The Desecration of Oliver Cromwell’s Corpse, 1661

This day (Oh, the stupendous and inscrutable judgments of God!) were the carcasses of those arch-rebels, Cromwell, Bradshawe (the judge who condemned his Majesty), and Ireton (son-in-law to the Usurper), dragged out of their superb tombs in Westminster among the Kings, to Tyburn, and hanged on the gallows there from nine in the morning till six at night, and then buried under that fatal and ignominious monument in a deep pit; thousands of people who had seen them in all their pride being spectators….be astonished! and fear God and honor the King; but meddle not with them who are given to change!1 John Evelyn 30th January 1661

Oliver Cromwell, Regicide

The failure of Charles the First as king was demonstrated when he deliberately provoked a civil war. His failure was underlined when he lost both English civil wars and those in Ireland and Scotland. Cromwell interpreted these battlefield losses as God’s judgement. Cromwell’s own victories were unsurprisingly attributed to God’s favour. Declaring Charles Stuart a ‘Man of Blood’ and a ‘Tyrant’ Cromwell established a special parliamentary court to try him. Cromwell ensured a guilty verdict, with the inevitable sentence of death, by packing the parliamentary jury.2 The execution of Charles took place on 30th January, 1649 in front of thousands of spectators.

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector

The concept of a republic was familiar to every gentleman who’d studied the classics and ancient Roman history. They also studied the collapse of the republic and its replacement by an authoritarian dynastic regime. Reinventing the best of Roman democracy proved impossible in the 17th century setting. Bounded rationality defined society in a hierarchical way and as a result Cromwell was offered the throne.3 He resisted but was de facto king when he died in 1658. (see sources)

The Desecration of Oliver Cromwell’s Corpse: the Context

Cromwell’s death, in 1658, left the republic leaderless. Cromwell’s colleagues betrayed his legacy by inserting his son into the role of Lord Protector, a task for which he was entirely unfitted. Worse, it endorsed the concept of kingship. In the ensuing power struggle General Monck brought his army to London and intimidated parliament. Parliament entered into negotiations with Charles II in Breda, the Netherlands, under Monck’s pressure. The Declaration of Breda defined the restored monarchy. The intention was to prevent the Royalists taking revenge-justice. Charles’ desire to avoid conflict didn’t extend to Regicides for whom there would be no mercy.4 Their death sentence would be to be ‘Hung, Drawn and Quartered’. This barbaric sentence attracted huge crowds just as there had been for the execution of Charles I. But what to do about those who’d ‘escaped’ by dying: the most notable example being Oliver Cromwell.

The ‘Execution’ of Oliver Cromwell, 30th January, 1661

In a macabre coup de theatre, Cromwell was disinterred and brought to court nearly two and half years after he’d died.

…while the clergy offered prayers for the king in churches across the land, the coffins were taken to the Red Lion Inn in Holborn. Carters then carried the rotting bodies in their shrouds to the Old Bailey and propped them up limply against the bar, so that the judge could pronounce the death sentence for traitors…At sunset the dangling corpses were taken down, their heads cut off and their bodies flung into a pit beneath the gallows.”5

Although this was ‘dancing on the grave’ as it were, it was out of context with the policy of Charles and his principal advisor, Clarendon. The cathartic blood lust soon petered out. Charles was intent on not provoking another a civil war, which made him a cynical and slippery ruler. His more principled brother James II did provoke one and lost his throne. The execution of Cromwell is a bizarre footnote marking the completion of the restoration of the monarchy.

Notes

1 Robert Latham The Shorter Pepys p117 Pepys was a meticulous diarist and only mentioned the execution of Cromwell on seeing the heads on the 5th February 1661. He did note that his wife had seen the execution on 30th January but mentioned it as almost as a triviality.

2 The Trial of King Charles I (bcw-project.org)

3 Cromwell was opposed to the radical group called the Levellers. He too was wedded to societal stratification.

4 Interestingly the concept ‘Regicide’ itself proved less definitive than expected and some were drawn into the net because of their behaviour during the Interregnum.

5 Jenny Uglow A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration p110

Sources

For the original text of the removal of Charles as king see An act for the abolishing the kingly office in England, Ireland, and the dominions thereunto belonging. (umich.edu)

* Clymer, Lorna. “CROMWELL’S HEAD AND MILTON’S HAIR: CORPSE THEORY IN SPECTACULAR BODIES OF THE INTERREGNUM.” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 40, no. 2, 1999, p95JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41467707. Accessed 3 Jan. 2021.

Cambridge University Library ‘”A brave bad man”: Oliver Cromwell, 1599-1658’

John Morrill “Oliver Cromwell” in Dictionary of National Biography online resource

Posthumous Execution; Because Just Being Dead Isn’t Enough (dannydutch.com)

For a timeline of Cromwell’s execution see Cromwell’s Execution • Oliver Cromwell

Levellers – Wikipedia

For the non-vindictiveness of Clarendon and Charles II see Indemnity and Oblivion Act 1660 (The Diary of Samuel Pepys) (pepysdiary.com) There are some very useful primary sources highlighted in this source

For the declaration of Breda, 4th April 1660 see Declaration of Breda – Wikipedia

Cromwell lying in state 1658

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2 Responses to The Desecration of Oliver Cromwell’s Corpse, 1661

  1. Pingback: Anna’s Update 6: an emperor you can’t refuse – Cado Ergo Sum

    • odeboyz says:

      Thank you for this comment.

      I think the desecration of Cromwell’s corpse in a ‘legal’ way is unique. Roman history is fascinating and 17th century gentlemen were more influenced than they recognised.

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