Surely among some the most controversial and divisive figures in British history is merciless English general and statesman Oliver Cromwell. He is notable for leading the Parliamentarian army in the English Civil War, which was in large part fueled by disagreements between King Charles I and the Parliament over reforms to manage the power the king was allowed to wield. Cromwell was himself very anti-crown, wanted to keep the King’s powers in check, and indeed sought to abolish the monarchy altogether, which was one of his main goals when he went his army into battle against the Royalist forces. When he and his Parliamentarian forces emerged victorious, he played a key role in in the trial and execution of King Charles I in 1649, after which in 1653 he was made the Lord Protector of England, Ireland, and Scotland, and he would even refuse being offered the crown in 1657. Yet his eventual death and journey after that would prove to be almost every bit as odd and eventful as his life, at least for his head.
It would all not last long, as Cromwell would go to die in 1658, and he was given a lavish funeral and was embalmed and buried in a vault at Westminster Abbey, where many kings had been buried. However, when in 1660 the Royalists came crawling out of hiding and exile to regain power, King Charles II had not forgotten Cromwell and was screaming for blood. Those who had participated in the trial and execution of Charles I were hunted down to be tortured and executed, but Charles II really was out for Cromwell. The problem was, Cromwell was already dead, but this didn’t stop King Charles II from having his revenge. He simply had the corpse removed from Westminster Abbey and dragged to a gallows to be posthumously executed by hanging, after which the corpse was kept there swaying in the wind “from morning till four in the afternoon” and then beheaded. It didn’t even end there, as Cromwell’s disembodied head was then stuck up on a 20-foot high pole along with some others, and erected right outside of Westminster Hall, where it would remain as a macabre reminder to the public not to defy the king all the way up until the 1680s.
The head’s real adventure would begin in 1685, when a violent storm swept through to cause havoc and send the head careening from its pole and rolling down the street to the feet of a guard at the Exchequer’s Office, who decided to keep it, hiding it under his coat and stashing it in the chimney of his home. In the meantime, the search was on for the missing head, with many people looking and rewards offered for it, but the guard who had stolen it was too afraid of retribution and kept it a total secret. It would not be until he was on his deathbed that he would tell his daughter about the hidden head, and she promptly went off and sold it to a private collector. It then sort of disappeared until 1710, when it showed up again on display within the collection of a man named Claudius Du Puy, who kept a private museum of odd and often morbid curiosities. The head was one of the main stars of the show at the museum, attracting crowds of macabre curiosity seekers who gawked and gasped at it. It would remain in Du Puy’s possession until his death in 1738, after which it would pull another disappearing act for awhile.
Cromwell’s head would sort of fade into history again and be forgotten for several decades. No one knew where it had gone and no one really seemed to care, but in 1780 it popped up once more in the private collection of a failed comic actor and degenerate drunk by the name of Samuel Russell, who had been exhibiting the head at a street stall and claiming that Cromwell was an ancestor of his. While most people probably saw it as just a morbid attraction, a goldsmith and clockmaker by the name of James Cox saw it and realized its value, offering Russell a considerable sum for it, but he refused. Nevertheless, he took to borrowing money from Cox from time to time, and at a certain point Cox demanded repayment of around £100 (about £5,600 in today’s money), knowing that the poor drunk could not. Therefore, in 1778 he struck a deal to accept the head as repayment, and it finally became his.
Cox would later sell the head the following year to three brothers named Hughes for substantially more than he had paid for it, making himself a nice profit. The Hughes brothers were collectors of Cromwell memorabilia, so getting the head was a slam dunk for them, and they excitedly went about planning to have it displayed at their own private museum in London. They tried to get more information from Cox about the head and where it had been and how he had procured it, but he was uncooperative and the brothers became suspicious that they had been duped with a possible fake. It ended up not mattering anyway, as the exhibition proved to be a major flop, the entrance fee too expensive, and all three of the brothers died in quick succession, leaving the head in limbo once again.
The daughter of one of the Hughes brothers held onto the head for a while and tried to find a buyer for it, finally selling it to a Josiah Henry Wilkinson in 1815, who mostly just kept it in a box to pull out at parties to freak out guests. The head was passed down from generation to generation within the Wilkinson family as a sort of a spooky heirloom, gathering pieces of lore and legend along the way, such as some family members claiming that they had in fact received the head when it flew in through a hole in the roof during a storm. In the meantime, other heads came out of the woodwork being claimed to be the “real” head of Oliver Cromwell. Before long there was much dispute flying and accusations of the other heads being fake, making it murkier as to which one might possibly be real, but partly due to rigorous analysis in 1911 by scientists at the Royal Archeological Institute and another study performed on it in 1934, it has generally been accepted that the Wilkinson head is most likely the genuine article.
It would not be until 1960 that the strange odyssey of Oliver Cromwell’s head would come to an end, when one of the Wilkinson descendants, a Dr. Horace Norman Stanley Wilkinson, made the choice to do the decent thing and have it laid to rest. On March 25, 1960, the head was placed in a metal container and buried at a secret location on the campus of Sidney Sussex College, its location known only to a few in order to prevent would be grave robbers from trying to get their hands on it. And so ends the story of one of history’s most famous heads, and a strange little oddity lost to time.