If you visit the green space near the antechapel at Cambridge University’s Sidney Sussex College, you’re likely to encounter a plaque that reads:
Near to this place was buried on 25 March 1960 the head of OLIVER CROMWELL Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland & Ireland, Fellow Commoner of this College 1616.
The first thing many of you will notice is the deliberate absence of the celebrated Oxford comma, clearly as a deliberate slight to Cambridge’s old rival. If you’re not one of those people who think that good grammar is all about beating other people over the head with inconsequential punctuation marks, however, you’re probably wondering about other things, like why Cromwell is buried in a more-or-less unmarked grave, and why his body is missing, and why it took them 300 years to bury the guy.
It’s a long story. But we’re all here, and we’ve got some time to kill, so let’s do this.
You want to change the world, but first you have to get the power to do it. If you’re completely unfamiliar with Cromwell, here’s a crash course: he managed to briefly claim the British throne as “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth,” which is totally different from a king, you guys, after the English Civil War. The English Civil War was about many things, most of them very boring, but a not-insignificant portion of the conflict was religious—between traditionalist Anglicans (who believed that church leadership was by Apostolic succession and the king ruled by divine right) and dissenting Puritans (who were basically just even-more-dour Presbyterians, if you can imagine that). Since Puritans believed in the Divine Right of Whoever Has the Worst Haircut, Cromwell reluctantly executed the king and crowned himself totally-not-king in 1653, only to die five years later due (shockingly) to natural causes—namely a combination of kidney stones and malaria, because apparently he wanted to do humor writers everywhere a favor.
But this isn’t a story about Cromwell. It’s a story about his head.
Cromwell’s chosen successor, his son (also totally not a king), proved to be to his dad what Jaden Smith is to Will, and within two more years, pretender to the throne Charles II was able to march on London and claim his crown back. Then, to prove his point, he dug up Cromwell’s corpse and executed him posthumously, as was the style at the time. Then he stuck Cromwell’s head on a pike and tossed the whole thing up on top of Westminster Hall, because the place seemed like it could use some brightening up.
It hung around there for about a quarter-century, and then it decided to go on some wacky, Pixar-short-esque adventures. In 1685 or so, the head was knocked down by a storm, and apparently a guard picked it up, took it home, and stuffed it up his chimney, because what else are you going to do with a severed head, right? From there—probably by way of a lovable scamp of a chimney sweep portrayed by Dick Van Dyke—it found its way into the hands of Claudius Du Puy, a Swiss-French exhibitor of oddities. For a while people paid him to let them gape at it, because this was the 18th century and videogames hadn’t been invented yet.
By the end of that century, though, the head had found its way into the hands of Samuel Russell, who was a failed actor but a rather successful drinker; his habit of passing Cromwell’s head around at bars (according to at least one historian) led to “irreparable erosion of its features,” which is surprising mainly because, wait, it still had features? From there it was acquired by a guy named James Cox, who managed to get his hands on it by (I am not making this up) lending Russell large amounts of drinking money and then calling in the tab. He immediately flipped it over to some brothers named Hughes, who put it on display and advertised it as the “only instance where a head had been staked and then embalmed,” which as far as I can tell was at least two lies, but the exhibition was a bust anyway. (Turns out people eventually get bored of gaping at skulls, as Metallica discovered in the ’90s.)
Eventually the Brothers Hughes sold it to a guy named Wilkinson, who bequeathed it to his son, who decided it was time for the thing to find some rest. Leaving it in a paper bag on someone’s porch seemed like a bad idea, so he gave it to Cromwell’s alma mater, Sidney Sussex, who buried it in a secret location in the dead of night and then waited a whole two years to tell anyone they had done it—apparently because they were afraid someone would dig the thing up and involve it in even more wacky hijinks.
And that’s where the story of Oliver Cromwell’s remains end—at least until some Anglican/monarchist frat boys figure out where it’s buried.
It’s also the story of how people have a tendency to become the things they hate. Cromwell the iconoclast managed to turn himself into Cromwell the relic—and I suppose there’s a certain poetic justice to that because in life, Cromwell the man was a walking contradiction. He was opposed to the monarchy but managed to turn himself into a monarch; he was an advocate for representative government but dissolved Parliament to consolidate his power; he was an advocate for religious tolerance, except when he was committing genocide against Catholics.
Ain’t that the way it goes, though? You want to change the world, but first you have to get the power to do it. And, well, chasing after power tends to drastically screw with people’s values. Maybe that’s why Jesus told us that the only true way to become the greatest was to become a servant—that only those who shun power will be able to change the world for the better.
So, y’know, if you’re thinking of becoming the next Cromwell, maybe you should quit while you’re a head.
Do you see what I did there?
Because it was a hilarious joke.