Square Dog Radio LLP -- details of
"The Strange Story of Oliver Cromwell's Head"
[first picture, if available]
Network:  Radio 4
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Mark Whitaker
Mark Whitaker
Repeat date: 
Repeat time: 
This photo and the one below are of the ''Wilkinson Head'' believed to be the preserved skull of Cromwell. Note the remains of the timber pole at the base of the skull and the metal point sticking out the top -- the skull spent many years impaled on the roof of Westminster Hall. Note also the line where the skull top was cut open to remove the brain for embalming.   



September 3rd 2008 will mark the 350th anniversary of Oliver Cromwell’s death : but his severed head was only finally put to rest in 1960. This is the extraordinary story of what happened to it.

There’s a traditional nursery rhyme from Suffolk that begins:
Oliver Cromwell lay buried and dead
Hee-haw, buried and dead.
There grew an old apple tree over his head
Hee-haw, over his head.

But for just over three hundred years after the Protector’s death there was no agreement as to where his head might be …

When Cromwell died his body was quickly, and by all accounts inadequately, embalmed ; it was then quietly, furtively, buried in Westminster Abbey. At Oliver’s state funeral in November the coffin was empty. After the Restoration royalists wanted revenge. On 30th January 1661 (the anniversary of Charles I’s execution) Cromwell’s body was exhumed and hanged at Tyburn. When it was cut down, the head was severed by an axe and the trunk (probably!) thrown into a pit beneath the gallows. The head was stuck on a post, and displayed in Westminster Hall, where it remained until at least 1684. Pepys mentions going to look at it.

It then went missing (the legend is that it was blown off in a gale and taken by a sentry), and turns up again in 18th London as a collectors item – much sought after as an investment by proprietors of then fashionable ‘museums of curiosities’. It became a more settled possession in 1824, when it was bought by the Wilkinson family from Kent – who kept it until 1960.

But was this macabre object really Cromwell’s head? Much time and ink was spent trying to answer that question . When the British Archaeological Institute examined it in 1911 a photo was published in the Daily Express – which led to calls for it to be bought for the nation. Prime Minister Asquith answered questions about it in the Commons. Finally in 1935 a major forensic examination was undertaken by two scientists whose 100 page report is, by their own admission, “neither pleasant nor lightweight to read.” They confirmed the identity of the head.

Eventually in 1960 the head was accepted by Cromwell’s Cambridge College, Sidney Sussex, and buried in an unmarked place in the chapel.

The programme uses contemporary newspapers, diaries and memoirs, which are read by actors.

See above caption
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