Théo van Rysselberghe (Belgian, 1862–1926), Émile Verhaeren in his study (Rue du Moulin), 1892. Oil on canvas, 86.0 x 75.6 cm. Royal Collection, Belgium. Loaned to the Archives et Musée de la Littérature, Brussels.
The most powerful man in English history, Oliver Cromwell, is remembered for overthrowing King Charles I during the English Civil War, becoming England’s all powerful Lord Protector, and conducting a genocidal conquest of Ireland. However, one part of history forgotten to the masses is what happened to Cromwell’s head after his death. In 1658 Oliver Cromwell died, leaving the office of Lord Protector to his son, Richard Cromwell. Richard Cromwell did not have the charisma or experience to handle the complicated affairs of the English state and hold the Cromwellian Empire together. He stepped down in 1659, the Cromwellian government collapsed, and King Charles II was recalled from exile to rule England.
Public favor quickly shifted away from Cromwell and the former parliamentarians. In 1660 Cromwell’s corpse was disinterred from its grave and subjected to a “posthumous execution” by hanging. His head was removed from his corpse and placed on a 20 ft pole above Westminster Hall. In the late 1680’s a storm threw the head to the ground, where it was stolen by a guard who hid it in his house for several decades. In 1710 the former guard then sold it to Caldius Du Puy, a Swiss antiquities collector who owned a private museum in London. Cromwell’s head became the star attraction of the museum, earning Du Puy a large sum of wealth. After Du Puy’s death the head passed to a number of collectors who tried to display the head for profit. Each was a failure due to the fact that Cromwell’s head was no longer looked upon with a sense of infamy, but as a minor curiosity akin to a carnival sideshow.
By 1900 there were questions as to the authenticity of the head, as the head had passed through the hands of many shady people throughout its history. In 1911 the head was in the possession of Horace Wilkinson when it was subjected to examination by the scientist Karl Pearson and anthropologist Geoffrey Morant. In a 109 page report they detailed how they compared the structures of the head’s skull with the shape of Cromwell’s face and head based off of period portraits and Cromwell’s death mask. By the end of the report Pearson and Morant concluded that there was a “moral certainty” that the head did indeed once belong to Oliver Cromwell.
When Horace Wilkinson died in 1957 the head passed into the possession of his son, Horace Wilkinson Jr. However Wilkinson chose to finally put the head to rest after almost three centuries of handling by the living. In 1960 the head was interned in an unknown location near the antechapel of Sidney Sussex College. Today a plaque commemorates the general area where the head currently rests. The location of Cromwell’s body is unknown to this day.