Jan. 30, 2023

Oliver Cromwell’s Posthumous Execution

Oliver Cromwell’s Posthumous Execution

January 30, 1661. On the 12th anniversary of the beheading of King Charles I, the controversial politician Oliver Cromwell faces the same grisly fate, even though he’s already been dead for two and a half years.


Cold Open

It’s 2 PM in the afternoon on January 30th, 1649 in London, England.

British general and statesman Oliver Cromwell peers out the window of the famous ‘Banqueting House on Whitehall’. His eyes scan the crowd that’s gathered outside around a large wooden platform. These people have come to witness a historic event: the execution of their king.

When the crowd suddenly grows louder, Oliver spots King Charles I ascending to the platform. The King was recently found guilty of treason. And now, he’s here to face his punishment. As The King climbs the steps, he glances uneasily at the line of armed soldiers separating him from the crowd.

When the King tries to address his subject… his voice is drowned out by a swell of jeers.

Looking on from inside Banqueting House, Oliver Cromwell can’t help but feel impressed by the King’s composure. Charles calmly kneels on the platform, placing his exposed neck on the block.

The crowd finally falls silent as the executioner takes his place. While Cromwell is pleased that the king is facing his fate, he must admit, it’s a disconcerting end for the man who once sat on the throne of England. But there is nothing to be done now as the executioner finishes his bloody and violent task.

For the past seven years, Charles has been a king at war with his own people. Royalists who supported Charles wanted him to retain absolute control over the country. Parliamentarians like Oliver Cromwell wanted to limit the power of the monarchy. In the end, Charles and his supporters lost the conflict, and Charles his head when the king conspired to restart the Civil War with the help of the Scottish, and Oliver Cromwell pushed for the King to be put on trial, where he was found guilty of treason.

After the execution of King Charles I, Britain is ruled as a republic with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, the most powerful man in the land, and the first commoner to become the head of state in Britain. But Cromwell's role as the leading advocate of King Charles’s trial and execution will eventually come back to haunt him. When the monarchy is restored over a decade later, the new king sets out to behead Cromwell for his part in the regicide of Charles I. But the infamous decapitation of Oliver Cromwell occurs posthumously, two and a half years after Oliver’s death, when the king orders the symbolic execution to take place on this day, January 30th, 1661.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 30th, 1661: Oliver Cromwell’s Posthumous Execution.

Act One

It’s September 3rd, 1658, nine years after the beheading of King Charles I.

A fierce storm rages over London. A young man named Richard sits in the Palace of Whitehall listening to the windows rattling in the wind. The tempestuous weather is appropriate, considering the great change that’s blowing over Britain. Standing next to Richard is a physician who’s come to care for the dying man who lies in bed at Richard’s side: his father, Oliver Cromwell.

After the execution of Charles I, Parliamentarians had to determine how Britain was going to function as a republic. They eventually settled on a new constitution that created the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Cromwell was appointed the head of state for life with the title of Lord Protector. With his new power, he quelled the last vestiges of Royalist resistance in Scotland and Ireland, then returned to London and assumed an authority that made him almost as powerful as the king he replaced. Now, Richard fears that the impending death of his father will reopen the debate on who should rule the Commonwealth.

Richard stands worried, as his father utters a single, painful-sounding breath. The physician places his ear close to Cromwell’s face. And after a moment, he lifts Cromwell's wrist and feels for a pulse. He looks up at Richard and shakes his head, the Lord Protector is gone.

Almost immediately, Richard gets up and makes his way to a nearby stateroom, where several key government figures are gathered. They look up as Richard announces Cromwell’s death. Richard’s brother-in-law, Charles Fleetwood, is the first to speak. He stands and expresses his sorrow. But Fleetwood suggests that they move quickly to choose the next Lord Protector before any Royalists call for the monarchy to be restored. That's when John Thurloe, one of Cromwell's closest allies - stands and clears his throat. He declares that a few days ago, Cromwell told him of his preferred successor. The entire room leans forward in anticipation. John looks Richard in the eye and says that Cromwell has chosen him.

Richard’s stomach lurches. His father was a powerful, determined leader who held the diverse collection of moderate and radical Parliamentarians together by the sheer force of his character. Richard doubts that he can do the same. And judging by the stony look on the face of his brother-in-law Charles Fleetwood, even members of his own family agree. Still, for most, Richard is the only, logical choice. So they name him the new Lord Protector. And it would be only seven months later that Richard will face his first real test of leadership.


On April 22nd, 1659, Richard rides his horse toward St. James’s Palace in London.

Richard heard whispers that troops were amassing here at St. James, possibly to rebel against him. He’s on his way to find out if the rumors are true.

Since taking over as Lord Protector, the relationship between Richard and the army has been strained. His father led Parliamentarian troops to victory in the Civil War. But Richard has little experience as a military officer, and the army’s leaders mistrust him. They suspect that Richard plans to cut the number of soldiers to save costs, and are angry that Richard has tried to interfere in army matters. Making things worse, four days ago, Richard persuaded Parliament to pass a humiliating resolution that army officers must swear an oath promising not to subvert Parliament by force. Now, Richard worries that his heavy-handed attempt to maintain authority has pushed the army to mutiny.

As he rides through the front gates of St. James palace, he sees that the grounds have been completely taken over by the army and turned into a barracks. Richard glances around and sees hundreds of soldiers practicing drilling and cleaning equipment. Then Richard's eye catches a familiar face walking out of what appears to be the barracks headquarters. His heart sinks when he realizes it’s his brother-in-law, Charles Fleetwood.

When Richard questions him about the intentions of the army, Fleetwood bluntly responds that the soldiers are unhappy with his rule. They want him to dissolve Parliament and call a session with new members who are not hostile to the army. If he does not, the army will stop Parliament by any means necessary. Fleetwood fixes Richard with a hard glare and tells him that the generals have also had discussions about removing Richard by force too.

Shakend, Richard assures his brother-in-law that he will dissolve Parliament, and Fleetwood thanks him and suggests that soldiers escort Richard back to the Palace of Whitehall for his own safety. But Richard knows that his brother-in-law is not interested in his well-being.

For the next month, Richard will be kept under house arrest by the army until he finally resigns as Lord Protector. But disagreements over who will rule Britain in his place will divide the country until Parliament makes an astounding declaration. 11 years after the execution of Charles I, the deceased king’s banished son will be invited to return to restore the monarchy and assume the throne. 

Act Two

It’s May 29th, 1660; one year after Richard Cromwell resigned as Lord Protector.

In the fields just outside of London, a man rides on horseback followed by a large procession. He is the oldest surviving child of the late King Charles I. Like his father, his name is Charles II.

Today, this Charles leads hundreds of soldiers, a military band, and dozens of dignitaries, each one with hopes that Charles notices their presence and treats them favorably. Because today, on his 30th birthday, Charles is returning to London as England's new ruler.

For more than a decade, Charles has lived in exile in the Netherlands. During that time though, he never gave up his claim to the throne. And his greatest wish came true three weeks ago, when Parliament issued a proclamation that he was the rightful King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Charles sailed back from the Netherlands, and he was greeted by cheering crowds as soon as he landed on English soil. Now, Charles is heading back to London - a city that is no longer a hotbed of support for the Cromwells and Parliament.

As Charles and his procession passes over London Bridge and into the city, crowds of Londoners line the route and cheer. Many lean precariously out of windows to get a glimpse of their new king. And Charles is relieved that the ordinary people of the country are on his side. He happily waves to them until his arms ache.

Seven hours later, the triumphal procession finally reaches its destination: Banqueting House. It was here, 11 years ago, that a platform was built to behead his father. Charles forces that tragic event from his mind though and walks proudly into the large hall of the Banqueting House. Members of Parliament rise to their feet to welcome him. And then Charles takes his place on a throne and listens as the Speakers of Parliament hail his return and assure him of their loyalty.

When all the speeches are done, the members of Parliament form a line to pay their respects. One by one each comes and kisses the king’s hand. And as the line dwindles down, Charles turns to a man standing nearby: Sir Harbottle Grimston, Speaker of the House of Commons.

Charles expresses surprise that nobody from Parliament came to welcome him when he first made landfall at Dover. Sir Harbottle apologizes and says that since they proclaimed him king, Parliament has not had a moment’s rest, debating as late as even this afternoon.

Charles raises an eyebrow, wondering what is so important that Parliament had to meet today when their new king arrived in the capital to restore the monarchy. Sir Harbottle answers that Parliament has been discussing exactly what powers it will have under the new monarchy, and which members will be able to take advantage of amnesty for crimes and treason committed during the Civil War.

Hearing this, Charles stiffens and fixes Sir Harbottle with a glare. He tells the speaker of the House of Commons that the people responsible for killing his father will not be granted a pardon. Sir Harbottle stutters that he understands. But to make his point clear, Charles leans in close and whispers that he expects every man who signed the former king’s death warrant will face their own execution.

The new king is determined to ensure that a British monarch is never deposed again. And to achieve this aim, Charles II will go to extraordinary lengths that stretch beyond the grave.

Act Three

It’s 4 PM on January 30th, 1661, two and a half years since the death of Oliver Cromwell, but his corpse is today back in front of a clamoring crowd.

Swaying in the breeze on the gallows at Tyburn, London’s main execution site, Cromwell’s exhumed body is bound in chains and strung up by the neck. It’s shriveled and stained by its time in the ground, and the skin of Cromwell’s face has grown taut and waxy, pulling back to reveal a ghoulish grin.

After King Charles II took the throne, he allowed the monarchy to evolve into a more moderate institution with limits on his powers. But Charles never compromised on his determination to punish the men who killed his father. Three months ago, six men who signed Charles I’s death warrant were found guilty and executed. Today, on the 12th anniversary of the old king’s beheading, Cromwell is sentenced to the same fate - even he is already dead.

The fascinated crowd watches with anticipation as Oliver’s embalmed body is lowered from the gallows. The executioner takes little care as he roughly pulls Cromwell's remains across a platform and lays its neck across a block. Then he raises his blade above his head and swings down into Oliver’s neck.

The crowd groans, realizing the executioner hasn’t cut all the way through. So he swings again and again and again. The executioner takes eight attempts to finish the job.

When it is finally done, the executioner bends down and picks up Cromwell’s dismembered head. He holds it up before the crowd, shouting that this is the head of a traitor. Then he drags Cromwell’s now-headless body across the platform, unceremoniously kicking it into a pit beneath the gallows.

Oliver Cromwell’s head will be placed on a spike at Westminster Hall, where the old king was put on trial. It will remain there for the next 28 years, a grisly warning to anyone who might dare to plot against the king. Eventually, it will blow down in a storm and be stolen by a soldier. Rumor has it that it's now buried at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge.

But the symbolic beheading of Oliver Cromwell marked a macabre end to the Commonwealth and to a dramatic and difficult time in British history.

Oliver Cromwell remains a controversial figure even today, hundreds of years after his death. Over the centuries, his story has provoked strong feelings and fierce debates, and plenty of inspiration. He has been the subject of several books, films, and television and radio projects, and the continued fascination with Oliver Cromwell is due, in large part, to the dark role he played in the story of the Commonwealth - and the equally dark ending that came when Oliver was posthumously executed on January 30th, 1661.


Next on History Daily. January 31st, 1928. Leon Trotsky, one of the architects of the Russian Revolution, is exiled to Kazakhstan by his longtime rival, Joseph Stalin.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.