The Strange Tale of Cromwell’s Head

Chris McCooey owned a motorhome for a number of years and his Swift 600 was a great way for him to explore Kent and Sussex and research his books.

Chris McCooey owned a motorhome for a number of years and his Swift 600 was a great way for him to explore Kent and Sussex and research his books.

Horace Ricardo Wilkinson (HR) was born in Seal Chart, near Sevenoaks, Kent in 1871 into a well-off family; his father, also called Horace, was a stock broker. The young Horace got his middle name from his great grandfather Dr Josiah Henry Wilkinson, a physician, who was a friend of David Ricardo (1772 to 1823), an influential political economist credited with systemising economics. The young Horace went to Trinity College, Cambridge and took a BA before entering the Church. He married Edith Bosanquet in 1896 and the following year assumed the living of Stoke by Nayland in Suffolk. The couple had three children – Kathleen Courthope, Naomi and Horace Norman Stanley but sadly their mother died in 1908 and the vicar had to bring them up alone. But not without help … in the census of 1911, the Reverend Wilkinson had five live-in servants viz. a cook, a parlour maid, a governess, a lady’s maid and a housemaid. In the house with him during his 17 years living in Suffolk was an oak box containing the head of … Oliver Cromwell.

The Lord Protector had died in September 1658 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He was succeeded by his son Richard, who was deposed by the Army the following year which led to the Restoration and Charles II becoming king in 1660. Charles’ Parliament ordered the disinterment of Oliver’s body together with those of two other regicides, and the grisly trio were then hung at Tyburn. After that bizarre ritual, their heads were cut off and skewered with 20-feet long spikes and displayed above Westminster Hall.

They remained there until 1685, when Cromwell’s head was blown down in a gale. It was retrieved and passed through a number of hands until HR’s great grandfather took possession of it in the same year as the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. From then on the gruesome object was considered a Wilkinson heirloom and was passed down the male line until HR’s son Horace acquired it in 1957. Horace had no children to pass it on to so he arranged in March 1960 for it to be buried in some secrecy still in its oak box in the ante-chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, Cromwell’s alma mater. 

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There is a photograph of the head along with his death mask. The latter shows clearly his facial wart which was the origin of the Protector’s instruction to the painter Peter Lely (later the court painter to Charles II who knighted him): “Paint me warts and all”. 

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