I would call it the definitive way of dealing with a swelled head. Oh sure, Oliver Cromwell had some doubts while he was dying. And it was about time he did. All his life Oliver had been such an imperious narcissistic autocrat that in retrospect, the despotic and conceited Charles I now seemed reasonable - once Oliver had beheaded Charles. But then Oliver went on the ultimate ego trip, launching a bloody war trying to eradicate Catholicism from Ireland. He would have had better luck trying to reintroduce the snakes. Oliver was so supercilious that in 1650 he wrote to a Scottish opponent, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken,” and just three years later he suffered no such introspection while making himself dictator, because, “…the spirit of god (was) so strong upon me, I would not consult flesh and blood.” Flesh and blood has bowels, Oliver, it seems, did not. It turns out the one nation Oliver never even attempted to conquer was gaul
And then at the age of 59, on his death bed, on the afternoon of September 3, 1658, Oliver was beset by humility at long last (as well as a urinary tract infection – which is what kills you when you don’t have antibiotics). Oliver whispered, “My design is to make what haste I can to be gone.” But it was too late to be hasty. Even dead, Oliver could no longer escape the judgment of those who had suffered under his turgid arrogance.
His corpse was entombed in Westminster Abbey, along with all those kings and queens he thought himself superior to. His followers attached a plate to his coffin reading “Oliver Cromwell, Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland”, so that on Judgment Day there would be no chance Oliver would be overlooked. They might as well have planted a big arrow above his crypt that read “Dig Here!”
Judgment day arrived less than three years later. As soon as Charles II was crowned king, he had 12 of those who had participated in his father’s trial tried for high treason. The inevitable executions which followed produced a macabre precursor of Super Bowl Week. From Monday October 8th through Saturday the 13th , 1660 (on the old Julian calendar), the twelve were each subjected to what contemporary witness William Harrison described as “The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England….drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down…”. It wasn’t until after the hanging that the festivities really got started.
The guest-of-dishonor was stretched naked on a butcher block table. First, his genitalia were removed and displayed to him. They were then thrown into a fire. Then, according to English Wikipedia, “A splash of water was usually employed to wake the man if unconscious…A large cut was made in the gut…and the intestines would be spooled out on a device that resembled a dough roller. Each piece of organ would be burned before the sufferer's eyes, and when he was completely disemboweled, his head would be cut off.” And not quickly removed, with a single swipe of a massive sword or an axe, but via repeated whacks with a meat clever. The idea was not to kill the unfortunate honoree, but to torture him, and thus to entertain the crowd.
This was a spectator sport, drawn out for hype and hyperbole. Samuel Pepys was there for the anticlimax. He noted in his diary, “Saturday 13 October…went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered…He looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy…After that I went…home, where I was angry with my wife for her things lying about, and in my passion kicked the little fine basket, which I bought her in Holland, and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it.” Ah, death, where is thy operate conditioning?
Oliver Cromwell, being legally and retroactively the villain-in-chief would not be spared these humiliations just because he was deceased. He was spared the pain, but then there had been the urinary tract infection. On the morning of January 30, 1661 Oliver’s corpse and those of two of his fellow deceased co-conspirators, were hung by their necks at Tyburn, the traditional place of execution for “commoners”. Ouch, that little insult must have hurt. The un-dearly departed hung in public, like hams in a smoke house, until four in the afternoon. Then their heads were removed; I presume they cut off Oliver’s last, as we are told it took eight chops. The poor executioner must have been shagged out from removing the first two heads.
After this academic execution, Oliver’s corpse was discarded into a pit and his head was raised upon a 20 foot wooden pole above the south side of Westminster Palace. Finally, Oliver was as aloof as he had always imagined himself to be, head and shoulders above all other contenders...except he no longer had any shoulders. And there he bobbled about in heavy winds until at least 1672, by which time it seems, people had begun to forget just whose head was which head.
Legends claim that Oliver’s pole was blown down in a storm and Oliver’s dome rolled into the hands of Mr. John Moore, a guard, who snuck the coconut home and stuffed the noggin in his chimney. When it was realized that the arch villain Oliver Cromwell had somehow escaped, rewards were offered and notices posted demanding and threatening punishments unless he were returned. To remain discreet, Mr. Moore gave the head to an apothecary in King Street, who then sold Oliver’s skull to a Mr. Humphrey Dove, Esq. Lawyer Dove kept Oliver confined to a chest until his death in 1687 – Mr. Dove’s death that is. After this it appears that Oliver made a clean getaway, no mean feat for a man with no feet...or legs. Or torso.
In 1710 a Claudius Du Puy opened a museum of curiosities in London containing as its most curious curiosity of all, the head of Oliver Cromwell. That the exhibit was a financial failure was no fault of Oliver’s. He did his part. He was still dead. He still had no body to support him . But was this head really Oliver’s head? Or was it an imposter’s skull masquerading as the demon Protestant?
It would not be until the 1930’s that two scientist issued a 109 page report authenticating to a “moral certainty” that the head in question was unquestionably the head of Oliver Cromwell. And on March 25, 1960 Oliver’s morally certain head was finally buried somewhere near the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, in Cambridge, England. And nobody will admit to knowing exactly where.
And that anonymity must be driving Oliver out of his skull!
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