Oliver Cromwell’s Head

by Kieran Healy on November 28, 2003

As I’ve said before, the Latham & Matthews transcription of the Diary of Samuel Pepys is a marvel of scholarship. I would be enjoying myself a good deal less if I didn’t have the footnotes to read. Take October 13 1664, for example, which I read last night. Pepys has just read a book containing the story “that Cromwell did in his life time transpose many of the bodies of the kings of England from one grave to another, and that by that means it is not known certainly whether the head that is now set up upon a post be that of Cromwell or one of the kings.” Then we get the editorial footnote:

The book is Samuel-Joseph Sorbiere’s Relation d’un Voyage en Agletterre … (Paris, 1664; not in the P[epys] L[ibrary]). The story (which struck Sorbiere as ‘un bruit ridicule’) is at pp.165-6 in the Cologne edition of 1667 … There seems no doubt that this was in fact Cromwell’s head: see K. Pearson and G.M. Morant, Portraiture of O. Cromwell, esp. pp.107+. For a contrary view, see F.J. Varley, Cromwell’s latter end. The head remained for display at Westminster Hall for about 25 years, when it was blown down in a storm. In 1710 it was said to be in London in a collection of curios: Von Uffenbach, London in 1710 (trans. and ed. Quarrell and Mare), p.82. In 1812 a head (allegedly the same one) found its way (via a pawnbroker’s shop) into the possession of a Suffolk family — the Wilkinsons of Woodbridge — whence it passed in 1960 to Cromwell’s college, Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, where it was given a decent burial in the ante-chapel. Journal R. Arch. Inst. 68/237+; N & Q., corr in vols for 1864 and 1926; The Times, 31st December 1874; ib., 15 April 1957; Sid Suss. Annual 1960, p.26.

Marvellous stuff.



Josh 11.28.03 at 1:51 am

The story of Cromwell’s head (or skull) gets better than that. According to a friend of mine who was once a fellow of Sidney Sussex, when Sidney Sussex was seeking to acquire the skull of its most famous alumnus cranks from around the United Kingdon (and for all I know elsewhere) began sending in letters claiming to possess the skull and offering to sell it; some even sent in skulls. The Master of Sidney Sussex sent a letter in response to the sender of one such skull, saying something to the effect of, thanks for the skull, but I’ve consulted a specialist and he says that it is the skull of a 12 year old child, so I’m afraid we can’t accept it. To which the sender replied, ‘Oh, that’s all right, it’s Cromwell’s skull from when Cromwell was 12’.
Probably apocryphal, but I’d like to think it’s true.


Mikhel 11.28.03 at 4:24 am

I feel like I’ve just stepped out of the Twilight Zone, and into another episode of the Twilight Zone.

Interesting stuff.


JoJo 11.28.03 at 5:17 am

Marvellous stuff.



Dell Adams 11.28.03 at 8:38 am

Pepys’ diary is running online in blog form (links and all!)


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