The Exhumation and Posthumous Execution of Oliver Cromwell

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Contemporary scene outside Westminster Hall, showing Tyburn and the three heads mounted on poles on the right.

After leading republican forces to victory in the English Civil War, Cromwell became Lord Protector. After the Restoration, his body was exhumed and hanged.

Oliver Cromwell is one of the great names in the history of the United Kingdom. A controversial figure during his lifetime and afterwards, he led the Parliamentary forces to victory during the English Civil War. With the restoration of the monarchy, Cromwell’s popularity experienced a sudden and dramatic downturn: and the treatment of his corpse reflects this.

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector

Cromwell’s life and legacy has generated many, many books and articles. After his victory over the Royalist forces during the Civil War he became the Lord Protector of England, Ireland and Wales in 1563 and his role was effectively that of monarch – he was offered the kingship (though he turned it down) and, in the absence of any other way of choosing a successor, the Lord Protectorate passed to his son, Richard (John Morrill).

Death of Oliver Cromwell 1658-1661

Cromwell descended into ill health, suffering from a variety of complaints including malaria and kidney stones: his death, which took place at Whitehall on 3 September 1658 (the anniversary, incidentally, of the Battle of Worcester) was probably the result of some kind of infection, possibly pneumonia. He was 59 years old.

His lying-in-state, which lasted from his death until his funeral in November, bore the hallmarks of a king and, as Morill notes, although he had refused the crown during his lifetime he lay in death with an orb and a sceptre in his hands and a crown, if not on his head, then on a velvet cushion above it. His funeral took place on 23 November.

Some doubt surrounds his burial. Although most sources agree that he was eventually buried in Westminster Abbey, the Cromwell Association and others suggest that the coffin used at his funeral was in fact empty and that he had been buried privately beforehand. The reason for this may have been that the process of embalming had been unsuccessful and the body was not fit for public display (suggesting that the figure for lying in state may not have been Cromwell either).

Exhumation and Execution 1661

With the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the public mood – or part of it, at least – swung against Cromwell. In January 1661, a mob raided Westminster Abbey in search of the Lord Protector’s remains and these – or what purported to be these – were taken from the Abbey along with those of two other notable Roundheads, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw.

On 30 January (the date being chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the execution of Charles I) the bodies were symbolically hanged at Tyburn, and, for good measure, then decapitated. This was insufficient to sate the desire of the mob for vengeance: the heads were subsequently displayed on poles outside Parliament and the bodies deposited without ceremony in an unmarked grave.

It is unclear what then happened to Cromwell’s remains (if such it they were). Competing claims indicate either that the body hanged was not Cromwell’s and that he was in fact buried quietly in the family vault, or that the head was passed around through various places until it was finally buried somewhere within his former Cambridge College, Sidney Sussex.

Reasons for Cromwell’s Posthumous Execution

The violent and degrading treatment of the bodies of Cromwell and his former colleagues reflect a strong response to the overthrow of the monarchy among a certain section of the population. While republicans continued to regret his passing, royalists were delighted at his loss: the execution was an act of revenge for the death of Charles I.

Cromwell accomplished many good things, among them his political reforms and support for those who differed from the establishment view of religion. These, however, had their opponents as well as their supporters, and there were many who did not forget the cruelties which were committed by his name or on his orders during the Civil War.

Sources:

  1. Cambridge University Library ‘”A brave bad man”: Oliver Cromwell, 1599-1658’
  2. The Cromwell Association website “Cromwell’s Body”
  3. John Morrill “Oliver Cromwell” in Dictionary of National Biography online resource