The Man Who Wouldn't Be King: It Will Be 350 Years Ago in January That Oliver Cromwell Was Convicted of Treason and Posthumously Beheaded. but Who Was This Reluctant Republican-And Could He Be the Greatest Politician in Our History?

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Wednesday 30 January 1661: the Old Bailey, London. At the Bar, four bedraggled men await sentencing for treason. As the judge pronounces the death penalty, they show not a flicker of emotion. Not even a muscle twitches to show their fear. But why would it? Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton, John Bradshawe and Thomas Pride are dead already. Wrapped in shrouds, their corpses have been propped up against the Bar in a ghastly parody of justice.

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When the judge orders them taken down, they are hauled back to their coffins and dragged on sledges through the streets to Tyburn. There, in front of a vast crowd of men, women and children, the bodies are hanged by the neck, dangling limply in their rags. At sunset they are taken down and their heads are cut off and stuck on poles above Westminster Hall.

The head of the most controversial figure in British history, severed from his dead body almost 350 years ago today, remained one of London's more grotesque attractions for several decades. Some time in the late 17th century it was recovered by a soldier, became a bizarre collector's item, and was finally buried in Cromwell's old college, Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, in 1960. For a man who had been Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland, victor of Naseby, Worcester and Marston Moor, one of the architects of British sea power and the only commoner in history to serve as our head of state, it was a demeaning end.

And yet, in some ways, the strange story of Cromwell's head--which may not even be his, as some still think that his body was switched for another before the gruesome ritual at Tyburn--is an appropriate epilogue to an extraordinarily ambiguous career. The king-killer who toyed with wearing the crown, the hero of liberty who shot down the Levellers, the champion of religious toleration who loathed Catholicism, the practical joker who became a symbol of joyless Puritanism, he remains one of the most be-wildering figures in British history.

By any standards, the former yeoman farmer from Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire is one of the most notable--perhaps the outstanding--figure in our national story. If, as the celebrated Marxist historian Christopher Hill wrote in his splendid God's Englishman (1970), "the 17th century is the decisive century in English history", then Cromwell is its dominant player.

In Ireland he is still hated; in Britain, however, he has admirers at both ends of the political spectrum. Michael Foot used to write irate letters to newspaper editors whenever his hero was criticised, while the right-wing columnist Simon Heffer ranks Cromwell next to Gladstone and Thatcher as one of the greatest leaders in British history.

What makes Cromwell's rise to power so fascinating is that it came so late. When the civil war broke out in 1642, he was already 43 and had achieved virtually nothing of note. A distant descendant of Henry VIII's reforming minister Thomas Cromwell, he spent most of his first four decades hovering on the fringes of the gentry. "I was by birth a gentleman," Cromwell said later, "living neither in any considerable height, nor yet in obscurity." But because his father was a younger son in an age that rewarded seniority, the Cromwell family suffered from perennial money troubles, and although Oliver entered Cambridge in 1616 and married a merchant's daughter, his status remained precarious.

In 1631, when he was in his early thirties, he sold most of his properties in Huntingdon and became the tenant of a small farmstead in St Ives--clearly a step down the social ladder. Even years later, his royalist opponents could barely contain their horror that such a man had once been the ruler of all Britain. He wore "a plain cloth-suit, which seemed to have been made by a poor tailor", sniffed the Old Etonian Sir Philip Warwick, recalling Cromwell the young man. "His shirt was plain, and not very clean; and I remember a speck or two of blood upon his collar . …