There and Back Again: The Curious Journey of Oliver Cromwell’s Head

In the Dining Hall at Sidney Sussex College, in Cambridge, England hangs a 1656 portrait by Samuel Cooper of a former Sidney Sussex College student, Oliver Cromwell, who, though he did not graduate from the college, attended from 1616-1617, and is rightly embraced as a “Son of Sussex.”

In the antechapel of Sidney Sussex College hangs a plaque commemorating the return of this “Son of Sussex” to his Alma Mater on March 25, 1960.


Plaque noting Cromwell's head is buried in Sidney Sussex College


Let me set the stage.  If you have been following this blog, you’ll recall that Dennis Ryan and I spent a week as residents of Sidney Sussex College while Dennis, a disciple (I don’t think that’s saying too much) of the great 20th century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, examined various documents held in the Wittgenstein Archives of the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge where Wittgenstein taught from 1929 until his death in 1951. While Dennis spent three days buried in the Wittgenstein Archives, I was on a somewhat different journey of discovery: trying to locate Oliver Cromwell’s skull. Though I made a Herculean effort (as documented in the pictures below), the closest I came to Cromwell’s head was sitting under the Cooper portrait in the dining hall.

For starters, I was able to acquire the services of a couple of local blokes possessed of a backhoe and practiced in the art of digging holes who were willing, guided by my admittedly limited knowledge of the precise location of Cromwell’s skull, to dig where I instructed them. All to no avail and, after a couple of days, they filled up the holes, I paid them off, and sent them on their way. Cheerio and all that.

Looking for Cromwell's Head II

Looking for Cromwell's Head IV

I then decided that perhaps the authorities that buried Cromwell’s head would not have been quite so public about the location of the head’s final resting place. And given that the burial was in 1960, an age of modernity even in Cambridge, maybe these authorities utilized the myriad underground tunnels that contain the water mains and electrical conduit that connect Sidney Sussex College to the outer world. I located a manhole cover very near the antechapel that contains the plaque commemorating the burial of Cromwell’s head and I brought the blokes back for another effort.

Looking for Cromwell's Head III (3)

Our efforts, more’s the pity, were not successful.  Bitterly disappointed, I abandoned the quest to find Cromwell’s head and retired to a nearby pub, the Champion of the Thames, where I found solace in the warm beer and warm heart of Beth the bartender— and daughter of the pub’s owner to boot.

Beth at the Champion of the Thames Pub Cambridge

Beth told me to buck up, suggested that I just tell the story of the journey of Cromwell’s head (“and by the way,” she asked,” who is this bloke, Cromwell?”—Beth is very young), that I didn’t really need the skull to tell the story, and besides,Beth pointed out, drawing another pint for me, if I had found it, it was unlikely that I’d be allowed to leave Cambridge, let alone the UK, with the head in my suitcase. She was right, of course, though it took a few pints of Summer Lightning and a Scotch egg or two to convince me. So let’s get on with it, shall we?

The story I am about to tell you, Gentle Reader, is, I think, mostly true.  It is the story of the curious journey of Oliver Cromwell’s head from its first appearance at Sidney Sussex College in 1616, firmly attached to the body of Cromwell, to its macabre return 343 years later: there and back again.

We’ll let ourselves get a little ahead of the story and briefly describe the importance of Oliver Cromwell in British history.  Some of you may already know what I am about to relate and you have my permission to scroll down a couple of paragraphs to the start of the journey of Cromwell’s head from his body in 1661 to the antechapel of Sidney Sussex College in 1960.

From 1653 to 1658, Cromwell was the Lord Protector of England, Ireland, and Scotland. This occurred after the English Civil Wars (there were three of them from 1642-1651) whose consequences were the trial, conviction for treason, and beheading of Charles I on January 30, 1649; the exile of Charles II in 1651; the replacement of the monarchy with the Commonwealth of England from 1649-1653; and then the Protectorate under Cromwell and his son from 1653 until 1659.

Cromwell had been a member of Parliament during Charles I’s unhappy 24 year reign. Charles was his own worst enemy: self-righteous, arrogant, and unscrupulous. His troubles began the moment he ascended the throne in 1625 upon the death of his father James I. Charles simultaneously alienated both his subjects and his Parliament, prompting a series of events that ultimately lead to civil war, his own death and the abolition of the English monarchy. When the conflicts between Charles and the Parliament finally resulted in a civil war, Cromwell became the military leader of the Roundhead army of the Parliament against the King’s Cavaliers.  He was also the third signer of the death warrant issued after Charles I’s conviction. On January 30, 1649, a bitterly cold day, Charles I was led to the scaffold erected at Whitehall Palace, London and beheaded. Charles went to his execution, or so the tale is told, wearing two heavy shirts so that he might not shiver in the cold and appear to be afraid.

What followed was a two year period of the First English Commonwealth, a rough patch that led to the third English civil war. Cromwell and the Roundheads effectively eliminated the military threats to the Commonwealth, but economic trouble continued and, for reasons entirely too complicated to be discussed here, Cromwell, with no apparent authority except the backing of the Roundhead Army, dismissed Parliament and was appointed the Lord Protector of England, Ireland, and Scotland.

I’ll not bore you with the tedious details of Cromwell’s adventures over the next five years. You can read about them elsewhere at your leisure.

Cromwell died at Whitehall Palace during the mid-afternoon of Friday, September 3, 1658 probably of septicemia following a bout of malarial fever and a urinary infection to which he was prone.  He was buried with great pomp and circumstance befitting a king. Ironically, Cromwell, Caesar-like, had previously turned down the crown. Still, being the Lord Protector was pretty much like being the king, though to say “It’s good to be Lord Protector” is not as funny as saying “It’s good to be king.”

King or not,  preparations for Cromwell’s funeral did not go well. The government planned a public viewing, a grandiose funeral, and internment in Westminster Abbey. Given that all of this would take time to organize, the powers that be ordered that Cromwell’s corpse be immediately disemboweled and embalmed. This preservation was carried out as instructed, however Cromwell’s corpse was already in a horrendous state of decay and the embalming was done badly. According to George Bate, a physician present at Cromwell’s embalming, Cromwell’s corpse was wrapped tightly in four layers of grave cloth then buried in two coffins, one lead and one wood, yet despite this, a horrible stench still leaked from the outer coffin. Hence the decision was made to bury the putrid Protector, prematurely and privately. An effigy dressed in Cromwell’s clothes took his place at the lying in state at Somerset House.

Thus, Cromwell’s body was buried in Westminster Abbey several weeks before his state funeral. In mid-October, Londoners were invited to view Cromwell’s “body” lying in state at Somerset House though what they saw was an ornately-dressed wooden mannequin sporting a wax death mask. The funeral procession did not take place until November 23rd, eight weeks after Cromwell’s death. The coffin transported to Westminster Abbey was probably empty.

Opinion varies about whether Cromwell was a proto-fascist dictator, or the herald of democracy in England. I do recommend Lady Antonia Fraser’s interesting biography of the Lord Protector, Cromwell, Our Chief of Men. Her goal was to rehabilitate Cromwell’s reputation as a statesman without ignoring his many flaws, among which were a very bad temper and his propensity to see events as in the hands of a divine providence, that, surprise surprise, spoke to him at critical times. I still pitch my tent in the Cromwell-as-a- proto-fascist camp, but that’s neither here nor there for this story. Suffice it to say, that whatever one’s opinion of Cromwell might be, it cannot be denied that he is a figure of  central importance in British history.

Now the real tale begins (“and not a moment too soon,” I hear you chide, Gentle Reader). Cromwell’s son, Richard, who inherited the Protectorate after Oliver’s death, was not the man his father was and, in May of 1659, he resigned as Lord Protector ushering in the restoration of the Monarchy and the return of Charles II from exile in 1660. Richard, by the by, having resigned from government, fled to France, and then traveled extensively around Europe under a variety of pseudonyms.  He quietly returned to England in the 1680s and managed to live to the ripe old age of 85, dying on July 12, 1712.

On January 30, 1661 (the 12th anniversary of the execution of Charles I), Charles II had Cromwell’s body exhumed from Westminster Abbey and given a gruesome posthumous execution.  Cromwell’s corpse was hanged at the Tyburn Gallows, the principal location for the execution of traitors back in the day. If you are at all familiar with London, Tyburn was located near the present day Marble Arch.

Cromwell’s body was left to hang for a day and then the body was cut down and decapitated. According to legend, it took eight blows of the executioner’s ax to separate Cromwell’s head from his corpse. Who knows? The body was wrapped in four layers of grave cloth through which the ax would have had to cut. But the job was finally done. Cromwell’s head was dipped in tar and then impaled on a wooden pike attached to a 20-foot pole and displayed on the roof of Westminster Hall facing in the direction of the spot where Charles I had been beheaded. Cromwell’s body may have been buried in a pit under the Tyburn Gallows, though one story has it that his daughter was able to retrieve the body. I have no idea if that’s true, and, if true, where those bones might be.

So now we have Cromwell’s head on a pike on the roof of Westminster Hall where the diarist Samuel Pepys recorded seeing it on Feb. 5, 1661. A gruesome sight I am sure. You can see the pike impaled through the skull.

Cromwell's head on a pike


And there it remained for at least 24 years, an eerie human weather vane blown by wind, drenched by rain and snow, bronzed by countless searing summer suns. But in the late 1680s, maybe about 1685 or maybe a bit later, the pole on the which the head was impaled snapped during a fierce storm. Cromwell’s head rolled into a gutter in Parliament Square and is believed to have been found by a sentry, one Pvt. Barnes, who promptly took it home and, according to a diarist of the time, “secreted it in a chimney-corner.”

There is some thought that Barnes was a republican who did not want the head to fall into royalists hands once again. More likely, he was frightened by the hue and cry that arose when it was discovered that the head was missing and by seeing placards issued by the government a few days later ordering anyone who found the head to hand it in . And so it stayed in the chimney until Barnes revealed his secret and the location of the head to his wife and daughter on his death-bed perhaps around 1702.

The next time we have evidence of the head it is in the possession of a collector of curiosities, Claudius Du Puy. Du Puy maintained a museum of curiosities which was apparently one of the most visited museums in London at the time, a motley collection of marine monstrosities, idols, waxworks, musical instruments and strange footwear that filled four rooms.

Du Puy died intestate in 1738 and when next we hear of the head it is in the possession of Samuel Russell, “a dissolute, drunken and impecunious comedian.” Russell appears to have married Pvt. Barnes’ granddaughter and thus his link to the head, though how he came into its actual possession is not known.

Russell attempted to sell the head to Sidney Sussex College and was rebuffed. But James Cox, a London jeweler and moneylender, paid Russell £118 for it in 1787 (about $18,400 today). Twelve years later, he sold it for £230 (about $26,000 today, a tidy profit) to a trio of speculators, the Hughes brothers.

One of the stranger aspects of this already strange story concerns the fate of the Brothers Hughes. Before the head was very much older, each of them suffered a violent and untimely death. One was mugged by a highwayman; another drowned; the third had an apoplectic seizure while out riding, fell off his horse, and died.

The three daughters of the third brother then became the heirs to the head. In 1814, they sold it to their family physician, Dr Josiah Wilkinson, a collector of Cromwellian artifacts. Josiah often showed it to his patients, and the Wilkinson family was apparently in the habit of showing off the relic to their house guests. One house guest reported that the head was usually shown off after breakfast.

Cromwell’s head remained in the Wilkinson family for 146 years until it was donated to Sidney Sussex  College in 1960.

But there remains a pressing issue here, does there not? And you, Gentle Reader, I am sure you are asking the most important question to be asked: How do we know that this skull, now secreted somewhere in the antechapel of Sidney Sussex College, is truly Cromwell’s head?  Because if it’s not, then all this has been merely words—sound and little fury signifying nothing.

Fear not Gentle Reader, the provenance has been well and truly established. Let me count the ways.  The Wilkinson family allowed scientists to study the head, including Dr. George Rolleston in 1875 and Karl Pearson and Geoffrey Morant in 1935.

In 1875, Dr. George Rolleston, an Oxford professor, examined two heads that were reported to be Cromwell’s and compared them to Cromwell’s death mask. The first was a skull from the collection at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Rolleston believed this skull wan’t Cromwell because the damage around the hole in the parietal bone indicated that a spike entered from the top of the head, not the bottom;  there was no flesh left on the skull, and no evidence that it had been embalmed all of which as would have been the case if the skull were Cromwell’s. Rolleston then compared the Wilkinson head to Cromwell’s death mask. He considered this to be the best candidate for Oliver Cromwell’s head.

After another full examination in 1911, with comparisons to the Ashmolean head, archaeologists dismissed the Ashmolean head as a fake. But the absence of firm evidence of the whereabouts of Cromwell’s head between 1684 and 1787, a chain of custody issue, made the examiners wary about declaring the Wilkinson head genuine. They concluded their study unwilling to verify or refute the Wilkinson head’s identity.

The uncertainty increased public demand for a full scientific examination, and Canon Horace Wilkinson, a descendant of Josiah, reluctantly allowed the head to be taken for examination by the eugenicist Karl Pearson and the anthropologist Geoffrey Morant.

Pearson and Morant examined the head for their book, The Portraiture of Oliver Cromwell With Special Reference to the Wilkinson Head. They described the head as embalmed, very shriveled, but still showing a depression on the site of the famous wart that Cromwell had always insisted his portrait painters depict faithfully. The marks of the ax used to sever the head from the body were also apparent. X-rays confirmed that the Wilkinson head was the skull of a man of about 60, Cromwell’s age at death. They argued that the cranial measurements corresponded to portraits of Cromwell. The skullcap showed evidence of having been removed and then reattached with embalmed skin, which corresponded to historical reports. They also found the remains of red hair, which Cromwell had. Their 109-page report concluded that there was a “moral certainty” that the Wilkinson head was that of Oliver Cromwell.

Well, this verification of the Wilkinson head as Cromwell’s head caused Canon Horace Wilkinson no little ethical concern: what on earth to do with the head of a former head of state? He was apparently reluctant to give it to a museum on the grounds that it constituted “Christian remains” and descendants of Cromwell were still living. Perplexed by what to do, Canon Wilkinson apparently just “popped” the head on his mantle piece awaiting divine instruction one presumes.

Cromwell's head just before it was reburied at Sidney Sussex College.
Canon Horace Wilkinson holding Cromwell’s Head, ca. 1949

Canon Horace Wilkinson died in 1957, bequeathing the head to his son, also called Horace. Horace Wilkinson, fils, wished to organize a proper burial for the head rather than put it on public display, so he contacted Sidney Sussex College which, having rebuffed Samuel Russel a couple of centuries previous, now welcomed  home this infamous, if not famous, “Son of Sussex.”

And so Oliver Cromwell’s head, whose first recorded appearance at Sidney Sussex College, according to the Matriculation Record Book, was April 23, 1616, returned to the sheltering arms of its Alma Mater on March 25, 1960, its 343 year journey complete. It rests now in a secret location near the antechapel, preserved in the oak box in which the Wilkinson family had kept the head since 1814. The box was placed into an airtight container and buried with only a few witnesses to the end of this most curious journey.