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Careful Not to Lose Your Head!

If you can keep your head while all around you are losing theirs… then you are a lot luckier than Josef Haydn and Oliver Cromwell. Their heads are a different tale.

A placid, patient man in life, Franz Josef Haydn, the famous composer, had a troubled existence after his death.

When he died on May 31, 1809 the new science of phrenology was being studied by people who believed that the skull reliably indicated a person’s talents and qualities. Two of the mourners at Haydn’s funeral, Johann Peter and his friend Rosenbaum, thought an examination of the composer’s head would extend their knowledge of phrenology.

The head of Oliver Cromwell

So, at dead of night, they returned to the Handstrum Cemetery in Vienna, opened the grave and removed Haydn’s head. They took it to Professor Gall, a leading exponent of the new science, so that he could take measurements. Then the skull was returned to Peter who, in homage, built a small ebony house on the lines of a Roman tomb decorated with a gilded lyre and placed the head in it on white silk draped with black velvet. The macabre reliquary was then glazed.

The headless body might have remained in its grave, separated from the skull for ever if Prince Esterhazy, patron and friend of Haydn for 50 years, had not felt that so famous a musician should have been buried, not in a public graveyard, but in his private chapel in his castle at Eisenstadt. He ordered an expensive coffin and then, busy with other affairs, forgot about his plan.

Eleven years later, the Duke of Cambridge visited Eisenstadt and in his honor the Prince arranged a performance of Haydn’s masterpiece, The Creation. The Duke was very impressed and in expressing his thanks referred to his host as one “who cherished Haydn’s friendship while he lived and his remains after death.”

A Headless Body

That reminded Esterhazy of his plan for burying Haydn’s bones on his own estate and without further delay he sent to Vienna for the body. In October 1820 the coffin was opened and to the Prince’s horror the body was headless.

The Prince, furious at such desecration, made investigations and discovered what Peter and Rosenbaum had done. Rosenbaum, who had custody of the skull, had no intention of parting with such an important relic and, pretending to agree to the Prince’s request, obtained the skill of a man named Meyer and handed that skull over instead.

Esterhazy, among his other accomplishments was a competent phrenologist and on examining the skull tossed it aside contemptuously. It was the head of a man in his fifties, while Josef Haydn had died at the age of 77.

The Prince at once returned it, demanding the real skull, but Rosenbaum was not yet beaten. He found the head of a man in his seventies, handed that over and Prince Esterhazy, satisfied that his old friend’s body was now complete, placed it with the remains exhumed in Vienna and had them reburied reverently in his own burial ground.

Soon afterward Rosenbaum died, leaving Josef Haydn’s real skull to Peter, requesting him to present it to the Society of Friends of Music in Vienna.

Josef Haydn's skull
Josef Haydn

Not until 1895 did they obtain it by an involved route. Peter’s widow gave it to a Dr Karl Haller who, in turn presented it to Dr Rokitansky, an anatomist. It remained in his care until his death when his son finally presented the much traveled skull to the society.

That organization decided to unite it with the composer’s body but war, politics and personal quarrels held up whatever efforts were planned. In 1912, 1932, and 1939 attempts were made to complete the arrangements, during which time the Josef Haydn’s skull was kept in a bank vault, still in its glass, tomb-like case.

After World War Two the old difficulties were smoothed out. Cardinal Innitzer, the 79-year-old Austrian primate, gave the skull his blessing and it was taken in a flower-decked hearse to Eisenstadt, 45 miles away. At last Franz Josef Haydn was at rest.

The Head of Oliver Cromwell

No less undignified was the fate of the head of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, who died at the age of 58, on September 3, 1658, the anniversary of two of his great battles, Dunbar and Worcester. The next day his body was embalmed and buried quietly in the chapel of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey. A public funeral was held on November 23 with an effigy of wax and wood, costing £60,000.

It remained there during the ineffectual rule of his son Richard but, with the return of the monarchy his body was dug up and with the bones of two of his supporters was taken on sledges to Tyburn amid the jeers of a great crowd who had grown to hate the narrow bigotry of life under the Roundheads.

There the three were hanged and left until evening. Then an executioner was sent to behead them and eight blows were needed before Cromwell’s head was severed from his body. By torchlight the three grinning skulls were spitted on pikes and fastened to the roof of Westminster Hall. The bodies were dumped in a pit near the gallows.


For 25 years Cromwell’s skull remained there until one night it was blown down in a storm. It vanished and notices were posted in the area seeking its return. In fact it had been found by a sentry who took it home and hid it in a chimney without even telling his family.

On his deathbed he told his daughter and she eventually sold it to the Russell family of Cambridgeshire, who were related by several marriages to the Cromwells. In 1710 they sold it to a private collector named Du Puy, but by 1775 it belonged to Samuel Russell.

Samuel Russell was a comedian, often drunk and usually in debt. He often appeared at the Covent Garden Theater and paid his rent by displaying Cromwell’s head, still impaled on a pike, at two shillings and sixpence a person in Clare Market, near what is now Kingsway, London. His intemperate habits were his undoing. He had borrowed money from James Cox, a jeweler, who threatened to have him consigned to a debtor’s prison unless he paid his debts. Samuel Russell, owing £101, sold the head for £118.

Before long Cox, too, fell on hard times and in 1799 sold it to a three-man syndicate for £230. They intended exhibiting it in a showroom off Bond Street and engaged John Cranch, an artist, to publicize the exhibition with posters and handbills.

The head of Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell

It was a failure. Cranch never got his fee and in 1813 one of the syndicate put the skull on public view in Fenchurch Street in the City. Twice within the next few months he tried to sell the head of Oliver Cromwell, first to the owner of a museum in Piccadilly and then to Mr R. G. Russell, MP. Neither bought it and a year later, when all three member of the syndicate had died, the skull passed to the daughter of one of them.

She sold it for an unspecified sum to Josiah Henry Wilkinson and the much traveled head of Oliver Cromwell remained in the Wilkinson family — ending up with Canon Horace Ricardo Wilkinson, of Melton Grove, Woodbridge, Suffolk.

At one time there was a rival Cromwell skull in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but that was proved a fake as the marks of decapitation did not conform with facts as known when the head had been hacked off.

In 1935 the ‘Wilkinson Head’, as it was sometimes called, was examined by experts and pronounced genuine. Several investigators inspected it in Canon Wilkinson’s study and all agreed that there was no mistaking the reddish-brown hair and whiskers. The distinguishing wart had long since vanished, but a mark where it had once been helped to prove that the skull was without any doubt that of the Lord Protector.

Their reports led angry historians to write to The Times of London demanding that the head be interred in Westminster Abbey.

That, in turn, prompted inquiries as to the whereabouts of Oliver Cromwell’s body. Newburgh Priory, in Yorkshire, seemed a likely place, for one of its rooms was said to be the tomb of Oliver Cromwell. A metal plate there is inscribed: “In this vault are Cromwell’s remains, brought here by his daughter, Mary, Countess of Fauxconberg, at the restoration from Westminster Abbey.”

Canon Wilkinson, naturally, was keen to examine the skeleton to see if his skull, with eight marks where the headsman’s axe had been clumsily directed, fitted the torso.

The only person allowed to see inside the tomb was King Edward VII, who peered in through a specially drilled hole and announced that all he could see was a pile of dust and stones.

In 1957 Canon Wilinson died, bequeathing the head of Oliver Cromwell to his son after stating that he had no intention of leaving Cromwell’s skull to a museum on the grounds that he could “look after the head of this great man better than the State did when it was in its charge.”

Three years later the Lord Protector’s head made its last journey. It was presented to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he had once been a student. It was buried in the chapel precincts. The whereabouts of Olver Cromwell’s body, however, has not yet been established with certainty.

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