Book Review: The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell

The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell
Published By: Curious Publications
Publication Date: July 7, 2015
Page Count: 346
Source: ARC Kindly Provided by Publisher
Adult - Historical Fiction

The embalmed head of Oliver Cromwell? Yep. A memoir? Sort of. Until I was offered the chance to review this book, I had absolutely *no* clue about this bizarre episode of English history. But really, how can one pass up an opportunity to review a book like this, particularly in October? 

 The bare-bones history goes like this: Oliver Cromwell, at the height of a bloody civil war, overthrew the English monarchy and had King Charles I tried and beheaded. Cromwell became the Lord Protector of England. He died of natural causes about five years later and was buried, intact. A year or so after Charles II restored the monarchy to England, he had Cromwell and several of his regicidal accomplices exhumed, hung, beheaded, and their heads put on pikes atop Westminster Hall. Some years later, the pike broke during a storm and Cromwell’s head fell down. In one of the more creepy turns of history, Cromwell’s embalmed head was actually passed from person to person, sometimes through families, sometimes sold, from 1661 all the way down to 1960. The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell is a delightfully macabre telling of the story of the travels of Cromwell’s head from Cromwell’s point of view. 

First and foremost, of course, is the personality of Oliver Cromwell. I’m certainly no expert here, but the book felt pretty true to what I understand of Cromwell from history, if perhaps a tad less severe. Cromwell was a Reform Puritan, so when an owner of his head begins taking him to taverns, he is naturally offended by the drunkenness around him. As one of the ablest military minds of his era, he also views all new inventions with an eye toward how it might improve the accomplishment of warfare. For example, when he first sees a bicycle, he excitedly imagines soldiers riding it into battle with weapons attached to the frame and ready to use. Because a “memoir” such as this would require the presence of his personality to tell it, Cromwell’s head is also much concerned with why he is not in Heaven as he had expected to be. 

The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell is clearly well researched and touches on an impressive, and occasionally bewildering, array of historical entertainments and practices. Cromwell’s head encounters curiosity collectors in the 1700s whom his erstwhile owner must fend off. Later, he becomes part of a fictional automaton exhibition. And during the late 1800s, the family that owns him is engrossed in the Spiritualism movement where Cromwell’s head attends several séances. 

The difficulty of this book, for me, arises from the very source of its interest: the fact that it’s about a disembodied head. Poor Cromwell can’t act for himself; he can only react to what is going around him, and then only in his own mind. He can’t even converse with anyone else except for the four or five other heads and skulls he comes into contact with over the years. This lack of personal action makes the narrative drag in a number of places. Marc Hartzman, the author, tries to rectify this somewhat by giving Cromwell’s head some fictional outings and encounters with some of the famous and notorious characters of history. Unfortunately, this added a bit of confusion for the reader trying to parse out the fact from the fiction. 

The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell is among the strangest books I’ve read (which is saying something) and is unique among history/historical fiction books. If you’re into weird, out of the ordinary historical episodes, this is definitely the book for you!

Oliver Cromwell led the charge in the beheading of England's King Charles I in 1649. But little did he know that his own head would soon roll. And roll and roll-for the next three hundred years across the Commonwealth. The execution of Charles I ended the monarchy, and Cromwell became the Lord Protector of England until his own death from natural causes in 1658. His body was embalmed and buried in Westminster Abbey, only to be exhumed by King Charles II three years later. The new king had restored the monarchy and wished to avenge his father's death by hanging Cromwell and beheading him posthumously. Now, for the first time, the memoirs of Oliver Cromwell's embalmed head have surfaced, making it the first account of any world leader-or any human being for that matter-chronicling the afterlife. This remarkable memoir recounts its journey through the centuries, beginning with Cromwell's decapitation and the head's impalement on a post at Westminster Hall, where it stayed for more than twenty years before being freed by a heavy storm. Over the centuries, the head enjoyed a series of unexpected adventures, encountering a host of bizarre and well-known characters-from its many owners, curious anatomists and misled but obsessed phrenologists to other preserved decapitated heads and impostor Cromwell heads. These escapades came to an end only after the head was donated to Cromwell's alma mater, Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, where it was eventually buried for good in 1960.