Biblio - A monthly review of Irish Books

From Tyburn to a tin box

OLIVER CROMWELL is a hugely divisive figure. In Ireland his opinion poll ratings remain even lower than those of soon-to-be-former president George W Bush and only slightly higher than those of that famous Austrian advocate of a very different type of European unity: the late Adolf Hitler.

Indeed, the massacres that followed Cromwell’s storming of Drogheda on the coincidental date of September 11 1649, and the generalised butchery of civilians which also took place at Wexford a month later, has led us to see Cromwell as something of a Hitler figure.

The mere mention of his name can still start fights in pubs, something even post-budget Brian Cowen can only aspire to.

Cromwell’s Head by Jonathan Fitzgibbons (The National Archives UK ) tells the story of Cromwell - and how his legacy continues to be argued about all these centuries later - by following the journey of the Lord Protector’s head, from its detachment from the rest of his body at Tyburn “on the cold winter’s morning of Wednesday 30 January 1661” to its final burial in a tin box at his alma mater, Sidney Sussex College in 1960.

Its burial there was arranged by Canon Horace Wilkinson. Cromwell’s head had been in his family since his grandfather, Josiah, purchased it in 1815: “Lovingly preserved in a small oak box, the head would be produced as a conversation piece at private gatherings of friends and family”!

Those who separate others from their heads – as Cromwell did with King Charles I – often end up headless themselves. Fitzgibbon’s description of Cromwell’s decapitation is as chilling as that January morning must have been:

“This would be no ordinary execution since all three of the condemned had been deceased for quite some time. Cromwell had now been dead for over two years; his son-in-law Henry Ireton had succumbed to a fever while on campaign in Ireland in November 1651; John Bradshaw, famous for his role as Lord President of the High Court of Justice that tried Charles I, passed away fifteen months earlier”

Cromwell’s posthumous decapitation was part of the Restoration era backlash against everything he represented. It’s important to remember that in the England of his day, Cromwell was a figure of the left rather than the right. He tore down the old order of the ‘divine right of kings’ and could be seen as the man who invented parliamentary democracy.

He is to this day hated by monarchists and many Tories for precisely this reason. So, the worst atrocities in Irish history were committed by a man who was, as the Marxists would say, a progressive rather than a reactionary. Cromwell’s legacy is complicated and then some.

Jonathan Fitzgibbons brings all that complexity nicely to life here. A must for all history buffs.

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