British Collection Highlights:

Death Mask of Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) played an important part in the Civil War and the downfall of Charles I. He was Lord Protector of England from 1653 to 1658. He was born in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, and attended Huntingdon Grammar School and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. He became MP for Huntingdon in 1628.

The City of Oxford featured prominently in the Civil War but was on the side of the king. Charles I spent the winter here in 1642 when other cities closed their gates to him. In 1645, when Parliament (and Cromwell) created their New Model Army, Charles I set up separate commands in the royalist cities of Bristol and Oxford. Parliament's New Model Army was victorious, largely because the soldiers were properly paid, whereas the infrequently paid royalist armies were soon demoralised.

In 1649 Cromwell signed Charles I's death warrant and was declared Lord Protector in 1653. He was asked to take on the title of King in a document called the Grand Remonstrance (dated 31 March 1657), but he refused. He died on September 3rd 1658 in Whitehall Place and was buried with great ceremony in the burial place of the Kings at Westminster, but after the Restoration his body was gibbeted at Tyburn and buried there. His son ruled briefly after him but was replaced in 1660 by Charles II and the Restoration of the monarchy.

When Oliver Cromwell died, a wax mould was made of his features and was most probably kept by its maker, Thomas Simon. Seven weeks after his death a wooden effigy and wax replica of his face (made from the cast) were laid in state at Somerset House.

Click to enlarge

Cromwell's Death Mask (Click to enlarge)

Oliver Cromwell's Death Mask (AN1990.91)

Contemporary sources record that this effigy held an orb and sceptre and wore a velvet cap lined with ermine (a symbol of royalty). Behind him was the crown. Later the effigy was moved to another room, sitting upright with the crown positioned on its head - in effect a posthumous coronation. One effigy is said to have been burned at Westminster in May 1660 and the other hanged by the neck at Whitehall in June 1660 when Charles II was restored to the throne.

Plaster-casts were made from the original wax mould and many now exist in museums both in this country (such as the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery, London) and abroad. Ours was cast in the 1800s.

If you look closely at the mask, you can see what a striking image it conveys of this once powerful man. It is, by its nature, a true likeness and it is interesting to compare this representation of Cromwell with others.

The mask is on display in the 'Human Image' gallery on the lower ground floor.

Further Information

Hook, M. and MacGregor, A., England under the Stuarts, (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003). See page15.

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Arthur MacGregor
January 2012