Cromwell’s Head

Oliver Cromwell came from ambitious stock, which brought him to a bad end—two ends, in fact—and quite a long journey. His great-great granduncle, Thomas Cromwell, was chief advisor to old King Henry VIII, the one with the wives. When Henry broke with the Roman Church (1534), Thomas egged him on, even inciting the arrest and execution of his old friend Sir Thomas More, who remained loyal to Pope Clement. See “A Man for All Seasons,” a wonderful movie, for that particular story.

But Henry never wanted a real break with the Church. Considering himself a staunch Catholic, he only wished to rule the Church in England. By contrast, the Cromwells were reformers at heart. By the 1560s they were stern Puritans; by the 1640s, the Puritans controlled Parliament.

Oliver, a young MP, was with the most ardent Puritans, who reveled in apocalyptic prophecies and insisted it was wrong “to coin metaphor of Scripture,” that the Bible must be taken literally. Inspired by this theology, Parliament outlawed Christmas celebration: pagan-derived customs such as decorated trees, feasting and caroling. It banned Nativity scenes as idol-worship. It even discouraged the word “Christmas” as taking the Lord’s name in vain. So some historians have called Cromwell “the original Grinch who stole Christmas” (until Charles Dickens kindly returned it 200 years later).

The hard-Puritans foresaw the near return of Christ, once they had bleached out the “episcopal stain.” One wrote, “all the teetering and tumbling affairs on earth (which is universally shaking into a new Creation) are an History of Christ’s coming to reign.” Another mused of these “overturning, overturning, overturning days.”

But King Charles I was a problem; he had Catholic sympathies. It led to two bloody civil wars, Royalists vs. Parliament, Cavaliers vs. Roundheads. As commander in several battles, Cromwell crushed the royal forces, then urged Parliament to behead King Charles for treason. His signature was third on the execution warrant.

Turning his gentle attention to the Catholics and royalists in Ireland, he then seized land, burned homes, and killed civilians like insects. After taking Drogheda, his army massacred nearly 3,500 people, including all men carrying arms, civilians, prisoners and captured priests. If you wonder why the Irish resent the English, now you have a clue.

The Puritans exulted. At the so-called Barebones Parliament (1653) they announced that God had called on Cromwell “to destroy Antichrist in his Dragoical and Priestly power, with their appendancies, and to advance the Kingdom of Jesus Christ,” not just in England, but everywhere. Cromwell must march against Europe and Rome, they said, and seize the Holy Land.

Weary of blood perhaps, Cromwell declined. He did accept the title for life of Lord Protector of England, with a lot of executive power, and moved into the old palace. Through the 1650s he worked to reorganize the Church and persecute Quakers, who annoyed him. By bits he took royal trappings—addressed as “Your Highness,” he even bestowed knighthoods. But when Parliament offered the formal title of King, Cromwell declined. “I will not build Jericho again,” he said.

Eventually he paid for all the bloodshed; or his body did. The Lord Protector died of malaria in September 1658 (enemies said a violent storm that night was the Devil carrying off his soul). Eighteen months later the old monarchy was back. Hungry for revenge, royalists exhumed his corpse from Westminster Abbey and dragged it through the London streets. They hanged it, beheaded it, and finally stuck the head on a spike atop Westminster Hall. It was on display for 20 years.

What then? No one is sure, exactly. After 1684, the head either fell or was taken down. In 1710 it may have been in a private museum in London. A hard-up actor manager, Samuel Russell, may have had the head in the early 1770’s, and was trying to sell it. From there the story grows convoluted and weird.

We don’t have room, but you can read the very curious journey of Cromwell’s head on this page.

Take that, Oliver.

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