The copper gilt plate found on former Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell’s breast when his body was exhumed will be put up to auction in London later today. Sotheby’s says that according to contemporary reports, the plate was found in a leaden canister lying on Cromwell’s chest when the coffin – interred in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey – was opened by James Norfolke, Serjeant of the House of Commons, on the orders of parliament on 26th January, 1661 – just two years from Cromwell was buried. Norfolke apparently took the plate which was subsequently handed down through his family. It was not the only relic associated with Cromwell to survive – while Cromwell’s body, along with that of regicides Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw, was hanged at Tyburn and then apparently buried in an unmarked grave pit, his head was placed on a spike above Westminster Hall and remained there for more than 20 years until it blew down in a gale and was taken by a guard. It apparently subsequently passed through numerous private hands before, in 1960, it was interred in a secret location in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. Meanwhile, the plate – which bears the arms of the Protectorate on one side and an inscription in Latin with the dates of Cromwell’s birth, inauguration as Lord Protector and death on the other – is listed with an estimated price of between £8,000 and £12,000. For more on the item, see www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/english-literature-history-childrens-books-illustrations-l14408/lot.3.html.
For six centuries, the gallows at Tyburn, in the city’s west, was one of London’s sites of public execution. Today, little remains to remind visitors of the infamous past of the area, which lies close to Marble Arch, but for a plaque set in the middle of a road.
From 1196 to 1783, it’s suggested that thousands of people (some have estimated as many as 60,000) were hanged at various gallows erected at Tyburn, known by numerous names over the centuries including ‘The Elms’, the ‘The Deadly Never Green Tree’, and most infamously the ‘Tyburn Tree’.
Hangings were apparently initially carried out using the branches of a tree on the bank of the Tyburn River but the first gallows date from 1220. In Elizabeth times these were upgraded to a larger gallows known as the ‘Triple Tree’ which enabled many more people to be hanged simulteously – as many as 24 at once in 1649.
The gallows was removed in 1759 because it was blocking the road and a mobile gallows used until hangings were moved into Newgate Prison (see our earlier entry on Newgate).
Executions were a public spectacle and it’s estimated that at times the crowds at Tyburn swelled to more than 50,000 people, all eager to witness someone “dancing the Tyburn jig”.
Among those to be hanged at Tyburn were William Fitz Osbern (a champion of London’s poor who was hanged in 1196), Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March (hanged in 1330 after being accused of assuming royal power), Perkin Warbeck (pretender to the throne of King Henry VII who was hanged in 1499), and Elizabeth Barton, the ‘Holy Maid of Kent’ (hanged for treason after prophesying King Henry VIII would die within six months of marrying Anne Boleyn).
Others included key figures in the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace (an uprising in England’s north in 1536 which followed King Henry VIII’s break with Rome) and many other Catholics including Oliver Plunkett, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland (1681).
In an unusual move, the body of already deceased Oliver Cromwell, along with that of John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton, was exumed from his grave and and hanged there to mark the first anniversary of the Restoration.
What is believed to have been the site of the Tyburn Tree is today marked by a plaque set in a traffic island at the corner of Edgware Road and Bayswater Road (nearest tube station is Marble Arch).
There is a Shrine of the Martyrs dedicated to the more than 105 Roman Catholics who were hung at Tyburn for their faith at the Tyburn Convent in Hyde Park Place (for visiting details, see www.tyburnconvent.org.uk).
Note: This article originally referred to the Shrine of the Martyrs commemorating more than 350 Catholic martyrs who died during the Reformation as all being executed at Tyburn but it is believed some 105 were – the greater figure refers to those martyred across England and Wales during the Reformation.