The Myths and History of Red Hair

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Cromwell's Head

Oliver Cromwell led the New Model Army to victory in the English Civil Wars and became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland following the execution of Charles I.

He was also in all probability a redhead. Our evidence for this largely comes to us by way of his decapitated head. The story goes that after the Restoration, when Charles II came to the throne, Cromwell's body was dug up, publicly hung and then decapitated. His head was then displayed on a spike as a warning to any other would be regicides.

Elizabeth Bennet Collage (detail)

Following this gruesome fate the head was then supposedly collected by a soldier, who kept it in his possession for many years. Then, after several stints on display in private museums it found its way into the possession of the Wilkinson family. It was then given to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, by a descendent of the family, the Canon Horace Wilkinson. There the head was finally given a proper burial in a secret resting place, where it supposedly remains to this day.

Fortunately for us, however, the head was examined before it reached this destination. It was examined by a Mr Dickson Wright, who noted "The long curly head of hair was gone, but it was easy to see that Cromwell was not bald when he died, but had a complete head of reddish hair."

Although there has been much debate as to whether the head is actually Cromwell's, the fact that it had red hair has been confirmed by Mary Hawgood's testimony, a former Mayor of Durham. She claims that as a young girl she was shown the severed head by Canon Wilkinson. In an article in the Northern Echo she is quoted as saying "[h]e still had red hair, some of the skin seemed surprisingly intact and I still remember the wart above his eye."

In spite of this, however, I've struggled to find any contemporary evidence confirming the ruddiness of Cromwell's locks. The closest I've found being this description from Sir Philip Warwick, "[h]is stature was of a good size; his sword stuck close to his side: his countenance swoln and reddish, his voice sharp and untuneable, and his eloquence full of fervor." Sadly, this "reddish" countenance is clearly more in reference to his facial appearance than his hair colour.

Regardless of hair colour, however, something should still be said of the man. Cromwell is someone English historians dare not speak of. Watch any English history documentary and they will talk of England's Kings and Queens in a joyous breeze. "Green Sleeves" playing pleasantly in the background as they wax lyrical about sumptuous feasts and extravagant royal weddings. Then they come to the era of Cromwell. All of a sudden the atmosphere changes, sinister music begins to murmur in the background, the narrator speaks in hushed whispers, like he's retelling some hideous horror story.

Yes, Cromwell had his flaws, but ultimately he was a good man. The Kings and Queens which we talk of with such ease and merriment were tyrants of the worst kind. They waged endless wars with nothing but self-interest in mind, killing anyone unfortunate enough to get in their way - even their own family members were not spared the sword or chopping axe. Cromwell, however, he was cut from a different cloth. He acted, not in self-interest, but in the interests of England and the wider world. Of course, people will debate and criticise, and quite rightly so, but the fact remains that the modern world stands squarely on the shoulders of Oliver Cromwell. Had he not been victorious in those bloody battles the world would surely be a very darker place.

For instance, the American Revolution and modern democracy can trace their very roots back to the English Civil Wars. The scientific enlightenment, instigated by the likes of Newton, Hooke and Boyle, had its genesis in the days of the English Republic. And the Catholic Church, which had crushed dissenting voices so many times before, no doubt would have done so again were it not for the Protestant stronghold of Britain.

Those who fear the name of Oliver Cromwell know not English history. For as was once written by Thomas Carlyle, "Godlike men love lightening...Godless men love it not; shriek murder when they see it; shutting their eyes, and hastily procuring smoked-spectacles."

I will finish this article with a public statement made by the English Parliament not long after the beheading of Charles I.

"Be it declared and enacted by this present Parliament, and by the authority of the same: That the People of England, and of all the dominions and territories thereunto belonging, are and shall be, and are hereby constituted, made, established and confirmed to be, A Commonwealth or Free-State; and shall henceforth be governed as a Commonwealth and Free-State, - by the Supreme Authority of this Nation the Representatives of the People in Parliament, and by such as they shall appoint and constitute officers and ministers under them for the good of the People; and that without any King or House of Lords."

To think these words were spoken over one hundred years before the American War of Independence, yet remain unknown and unremembered by English people. Only the English could see such a blessing as a curse.

I must apologise for straying so far from the original topic of this article, but I think such things transcend trivialities like hair colour.

"As lightning is to light, so is a Cromwell to a Shakespeare"

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