Yours for £1,000... Oliver Cromwell's death mask, warts and all

Despite being credited for ridding England of the dictatorial Absolute Monarchy (but by making England a dictatorial republic for 11 years) and being the father of British democracy, Oliver Cromwell can also be credited with coining the well-known phrase "warts and all."

Cromwell, who ruled the English Republic from 1649 until his death in 1658, wasn't a looker, his face covered in several warts - hence, when he told a painter to paint every single feature of his face for a portrait, he told him to even include his warts in the portrait.

It's a surprise, then, that anyone would want to buy Cromwell's death mask. But you can have it for £1000.....

Yours for £1,000... Oliver Cromwell's death mask, warts and all

By David Wilkes
03rd February 2009
Daily Mail

This death mask of Oliver Cromwell, who died in 1658, is up for auction

He loathed vanity so much that he insisted his portraits depict him faithfully, 'warts and all'.

And even after his death, Oliver Cromwell's instructions were followed to the letter.

This death mask shows the puritanical Lord Protector of England in all his grizzled, lumpy glory.

There has been no attempt to conceal the growth on his lower lip or straighten his crooked nose.

All in all, the mask doesn't make an attractive artwork - though that probably won't bother the person who buys it this week.

The plaster cast, made around 350 years ago, has been put up for sale at auction by a private collector.

It has an estimated value of £1,000, even though experts cannot be sure exactly when it was made.

Roy Butler, of Wallis and Wallis auctioneers in Lewes, East Sussex, who is selling the mask, said: 'It is clearly a very old cast.

'I think six were made after Cromwell's death and this is either one of those originals or a copy made shortly afterwards.'

Oliver Cromwell is credited with coining the expression a 'warts and all' portrait following this painting by Peter Lely

Other Cromwell death masks are held at Warwick Castle and the British Museum.

In the latter example, historians believe his wart has either been pared off or disappeared due to the action of the embalming fluid.

The mask shown here, and the others which have a wart, bear a striking resemblance to the portrait that the Lord Protector commissioned from Sir Peter Lely.

Cromwell's blunt instructions to Sir Peter, who usually flattered his subjects, are thought to be the origin of the phrase 'warts and all'.

The earliest written account of their conversation, however, does not use those exact words.

Richard Harris as Oliver Cromwell and Alec Guinness as Charles I in the 1970 film Cromwell

In 1764, politician Horace Walpole said in his Anecdotes of Painting in England that Cromwell's words were: 'Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint your picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughness, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me.

'Otherwise, I will never pay a farthing for it.'

Cromwell died of natural causes in 1658 aged 59, after leading his revolt against the monarchy, having King Charles I beheaded at the climax of the English Civil War, and trying to turn Britain into a republic.


After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Cromwell's body was dug up from Westminster Abbey where it was buried, symbolically hanged and his head displayed on a pole until 1685 as a gruesome reminder to would-be traitors as to the fate that would befall them.

His head is thought to have been sold many times before eventually being buried in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1960.

What became of Oliver Cromwell's Head?

I know you've all been wondering, so here is the incomparable Mr Kent author of London: Mystery and Mythology, to set all our minds at rest.

Cromwell died on 3rd September 1658. His body was embalmed and lay in state in old Somerset House (external - login to view) until 22nd November when he was buried in Westminster Abbey, with all the pomp and circumstance which would have accompanied a monarch's funeral; this is ironic, of course, given his leading role in the execution of the real monarch, Charles I, after the English Civil War.

Cromwell's body was laid to rest beside his co-revolutionaries, Henry Ireton (external - login to view) and John Bradshaw (external - login to view).

The monarchy was restored in 1660 and Charles II was not in the mood to forgive and forget. So, on the 30 January 1661, the twelfth anniversary of Charles I's execution, the contemporaneous account of one Thomas Rugge records:
"This morning the carcases of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw (which the day before had been brought from the Red Lion Inn, Holborn) were drawn upon a sledge to Tyburn, and then taken out of their coffins and in their shrouds hanged by the neck until the going down of the sun. They were then cut down, their heads taken off, and their bodies buried in a grave under the Gallows."
The heads were probably dipped in tar (as was the custom) and a week later, on the anniversary of Charles I's funeral, they were impaled upon spikes and hoisted over Westminster Hall (external - login to view), the site of Charles's trial.

There the head remained until 1685 (yes, that's 25 years) until it blew down.

According to Mr Kent it was picked up by a sentry, "who took it home and secreted it in a chimney-corner". Nothing further of it is heard until 1710, when it is being shown off as a curiosity by a succession of owners. Eventually it fell into the possession of Canon Horace Wilkinson, of Woodbridge Suffolk.

In the 1930s Canon Wilkinson agreed to allow two scientists access to the head to establish its authenticity. They described the head as embalmed and very shrivelled but still showing a depression on the face on the site of the famous wart which Cromwell had always insisted his portrait painters depict faithfully.

The marks of the axe used to sever the head from the body were also apparent and the nose flattened and pushed to one side, as one would expect if the head were face down while the chopping occurred.

X-rays confirmed that it corresponded to the skull of a man of about 60; Cromwell's age at death. All in all, the head was concluded to be authentic.

At the time Kent was writing London: Mystery and Mythology, the head was still in the Canon's possession and Kent raises the question of whether such a 'treasure' should not be on public exhibition.
"Canon Wilkinson demurs to this view on the grounds that they are Christian remains and there are descendants of Cromwell still living. Perhaps he feels it would be more dishonouring for the skull to be in a museum, but some will think it would be no more so than having it on a mantelpiece."
A little further research reveals that following Canon Wilkinson's death, the Master and Fellows of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Cromwell's old college) accepted the head, and it was buried on 25th March 1960 somewhere within the ante-chapel at the College, the precise spot unmarked to ensure that it is left in peace.
Book World: What became of Oliver Cromwell's Head? (external - login to view)
Last edited by Blackleaf; Feb 4th, 2009 at 12:25 PM..
Cripes, a thousand pounds! That's over 71 stone.

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