Is That Really Oliver Cromwell’s Head? Well . . .
Dr. Horace N.S. Wilkinson is probably unique in donating the head of a fellow alumnus to his alma mater.
The head is believed to have belonged in life to Oliver Cromwell, who from 1653 to 1658 was Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland.
It was buried in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, one of the 31 residential colleges that collectively make up Cambridge University, on March 25, 1960, three centuries after Cromwell’s death. The college keeps the precise location of the grave secret.
The Lord Protector had been given a magnificent state funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1658, and the spot where he was buried is still marked on the Abbey floor.
So how did his cranium come into the hands of Wilkinson, a 20th-century anesthetist?
And how was it confirmed to be the skull of England’s former head of state, its first nonroyal ruler?
This is a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes. And, indeed, like Cromwell, Holmes has been associated with Sidney Sussex College, which celebrates its 400th anniversary this year.
Cromwell entered Sidney Sussex College in 1616, but left the following year, without taking a degree, when his father died.
Holmes’ connection with the college was pointed out by the late Dorothy L. Sayers, inventor of another famous sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. She found that a T.S. Holmes of Sidney Sussex College did earn a degree in 1874.
Prof. Richard Chorley, the Sherlock Holmes expert at Sidney Sussex, says T.S. Holmes was, in fact, the Rev. Thomas Scott Holmes, vicar of Wookey in western England.
But, he says, “No other character in world literature has even remotely approached Holmes’ ability to transcend the barrier between fact and fiction, and to this extent one can believe that he actually did attend this college.”
So now then: How to account for the missing years between Cromwell’s death and the burial of the skull? And how to prove that this is indeed Cromwell’s head?
This is quite a three-pipe problem, my dear Watson.
First, the undisputed historical facts: In 1649, Cromwell had King Charles I beheaded, and subsequently became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth until his death on Sept. 3, 1658.
Two years later, Charles’ son regained the throne for the Stuart dynasty. Charles II had Cromwell’s body dug up, hanged and decapitated. It took eight ax strokes to cut off Cromwell’s head, which was covered with several layers of grave cloths.
Cromwell’s head was then stuck on a pole at the end of Westminster Hall, where the diarist Samuel Pepys saw it on Feb. 5, 1661. And there it remained for at least 24 years.
From 1684 to 1710 the record becomes a little murky. The tradition in Wilkinson’s family is that one stormy night in November 1688, a high wind blew the head off the pole. The sentry on guard, a Pvt. Barnes of Lord Arlington’s regiment, surreptitiously carried it home and hid it in the chimney.
On his deathbed in 1702, Barnes revealed the secret to his wife and daughter. They appear to have sold the relic to Claudius Du Puy, a French-Swiss calico printer who also ran a museum of freaks and curiosities.
On July 1, 1710, a German traveler named Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach reported seeing Cromwell’s head in Du Puy’s show, part of a motley collection of marine monstrosities, idols, waxworks, musical instruments and strange footwear that filled four rooms.
Du Puy, a bachelor, died intestate in 1738, and it seems that Cromwell’s head somehow reverted to the sentry Barnes’ family, for the next we hear is that it is in the possession of Samuel Russell, “a dissolute, drunken and impecunious comedian.” Russell appears to have married Barnes’ granddaughter.
Russell attempted to sell the head to Sidney Sussex College and was rebuffed. But James Cox, a London jeweler and moneylender, paid 118 pounds for it in 1787. Twelve years later, he sold it for 230 pounds to a trio of speculators, the Hughes brothers.
They exhibited Cromwell’s head at Mead Court in London’s Old Bond Street, charging a hefty admission of 2 shillings and sixpence. They probably priced themselves out of the market because the business went broke.
But the Hughes family held onto the head, for in 1814 Josiah Henry Wilkinson bought the relic from the daughter of the last surviving Hughes brother.
The heirloom remained in the Wilkinson family, safe in a velvet-lined box, for 146 years.
The Wilkinson family was apparently in the habit of showing the relic to their house guests. One reported that it was shown off after breakfast. But eventually requests from the press and historical researchers became wearisome to Dr. Wilkinson, who gave Sidney Sussex its second chance to acquire the head of its most famous alumnus.
But how do we know that after 302 years of indignities and misadventures, this is Cromwell’s head?
Dr. Christopher Parish, a retired surgeon and Fellow of Sidney Sussex who has made a close study of the matter, admits that “from 1684 to 1710 there is no hard evidence of the whereabouts of Cromwell’s head. And there is a further gap between 1710 and 1775.”
Yes, indeed, Watson, but observe what scientific detection methods can do.
First, in September 1658, Cromwell’s body was examined post-mortem by Dr. George Bate. He reported that the vessels of the brain were “overcharged,” which implied that the skullcap had been removed for his investigation. Contemporary records also show that the body was embalmed.
“The Wilkinson head,” says Parish, “has had the skullcap removed and is covered with embalmed skin later resutured to the skull with flax fiber. Cotton could have been used, but the first cotton shipments arrived from America about 1770.”
So it is a skull from Cromwell’s time. But is it Cromwell’s skull?
The riddle was solved by a scientific study undertaken in 1935 by Drs. Karl Pearson and G.M. Morant, who published a book titled “The Portraiture of Oliver Cromwell With Special Reference to the Wilkinson Head.”
Pearson and Morant showed that the skullcap had been removed, the body embalmed and later decapitated by several strokes.
As Cromwell’s biographer, Lady Antonia Fraser, observes, it is scarcely necessary “to stress how rare a decapitation after death must have been, let alone the combination” with the skullcap removal.
Pearson and Morant said the skull was that of a male of about 60, and tallied with what was known of Cromwell’s appearance, even down to the depression for the wart over his eye.
A forger, they said, “would have had to know all the details of 17th-century embalming. He would have had to choose a corpse aged 60, with a mustache and a small beard and a wart over his eye. The whole thing [a forgery] is impossible.
“It is a moral certainty drawn from circumstantial evidence that the Wilkinson head is the genuine head of Oliver Cromwell, Protector of the Commonwealth.”
Elementary, my dear Watson.