Oliver Cromwell: The Criminal Who Was Executed *After* His Death

Fareeha Arshad

A portrait of Oliver CromwellFlickr
Imagine, at a time when ‘hanged, drawn and quartered was a popular punishment, it would take someone extraordinary to earn the reward to be beheaded after being already dead for two years!

Yes, you read that right.

Oliver Cromwell was the famous historical figure of the seventeenth century which ushered in the parliamentary revolt that led to the execution of King Charles I. Much later, in 1661, Cromwell was put to trial by Charles II and was found guilty of high treason and involvement in wartime atrocities.

However, by then, Cromwell was already dead.

Despite that, his corpse was taken out of the grave and was ‘killed again’. After being beheaded, Cromwell’s head rested on a twenty-foot spear just outside Westminster Hall.

What events could have created such a scenario, where a dead man was not spared from his punishment? Regardless, this clearly speaks volumes of the power of Cromwell’s haters and the amount of hatred he managed to gain before his death.

Cromwell struggle ‘against’ power

A portrait of CromwellPicryl

Between 1639 and 1651, England faced three consecutive civil wars between two groups of people — one that wanted absolute monarchy and the other wanted nothing to do with the Crown and wanted the country to become a republic. Cromwell was one of the many who supported the Parliamentarian group.

In 1640, Cromwell was elected as the head of the Parliament. A couple of years later, he headed the British ‘New Model Army’ during the fight between the royal army and the parliamentary forces, in which Cromwell’s forces eventually won. After their win, he, along with other fifty-eight Parliamentarians, put King Charles I on trial and executed him on the grounds of treason.

Now with the monarchy gone, the Parliamentarians tested several kinds of republic government in England. Finally, in 1653, they established the ‘Instrument of Government’ as the constitution and declared England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales as ‘Protectorate’. These areas were under the control of the Parliament, Council of State and the Lord Protector. As per the constitution, Oliver Cromwell was the Lord Protector for life.

The British land experienced government closely similar to military dictatorship or a monarchy. Cromwell was given power almost the same as the king. Despite the absolute power this government enjoyed, a few positives came out of this arrangement. This was the first time all the British Isles came under a single commonwealth banner, for starters.

Cromwell and his government welcomed back the banished Jews for the first time since 1290. It was no longer obligatory for the citizens to attend the Church. Apart from Catholics and Protestants, new sects like the Baptists were introduced who were free to practice their religion. Also, laws were passed that restricted drinking and gambling activities.

Events that led to Cromwell’s beheading

Oliver Cromwell statue at Westminster, LondonWikimedia Commons

Five years into being the Lord Protector, Cromwell experienced a severe kidney infection that resulted in his death in 1658. His son, Richard, was declared his successor. However, not much later, the military ‘requested’ Richard to step down from his power. During this event, also called the ‘Restoration’, the Royalists successfully brought back the monarchy and announced Charles II as the sole authority in the land.

The rest you already know; here is a quick recap: a couple of years after Cromwell’s death, he was found guilty of treason. This pushed the Royalists to dig up his body and behead him. His head was displayed on a spear outside the Westminster Hall in London, where it remained for the next couple of decades. His body was reburied in an ordinary grave.

Cromwell’s head was then sold to the Wilkinson family, who stored the head in a velvet lined box for more than a century. Finally, three centuries after Cromwell’s death, his head was donated to the Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge, where it rests to date.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I mostly write about history and science.

Texas State

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