacuum, the Royalists swept in and reinstalled the monarchy under Charles II, an event known as the Restoration.

As you remember, two years after Cromwell's death, the Royalists dug up poor Cromwell's body, tried it for treason, cut off its long-dead head and impaled it on a spike at Westminster Hall in London. His body was buried in a common grave.

But the story didn't end there. The mummified head remained on the spike for more than 20 years, when it was blown free by a storm and snagged by a soldier who stuffed it in his chimney for safekeeping. From there, it passed through various hands, was displayed for a time in a traveling curiosities show, and was finally sold to the Wilkinson family, who kept it in a velvet-lined box for 146 years, occasionally showing it to shocked dinner guests.

Finally, in 1960 (300 years after Cromwell's death), Dr. Horace Wilkinson donated the head to Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge, Cromwell's alma mater.

"Cromwell's head is buried somewhere in the college chapel," says Orme, "supposedly in a biscuit tin."

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