History

Oliver Cromwell Was So Controversial That His Body Was Buried, Then Hanged, Then Buried Again

Oliver Cromwell is generally considered one of English history's most controversial figures. The public was so unsure of whether to love him or hate him that three years after his ostentatious church burial, he was dug up, hanged, and cast into a pit with common criminals. But that wasn't where the story ended.

Why It's Important

The way that Cromwell's body was treated after his death is a perfect demonstration of the controversy that surrounds his place in history. He became a member of Parliament in 1640 and proved to be an outspoken politician. He demanded church reform, forced the king to call annual Parliamentary sessions, and called for military control to be taken away from the king and put into the hands of officers appointed by Parliament. The English Civil War broke out in 1642, and, not long after, Cromwell was commissioned into the military. He soon became Lieutenant General of the New Model Army, then became Lord General for military campaigns in Ireland and Scotland.

Those campaigns may have been where the controversy started. To put an end to a decade-long rebellion in Ireland, Cromwell's 12,000 troops stormed the town of Drogheda and killed nearly everyone in a massacre he later justified as the "righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches." A month later, he did the same thing in the town of Wexford. Finally, in 1649, King Charles I was executed. Cromwell is widely held responsible for his death, though 59 others also signed the death warrant. These military successes proved fortuitous for Cromwell, who was appointed Lord Protector in 1653, and led England to a period of prosperity and the beginnings of a constitutional government.

Unfortunately, he died of malaria in 1658 without ever having established a written constitution, leaving the country without a lasting system of government. His funeral was regal and honorable, modeled on the funeral of King James I, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey. The political chaos he left behind, however, soon led the monarchy to regain power, and in 1661 the new King Charles II ordered his body exhumed, hanged, decapitated, and reburied in a pit below the gallows with other executed criminals. His head is said to have been placed on a spike above Westminster Hall.

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Why It's Mysterious

In fact, the corpse that was hanged may not have been Cromwell's. The year before, rumors had spread that the royal tombs in the Abbey had been quietly moved. His body may not have even been present at his funeral, since one of the doctors who embalmed him wrote that in the month between his death and the ceremony, his body had deteriorated to such a point that they couldn't do anything to keep it from stinking. This uncertainty led to many theories about where his body—and his disembodied head—were buried, which continue to this day.

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