Head of state: The travels of the mummified head of Oliver Cromwell

A drawing of Oliver Cromwell's head on a spike from the late 18th century. From a copy of Pennant's London. Image Credit: Wikipedia

A drawing of Oliver Cromwell’s head on a spike from the late 18th century. From a copy of Pennant’s London. Image Credit: Wikipedia

In January of 1661 King Charles II of England (1630-1685) ordered the exhumation of the corpses of Henry Ireton, John Bradshaw, and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. He arranged to have the bodies hanged and beheaded as revenge because the three men presided over the trial and execution of his father, King Charles I. The corpses were hanged at the Tyburn gallows and their bodies were left out until the afternoon, then the dead men were decapitated and their bodies were buried under the gallows. According to tradition it took eight blows to separate Cromwell’s head from his corpse. The heads of Cromwell, Ireton, and Bradshaw were then impaled on 20-foot spikes through the base of the skull and displayed on the roof of Westminster Hall.

Life and Death of Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) is considered an enigmatic and contentious historical figure. He became a Puritan committed to carrying out God’s plan following a spiritual crisis in the 1630’s.  He started out as a Member of Parliament during the reign of King Charles I (1600-1649), fought against the king during the English Civil War, and became Lord Protector after the king was executed.

The English Civil War (1642-1651) started when King Charles I and Members of Parliament couldn’t agree on reforms that would check the King’s power. Cromwell fought on the side of the Parliamentarians against the Royalists, those loyal to the king, and commanded successful military engagements that led to their defeat. After King Charles I surrendered, the king’s son, Charles II, fled to France in 1646 to live in exile. In 1649, King Charles I was tried for treason and other high crimes.  Cromwell played a decisive role during the trial and was one of the people who signed the king’s death warrant. Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland for life in 1653.

Cromwell died of natural causes in 1658, at the age of 59, due to an infection of his urinary tract or kidneys.  During a post-mortem examination Cromwell’s cranium was cut open so his physician could study his brain, then his body was embalmed and buried in Westminster Abbey.

Charles II returned to England after Cromwell died and made sure all of the dead signatories to his father’s death warrant were punished by publicly hanging their corpses in 1661 and displaying their heads on the roof of Westminster Hall, but Cromwell’s head disappeared from the spike after twenty years.

Journey of the Lord Protector’s Head

Cromwell's death mask.  Image credit: Wikipedia

Cromwell’s death mask. Image credit: Wikipedia

While the whereabouts of the heads of Ireton and Bradshaw have drawn little interest, the Lord Protector’s remains have attracted considerably more attention. In 1875 Dr. George Rolleston examined two heads that were reported to belong to Cromwell and compared them to Cromwell’s death mask. The first was a skull from the collection at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Rolleston believed this skull didn’t belong to Cromwell because the damage around the hole in the parietal bone indicated that a spike entered from the top of the head-not the bottom. Also there was no flesh left on the skull and no evidence that it had been embalmed. Rolleston then compared a second head, known as the “Wilkinson head,” (pictured here and here) to Cromwell’s death mask. He considered this to be the best candidate for Oliver Cromwell’s head.

According to Wilkinson family tradition, Cromwell’s head came into their possession thanks to a powerful gust of wind that blew it off the roof of Westminster Hall during a violent storm in 1688. A guard found the head and took it home where he hid it in his chimney and kept it a secret. As the guard lay dying he told his family about the head and soon after his death his daughter sold it.  Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the head passed through the hands of museum owners and collectors who displayed the mummified head for money. In 1815 the head was sold to Josiah Henry Wilkinson and stayed in the Wilkinson Family until it was buried in 1960.

The Wilkinson family allowed scientists to study the head, including Dr. George Rolleston in 1875 and Karl Pearson and Geoffrey Morant in 1935. Pearson and Morant examined the head for their book, “The Portraiture of Oliver Cromwell With Special Reference to the Wilkinson Head.” They determined that the head belonged to a man who was about 60 years old when he died and argued that the cranial measurements corresponded to portraits of Cromwell. The skullcap showed evidence of having been removed and then reattached with embalmed skin, which corresponded to historical reports. Pearson and Morant concluded that this was likely the mummified head of Oliver Cromwell. The Wilkinson Family decided to give the mummified head a proper burial in 1960. They contacted Cromwell’s college, Sidney Sussex, and interred the head in an unmarked grave.

A version of this article was recently featured on Atlas Obscura’s Morbid Monday.



Howorth, H.H. (1911). The head of Oliver Cromwell. The Archaeological Journal, volume 68. Retrieved from: http://books.google.com/books?id=4aE8AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA241&lpg=PA241&dq=george+rolleston+cromwell+skull+ashmolean&source=bl&ots=k5Ue5JWrpQ&sig=UwKP7GSHf0-4uDqkVrksmjtVZio&hl=en&sa=X&ei=QTlpVMCAPK33igK58ICYDA&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=george%20rolleston%20cromwell%20skull%20ashmolean&f=false

Kennedy, M. (2009). Oliver Cromwell’s grave comes back to life for summer at Westminster Abbey. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/aug/02/cromwell-grave-westminster-abbey

Lovejoy, B. (2013). Rest in Pieces: The curious fates of famous corpses. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Smyth, D. (1996, August 11). Is that really Oliver Cromwell’s head? Well . . . LA Times. Retrieved from: http://articles.latimes.com/1996-08-11/news/mn-33204_1_oliver-cromwell

Categories: History

2 replies

  1. That is amazing to know that one mans head had more value than the other two. I can understand why, but what could have happened to the other remaining skulls? I wonder. Could the same fate had occur but because no one placed interest the one holding it felt it was not necessary to bring to light? hmmmm


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