Oliver Cromwell: the state funeral of a divisive leader

ImageIt was a coronation of sorts. After Oliver Cromwell died on 3 September 1658, the effigy of the Lord Protector lay in state in Somerset House In one hand was a sceptre, in the other an orb. And just above his head, on a small velvet cushion, was a crown.

We could easily have had King Oliver. Cromwell had been offered the crown by Parliament in February that year. He refused it, but was king in all but name. When he died, his funeral was consciously modelled on the ceremony for King James I, the last previous head of state to die peacefully. Cromwell was buried at speed. The Diary of Thomas Burton records that his body “although thus bound up and laid in the coffin, swelled and bursted, from whence came such filth, that raised such a deadly and noisome stink, that it was found prudent to bury him immediately, which was done in as private a manner as possible.”

However, a state funeral was required, and it was lavish.  London came to a standstill. The procession included knights marshall, ‘poor men’ of Westminster, porters, drummers, trumpeters, the household kitchen, the committees of the army and navy, the counting-house staff and park keepers, watermen, fire-makers, pastry-makers, larder and pantry staff, butter and cellar servants, yeomen, water-bailiffs,  musicians, civil servants (including Milton), officers of the army and navy, surgeons, lawyers, ambassadors, and the great lords of England.

The effigy of the body was conveyed with utmost reverence. The Publick Intelligencer (Thomason / 116:E.760[17], 152, 22nd-29th November 1658) reported: “The whole Ceremony was managed with very great State to Westminster, many thousands of people being Spectators. At the Westgate of the Abby Church, the Herse with the Effigies thereon, was taken off the Carriage by those ten Gentlemen who removed it before, who passing on to enter the Church, the Canopy of State was by the same persons borne over it again; and in this magnificent manner they carried it up to the East end of the Abbey; and placed it in that Noble Structure which was raised there on purpose to receive it; where it is to remain for some time, exposed to publick view.”


Red-coated soldiers had kept the crowds from getting in the way of the cortege, but not everyone mourned. The royalist diarist John Evelyn was positively gleeful: “It was the most joyful funeral I ever saw; for there were none that cried but dogs, which the soldiers hooted away with a barbarous noise, drinking and taking tobacco in the streets as they went.”

Peacetime did not come easily to Cromwell. “He could never make the adjustment from war where the objective was always clear and the victory unambiguous,” says John Morrill, one of the foremost historians of the period. “The pragmatism and compromise of the political arena constantly dismayed him and ground him down.”

Andrew Marvell’s poem Upon The Death of the Lord Protector certainly has great difficulty eulogising Cromwell as a peacetime leader; so much difficulty, that he has to borrow the image of the halcyon to invoke mourning by his peacetime subjects – a royalist image most often used to describe the pre-war years of Personal Rule. To some extent Marvell is the prisoner of his own genre of Cromwell poems; the great leader as sublime force, as seen in his Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland:

“So restless Cromwell could not cease/In the inglorious arts of peace,

But through adventurous war/Urged his active star.

And, like the three-forked lighting, first/Breaking through the clouds where it was nursed,

Did thorough his own side/His fiery way divide.”

It’s a classic ideological trick to mobilise martial patriotism at a leader’s funeral, and this is what Marvell does in his elegy. Cromwell can only be mourned as a soldier:

“Thee, many ages hence in martial verse/Shall the English soldier, ere he charge, rehearse,

Singing of thee, inflame themselves to fight,/And with the name of Cromwell, armies fright.”

At the end of the poem Marvell invokes the succession (“And Richard yet, where his great parent led,/Beats on the rugged track”) but that succession was far from glorious. Richard Cromwell, Oliver’s son, was weak and unable to mediate tensions between the army and civilian politicians. England’s short-lived republican experiment soon collapsed and Charles II entered London on 29 May 1660. Cromwell’s body was exhumed and hung, his head  cut off in conscious imitation of the regicide. As for Marvell, his Cromwell poems were nearly lost to us; they were deleted from his Miscellaneous Poems of 1681 while the book was at the press, but remained in obscure manuscript.

And the cost of Cromwell’s funeral? £1 in 1658 is worth £118 using the retail price index. The money allotted to cover Cromwell’s funeral was £60,000, which equates to £7.1m in current terms. It’s a huge sum and, neatly, it appears to be the going rate nowadays for public obsequies. But then, Cromwell was the head of state.



Filed under Seventeenth century

2 responses to “Oliver Cromwell: the state funeral of a divisive leader

  1. Pingback: “The most joyful funeral I ever saw”: Cromwell & Thatcher « History at the University of Gloucestershire

  2. There’s a great story about the fate of Cromwell’s head/skull after his posthumous execution as a regicide. Once the remains had been removed from public view, they were traded as souvenirs with (like St James) several heads being claimed as Cromwell’s skull. One Tory grandee, who was offered one such skull, immediately spotted it was the skull of a child, only to be told “that was because it was the skull of Oliver Cromwell when he was younger.”

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