Sunday 30 January 2011
Today marks the four hundredth anniversary of one of the more bizarre events in English history- the public execution of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw, all attainted by Parliament for high treason, arising from their part in the trial and execution of Charles I in on the same day in1649. It was bizarre because all three men were already dead and thus, it might be imagined, beyond all temporal punishment. It was really just an act of symbolic justice, or frustration, in which the condemned were exhumed, their remains then hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, the traditional punishment for traitors.
I have mixed feelings about Oliver Cromwell, at once the greatest commoner and the greatest traitor in our history. The best verdict ever passed on him was by a man who knew him well - Edward Hyde, first earl of Clarendon, the chief minister of Charles II. In his History of the Rebellion he writes;
In a word, as he was guilty of many crimes against which Damnation is denounced, and for which hell-fire is prepared, so he had some good qualities which have caused the memory of some men in all Ages to be celebrated; and he will be look’d upon by posterity as a brave badd man.
A brave, bad man who took a remarkable journey: from burial with all honour among kings at Westminster Abbey to the ignominy of Tyburn just over two years later. How are the mighty fallen, not only in the midst of battle.
In David Copperfield Mad Mr Dick is continually troubled by the question of King Charles’ Head. He might just as well have been troubled by that of Cromwell, which had a far longer afterlife, in and out of the public eye.
After his ‘execution’ his body was cast into a common pit while the head was put on a spike above Westminster Hall, a warning to all the others who would never stand in his place. There it remained for almost twenty-five years, finally being blown down in a storm, disappearing in the streets of London. Despite the offer of a ‘substantial reward’ for its safe return it did not finally resurface until 1710, then in the possession of one Claudius du Puy, a Swiss-French collector of curios, who displayed it in his London museum.
From a sinister warning looming above the skies of London it descended into a prop in a kind of black comedy. After the death of Puys in 1738 it once more vanished from public view before coming into the possession in the late eighteenth century of one Samuel Russell, a failed comic actor and notorious drunkard, who was rumoured to be a descendent of the Lord Protector. Apparently he passed the ‘sacred relic' - his own expression - among his friends during their inebriate sessions, causing further erosion to the features. He finally sold it in 1799 to three brothers by the name of Hughes, who used it as a centrepiece in an exhibition of Cromwell-related items.
The daughter of one the brothers, failing to interest public museums in the curio, sold it on in 1815 to Josiah Wilkinson. It was to remain in his family’s possession until it was finally interred in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, Cromwell’s alma mater, in early 1960. Not a bad fate in the end, really, to come back to Cambridge, a place for all sorts of heads, old and new, bad and good.