The mystery surrounding the Lord Protector

His most serene and renowned Highness Oliver Lord Protector, being after a sickness of about 14 days (which appeared as ague in the beginning) reduced to a very low condition of body, began early this morning to draw near the gates of death, and it pleas

His most serene and renowned Highness Oliver Lord Protector, being after a sickness of about 14 days (which appeared as ague in the beginning) reduced to a very low condition of body, began early this morning to draw near the gates of death, and it pleased God about three o'clock [in the] afternoon to put a period to his life." (The Gazette Thursday, September 2, to Thursday, Sept 9, 1658).

Oliver Cromwell died on September 3, 1658 at Whitehall Palace. Some people argue that he was the greatest statesman-soldier the country ever had, others claim that he was little better than an opportunist, tyrant and a regicide, who had massacred thousands of men women and children in Ireland. These arguments have raged backwards and forwards for more than 350 years and there is certainly sound historical evidence for both points of view. With all of these contentions, the myth of Oliver Cromwell lives on. There is even an enigma surrounding what happened to his body after he died.

The day after his death, Oliver Cromwell's body was emboweled and embalmed. A physician present at the embalming process later stated that the technique had proved unsuccessful, which resulted in the decision that the body could not be put on public view. But this situation did not fit in with the elaborate funeral arrangements planned for the Lord Protector. Therefore the 'body' on view during the lying in state at Somerset House was a wooden effigy with a wax face. In some ways this was probably just as well, because the process took place in October and November, before the state funeral on November 23.

So what happened to Cromwell's earthly remains? Some commentators suggest that the body was kept privately at Somerset House and buried before the official funeral. Newssheets of the time give details that it had been carried from Whitehall 'in a private manner, being attended only by his servants' to Somerset House on September 2. Several private correspondents report that seven weeks later the 'body' was carried from Somerset House through St James' Park to Westminster Abbey 'and there interred in a vault in Henry VII's Chapel'.


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The use of an effigy was not unusual in the 17th Century and had the Commonwealth continued, Oliver Cromwell would probably still be safely buried in Westminster Abbey.

On the day that his father died Richard Cromwell succeeded him as Lord Protector. He did not have the support from his father's loyal followers; in particular he did not have the confidence of the army. After seven months in office Richard was removed and on May 6, 1659 the Rump Parliament was reinstalled under Charles Fleetwood. Richard Cromwell left for the continent in July 1660 and was dubbed 'Tumbledown Dick' after the restoration, for giving up so easily.

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Without Oliver Cromwell old rivalries began to emerge and under the strain the Commonwealth cracked. King Charles II entered London on May 29, 1660, his birthday and celebrated as Oak Apple Day for centuries. He was crowned at Westminster Abbey on April 23, 1661.

In autumn 1660, Parliament ordered the exhumation and posthumous execution of several regicides and in January 1661 the bodies of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw were exhumed and taken to Tyburn. After hanging, the heads were displayed on poles above Westminster Hall and the bodies dumped in a pit at Tyburn. This gruesome event took place on 30 January, the twelfth anniversary of Charles I's execution. But was it the body of Oliver Cromwell or not?

Oliver's other son Henry Cromwell faired rather better than his father or elder brother. He married Elizabeth Russell, daughter of Sir Francis Russell of Chippenham Hall, Newmarket. They were given the estate of Spinney Abbey, Wicken, where Henry lived in retirement from 1659 to 1673, after vacating the office of Lord Deputy of Ireland. He died on March 23, 1673 and is buried at Laurence's Church, Wicken.

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