The 18th Century mystery of Oliver Cromwell’s missing head

We know our blog is dedicated to the history of the Georgian era but, for this subject, we must first venture back into the previous century to set the scene.

Oliver Cromwell; Samuel Cooper; National Portrait Gallery, London
Oliver Cromwell; Samuel Cooper; National Portrait Gallery, London

Our subject today is Oliver Cromwell, or, more accurately, his head. Cromwell had died on the 3rd September 1658 and, after lying in state at Somerset House, his body was buried in Westminster Abbey (the actual burial taking place two weeks before his official funeral as his body was quickly decaying).  And there his body remained until King Charles II was restored to the throne.

In an act of vengeance against the regicides who had executed his father, the new King ordered that the surviving ones were to be hanged, drawn and quartered and three of those who had died, including Oliver Cromwell, were to be exhumed and posthumously executed at Tyburn. Their bodies were hung from the gallows on the 30th January 1661 (twelve years to the day after King Charles I had been beheaded) and, after being taken down, Cromwell’s head was cut from his body and placed on a spike above Westminster Hall.

Westminster Hall and New Palace Yard by Thomas Sandby (attributed to) (c) Palace of Westminster
Westminster Hall and New Palace Yard by Thomas Sandby (attributed to) (c) Palace of Westminster

The head was still there twenty-three years later but after that its whereabouts are disputed for almost a century. Most sources seem to believe it was blown from its spike in a violent gale towards the end of the 1680s and vanished from sight. A head claimed to be Cromwell’s was exhibited by Claudius Du Puy, a French-Swiss collector, in a private museum in London in 1710. According to repute, the head was found by a sentry on duty near Westminster Hall who took it home thinking he could make some money from it but hid it when he was afraid of getting into trouble for possessing such an object, the insinuation being that he subsequently sold it to Du Puy.

By 1775 it was certainly in the possession of one Samuel Russell, stated to be both an alcoholic and a failed comedic actor. Russell made an attempt that year to sell the head to Sidney Sussex, Cromwell’s old college, without success. He then approached James Cox (1723-1800), a wealthy goldsmith and toymaker who, like Du Puy before him, owned a private museum. Terms could not be agreed on the price to be paid but Cox eventually contrived to buy the head from Russell in 1787 for £118, significantly less than the £200 he originally wanted for it.

An 18th century image of  Oliver Cromwell’s Head
An 18th-century image of  Oliver Cromwell’s Head

However, we have discovered a newspaper report from 1782 which throws a different light on the head’s missing years. This report says that the head, when it blew from its spike in the gale in the late 1680s did not immediately fall to the ground but instead it lodged out of sight on the roof, only eventually tumbling to earth around the early 1760s. A sentry did indeed then find it and he, at his death, bequeathed it (what an inheritance!) to his wife and daughter.

The daughter subsequently married a man named Mr R___ (Mr Russell?), who appears to be a man from whom she expects some future ill-treatment, a description which could easily fit the alcoholic Samuel Russell. In this newspaper article, Mr R___ tries to sell the head to Mr C___ (James Cox?), without initial success.

We, therefore, speculate that the head exhibited as Cromwell’s in 1710 may have been a fake and that the head really remained in obscurity for some seventy years hidden on the roof of Westminster Hall. Unless that is, the real fake was the one Samuel Russell owned…

From the CALEDONIAN MERCURY

Anecdote of OLIVER CROMWELL.

About twenty years ago, a centinel who was upon guard nigh Whitehall, one windy night, heard something fall from the roof nigh his centry-box. He picked it up, and found it to be a head on an iron bar. He concealed it for that night, until he could have an opportunity of taking it home. Upon inquiry, he was told it was the head of Oliver Cromwell, which had been supposed to have been stolen some years before, but had only been blown down, and lodged upon a part of the roof, from whence it had fallen the evening the centry found it. He took it to the Society of Antiquarians, who comparing it with the bust of the Protector, agreed that it was his real head. They, therefore, offered the soldier fifty pounds for it, – but he refused to sell it for less than an hundred: so that it remained in his possession during his life; and he left it as a legacy to his wife and daughter. Some years afterwards the daughter married, – and the husband, in looking into an old box in the absence of his wife, found there the head concealed. Upon his wife’s return, he asked how the head came to be there deposited? She confessed whose it was said to be, and why she had concealed it from him: she thought it would be a resource to her, to raise some money in case he should oblige her to leave him by ill treatment. The husband took the head immediately to Mr C___; but although he was assured of its being the real head of the Protector, he could not be prevailed on to give the sum demanded by the proprietor Mrs R___.

(Caledonian Mercury, 26th August 1782)

The head was subsequently exhibited by the Hughes brothers who bought it for £230, possibly from James Cox. Their publicist was John Cranch (1751-1821), a self-taught painter and a man known to John Constable who commented to a friend in 1799 that Cranch’s “whole time and thoughts are occupied in exhibiting an old, rusty, fusty head with a spike in it, which he declares to be the real embalmed head of Oliver Cromwell! Where he got it I know not; ’tis to be seen in Bond Street, at half a crown admittance.

The exhibition was a failure and after languishing for some years the head was sold by a daughter of one of the Hughes to Josiah Henry Wilkinson in 1815 (when the novelist Maria Edgeworth breakfasted with Wilkinson in 1822 she was shown the head).

Eventually, the head did end up at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, bequeathed to them by the Wilkinson family, where it was buried in 1960, finally laying it to rest.

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7 thoughts on “The 18th Century mystery of Oliver Cromwell’s missing head

  1. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 41) | www.weyerman.nl

  2. Pingback: The 18th Century mystery of Oliver Cromwell’s missing head | Mysterious Times

  3. Pingback: Where Is Oliver Cromwell’s Head?

    1. joannemajor

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Cromwell’s headless body is indeed reputed to be buried there, the story goes that his daughter rescued it from a pit it was thrown into following the exhumation and his head being severed. But the head which was displayed as Cromwell’s in the eighteenth-century is buried at Sidney Sussex College.

      Like

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