Wednesday, 10 December 2014

No rest for the wicked; Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) original interment Westminster Abbey, head now buried Sidney Sussex College Chapel, location of body unknown

Cromwell's coffin plate up for grabs at Sothebys.
Oliver Cromwell’s gilt copper coffin plate was sold yesterday at Sotheby’s in London for £74,000. The plate had originally been placed inside the inner lead coffin in which Cromwell was buried, the Order Book of the Privy Council for September 1658 details the arrangement, “his Highness Corps being embalmed, with all due rites appertayneing thereunto, and being wrapped in Lead, There ought to be an Inscripcion in a plate of Gold to be fixed upon his Brest before he be putt into the Coffin. That the Coffin be filled with odours, and spices within, and Covered without with purple Velvett, and handles, Nayles, and all other Iron Worke about it, be richly hatched with Gold."  The plate was removed by James Norfolk, Serjeant of the House of Commons when he supervised the disinterment of Cromwell’s corpse in 1661 for his public ‘posthumous execution’. Norfolk handed over the corpse but kept the coffin plate as a souvenir.

The Protector died on 3 September 1658:

….. about four of the clock in the afternoon.  I am not able to speak or write; this stroke is so sore, so unexpected, the providence of God in it so stupendous, considering the person that is fallen … I can do nothing but put my mouth in the dust, and say, It is the Lord; and though his ways be not always known, yet they are always righteous, and we must submit to his will.
John Thurloe to Henry Cromwell on the death of his father

Cromwell’s death may have come as a shock to those closest to him but they should not have been surprised.  He had been ailing for some time, suffering from tertian ague (probably some form of malaria) and the grief of losing his favourite daughter to cancer on 6 August. On August 17 he was seen out riding by the Quaker George Fox who later commented “I saw and felt a waft of death go forth against him.” By September 3 he was dead. The Lord Protector had refused the crown when it had been offered to him but in death he was treated like Royalty. The Venetian envoy reported that “at Whitehall they are now preparing for the funeral of the late Protector, which will take place with extraordinary pomp and magnificence…”

Cromwell lying in state at Somerset House
The funeral arrangements were, ironically, modelled on those of James 1. The body was embalmed and then taken to lie in state in Somerset House where thousands of silent, solemn citizens filed past the elaborate catafalque. The funeral procession took place on 23 November, a wooden effigy standing in for Cromwell who, despite the embalming, had started to decompose and been buried in Westminster Abbey 13 days before in a private ceremony.  The cortege was headed by a carriage adorned with plumes and escutcheons and drawn by six horses draped in black velvet. Soldiers dressed in new red coats with black buttons lined the route and only ticket holders were allowed anywhere near the procession which took seven hours to travel little more than a mile. Anyone who was anyone in the protectorate followed the hearse, down to the Protectors household servants. After a ceremony in the Abbey the catafalque and effigy stood on public view for many weeks.

The ostentation of the funeral provoked mixed reactions. John Evelyn reported that it was “it was the joyfullest funeral that ever I saw, for there was none that Cried, but dogs, which the soldiers hooted away with a barbarous noise, drinking & taking tobacco in the streets as they went”. Cromwell was succeeded as Protector by his son Richard but the regime lasted less than a year and by 1660 the English had invited Charles II to become their king. One of the first royal acts was to order the trial of 12 surviving regicides who were convicted and then hung, drawn and quartered as traitors. Newly Royalist Parliament also ordered the posthumous execution of three deceased regicides Cromwell, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton. Cromwell’s remains were removed from the middle wall of the Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey and taken to the Red Lion Inn in Holborn, where he was joined by Ireton and Bradshaw. On the morning of January 30 1661, the anniversary of the execution of Charles the First, the three corpses, in open coffins, were taken to Tyburn where they were hung in public view until the late afternoon. As the light began to fade the bodies were taken down and beheaded – it took eight blows to separate Cromwell’s head from his body. The bodies were thrown into a pit at Tyburn and the heads impaled on spikes on twenty foot poles and raised above Westminster Hall. There the heads remained until the late 1680’s.

The 'Wilkinson' head photographed in the late Fifties

Cromwell’s head went missing in around 1688 when a storm snapped the pole on which it was impaled and the head fell into the grounds of Westminster Hall. A sentry found it and hid it in the chimney of his house, ignoring the considerable reward that was offered for its return. No one knows what happened to the head after this until it reappeared in 1710 in the Cabinet of Curiosities owned by Claudius Du Puy who put it on public display. Du Puy boasted to a German visitor that he could get 60 guineas for the head if he wished to sell it. On Du Puy’s death in 1738 the head passed through various hands; a failed comic actor named Samuel Russell used to produce the head and pass it around at drunken revels, the clumsy hands of the carousers causing “irreparable erosion of its features”. The Hughes Brothers put it on public display in Bond Street and charged two shillings and sixpence to see it but the venture was a failure as many potential customers simply did not believe that it was the head of Cromwell.     

One of the ferocious head hunters
of Sidney Sussex College
In 1815 one of the Hughes’ descendants sold the head to Josiah Henry Wilkinson who astonished the novelist Maria Edgeworth by producing it one morning at breakfast “not his picture—not his bust—nothing of stone or marble or plaster of Paris, but his real head”. On the other hand Thomas Carlyle point blank refused to see it or to believe that the head could be Cromwell’s “it has hair, flesh and beard, a written history bearing that it was procured for £100 (I think of bad debt) about 50 years ago...the whole affair appears to be fraudulent moonshine, an element not pleasant even to glance into, especially in a case like Oliver's.” There were other candidates to be the authentic head of Cromwell – a skull in the Ashmolean museum in particular made strong claims to the one and only genuine article. The distinguished physician George Rolleston examined both heads and thought that the Ashmolean skull was a fake, a verdict concurred with by later investigators who pointed out that it had been pierced from the top, not the bottom, and that there were no vestiges of skin, flash or hair as would be expected from an embalmed head. In 1960 a descendent of Wilkinson’s presented the head to Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge where Cromwell had been a student. On March 25 1960 the head was finally reburied in the college chapel inside an airtight container with just a few witnesses. The burial was only made public in October 1962 and a plaque now marks the approximate spot, the exact location remaining a closely guarded secret.

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