The Strange Saga of Oliver Cromwell's Head

Illustration for Mental Floss by @kevnyan // Inspired by the cover of Narrative Relating to the Real Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell
Illustration for Mental Floss by @kevnyan // Inspired by the cover of Narrative Relating to the Real Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell

After Oliver Cromwell died of “a bastard tertian ague” on September 3, 1658, his funeral proceedings had all of the pomp and circumstance typically shown for the passing of a king. Cromwell, of course, was not a king—he was the Lord Protector of England, Ireland, and Scotland, the man who had abolished the monarchy after ordering the beheading of Charles I, and who had refused the crown during his lifetime.

Cromwell likely would have hated all the fuss, which cost an estimated 60,000 pounds. But no matter—he was dead. And after his embalmed body, encased in a coffin topped by a lifelike effigy, laid in state for two months, he was interred like a king, too, in a vault in Westminster Abbey, the final resting place of monarchs Henrys III, V, and VII; Edwards I, III, V, and VI; Mary, Queen of Scots; and Queen Elizabeth I, among others.

But Cromwell wouldn’t rest in peace for long. In January 1661, a group loyal to the restored Royalists—who had overthrown Cromwell’s son, Richard, in 1659—dug up his body, dragging it from Westminster Hall to a pub and then through the streets to the gallows at Tyburn. There, on the 12th anniversary of the beheading of Charles I, they gave Cromwell's corpse (and the bodies of two co-conspirators who'd had a hand in the beheading) a posthumous execution by hanging. 

Cromwell’s body was on display “from the morning till four in the afternoon,” according to an eyewitness; then, the body was cut down and the head severed (in eight cuts, which knocked out teeth and messed up the nose). It was shoved on a 20-foot-tall wood pole affixed with a metal spike and placed at Westminster Hall for all to see. “[Cromwell’s] severed head was as hollow and dead as his republican ideals,” Frances Larson writes in Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, “and as long as it played its part as the marionette on the roof of Westminster Hall, no one would be allowed to forget.”

In death, Cromwell had experienced many indignities. But this was not the end. No, the strange saga of Oliver Cromwell’s head had only just begun.

From Palace-Side Attraction to Museum Exhibit

From its perch on the south side of Westminster Hall, Cromwell’s head served as a warning—and a morbid tourist attraction—for more than 30 years. (It was briefly removed in 1681 for some roof work.) As Jonathan Fitzgibbons writes in his book Cromwell’s Head, “Anecdotal evidence claims that the head finally came down one evening in the midst of a great storm that battered London towards the end of the reign of James II.” The oak pole holding the head snapped, depositing it at the feet of a guard, who supposedly picked it up, took it home, and stashed it in his chimney. According to an account written in 1727, the guard, “Having concealed it for two or three days before he saw the placards which ordered any one possessing it to take it to a certain office ... was afraid to divulge the secret.” Despite the fact that a substantial reward was offered for the return of the head, the guard feared punishment, and he kept his secret until his dying day (sometime around 1700), when he finally revealed the location of the head to his daughter.

His daughter, in turn, supposedly sold it. After its disappearance from Westminster, Cromwell’s head didn’t officially resurface until 1710, when it popped up in a London museum belonging to Claudius Du Puy. The head fit right in at the four-room museum, whose cabinets, according to Fitzgibbons, “were crammed full of strange items intended to attract the visitor’s baffled queries and amazement.” Cromwell’s head was located in the second room, and Du Puy called it “one of the most curious items” in his establishment. One visitor called it “this monstrous head.”

After Du Puy’s death in 1738, the head vanished again—and this time, its location would remain a mystery for 40 years.

A Drunkard’s Prized Possession

James Cox was near the London neighborhood of Clare Market when he saw a curiosity that he simply had to have.

It was around 1780 when Cox—who had at one point owned a museum—spotted Cromwell’s head being exhibited in a stall. It was being shown by Samuel Russell, whom Fitzgibbons describes as a “failed comic actor” and an alcoholic who claimed to be a descendent of Cromwell; the head, Russell claimed, had come down to him through generations of his family. (“Perhaps there is some truth in this,” Fitzgibbons writes. “The Cromwell and Russell families were connected through a number of marriage alliances … perhaps Oliver’s relatives were seen as a ready market for such a strange item following Du Puy’s death.”)

Cox offered Russell 100 pounds for the head, but Russell refused. So Cox decided to get the head through other means.

According to the pamphlet Narrative Relating to the Real Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell, Russell was “in indigent circumstances” and asked Cox for financial help, which Cox gave, “partly from humanity, and partly (he confesses) with a view to the acquisition, sometime or other, of so great a curiosity.” He patiently lent Russell money until, in 1787, he asked for repayment of the 118 pounds he’d given. Russell had nothing to give … except for Cromwell’s head. He reluctantly transferred ownership to Cox.

Cox then began talking up his unusual acquisition with the goal of driving up its price, spreading word far and wide but only letting a select few actually see it. In 1799, he sold the head for 230 pounds—at nearly twice what he paid, a tidy profit—to the Hughes brothers, who planned to exhibit it in their own museum on Bond Street in London. (The Narrative pamphlet was created for that museum.) But the museum failed; after it closed, all three Hughes brothers quickly died, leading to rumors of a curse.

A Subject of Scientific Scrutiny

But no curse could relegate Cromwell’s head to obscurity. A daughter of one of the Hughes brothers began exhibiting the noggin again in 1813—and she was eager for someone to take it off her hands. Piccadilly Museum considered purchasing it, but opted not to because, as Robert Jenkinson, the 2nd Lord Liverpool and Prime Minister, noted, of “the strong objection which would naturally arise to the exhibition of any human remains at a Public Museum frequented by Persons of both Sexes and of all ages.”

Two years later, the daughter found a buyer at last: Josiah Henry Wilkinson. The Kent resident delighted in his curio, placing it in a small oak box and bringing it out at gatherings. “A frightful skull it is,” a woman who saw it in 1822 later wrote, “covered with its parched yellow skin like any other mummy and with its chestnut hair, eyebrows and beard in glorious preservation—The head is still fastened to the inestimable broken bit of the original pole—all black and happily worm eaten." Wilkinson noted that "The nose is flattened as it should be when the body was laid on its face to have the head chopped off … There is the mark of a famous wart of Oliver’s just above the left eye brow on the skull.” The head remained in the Wilkinson family, passing down from generation to generation.

But by the 19th century, the Wilkinson head wasn’t the only noggin purported to be the Lord Protector’s floating around—in fact, there were several others. In 1875, one such skull at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum went head-to-head with Wilkinson’s, which by then belonged to Josiah’s grandson, Horace. George Rolleston, professor of anatomy and physiology at Oxford University, declared Wilkinson’s head the real deal. The Wilkinson head was subjected to more scientific scrutiny in 1911, this time by scientists at the Royal Archeological Institute, which according to Fitzgibbons came to the conclusion that “while the documentary evidence was slightly dubious, the physical evidence was extremely strong. Although it was not categorically proved that this was Cromwell’s head … there was no way the possibility could be refuted.”

So even though the Wilkinsons were convinced that the head in their possession had belonged to Cromwell, doubt still lingered. And so, in 1934, Canon Horace Wilkinson agreed to let scientists Karl Pearson and Geoffrey Morant take the head and publish the results of their assessment in the journal Biometrika.

Rather than get hung up on where the head had come from, Pearson and Morant chose to focus on the head’s physical appearance: How close a match was it to Cromwell? Did the details of the head match up with its supposed history?

The embalming certainly lined up with what would have been done at the time of Cromwell’s death. Cromwell's skullcap had been removed—this was "usual in all major and particularly in royal embalmments"—and sewn back on. The head was still attached to its pole, which, they wrote, “had long been in contact with the Head, for some of the worm holes pass through the Head and the pole.” The spike that had been thrust through the top of the head was gone—rusted away—but using X-rays, the scientists were able to see that it was still intact in what they called the brain-box. “This prong has been so forcibly thrust through the skull-cap that it has split it from the place of penetration to the right border,” they wrote.

Next, according to Fitzgibbons, they used busts, life masks, and death masks of the late Lord Protector to take measurements, which they then compared to the head. Despite the fact that some shrinkage of the skin made the comparison complicated, Pearson and Morant came away with the conclusion that “the accordance between the mean of the masks and busts and the Wilkinson Head is astonishing.” The measurements were, Fitzgibbons writes, “almost an exact match”—right down to the wart above Cromwell’s eye.

At Rest, At Last

In 1960, the long journey of Oliver Cromwell’s head finally came to an end. Three years earlier, after Canon Horace Wilkinson’s death, his son, Dr. Horace Norman Stanley Wilkinson, took possession of the relic—and he decided it was time to lay it to rest once and for all. He coordinated with Sidney Sussex College, a college of Cambridge University that Cromwell had attended, to find a final resting place.

Cromwell’s first funeral had been attended by thousands; the interment ceremony for what was left of him, on March 25, 1960, was much smaller. Just seven people were present as the head, in its oak box and sealed in an airtight metal container, was buried somewhere near the the college's antechapel. Two years later, a plaque was erected to announce its burial. But just as was true of the head for much of its history, its exact location is unknown to all but a few.

Susan B. Anthony’s Childhood Home in Upstate New York Is Getting a $700,000 Renovation

George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1833, a 13-year-old Susan B. Anthony moved with her family to a two-story brick house in Battenville, New York, where her father managed a cotton mill. Though Anthony only lived there a few years before financial troubles caused her family to relocate once again, it was in that house that she first became aware of the deplorable state of women’s rights—setting her on a path to change the course of history.

According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Anthony’s father started homeschooling her after a local teacher refused to teach Anthony long division on the grounds that women didn’t need the skill. Then, a temporary stint at her father’s mill revealed that the wages of many female employees went directly to their husbands or fathers, and Anthony learned about the gender pay gap firsthand when she was hired as a schoolteacher for a much lower salary than her male predecessor.

Right now, there are only two small indicators of Anthony’s history in the Battenville house—a placard on a nearby stone retaining wall and a sign on a post in the front yard—and the house itself is riddled with black mold and moisture damage.

But that’ll change soon: House Beautiful reports that New York’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which purchased the foreclosed property for just $1 back in 2006, is now planning a $700,000 renovation that includes general repairs, drainage improvements, and mold abatement. A considerable portion of those funds was collected by Senator Betty Little and Assembly member Carrie Woerner.

Whether the house will eventually become a museum remains to be seen. It’s located on a perilous curve on Route 29, and there’s very limited surrounding land or space for parking. Having said that, locals are committed to finding a worthy purpose for it after the restoration is complete. Debi Craig, former president of the Washington County Historical Society, told the Times Union that she thinks there’s potential for an international research center or library on women’s rights.

Regardless of what the Battenville house’s second life ends up looking like, the focus on this particular historic site is perfectly timed—not only does 2020 mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, it’s also Susan B. Anthony’s 200th birthday.

Learn more about the trailblazing suffragette here.

[h/t House Beautiful]

15 Facts About the Westminster Dog Show

Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

One of America's oldest sporting events is also its most slobbery. This year, the Westminster Kennel Club dog show returns to New York City for the 144th time, promising one preeminent pooch the coveted title of "Best in Show" and a lifetime supply of positive reinforcement. While the show has evolved over its many years, it remains a beguiling spectacle for dog fanatics and casual observers alike. Here are 15 facts to get you competition-ready.

1. The original show was for gun dogs.

Champion Stingray of Derryabah, aka Skipper, a British Lakeland Terrier, wins Best In Show at the 92nd Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Gardens, New York City, February 1968
H. William Tetlow, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Around 1876, a group of sportsmen began to hold regular meet-ups in a Manhattan bar to swap hunting stories. Their trusty canine companions eventually made their way into the conversation, and the idea for a dog club was formed. The group met at a bar in The Westminster Hotel, and aptly named themselves the Westminster Breeding Association (later the Westminster Kennel Club). It was after helping to stage a dog show in Philadelphia that the group decided to hold their own to compare and showboat their pups.

The first show, featuring primarily Setters and Pointers, was an immediate success. A total of 1201 dogs entered the first year, with tens of thousands of spectators by the second day. The first prizes included such items as a "Gold and Silver Mounted Pearl Handled Revolver"—an appropriate reward for an active hunter.

2. The show has seen its share of tragedy.

A photo of J.P. Morgan.
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

A champion collie belonging to J.P. Morgan, who spent millions on his obsession with dogs and competed in Westminster regularly, drowned itself. Its trainer called the dog's death "a clear case of suicide" in an 1895 New York Times article.

3. You don't have to be young to win.

Vintage Westminster Dog Show photo.
Lady Iddo at the 53th Westminster Dog Show in 1935.
Imagno/Getty Images

In 2009, a 10-year-old Sussex spaniel named Stump (registered name: Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee) broke the record for oldest dog ever to win "Best in Show." He later appeared on the cover of AARP magazine.

4. Nepotism has made its way into the competition.

Westminster Dog Show 2019
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Dog-judging has always been subjective. Judges at the first modern dog show ever, in Newcastle in 1859, were also the owners of the show's two winners. Today, the Westminster Kennel Club website acknowledges that's it's not a precise science. "Each judge, applying their interpretation of the standard, gives their opinion on that day on which dog best represents its breed," it explains.

5. Life has imitated art.

A dog competes in the Masters Agility Championship during the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2018.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Parker Posey, famous for playing a manic, metal-mouthed Weimaraner-owner in the 2000 dog show parody Best in Show, has also spent some time backstage at the Westminster Dog Show. As she told The Wire at the 2014 WKC Dog Show, she met some personalities resembling her own persnickety character while on set: "[Director Christopher Guest] brought over a professional groomer. She came over right before a take and she criticized our dog. She said, 'The coat's all wrong.'"

6. The top dog gets the royal treatment.

The 2019 winner of the Westminster Dog Show.
Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

The winner of the Westminster Dog Show traditionally eats a celebratory lunch at famed Broadway watering hole Sardi's—breaking New York City's health codes which prevent animals from entering restaurants.

7. It's not all about good looks.

Maximus from the Westminster Dog Show 2019.
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The show doesn't only value looks. A two-legged dog named Nellie participated in the first Westminster show ever in 1877, and 1980's "Best in Show" was a true underdog: Cinnar, a Siberian husky missing part of its ear, won with handler Trish Kanzler—one of the few amateurs to ever win the title.

8. The dogs are refined, but their names sometimes aren't.

Westminster Dog Show 2015 photo.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The 2015 WKC Dog Show featured a Pomeranian named Starfire's Spank Me Hard Call Me Crazy, a basset hound named Easthill Broxden Woodland Lettuce Entertain You, and a border terrier named McHill's His Royal Highness Prince Gizmo House of Gremlin.

9. Things have even turned criminal.

A very good boy at a dog show.
MarijaRadovic/iStock via Getty Images

Eight dogs belonging to one prominent New York City dog breeder were poisoned during the 1895 Westminster Dog Show. Despite the story making the front page of The New York Times, no suspect was ever prosecuted for the crime.

10. A bunch of your favorite breeds have never won "best in show."

A chihuahua poking its head out.
Paffy69/iStock via Getty Images

Despite being a favorite among dog-lovers, there has never been a chihuahua, Great Dane, dachshund, or golden retriever crowned "Best in Show." Here's the full list of breeds to never win, as of 2019.

11. Mutts are slowly making their way into the competition.

A dog looking at the camera.
BiancaGrueneberg/iStock via Getty Images

In 2014, mutts, a.k.a. "All-Americans," were allowed to participate in Westminster's Agility Championship for the first time since 1884—but they’re still ineligible for "Best in Show."

12. Labs are voted most popular, but not head of the class.

Lacey, a Labrador, runs through a sport course during a press preview for the Westminster Dog Show on February 12, 2015 in New York City
Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Despite being the most popular dog in the country, a Labrador retriever has never won "Best in Show." The reason? Experts say their friendly temperament prevents them from desiring the spotlight. Labs can also be disqualified for deviating by half an inch from height standards (between 22.5 and 24.5 inches for males and 21.5 and 23.5 for females)—a regulation that was nearly challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994.

13. Some practices are ancient—and weird.

A dog receiving a prize at a dog show.
Apple Tree House/iStock via Getty Images

While nowadays some breeders cut their dogs' tails for aesthetic reasons, the practice originated with 5th century BCE Greek statesman Alcibiades, who cut the tail of his dog so that the Athenians would have something else to talk about rather than Alcibiades.

14. The dogs have friends (and relatives) in high places.

A photo of a Portuguese water dog.
Ines Arnshoff/iStock via Getty Images

Matisse the Portuguese water dog (officially registered as GCH Claircreek Impression De Matisse) has quite the pedigree. In addition to being the most decorated male show dog in the United States, he is also related to the country's former First Family; his cousin, Sunny, belongs to the Obama family.

15. Naturally, there have been some great underdog stories.

A very tiny dog at the Westminster Dog Show.
Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

Tickle Em Jock, "Best in Show" winner at the 1911 Westminster Dog Show, was a Scottish terrier and a dark horse to boot. His original owner was a butcher who sold him for 2 pounds (or about $15), which turned out to be the Scottish terrier's lucky break. After a few years with trainer Andrew Albright, Tickle Em Jock was valued at $5000. Once, after winning the title of "best of breed," the scrappy champ bit a judge's wrist.

A version of this list first ran in 2016.

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