The Bizarre Story Behind The Most Famous Decapitated Head In History

When Charles II of England assumed the throne in 1659, he  had a few bones to pick with folks who had offed his father. Ten years earlier, in 1649, his father, Charles I, had been put to trial and executed by a group of Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell, and Charles II had been exiled to mainland Europe. 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, 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 Oliver Cromwell's body exhumed from Westminster Abbey (where it had been given an official state burial alongside deceased kings and queens). He had it publicly executed 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.

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, Ollie's head became a curious relic, passing between the hands of private collectors for around 300 years.

Legend has it that a sentinel guarding Westminster Hall saw the head tumbled to the ground and tucked it up under his cloaks 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

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.


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