Vorsterman, Johannes; Greenwich and London from One Tree Hill, about 1680; National Maritime Museum

Guest Post : Elizabeth Gibson, née Smith (1646-1692), ‘My Dear Wife’

Today, we are honoured to have Sara visit our blog, so bear with us while we travel slightly further back in time with her whilst she tells us the story of one early modern woman. Sara’s book Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Women’s Lives 1540-1740 (Pen and Sword, 2015) is currently on special offer for a fraction of its RRP from her website .

Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Women's Lives 1540-1740 by Sara Read. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Maids-Wives-Widows-Exploring-Modern/dp/1473823404

Recently, I wrote an account of the life and times of Dr Thomas Gibson (1648/9–1722) for Early Modern Medicine. Gibson is best known for his book The Anatomy of Humane Bodies Epitomised (at least six editions from 1682), but he was briefly physician-general to the British Army while in his 70s. He is also known in the context of his second wife, Anne Cromwell, who was a granddaughter of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.

Frontispiece of The Anatomy of Humane Bodies Epitomized by Thomas Gibson, 1697.While researching the piece, I read about how Gibson’s first wife, Elizabeth (1646–1692) was a widow from Stanstead St Margaret’s, Hertfordshire.  Most accounts of Thomas Gibson describe Elizabeth as the widow of Zephaniah Cresset, which indeed she was, but what is left out is that Elizabeth was also widowed a second time,  before marrying Gibson in 1684.

The information about Elizabeth’s life comes from her third husband who published an autobiography along with her funeral sermon, A Sermon Preach’d on the Occasion of the Funeral of Mrs Elizabeth Gibson, together with a Short Account of her Life (London, 1692), shortly after her death at the age of 46.

Gibson opens by describing how his wife had lately lived a quiet, retired life, and that she was a deeply pious woman who spent her days in charitable endeavours and prayer, and who unfortunately did not enjoy good health.  He hoped her life story might provide an instructional text and others should follow her example. He claimed he was best placed to represent her life and views because of his ‘long Conversation’ with his late wife but also how he had observed her Christian walking. Their marriage was in fact only around eight years long, but it was a full six years before Gibson made a new marriage to Anne.  Throughout the short autobiography, Gibson quotes extensively from Elizabeth’s spiritual meditations,  explaining to the reader that her words will always be surrounded by ‘Double comma’s’ (sic) or speech marks.

Elizabeth was the third daughter of a lawyer, George Smith who practiced at Grey’s Inn, London, and who was appointed judge to Scotland in 1658. He died shortly after the family relocated to Edinburgh and Elizabeth described how vulnerable she, her mother, Hannah, and younger sister felt at being alone in a strange place 300 miles from their nearest relatives. Her father’s death then was the first of the ‘great afflictions’ which Elizabeth lived through.  Soon afterwards and from the age of fourteen, Elizabeth contracted a ‘Quatane-ague’ which she had for two years.  It was Gibson’s opinion that this illness was the root of all the subsequent ill-health Elizabeth endured.

It was when she was 17, and somewhat recovered, that she was married to Zephaniah Cresset. Cresset was the son of Edward Cresset Master of the alms house and school Charter-House in London from 1650-1660, but was like Elizabeth, from Stanstead St Margaret’s in Hertfordshire – indeed the Smith and Cresset family graves are alongside one another in the same church(1).

Stanstead St Margarets Church, Hertfordshire
Stanstead St Margarets Chuch, Hertfordshire via stiffleaf

Zephaniah was educated at Magdalene College, Oxford and who was planning on working as a doctor of physic in the future. The Cresset marriage only lasted a few months. The couple were living in Elizabeth’s mother’s home at St Margaret’s, and while travelling back there from London Zephaniah fell from his horse, which caused him to contract a fever and he died within a few days of the fall.

While still a teenager, Elizabeth found herself both widowed and expecting her first child. Her son, named after his father, was born seven months after her husband’s death. Worse was to come when the child, a healthy and thriving toddler died suddenly aged just 18 months in October 1665. Elizabeth’s younger sister Mary, died at this time too, both were victims of the Great Plague which swept the country that year, and which claimed five members of Elizabeth’s family, including her father-in-law (who died in December 1665).

Her family began putting pressure on Elizabeth to remarry almost immediately, but it was around three years later that she felt moved by God to marry a physician called Thomas Dawson. Dawson graduated with a medical degree from Jesus College, Cambridge in summer 1669, and was admitted to the College of Physicians a decade later. Elizabeth and Thomas were married for almost fourteen years, and it was a source of great sadness to her that they had no children together.

Throughout the marriage it seems that she suffered from bouts of ill-health including gallstones, colic, bowel problems and jaundice. Like during her first marriage, the couple lived with Elizabeth’s mother in St Margaret’s, but following her mother’s death in 1677 the couple relocated to London.

The Royal College of Physicians, Warwick Lane, London: Interior of the Courtyard; after Samuel Wale (1721-1786). Wellcome Library
The Royal College of Physicians, Warwick Lane, London: Interior of the Courtyard; after Samuel Wale (1721-1786). Wellcome Library

In 1682, Elizabeth went back to her country home to recuperate from the measles. She had not been there long when she got the sad news that Dr Dawson had died suddenly in their London house. He was buried in St Alphage, Cripplegate (2).

Gibson describes how this latest bereavement caused her to suffer from ‘hysterical Colick’ for a ‘year or two’ afterwards.  It was two and half years after losing her second husband that Elizabeth married Gibson. She was never wholly well during their entire seven year marriage, suffering from loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea, painful limbs, and even convulsions.

It seems as though she still had some hopes of a family when she wrote a will on 20 December 1687. In it she bequeathed lands she owned in Hertfordshire to her husband, followed by any children she might yet bear him. She also placed on record her desire to be buried back at St Margaret’s next to her mother and son (3).

While the autobiography describes Elizabeth’s exemplary Christian suffering and ‘good death’, it does not appear that her stated wish to be buried back in St Margaret’s was accommodated and her place of rest is not noted.

Maladies & Medicines: Exploring Health and Healing, 1540 - 1740 by Sara Read and Jennifer Evans. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Maladies-Medicine-Exploring-Health-Healing/dp/1473875714If this post has piqued your interest in health matters at this time, Sara’s next book Maladies and Medicines: Exploring Health and Healing, 1540-1740, co-authored with Dr Jennifer Evans, is coming out with Pen and Sword in July 2017! Keep an eye on Sara’s Twitter feed for more information (@saralread) and also Jennifer’s Twitter feed (@historianjen).

Dr Evans will also be appearing on  the ‘Inside Versailles programme with Greg Jenner and Kate Williams on BBC2, 26 May, so keep an eye out for it.





1 Sir Henry Chauncy, The Historical Antiquities of Hertfordshire (1826), p. 569.

2 Munk’s Roll: Volume 1: Thomas Dawson

3 Miscellanea Genealogica Et Heraldica and the British Archivist (1888), p. 195.

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

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…



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.