Oliver Cromwell: died 3rd September, 1658; executed 30th January, 1661
“…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.”1
Cromwell’s trial was a turbocharged bill of Attainder.2 His trial and execution was the act of closure for the civil war and a demonstration of King Charles’ authority. The desecration of his corpse was purposeful. It was a political and religious act. Desecrating Cromwell’s corpse and burying it in unhallowed ground was aimed at preventing resurrection. The desecration was an important element in Cromwell’s eternal punishment for his role in the ‘martyrdom’ of Charles 1.3
The desecration of Cromwell’s corpse wasn’t thuggish. Hanging, drawing and quartering was a choreographed ritualistic event meted out to those who committed treason. Cromwell’s trial and execution was part of a series of trials punishing living defendants. Cromwell ‘shared’ their punishment even though he was dead. His execution attracted thousands of spectators. They came not to see his death throes but as a dying ember of the events following the Civil Wars. Like all the Regicides whose bodies were thrown into a pit under the gallows after decapitation, so was Cromwell’s. Decapitated heads were put on display as poignant reminders of their utter defeat.
Contemporary religious beliefs said corpses retained the essential being of the living person. Burial in hallowed ground in church cemeteries was firmly believed to be essential in the journey to Heaven. The denial of access to hallowed ground was a signal about the eternal punishment of Regicides. The posthumous trial and execution of Cromwell, the principal Regicide, was a critical part of that narrative.
The religious and political context of the execution of Cromwell explains its hideous ghoulish connotations. It becomes rational. Although the punishment of the Regicides is apparently barbaric, the Royalist government was, in a 17th century context, restrained. King Charles wasn’t a vengeful monarch. He did what needed to be done to demonstrate his authority.
Addendum: Did they try the right corpse?
“Many people began to question whether the body mutilated at Tyburn and the head seen on Westminster Hall were Cromwell’s. These doubts arose because it was assumed that Cromwell’s body was reburied in several places between his death in September 1658 and the exhumation of January 1661, in order to protect it from vengeful Royalists. The stories suggest that his bodily remains are buried in London, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, or Yorkshire.”
1 Jenny Uglow A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration p110 The 30th January 1661 was the twelfth anniversary of the execution of Charles the First
2 A bill of Attainder is “A special legislative enactment that imposes a death sentence without a judicial trial upon a particular person or class of persons suspected of committing serious offences, such as Treason or a felony.” Bill of attainder legal definition of bill of attainder (thefreedictionary.com)
3 The reuniting of the body and soul, at the resurrection, is a burning issue amongst born-again Christians to this day. We will all have a Resurrected Body reunited with our Souls….. – In Jesus name we press on…. (wordpress.com