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This haunting face, cast in wax, is the visage of one of the greatest and most controversial men in British history. Oliver Cromwell, one of the major figures in the English Civil War, was Lord Protector of England from 1653 to 1658–a fancy title for what was essentially a military dictator. This mask was cast from his face shortly after his death in early September 1659. Various copies of it exist in several museums, but this particular death mask is held by the British Museum.
Although he’s been dead for 350 years, Oliver Cromwell’s legacy is still hotly debated today. The English Civil War was actually a series of incredibly destructive wars that raked the British Isles from roughly 1640 to 1660. Originally a standoff between Parliament and the King, the wars ultimately came to define constitutional power in Great Britain, but they also involved religious issues, such as the widening schism between Catholics and Protestants. Cromwell commanded forces of the “Roundheads” loyal to Parliament against the Royalist forces of King Charles I. After Charles was defeated, he was executed for treason in January 1649. Cromwell was one of the people who signed his death warrant. With no king for the first time in centuries, the military powers then in control of England turned to Cromwell as their “Lord Protector.” He ruled the country with an iron fist, and was particularly harsh against Catholics in Scotland, but he did at least start the rebuilding of English society after the devastation of the Civil Wars.
The story of Cromwell after he died is almost as interesting as his life. This mask was cast within a few days after his death. His body was buried and exhumed several times. After pro-Royalist forces took control of England in 1660 and invited Charles I’s son, Charles II, to be King, Cromwell’s body was dug up and ceremonially executed. You can’t accuse the British of being coy about their feelings regarding traitors against the state.
This mask, 21cm by 16cm, was contributed by Sir Hugh Sloane upon the very founding of the British Museum in 1753. It’s been one of their treasured pieces ever since.