Cromwell's Head Just Kept Rolling; HISTORY MAN: Cromwell, by 17th Century Flemish Artist Gaspar De Crayer

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), December 7, 2008 | Go to article overview

Cromwell's Head Just Kept Rolling; HISTORY MAN: Cromwell, by 17th Century Flemish Artist Gaspar De Crayer


Byline: Kathryn Hughes

Cromwell's Head by Jonathan Fitzgibbons The National Archives [pounds sterling] 12.99 [pounds sterling]12.99 inc p& p (08451550713)

Three years after his magnificent state funeral in 1658, the body of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, was dug up, trundled on a cart to Tyburn and then hanged before being beheaded in front of a jeering crowd. With the Stuarts now restored to the Throne, the man who had given the order for the beheading of the last King of England had become a national bogeyman. What could be more fitting than that he should now lose his head, too? The adventures of Cromwell's head form the plot of this riveting book by Jonathan Fitzgibbons, a young historian who has spent years uncovering a tale of skulduggery.

For while Cromwell's body was immediately reburied after its grisly 'execution', his head embarked on centuries of travel, speculation and moneymaking.

In fact, it was not until 1960 that it was given a proper Christian burial in the grounds of the Cambridge college Cromwell had attended as a young man nearly 350 years earlier.

Even today, such is the curiosity about the fate of the Lord Protector's head that its precise location is known only to a handful of college staff. The barelyarticulated fear is that someone might dig it up and start the whole ghastly business all over again.

To understand why generations have been so fascinated by the fate of Oliver Cromwell's body parts, you have to go back to the dark days of the Civil War.

Cromwell had come to prominence as a canny military strategist during the 1640s when his Parliamentarians were fighting the Royalists for control of the nation's heart and soul. The Royalists were led by Charles I, the tyrannical monarch who believed he had been placed on the Throne by God, and so need consult no one else. He enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and consented to call Parliament only when he needed extra cash. The Parliamentarians, by contrast, believed the King could legally rule only with their say- so and that God, far from being a Royalist, was on their side.

Cromwell was pious, but Jonathan Fitzgibbons has unearthed evidence that suggests he was not quite the dour puritan of popular imagination. …

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