Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Oliver Cromwell's Head

Centuries after his death, the name of Oliver Cromwell still arouses fierce feelings among many Irish people. The outrages at Drogheda and Wexford - accepted as historical fact by most historians with one courageous exception* - and his notorious order that the Irish go "to Hell or to Connacht" are still quoted with barely-concealed venom.

Cromwell died in 1658 and was honoured with a state funeral. Following the Restoration in 1660, his corpse was exhumed by vengeful Royalists and dragged through the streets of London to Tyburn where, according to a contemporary account, it was "hanged by the neck until the going down of the sun". The head was then hacked off, dipped in tar, and attached to a spike on the roof of Westminster Hall. There it remained, ravaged by the elements until, after a storm, it finally fell to earth. The story goes that it was found by a soldier, then disappeared again until the eighteenth century when it turned up, being hawked around markets in a succession of freak shows. Many years passed before Oliver Cromwell's head was finally - believe it or not, as recently as 1960 - laid to rest within a chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. His alma mater.

Hearing that story**, a list of names sprang into my mind.... Hitler, Pol Pot, Fred and Rosemary West, Jeffrey Dahmer, Denis Nielsen.... The list is probably endless.... Is it less sinful to desecrate the body of a patently evil person than that of your average good citizen, the proverbial man in the street? And what about the head of Saint Oliver Plunkett (like Cromwell, hanged at Tyburn), still gazing from its glass shrine in a church in Drogheda? Should all human remains, irrespective of the lives they led, be allowed to rest in dignity and peace?

*Cromwell - An Honourable Enemy: The Untold Story of the Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland by Tom Reilly.

**Cromwell's Head by Jonathan Fitzgibbons.


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