Oliver Cromwell: Cromwell's Head

-       Who was Oliver Cromwell?

-       Why was he important?

-       What happened to his head?

Do please download the pdf or full powerpoint presentation illustrating this subject which you will find  useful to use for a class:

Who was Oliver Cromwell?

Oliver Cromwell grew up in Huntingdon near Cambridge, and attended Sidney Sussex College, one of the University of Cambridge’s colleges, starting just before his seventeenth birthday. He remained in and around Cambridge for the next twenty years before joining the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War.

Civil War and Oliver Cromwell

In the 17th Century parliament saw that King Charles I was using his power unwisely and wanted him to make significant changes. When the King disagreed, civil war broke out, on one side those who supported the King (known as the Royalists) and on the other those who supported Parliament (known as Parliamentarians).


Cromwell started to become well known during the English Civil War as a commander. He believed that every victory for Parliament was because God wanted their side to win against the King.  Cromwell took part in some significant victories against the King’s forces, notably the Battle of Marston Moor.


Cromwell was the Member of Parliament for his hometown Huntingdon, and later Cambridge. He wasn’t particularly keen on the well known document called Magna Carta approved by King John three hundred years before, and called it ‘Magna Farta’.

Importantly, Cromwell signed the order for the execution of Charles I, leading to the first time in history where England was left without a monarch, known as the ‘Interregnum’. This period lasted for more than ten years, with Cromwell in charge of the country. Most people in our times have forgotten this part of our history, that we did have over a decade when the monarchy were pushed out. After four years of disagreement over how the different forms of parliament would rule the country, Cromwell was declared the head of state, known as Lord Protector.

Lord Protector


Even though some people wanted to crown Cromwell as the new monarch he refused on principle. Although he lived like a King in many ways, he wanted to separate the old ruling system from the new. He kept this role of Lord Protector until his death in 1658 when his son Richard took over.

Cromwell is a controversial figure in British history. He is known for his support in successfully draining the fens in Cambridgeshire, an area of low level marshland that often flooded which led to unpredictable harvests and many people drowned. This means that in Cambridge he is a bit of a hero.

However he is seen as a villain by many for his role in Ireland during the Civil War. Cromwell’s forces terrorised Ireland over a two year period in an attempt to remove all support for the monarchy and Catholic influences. Many people were killed.

Don’t Lose Your Head About It!

Despite being buried whole in Westminster Abbey, London in the 1600s, Oliver Cromwell’s head ended up buried in Cambridge in the 20th century!

It was not uncommon in Britain at the time to dig up your enemies after they have died to accuse them of wrong doings, put them on trial and punish them again! This happened to Oliver Cromwell. In 1661, the year after Charles II restored the monarchy, Cromwell was dug up, put on trial and hung from the famous gallows at Tyburn, then had his head chopped off! To send a message of the King’s power, Cromwell’s head was placed on a pike on the roof of Westminster Hall where it stayed for thirty years.

The legend of how the head left Westminster Hall states that a high wind blew the head and spike from the roof, where a guard found the head, removed the spike and took it home. On hearing that a large reward was being offered to find the person in possession of the head, the soldier became scared and hid it. Here it remained until his death, when it was passed down to his daughter. This is the only story of how the head came to leave Westminster Hall.

Cromwell’s head became a peculiar collector’s item in the centuries that followed, passing through many hands on it’s way to its final burial place in Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge.

There are two stories by which the head is said to have returned to Cambridge: bought by a Swiss-French collector of curiosities named Claudius Du Puy who gained possession of the head of Oliver Cromwell through the London Courier Market in 1710 and showed it to visitors in his museum. It was after Du Puy’s death in 1738 that the head may have ended up in the possession of Samuel Russell. The second possibility is that Russell received the head by marriage to the daughter of the soldier who had originally found the head.

Hoping to make money off the prized heirloom, Russell attempted to sell it to the Master of Sidney Sussex College. He tried to persuade the Master to buy it, as he happened to have the bag with him at the time. The master refused to buy it, and Russell was able to sell it to a London jeweller named James Cox for £118 (in today’s currency worth around £15,000!).

After renewed public discussion at the beginning of the 20th century, descendants of Cromwell’s family decided to bury the head once and for all, in the grounds of the college in Cambridge that Oliver Cromwell attended as a teenager.

 To this day nobody knows the exact location of Cromwell’s head! A true mystery, it was placed in an unmarked grave in Sidney Sussex College. Even those who claim to know will never tell ...




“Here, however, it reappears with flesh and hair on it; and the Hon. Wilkinson has purchased, a good many years ago; and exhibits, once a quarter (I was told) to a select dinner party,7 who are friends of human progress, all of them, and interested in Cromwell, this satisfactory acquisition of his.—Weigall,8 who had cut an excellt Likeness of Cromwell (to my knowledge), had the curiosity to go to Beckenham; found no feature of Cromwell's (except the cut of the hair), and a face belonging to God (and probably the Devil) knows whom. “

From advertisement, 1799 to view Cromwell’s head:

“Narrative relating to the real head of OLIVER CROMWELL now exhibiting”


Letter by Carlyle : “In short, this whole affair appears to be fraudulent moonshine,—an element not pleasant even to glance into; especially in a case like Oliver's.”

Translation from Latin from the radio programme by BBC4 “The Strange Case Of Oliver Cromwell’s Head” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shpNvGYYXnk

  • Could be possible to find the actual page from the matriculation book for picture of the source

Matriculation page of Cromwell was altered in 1660 by the then master, Richard Minshull, after the restoration of the monarchy. He stated: “This was that great imposter, the most accursed butcher who after the most pious King Charles I had been put to a most shameful death himself usurped the throne and for the space of almost five years vexed the free kingdoms with unrestrained tyranny under the name of protector.”

4. Images:


Advertisement for his head

Picture of plaque for the remembrance of Oliver Cromwell in Sidney Sussex college

Image of the chapel of the college

Discover More


 Sidney Sussex College, Sidney St, Cambridge CB2 3HU


CBBC Horrible Histories ‘Orrible Oliver Cromwell Song


iWonder Oliver Cromwell info http://www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/zttpsbk

Oliver Cromwell: Cromwell's Head


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