From Lord Protector to Macabre Curiosity - Exhibiting Oliver Cromwell's Head

CABINETS OF CURIOSITY.

The Remains of the real embalmed head of the powerful and renowned usurper Oliver Cromwell, styled protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland; with the original dyes for the medals struck in honour of his victory at Dunbar, &c. &c. &c. are now exhibiting at No. 5, in Mead-Court, Old Bond-street. Admittance, and printed copy of a genuine narrative relating to the acquisition, concealment, and preservation, of the articles exhibited, two shillings and sixpence

London: no printer, Feb. 1799

$6,800.00

Broadside: 30 x 37.7 cm.

Folded. Mild staining, expert archival repairs.

[with:]

[Cranch, John (1751-1821)]

Narrative Relating to The Real Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell, Now Exhibiting in Mead Court, In Old Bond-Street.

No place, no printer, 1799

Quarto pamphlet: 21.5 x 15 cm. [4], 7-20 p. (lacking half-title). Bound in modern quarter leather and marbled boards. Very light waterstaining. With an engraved vignette on the title showing Cromwell's embalmed head, still attached to its spike, with a crown, axe, two swords, and a noose. The inscription reads "A Crown or a Halter?".

[with:]

2 sheets of original drawings of items from the exhibition: The first with drawings in black ink with accents in pink and blue wash of Cromwell's coat and a pouch. Inscription at head: "These subjects which follow was [sic!] sketch'd during the time they were on shew at Hutchins's." Description of coat at foot of page defective but reading in part "The Buff-coat of Oliver Cromwells… and pouch [?worn at the battle?] of Worcester." The second sheet with drawings in black with accents in blue wash of two of Cromwell's swords: "Oliver Cromwells sword with which he desolved the Long Parliament.", and "The handle drawn more than half the original size", and "Oliver Cromwell sword, at the Battle of Dunbar." All of the artifacts described were apparently purchased at an auction. Each has a lot number.

Dimensions: 26 x 16 cm. and 26.3 x 19 cm.

Heavy paper, first sheet defective at foot affecting an inscription (as noted above) but both sheets otherwise well preserved.

Two extremely rare ephemeral items produced for the exhibition of Oliver Cromwell's embalmed head and "other incident curiosities", together with two sheets of unique drawings made at the exhibition. Only one copy of the broadside (ESTC T226110) is recorded (at the British Library) and three copies of the exhibition catalogue (T135438) (British Library, Bishopsgate Institute, New York Historical Society.) The two sheets of drawings are unique, representing artifacts that are not described in the exhibition catalogue.

Oliver Cromwell died on 3 September 1658. After being embalmed and lying in state for over a month, the Lord Protector received a lavish funeral modeled (ironically) on those of the English monarchs. He was interred at last on 3 September 1658 in Westminster Abbey but he did not lie in peace for long. On 30 January 1661 (the anniversary of King Charles I's execution), the newly restored King Charles II ordered that Cromwell's body and those of his co-regicides Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw be exhumed, posthumously hanged at Tyburn, and beheaded. Their bodies were thrown into a pit beneath the gallows (Tyburn's "triple tree") and their heads, crudely hacked from their bodies, were placed on spikes atop 20-foot oak poles and installed on the roof of Westminster Hall. 

"This was just the beginning of the adventures of Cromwell's head. During the next 300 years, it would travel from its traitor's pole to a number of museums, shows, and even a Victorian breakfast table. It would be thrown from a building, concealed in a chimney, and bought and sold numerous times. Along the way, Cromwell's head would encounter an opportunistic soldier, a drunken actor, a money-grubbing publicist and forensic scientists, not to mention a gaggle of amazed and skeptical onlookers."(Fitzgibbons, p. 25)

The three heads remained atop Westminster Hall for more than 20 years until a severe gale knocked Cromwell's loose and sent it hurtling to the ground. Precisely what happened next is unclear but one account holds that a guard picked up the head, still pierced by the metal spike, hid it in his cloak and afterward concealed it in his chimney, revealing the secret to his daughter while on his deathbed at the end of the 17thc.

In 1710 the head reappeared in the cabinet of curiosities of the French-Swiss collector Claudius Du Puy, whose private museum, full of the strange and wonderful attracted both English and European visitors. Du Puy considered the battered and weathered head one of his best items and bragged that he could sell it for as much as 60 guineas. In 1780, the head was in the possession of the failed comedic actor Samuel Russell, who claimed to be a descendant of Cromwell. Russell exhibited the head in a stall in Clare Market, where it caught the eye of a London jeweler and one-time owner of a large museum, James Cox. Cox tried to buy the head from the impoverished, alcoholic Russell, who refused to sell it. Over the next seven years, Cox manipulated Russell by lending him money that he could never repay, and in 1787, called the loan, and Russell was forced to forfeit the head.

Twelve years later, in 1799 Cox sold the head to three brothers by the name of Hughes, who bought it with a view to exhibiting it for a profit.

"The head was to be displayed, along with other curious items of Cromwelliana, in a building on Bond Street. Money was to be made through the charging of an entrance fee. In order to make the show a success and to maximize profit, the Hughes brothers sought the services of the painter, antiquarian, and publicist John Cranch, who set to his task with great alacrity. Posters and flyers were distributed up and down the city, announcing that all visitors would be provided with a pamphlet 'researched' by Cranch himself, which gave a narrative of the head's extraordinary century-long journey."(Ibid, p. 65-66)

Producing the exhibition pamphlet was a difficult but essential task. The Hughes brothers and Cranch needed to certify the head's authenticity. What if James Cox had sold them a fake? And there were rumored to be other, competing heads in London being promoted as the real one. Would people pay two shillings and sixpenceto see a head of dubious authenticity? Perhaps more important, the owners needed to establish concretely that the head was lawfully theirs. (And in fact, Samuel Russell would later show up at the exhibition protesting that Cox had swindled him out of the head).

"Cranch endeavored to produce a water-tight explanation of how the head came to be in the possession of the current owners, even if this meant having to bend the truth… In the end, for all his artistic skill, Cranch had to admit defeat and the brochure he produced for the exhibit failed to resolve the issue. Instead, it tried to downplay the head's misty provenance. Cranch evasively stated that "the history of the head, from the period when it was first deposited with the Russell family, to the time of it coming into the possession of Samuel Russell, is not, for the present, to be more particularly given.' He freely admitted that 'it has been hinted that, by some concealment, or other indirect practice, the title of some of Russell's predecessors to the property of this head, was not quite regular.'

The pamphlet is the first detailed account of all of the evidence (in fact, it is the source for much of which has been written above.) In narrating the hanging and beheading, Cranch notes that the current state of the head, with its nose broken in and two crude hack marks on the neck indicate that the hanging and decapitation were performed in haste and that the nature of the cuts on the neck indicate that they had been "applied to a subject that had been sometime dead, and preserved from dissolution by artificial means." The indication that the head had been embalmed was a crucial piece of evidence that it was indeed Cromwell's. As to the missing ear, however, Crouch posits that a member of the Russell family or one of the admirers who came to see the head while it was in their possession pilfered it, since such a small token was least likely to be missed (!). Cranch also notes that the head had been examined by "Doctor [Richard] Southgate, late librarian to the British Museum", who had deemed it genuine.

The pamphlet also describes the Dunbar medals, the original dies for which were among the artifacts exhibited along with the head. Parliament ordered the creation of the medals in honor of Cromwell's victory at Dunbar, 3 September 1650. The engraver was Thomas Simon of Yorkshire.

Despite their efforts, the Bond Street exhibition was a catastrophic failure. The head would not be exhibited again until 1813, when it was in the possession of the daughter of the last surviving Hughes brother. In 1815, after trying unsuccessfully to sell the head to various museums, the Hughes daughter sold the head to Josiah Henry Wilkinson. It would remain in the Wilkinson family for another 145 years, before being interred at Cambridge in 1960.