Weird History

The Bizarre, Violent Story Behind The Most Famous Decapitated Head In History 

Ryleigh Nucilli
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Unless you want your body dug up, re-executed, and dismembered, you probably shouldn't kill a king. At least, that's the lesson the corpse of Oliver Cromwell, regicide and one-time Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, learned when it was disinterred and publicly put to death, after which the head of Oliver Cromwell kicked around the British Isles for the next few centuries.

Oliver Cromwell's disembodied head took on a life of its own after Charles II – son of the executed Charles I and restored King of England – decided to make a public symbol of Cromwell in 1661, using his posthumous execution and displayed skull to serve as a warning to any and all those thinking about killing their divinely righteous monarch ever again. For a while, Cromwell's noggin could be viewed on a stake above Westminster Hall. It remained there – a morbid reminder of what's coming to you when you kill a king – for the next 25 years, until a storm sent the head tumbling to the ground and initiated a multi-century saga surrounding Oliver Cromwell's head. From private collectors to scientific testing to a close analysis of its "pimples," the head of Oliver Cromwell has been through enough drama to earn it its very own, dedicated Wikipedia page.

It All Began When Charles II (Re)Executed Cromwell's Corpse
It All Began When Charle... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Bizarre, Violent Story Behind The Most Famous Decapitated Head In History
Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

If your dad was a murdered king, you'd probably be pretty mad. Charles II of England (1630-1685) was pretty hot under the collar when he assumed the throne in 1659. 10 years earlier, in 1649, his father, Charles I, had been put to trial and subsequently executed by a group of Parliamentarians (known as "Roundheads") led by one Oliver Cromwell, and Charles II had been exiled to the European mainland. Coming at the end of a long period of civil war and unrest, Charles I's execution and Cromwell's ascension to Lord Protector led to a decade of non-royal rule in England.

When Charles II returned to England in 1660, he had a few bones to pick with the folks who had offed his dad. The first thing he did was have all official documents remove the previous decade from the record, amending them so it seemed as if he had immediately suceeded his father in 1649. After the paperwork was in order, Charles II had Cromwell's body exhumed from Westminster Abbey (where it had been given an official state burial alongside deceased kings and queens). He then publicly executed it on the site where his father had been put to trial  – (re)death by hanging. It was then placed on a spike above Westminster Hall, where it would ominously watch over London for the next 25 years.

First, It Served As A Message; Then, It Became A Private Collector's Item
First, It Served As A Me... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Bizarre, Violent Story Behind The Most Famous Decapitated Head In History
Photo:  YouTube

For the first two and half decades after its reentry into the world, Oliver Cromwell's head was meant to strike fear into the hearts of revolutionaries everywhere – you don't mess with the royal family. When a storm sent the head tumbling to the ground around the year 1685 (reports conflict about the precise year it happened), Ollie's head became a curious relic, passing between private collectors for around 300 years. 

Cromwell head legend has it a sentinel guarding Westminster Hall saw the head tumble to the ground in the wake of the storm and tucked it up under his cloaks, spiriting it away and hiding it in his home while a massive head hunt was under way all over London. In 1710, the head reemerged in the private London museum of Claudius Du Puy, a collector of curiosities. From 1710 until 1960, the head continued to be bought, sold, and displayed in various curiosities exhibitions. In 1960, it was buried in a secret location at Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge, finally put to eternal rest.

How Do We Know It's Cromwell's Head? We Kind Of Don't
How Do We Know It's Crom... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Bizarre, Violent Story Behind The Most Famous Decapitated Head In History
Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

So, was the head that was buried at Cambridge University in 1960 the same head spiked above Westminster Hall in 1661? In reality, no one can be sure. As more and more people questioned the authenticity of the head in the late 1800s, more alternative Cromwell heads began popping up throughout England. And, although lots of experts studied the head, none of them employed any modern DNA testing to decipher its origin.

Rather, sculptors, historians, statisticians, and phrenologists performed their tests on the head, and all were satisfied that it was the real deal. Is Cromwell's head buried at Cambridge University? For his sake, let's hope so.