This is probably one of the more extraordinary things I have seen coming up at auction. It’s for sale at Sotheby’s this Tuesday for £8,000 – 12,000. Described as Oliver Cromwell’s coffin plate It is more remarkable than that suggests: not a label for the outside of a coffin but a two-sided engraved plate placed on the breast of his corpse in 1658, then removed at the Restoration when Cromwell was posthumously gibbeted for the execution of King Charles I.
I must go out and run lots of errands today, so I will let Sotheby’s cataloguer explain:
A UNIQUE RELIC OF OLIVER CROMWELL AND AN EXCEPTIONAL PIECE OF COMMONWEALTH CEREMONIAL. Oliver Cromwell died on 3 September 1658, a day that had previously been personally auspicious (the Battles of Dunbar and Worcester had both been fought on 3 September). The lying in state and funeral that followed took their form from royal funerary ceremony, principally that of James I; this quasi-royal treatment demonstrated the Commonwealth’s inability to instil Republicanism into the British body politic as much as it did Cromwell’s personal power. An effigy (bearing orb, sceptre, and crown) lay in state at Somerset House from 20 September – one of the escutcheons used in the ceremonials was sold in these rooms on 10 July 2013 – until the state funeral at Westminster Abbey on 23 November.
Cromwell’s body in fact played a minimal part in the public ceremonials: it had been badly embalmed and began to decompose, so was interred at the Abbey some two weeks before the funeral. Nevertheless, the grandeur and ceremony that characterised Cromwell’s funerary rites extended to his coffin, as Privy Council orders of the time make clear:
“his Highness Corps being embalmed, with all due rites appertayneing thereunto, and being wrapped in Lead, There ought to be an Inscripcion in a plate of Gold [i.e. gilded metal, not necessarily gold] to be fixed upon his Brest before he be putt into the Coffin. That the Coffin be filled with odours, and spices within, and Covered without with purple Velvett, and handles, Nayles, and all other Iron Worke about it, be richly hatched with Gold.” (Order Book of the Privy Council, 14 September 1658, quoted Fitzgibbons, pp.37-38)
The body was exhumed little more than two years later, and in very different circumstances. On 26 January 1661, James Norfolke, Serjeant of the House of Commons, entered the Henry VII Chapel of Westminster Abbey to disinter the former Lord Protector. With the Restoration of King Charles II had come the Act of Indemnity, Pardon, and Oblivion, but this had excluded the Regicides from its general amnesty. In addition to the punishment of surviving Regicides, it was decreed that the bodies of leading figures in the Protectorate who had inconveniently died before they could be executed should suffer the indignity of posthumous execution.
According to contemporary reports, this plate was “found in a leaden canister, lying on the breast of the corpse”, as had been ordered by the Privy Council in 1658, and was pocketed by Sejeant Norfolke. The body was laid out at the Red Lion inn in Holburn, together with those of Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw. The corpses were then conducted to Tyburn and hanged, drawn, and quartered, and their heads placed on spikes on Westminster Hall. This plate was not the only relic to survive: Cromwell’s head remained on its spike for more than twenty years but eventually blew down in a gale and was taken by a sentinel on guard below. It passed through numerous private hands until it was eventually interred in a secret location in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1960.