In the Dining Hall of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, you will find a 1656 portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper, Cromwell’s favorite painter. It’s the featured image above. Cromwell was a student of Sidney Sussex College for one year, 1616-1617. The Matriculation Book records his attendance from April 23, 1616, a few days before his 17th birthday, until he left due to his father’s death in 1617.  Cromwell is, perhaps, the most famous, if not infamous, “Son of Sussex” to come down the pike, if you’ll pardon the expression.

In the ante-chapel of Sidney Sussex College you will find this plaque:


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

I am going to tell you the story of the 343 year journey of Oliver Cromwell’s head, from its first appearance at Sidney Sussex College on April 23, 1616, firmly attached to its body, to the return of the head, sans body, on March 25, 1960. It’s a gruesome and cautionary tale, but you, Gentle Reader, deserve to hear it.

But first a little background. If you have been a constant reader of this blog, then you will recall that Dennis Ryan and I spent a week in residence at Sydney Sussex College in July. Dennis was there to pursue his interest in the great 20th century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who taught at Trinity College from 1929 until his death in 1951. Dennis would spend three days in the Wittgenstein Archives at the Wren Library at Trinity College. I would spend that time searching out Cromwell’s head. Alas, the closest I came to finding his head was sitting under the Cooper portrait while we took breakfast in the Sidney Sussex Dining Hall.

It was not for lack of my trying that Cromwell’s head’s burial place keeps its secret. I undertook a Herculean effort to dig up that skull. I even went so far as to hire a couple of local blokes practiced in the art of digging holes and possessors of a backhoe. For a few quid and a couple of pints of ale, the lads dug where my limited knowledge of the location of Cromwell’s head suggested it might be found. We started in the Master’s garden:

Looking for Cromwell's Head II

But a couple of days of digging proved fruitless and so I instructed the boys to fill in the holes. I paid them off and sent them on their way.

Looking for Cromwell's Head IV

Discouraged? Sure, but not defeated. I thought that maybe since the head was interred in 1960, the interrers  might have used the underground tunnels that carry the water pipes, and electrical conduits to find a suitable spot to hide the skull. So I searched out and found a manhole cover and called the lads back to work.

Looking for Cromwell's Head III (3)

No luck. And the blokes were getting annoyed. So I paid them off once more and sent them on their merry way and took myself to a local pub, The Champion of the Thames, where I sought solace in the warm beer and the warm heart of Beth the bartender.

Beth at the Champion of the Thames Pub Cambridge

Beth told me to buck up. She said I didn’t need to find Cromwell’s head (“and just who is this bloke, Cromwell” she wanted to know) to tell my story, and that even if I did find his head, it was unlikely that I would ever be allowed to leave Cambridge, let alone the UK, with Cromwell’s head in my suitcase. She was right of course, though it took a few pints of Summer Lightning and a couple of Scotch Eggs to convince me.

So here’s the curious and gruesome story of the journey of Cromwell’s head from April 23, 1616 to March 25, 1960. Most of the tale is, I think, true, as much as any tale that is 343 years old can be verified.

But perhaps some of you, like Beth, are not well acquainted with Oliver Cromwell and his place in British history. Those of you  who are can scroll down a few paragraphs to the central discussion of the journey of Cromwell’s head from 1616 to 1960: there and back again.

Oliver Cromwell was the Lord Protector of England from 1653 until his death in 1658. How he became Lord Protector is a story longer than I care to tell in this post, but I’ll give you a thumbnail sketch. Cromwell was a member of Parliament during the troublesome reign of Charles I whose conflicts with Parliament lead to the English Civil War (well, wars actually— there were three from 1642-1651) and the king’s beheading on January 30, 1649. The Parliamentary forces, the Roundheads, were led by Oliver Cromwell. After defeating the Cavaliers, the king’s forces, in 1651, and after two years of the largely unsuccessful First Commonwealth, Cromwell was offered the position of Lord Protector. In fact, he was offered the monarchy as King Oliver, but he declined, Caesar-like, and settled for being the Lord Protector which, for all intents and purpose, was pretty much being the king.

Cromwell’s reign has received mixed reviews. To some he was a proto-fascist dictator, to others, a herald of democracy for England. I pitch my tent in the Cromwell-as-proto-fascist dictator camp. But that is neither here not there for this particular story.

Cromwell died on September 3, 1658 most likely of septicemia as a result  of malarial fever and a urinary tract infection. He had been allowed to name his successor and his named successor was his son, Richard. Richard was not the man that his father was and in 1659, Richard resigned as Lord Protector ushering in the restoration of the monarchy and the return of the exiled Charles II in 1660.

Oliver Cromwell had been the third signer of the death warrant issued after the trial and conviction for treason of Charles I, a deed that was not forgotten by Charles II, and a deed that gives rise to the curious and gruesome journey of Cromwell’s head. Because, you see, on January 30, 1661, 12 years after Charles I was beheaded, Charles II had Oliver Cromwell beheaded, never mind that Cromwell had died on September 3, 1658. Charles simply had Cromwell’s body exhumed and hanged in chains at Tyburn Gallows. If you are at all familiar with London, Tyburn, the principal location of execution for traitors back in the day, is located very near the modern day Marble Arch. A plaque on the traffic island at Marble Arch indicates the spot where the infamous three-legged gallows, once stood. An estimated 50,000 people were executed here between 1571 and 1783.

After hanging on Tyburn Gallows for a day, Cromwell’s body was taken down and decapitated. Legend has it that it took eight blows of the executioner’s ax to remove Cromwell’s head from his body.  And that’s possible because after Cromwell’s death his body was embalmed and wrapped in several layers of grave cloth through which the ax would have had to pass. But eventually the job was done and the severed head was dipped in tar, impaled on a wooden pike that was attached to a 20 foot pole, and placed on the roof of Westminster Hall facing in the direction of the spot where Charles I had been beheaded and where Samuel Pepys records having seen it in his diary entry of February 15, 1661.

And there the impaled head remained for nearly a quarter of a century, blown by winds, drenched by rain and snow, bronzed by countless summer suns, starring eyeless with mouth a-gap

Cromwell's head on a pike

until sometime in the late 1680’s, perhaps 1685, when the pike upon which Cromwell’s head had been impaled snapped during a fierce storm, rolled into a gutter in Parliament Square, and was retrieved, so the story goes, by a Westminster Hall sentry, one Pvt. Barnes, who surreptitiously carried it home and hid it in the chimney afraid to fess up after a considerable hue and cry was raised to find the head.  It was also thought that the sentry harbored republican sentiments and didn’t want the head to fall into royalist hands once again. At any rate, Barnes kept the head and its hiding place a secret, revealing it only on his deathbed in 1702 to his wife and daughter.

The chain of custody is a little vague until 1710, when it was in the possession of Claudius Du Puy, who presumably bought it from the Barnes family. Du Puy ran a private museum of freaks and curiosities in London. Du Puy’s museum was internationally famous and ranked among the top attractions in London at the time, attracting visitors such as  Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach who reported seeing Cromwell’s head in Du Puy’s show, part of a motley collection of marine monstrosities, idols, waxworks, musical instruments and strange footwear that filled four rooms.

De Puy died in 1738, by which time Cromwell’s head had undergone a curious transformation from an object intended to project power and induce fear, into a mere grotesque item regarded as an object of cheap amusement.

Following De Puy’s death the head was sold to the Russell family who were shirt-tail relatives of the Cromwells. However, the Russell family was in terminal decline and by the end of the 18th century Cromwell’s head was in the hands of a failed comic and alcoholic, Samuel Russell. Russell was approached by a museum owner, James Cox, who offered him £100 pounds (about $11,400 today) for the head. Despite being deeply in debt Russell initially refused to sell. But he borrowed large sums of money from Cox, soon defaulted on his debt, and had to give up the head.

By the time Cox acquired the head, however, he had quit the museum business for the jewelry business. In 1799, having no use for the head, Cox sold it for £230 (about $26,000 today, a tidy little profit) to three brothers named Hughes. The brothers were hoping to set up a museum of Cromwell related items.

One of the stranger aspects of this already strange story concerns the fate of the Hughes Brothers. Soon after they acquired the head, 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 were then heirs to the head. In 1813, they sold it to their family physician, Dr Josiah Wilkinson who delighted in the acquisition and often took occasion to reveal it to his patients. It remained in the Wilkinson family until it was interred at Sidney Sussex College in 1960.

There is, of course, the troublesome question of whether the head that we have been discussing is truly Cromwell’s.

The Wilkinson family allowed scientists to study the head, including Dr. George Rolleston in 1875, and Karl Pearson and Geoffrey Morant in 1935.

Rolleston had conducted an examination on another skull—called the Ashmolean Skull—after claims were made that it was Cromwell’s head. Rolleston was unconvinced by the Ashmolean skull’s supposed history, and visited Wilkinson’s home to see the skull shortly afterwards. After an examination, he dismissed the Ashmolean skull as a fake and declared that the Wilkinson head was the real head of Cromwell.

After another full examination in 1911, with comparisons to the Ashmolean head, archaeologists dismissed the Ashmolean head as a fake. The absence of firm evidence of the whereabouts of Cromwell’s head between 1684 and 1787 made them wary about declaring the head genuine. They concluded their study unable to verify or refute the head’s authenticity.

The uncertainty increased public demand for a full scientific examination, and in 1935, Canon Horace Wilkinson, son and heir of Josiah, 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. You can see the wart in Cooper’s portrait above.  The marks of the ax used to sever the head from the body were also apparent.

X-rays confirmed that it was the skull of a man of about 60, Cromwell’s age at death. the cranial measurements also corresponded to portraits of Cromwell. The skullcap showed evidence of having been removed and then reattached with embalmed skin, which corresponded to historical reports. As Cromwell’s biographer, Lady Antonia Fraser, observed, it is scarcely necessary “to stress how rare a decapitation after death must have been, let alone the combination.” Pearson and Morant concluded that this was likely the mummified head of Oliver Cromwell. Their 109-page report concluded that “it is a moral certainty drawn from circumstantial evidence that the Wilkinson head is the genuine head of Oliver Cromwell, Protector of the Commonwealth.”

This news caused Canon Wilkinson some 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. Uncertain exactly what to do, the canon is said to have simply “popped” it on his mantelpiece while waiting divine inspiration one assumes.

In 1960, following Canon Wilkinson’s death, his son, also called Horace, wished to arrange a proper burial so he contacted Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where Cromwell had once briefly studied. Remember? April 23, 1616 to sometime in 1617. Yes, we are almost home again.

Cromwell's head just before it was reburied at Sidney Sussex College.
Horace Wilkinson standing before the door to Sydney Sussex Chapel holding Cromwell’s Head

The College, which had turned down  Samuel Russel’s offer to sell the head to the college at the end of the 18th century, now welcomed home this “Son of Sussex.” In order to avoid the attentions of future head-hunters, the Master and Fellows determined to bury Cromwell’s head in a secret location, recording the event only with an oval plaque to the left of the entrance into the chapel. There, somewhere in the antechapel, it was interred on 25 March 1960, preserved in the oak box in which the Wilkinson family had kept the head since 1815. The box was placed into an airtight container and buried with only a few witnesses, including family and representatives of the college. The secret burial was not announced until October 1962.

And so, after a journey of 343 years, Cromwell’s head came home to rest. There and back again.