This Sunday marks the 350th anniversary of the execution by being hung from the neck until dead of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the republic following the execution of King Charles I.
However, he was in fact, already dead!
He actually died in September 1658, with his funeral taking place in late November, although his body had been buried two weeks earlier as it was starting to smell a bit. Well, he had been dead for two months! He was interred in Westminster Abbey with all the pomp and ceremony that would have been accorded to a Royal funeral, which is not as ironic as it sounds, as he did seriously consider taking the title of King himself.
Anyhow, after the restoration, as I mentioned last October, there were the trials of the Regicides – those people who signed the original death warrant, and it was decided that Oliver Cromwell should not be left in Westminster Abbey, and that a posthumous execution would be carried out.
On 28 January 1661, the bodies of Cromwell and a fellow Regicide, Henry Ireton were taken to the Red Lion Inn in Holborn, joined the following day by the body of John Bradshaw, before being taken to Tyburn (by modern day Marble Arch) for execution.
On the morning of 30 January 1661, the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I, the shrouded bodies in open coffins were dragged on a sledge through the streets of London to the gallows, where each body was hanged in full public view until around four o’clock that afternoon.
After being taken down, Cromwell’s head was severed with eight blows, placed on a wooden spike on a 20-foot pole, and placed in public view on the roof of Westminster Hall.
Cromwell’s head remained on a spike above Westminster Hall until the late 1680s – when it mysteriously vanished, seemingly following a storm that broke the spike it was stuck on. Remember, the head was on top of Westminster Hall – outside in the weather.
It is thought that a local guard took the head, but became afraid after a huge reward was offered for its return. Over the next centuries, the head passed through various hands, although over time the authenticity of what was claimed to be his head became disputed. The head most likely to be that of Oliver Cromwell is now buried in a secret location within the grounds of Sidney Sussex College.
As to the rest of his body, various conspiracy theories exist, including a rumour that Cromwell’s daughter Mary had it rescued from the pit and interred at her husband’s home at Newburgh Priory. A sealed stone vault was claimed to contain the remains of the headless Cromwell, but generations of the family have refused requests, including one from King Edward VII, to open it. Biographer John Morrill stated that it was more likely that Cromwell’s body was thrown into the pit at Tyburn, where it remained.
Another rumour is that the bodies of the three Regicides were taken back to Red Lion Square and buried there – and indeed there is a stone memorial on the site of the rumoured burial site.
I am not aware of any ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the execution of Oliver Cromwell taking place this Sunday at Tyburn itself, but there will be the annual march through Whitehall to mark the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I.
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